Was touch the secret to DS success?

nintendo ds original silver phat
Since launching nearly six years ago, the Nintendo DS has enjoyed otherworldly success. It has sold faster than any video game system before it.

Including both DS Lite and DSi variations, Nintendo has shipped more than 130 million units worldwide, putting the DS on pace to become the best selling system ever’a mere 10 million away from current heavy weight champion, the PlayStation 2. And it still has legs. The DS, that is.

As we approach the arrival of the 3DS, what made its predecessor such a success? The obvious answer would be, “It’s the touch screen, dummy.” But that’s only the beginning.

When first shown in 2004, the gut reaction of the public to the DS went something like this: “Uh, Palm-like stylus games sucks. And why would I want two smaller screens when the soon-to-be release PlayStation Portable has one gigantic widescreen. Nintendo has really lost their marbles. Jig’s up.”

The system even promised a built-in microphone that could be used to control games. About the only feature that wasn’t mocked was Wi-Fi. Until the comment was made that Wi-Fi is only good for connecting with people, and “since no one is going to buy this thing, what’s the point?”

But buy they did. “How’s that?” you ask. The answer can be found in the meaning of the “DS” moniker. Yes, it unofficially refers to the system’s “dual screens.” But by Nintendo’s own admission, the official meaning is “developer’s system.” “It. Is. Different,” stressed President Satoru Iwata at E3 2004. So after releasing a couple of machines that didn’t exactly resonate with developer’s (ahem, N64, GameCube), Nintendo was now promising developers a new set of tools to push the creative limits of games.

And thanks to resources like free knowledgebases and friendly development kits, making games for DS is easy peasy.

But there was a learning curve. At least in terms of what kind of ideas to apply to the hardware. When the DS launched in November 2004, it didn’t sell very well. After all, the flagship launch title was an N64 port of Super Mario 64, which did little to convince gamers why they should care about the portable’s unique hardware. Sales remained lackluster until the following year, when Kirby Canvas Curse, a price drop, and Nintendogs happened.

kirby canvas curse nintendo ds screenshotWhile early games like Sega’s Feel the Magic: XY/XX and Metroid Prime Hunters were headed in the right direction, few (if any) had the “Wow, I get this” factor. That all changed for me when I purchased Kirby Canvas Curse after reading glowing reviews. Before playing this game I thought Kirby was stupid (Really? A pink marshmallow?) After playing this game, I had seen the light, both as a DS owner and Kirby fan.

Instead of telling Kirby where to go, I was helping him get there, all while drawing bridges, circling loop-de-loops, and preventing him from falling off cliffs with the magical brush of my stylus. A few months later, Nintendo released Nintendogs’a Tamagotchi knock-off on steroids. But more than that, it was the most convincing and endearing dog or animal simulator ever made.

With Nintendogs, and the way you interacted with them via the stylus, microphone, and two screens, everything changed. Everyone finally got it. And thanks to a price drop to $130, inspiring players was not only possible on DS, said players were within arm’s length.

In less than a year, the Nintendo DS truly became the Developer’s System. No where else could you find such original games. Such, “I can’t play this anywhere else, so I gotta have this thing.”

After the Eureka moment in August 2005, sales doubled to tens of millions. Seven months later, after the launch of the DS Lite in 2006, sales exploded, marking a tipping point, thanks to a combination of status gadgetry, imaginative software, and clever tricks.

Ironically, not even Nintendo knew it had bottled lightening. When the company first announced the system, company executives were careful not to step on any gamer toes, nor did they stick their neck out for the still unproven idea. The DS was being treated as an independent and “third pillar” to the existing console business on GameCube and portable business on Game Boy Advance, said Iwata.

If the idea failed, Nintendo could cut its losses without sinking the ship. If the DS succeeded, it would be “walk the plank” for GameCube and Game Boy, old vestiges of how Nintendo used to endearingly operate.

You see, Nintendo threw a bunch of low-tech but novel ideas at DS, and left developers to figure out ways to make it exciting. The two screens, stylus, and microphone are meaningless by themselves. But when coupled with creative software, they became the hook.

Together they became the stars of the show. Which is ultimately why the DS was such a success for Nintendo, for developers, and most importantly, for gamers.