Sunday, June 28, 2015


The Amiibo Problem

I feel like we're at the tail end of the Amiibo panic.  My evidence is mostly anecdotal, but as we all know, the plural of anecdote is data.  Nintendo has been making good on their vague rumblings of reissuing certain figures previously thought to be out of print, and with the subsequent scalper speculation, figures that used to go for $60 or so are starting to dip down into the $20 range.  Scalpers are going to continue to be the big winners in all of this in the near future, but as the Smash Brothers line nears completion and further Amiibo lines aren't going to have 50+ characters to collect, Nintendo is going to be in a better position to fulfill demand, and supplies will start to normalize.

In short, it won't be long before getting your hands on the particular Amiibo you want won't be a problem, or at least not AS MUCH of a problem.  The actual problem is this:

How many of these damned things does Nintendo expect us to buy?

Adding NFC figures to a video game is a strange sort of balancing act.  If the figures are too important to the game, then people who just want to play a fucking game feel like they're getting ripped off.  If they're not important enough, then people who buy the figures feel like they're getting ripped off.  Super Smash Brothers hit that sweet spot, where the regular retail game is a complete experience that you never need the figures to enjoy, while adding an interesting new dimension to the game for players who do bring their custom Pac-Man to the fight.

What made this idea work is that, at least initially, it didn't matter which Amiibo you owned.  You could take that Mario or Wii Fit Trainer off the shelf and say, "This is my Amiibo.  This is the character I care about.  This is the one I will use when I want to play Amiibos."  If you liked more characters, they were available, but you weren't missing out if you just stuck to one.  Okay, maybe some characters had more support than others, or maybe having Link got you a better bonus than having Kirby when you played Hyrule Warriors, but for the most part, you bought the character figure because you wanted that character figure.  And most games would give you something regardless of which character you actually used.

The problem is that Nintendo has been watching this craze play out, and now they reckon they have us by the balls.  They don't want us to be content with the one or two or ten or fifty Amiibos we already have -- they want us to buy a new one (or an entire set) for every new game that we buy.  Thinking of buying Splatoon?  Don't forget the Amiibo 3-pack for more game content!  Yoshi's Wooly World?  Better get a Yarn Yoshi if you want an AI companion.  Super Mario Maker?  You'll want the 8-bit Mario so you can unlock the cool new power-up.  Chibi Robo?  Make sure you get the physical version, packed with the new Chibi Robo Amiibo!

I guess it's fine that Nintendo wants to make new figures in all of the franchises that, inexplicably, haven't been absorbed into Super Smash Brothers yet, but they don't have very interesting ideas about how those figures interact with the games.  It's turning into a Disney Infinity situation, where content is being locked off, and consumers are being blackmailed into buying figures that they don't want or need in order to see the entire game.  And it's an even bigger "fuck you" to everyone involved when the figures you need are rare and out of print, like the Fire Emblem characters in Project S.T.E.A.M.

And the root of the problem is that NFC figures are fundamentally unfriendly to the consumer.  There is absolutely nothing that you can do with an NFC figure that you can't do with software alone.  As I've said in the past, I really love the idea of having a custom character that you can carry around as a physical totem, but there aren't that many kinds of games that you can really apply that idea to.  And Nintendo is showing us that they're running out of these kinds of ideas.

But at the same time... this isn't a 100% screw job.  Nintendo's doing two important things right.

First is continued support for all Amiibos.  Super Mario Maker and Yoshi's Wooly World contain "costume" features that seem to be compatible with a wide variety of Amiibos, even the ones that you wouldn't expect.  A mushroom that turns Mario into an 8-bit Wii Fit Trainer is an awesome idea.  This is the kind of thing that Nintendo needs to continue to do if they want to retain consumer confidence in their idea.  It's good for consumers because, if you love a character enough to want to buy a plastic statue of it, chances are pretty good that you want to see some sort of nod to that character in every video game that you play.  And it's good for Nintendo, because the more support they show for each and every Amiibo figure, consumers are more likely to think, "Wow, it's really fun seeing Link in all of these games.  I should get a Samus, I bet that would be just as much fun."

The other thing they're doing is giving the customer something free.  Either a game bundled with an Amiibo, as is the case with the new Chibi-Robo game, or a free software download if you own a compatible Amiibo.  We've already seen a taste of that with Amiibo Tap, a piece of software that rewards Amiibo owners with free software demos for every figure they own, regardless of which figure.  And the new Animal Crossing games work this way.  The Happy House Academy game is a free download for anyone who buys the new trading cards that come out, and the Amiibo Festival game comes packed with a figure that are necessary to play it.

(As an aside -- Being a huge fan of tabletop games, I'm quite fond of the idea of video board games with physical playing pieces.  But I'm kind of ambivalent about the way they're implemented in games like Amiibo Festival and Mario Party 10.  Maybe some ingenious developer will figure out a more attractive way of bridging the gap between the physical and the digital.  Maybe it's just too expensive to bother with.)

At the end of the day?  I'm still pretty happy with Amiibos.  The one or two that I wanted to get have turned into a regular collection.  I don't even care about their software features as much -- it's just pleasant to have Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, and Pac-Man lined up on my bookshelf.  It's nice to know that I can bring them to life even if I don't bother to do it much.

And in the end, I think that's the reason Amiibos have been a success.  The Smash Brothers Amiibos caught fire because people love these Nintendo characters.  All of the people who obsessed over collecting all of the trophies in Melee can finally bring them into the real world.  Characters who have never had official merchandise before like Little Mac or the Wii Fit Trainer can finally be totemized and displayed.  The toys that Nintendo continues to make -- the cute little Wooly Yoshis, the cool blocky 8-bit Mario, the life-sized Chibi-Robo -- are attractive things to own in their own right, regardless of what they do with software.

Nintendo just needs to make sure that they aren't doing harm to their software for the sake of goading players into buying physical toys that they don't want and that they can't keep on the store shelves anyway.  Amiibos may be a fleeting fad -- Nintendo needs to remember to make their software timeless.


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