I’m going to take a contentions position for an argument. This isn’t going to be about Nintendo’s future, though my recent (though unpublished, sorry) thoughts on the subject lean strongly towards Nintendo as “just fine.” Rather, this is going to focus on one tiny feature that clearly sets Nintendo apart, has done so for 3 years and even in the teeth of hardware, and still no one is talking about it, despite the generally positive impact it has had on gaming, especially portable gaming in general.
I want to tell you all about StreetPass. I’m deep in the midst of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, a game that is far superior to comparable titles, and for whom StreetPass is a huge feature. Done right, it allows creative games and players to share their unique creations and progress in the game, to share whole worlds that can be visited, created by gamers just like the player. It is a phenomenal teaching tool, just by demonstrating what is possible. Just to be clear, “done right” here means that the Nintendo staff feel able to play too, joining in the game and help to create while using no other tools, while never cheating and still bound to the same rules as all other players. Animal Crossing is all of these things, and it would be an order of magnitude less without StreetPass. It would be another game just like Animal Crossing: Wild World, a tragedy for a franchise whose biggest flaw is that its entries feel too much like each other.[i]
As one might expect, I’m quite a fan of this, but I’m hardly blind to less graceful implementations of StreetPass. Its earliest expressions were in the Nintendogs+Cats game, directed by Hideki Konno. Dragon Quest IX was my first exposure to it, and was quite popular at the time.[ii] The idea, at least in Dragon Quest, seemed awkward to initiate and limited in reward – you had to launch the game, then put it into a software sleep mode, to potentially share items that could upset the game balance, potentially making the game too easy. Not that it mattered much – in small town Ontario, the feature never worked at all, so I didn’t know what to make of it. But in Japan, the idea was catching on.
The 3DS, also the project of director Hideki Konno, would have the feature at launch, and would do away with the need to have the cart installed in the cart reader to make it work. Future StreetPasses would be active as long as the 3DS was active.
The Nintendo Wikia website tracks a certain history of the features uses.[iii] Earliest uses reflected Street Fighter IV 3D edition (2010), which stages battles between trophies players earn in story mode, but automates the battles. Early adopter asked what use this feature was, but were widely surprised at the team building depth Street Fighters’ features included.[iv] I first jumped on board for Super Mario 3D Land, and here StreetPassing takes on the form of players exchanging small drips of new content, especially in the Mystery Boxes. A great many other 3DS games follow this format, slowly adding content to the player’s copy of the game to provide incentives to return later (and subtly incenting against the used games market too).
But I had said StreetPass was one of the best innovations in games in recent times, not just a really good one. The rough edges from the Dragon Quest IX days are slowly being polished over; Nintendo has recently announced that Nintendo Zones will now retransmit the data of the last StreetPasser to the next, in effect allowing StreetPassing between two game holders who have no yet met directly.[v] Better rewards, such as exchanging Mario Kart 7’s ghost data or Fire Emblem: Awakening’s tacticians, further builds communities of Nintendo gamers. Arguably, though, Animal Crossing: New Leaf tops them all, and I could stand on that opinion if not for another strange and unusual story. The pack in StreetPass games never worked for me, but they must have worked for someone. Nintendo is now pulling in $4 million in a month from sales of 4 new StreetPass games made available through the e-Shop.[vi] The news is still met with skepticism here, but I expect with content fed to gamers on a distributed schedule, Nintendo may have a new solution for retaining its audience and brand power in time for future launches.
I’m still hopeful newer games set an even higher precedent. StreetPass is still very much a frontier development with room to grow. But why is StreetPass trumping the significant challenges that should be holding it back? How is StreetPass really so much more engaging than using the same Internet dependent systems its rivals depend on? These are questions that I hope to answer tomorrow.
[i] Jack Stapleton. Developer’s Accomplice. June 18, 2013. Retrieved online on August 12th, 2013, at https://www.developersaccomplice.co.uk/animal-crossing-new-leaf/ I remember this opinion being very common before New Leaf’s launch, but since then less-than-perfect scores of Animal Crossing have all but evaporated.
[ii] Iwata Asks Nintendo 3DS. Volume 4. 4. Bragging about your Pet to the world. Retrieved online on August 12th, 2013, at http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/how-nintendo-3ds-made/3/3
[iii] StreetPass. The Nintendo Wiki. Retrieved online on August 12th, 2013 at http://nintendo.wikia.com/wiki/StreetPass
[iv] Chris Totten, StreetPass Review: Super Streetfighter IV 3D Edition. StreetPass Network, Connecting Gamers Around the World. Retrieved online August 12th, 2013 at http://streetpassnetwork.com/features/
[v] Thomas Whitehead. Nintendo Zone StreetPass Relay System Announced. NintendoLife. Retrieved online August 12th, 2013 at http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2013/07/nintendo_zone_streetpass_relay_system_announced
[vi] Yannick LeJacq. Nintendo’s 3DS ‘StreetPass’ games makes $4 million in a month. NBC News. Posted August 5th, 2013. Retrieved online August 12th, 2013 at http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/nintendos-3ds-streetpass-games-makes-4-million-month-6C10849956