Amiibo as DLC Part 3: Toy Story
If it hasn’t been obvious from some of my past articles, I’m sort of the resident amiibo guy. Despite my original article and follow up, I do collect amiibo. Part of it is because, like many western Nintendo fans, I want to own something of Nintendo that’s both official but more than just a game. Generally, clothes are my choice. Music can work too. Figures make me a bit uncomfortable, as if it wasn’t obvious, I’m keenly critical of the cards. Although they work similar to other amiibo in terms of unlocking content, there’s a big problem: amiibo as a whole are more toy than game content, and Nintendo has gone down the toy path far too many times for a video game company.
Incongruent Goals and Outcomes
Let’s start out at what amiibo are supposed to do. From Nintendo’s FAQ:
That’s pretty vague, but the one thing it’s emphasizing is content. Compare that to Skylanders’ FAQ for parents:
Skylanders emphasizes the toys and gives us specific, current use. As a business pitch, I have to say that Skylanders seems to know what it wants to be, while Nintendo is simply saying they have a new possible way of delivering content. The latter is interesting, but why would I want to buy it, especially when the FAQ even mentions that writable data is limited to a single save slot for a single game. That is, these are figures that are supposed to grant content across many games, yet only allow save data for one game. This conflicts with both the goal of the product and customer expectations, even if it’s in the FAQ.
Toys as Content Delivery Is Failing
As a regular consumer (I have not received a single amiibo figure or card from Nintendo), I’ve bought a lot of amiibo. Some, like Ness, are because there are very few officially licensed products I can buy. Others, like Link and Mario, are because I expect the figure to be used a lot. This was actually the main reason I bought amiibo cards, not only to test a new content delivery model, but because I knew two games would make specific use of them (though it was nice that Mario Maker used a few two).
However, I feel burned on the content. Despite there now being hundreds of amiibo thanks to two series of cards (I live in Japan so I have access to them), amiibo still seem very light on content overall. Most of it is very cosmetic and often can be earned in game. What isn’t cosmetic usually requires me to save data, which means I need multiple figures, completely defeating the supposed uniqueness of the amiibo franchise and Nintendo’s ability to even match what competitors are doing. Worse, the richer content is also completely locked behind the figures, such as in Hyrule Warriors’ weapon or the Fire Emblem figures unlocking additional characters in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. While getting Link is rather easy, our Code Name: S.T.E.A.M reviewer couldn’t secure her own figure for her review, so I’m sure regular Nintendo customers also felt rather burned.
Other figure based toys-with-content are clearly toys and are even being designed to be played with, such as Lego Dimensions which allows you to remove characters from their bases. Yarn Yoshi may hint at that, but the figures don’t add much. In fact, the greater sin is that multiple editions and color varations of the same character hold unique data, forcing you to pay for more content that is often unique in only one or two games.
Past Mistakes Repeated with Lesser Results
This wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for Nintendo’s history of dropping their own accessories. Remember the e-reader cards? These had entire games saved to them, as well as other content. I won’t say they were a great idea, but it feels like they added more content than amiibo. The great “possibilities” of amiibo locked behind expensive figures with high demand and usually no alternative feels like the worst possible gimmick to push onto a consumer. Amiibo cards are similarly insulting, being random, nearly useless in their card form due to lacking a card game, and very light on content.
While I love innovation and new ideas, the simple fact of the matter is that Nintendo doesn’t seem to know what they want to do with Amiibo, and this is best highlighted with the new release of Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival. The amiibo cards already felt like a bad idea in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, but the potential versatility of both the cards and series as a whole failed to shine.
As toys, amiibo fail overall. They’re collectibles. Models for the most part, or very simple trading cards, neither of which I feel comfortable with collecting as an adult but do, mostly due to wanting the content they unlock. However, I’m getting fed up by the lack of content I’m supposedly investing in. The content is often very light from game to game, and there are so many amiibo providing so very little content that I would much rather use a in-game shops to purchase content, like in Fire Emblem: Awakening. It feels far less intrusive and takes up less real world space.
