Toward the end of last year, Amiibo celebrated their first anniversary. Between problems in the supply chain, retailer exclusives and much debate over what an Amiibo should do, there's no denying that things have been rocky. Despite all that Amiibo seem to be doing well for Nintendo, so they're here to stay. If they do, however, Nintendo needs to turn its strategy around.
Amiibo are divisive to say the least. Many people hate the idea of DLC locked behind a plastic figure, while others go out of their way to "catch 'em all". However, from a gamer's perspective, it's hard not to be disappointed by the Amiibo implementation we've been seeing so far. Even if you're an apologist for things like extra content locked behind Amiibo, you can't deny that Amiibo could be so much more than they currently are. Many of the characters from the original Smash line are still almost useless; they work for Smash and not much else. Yet at the same time, several games have already received their own custom Amiibo which only work with that one specific game. Splatoon got three custom Amiibo, and Animal Crossing got even more. Even Shovel Knight got in on the action