Amiibo are making money for Nintendo, and that’s important to them but… Nintendo is a game company, not a toy company. R.O.B was gimmick, but it got people to try Nintendo’s games. Amiibo, instead, seem to be using games to sell toys, and from a company that had earned my money through games in the past, I feel betrayed. This feels like something that should have been licensed to another company, not a first party concern.
However, I don’t just want to complain about amiibo. If Nintendo is serious about making the line work, there’s still time. The easiest way to do this would be make it so that amiibo data is at least partially stored online starting with the NX. If players had a Steam-like account, they should be allowed to upload, delete, and swap data on their own page. People who don’t want to collect physical figures should be allowed to unlock the data either with an online store or within each game with an in-game currency.
In my amiibo Festival review, I mentioned that amiibo could do really well to push games Blizzard currently makes: unique spins on popular genres. Nintendo has shown they can do that with Splatoon, and there are hints that they could do it with card games too. Nintendo’s strongest ability isn’t in designing toys but games with ideas. Instead of focusing on throwing out amiibo of every character in Nintendo’s multiple franchises, they should be making use of the amiibo we already have. We have two Animal Crossing games and Villager adds almost nothing to them. In fact, he’s unuseable for both games’ basic concepts (he can’t have a home in HHD and he can’t be a board piece in amiibo Festival). There is something critically wrong with that situation, and I refuse to believe that Nintendo is fine with that.
Future games should use the figures in some way. Not new figures, but the old ones. I think Nintendo has the right idea by charging for their games, but like with the upcoming plan for Shadow Mewtwo, have amiibo unlock options in each game that can be earned without the purchase. Alternatively, also allow players to simply buy content.
Now, some people may ask what, then, happens to the figures? They remain that: just figures. The marriage of figures with content delivery sucks, period, especially when combined with exclusives. Fans will still be nearly killing each other over the figures, but allowing the data to be bought online ensures that people only looking for content won’t miss out on content. It also helps alleviate the problem with secondary markets as the figures’ value is only tied with the figure, not what they unlock, a significant problem introduced with Splatoon and its figures.
Alternatively, Nintendo can keep pumping out multiple versions of all kinds of Amiibo, but offer only the physical forms, but use them to deliver game content. After amiibo Festival, I feel like Nintendo would need to go the free-to-play route though. The game has seriously shaken my faith. I’ve already stopped purchasing cards because of it, even though there are some characters I’d like, and I will not be collecting all of the new figures based on AC. Nintendo could do this in the old days, but with PC gaming becoming more accessible and cell phones invading the mobile market, Nintendo has to be faster than ever at adapting.
As a consumer, if Nintendo wants to keep making me pay for amiibo, I need two things. First, I need better content. I have a huge collection but in terms of content, it feels quite shallow. I could have spent probably a quarter of the cost had the content been similar to what a free-to-play game would have charged me. Can we get more skins or tracks to unlock in Mario Kart via amiibo?
Second, I need better games that focus on amiibo. Other toy-game hybrids feel much more interactive than amiibo, outside of Smash Bros. I have little to no connection with the data saved on my Mario Party 10 characters or amiibo Festival characters (even though both games make me grind for insignificant unlockables). The Desert Island mini-game is a hint at the kind of thing Nintendo could do to use amiibo and break into markets currently dominated by other companies. What about a Cooking Mama RTS where various Nintendo characters have different cooking skills, and I need to set them to work making dishes that come out faster and better “tasting” in order to win? Or maybe a music application for Miiverse, where various amiibo unlock pre-set tunes for those of us who can’t compose? I could make slide shows on my album set to a tune from Mega-Man.
Amiibo do have a lot of potential, and I’m sure Nintendo is doing their best. The problem, though, is that there is far too much emphasis on the toys and not enough on the content. Hopefully this will change in 2016.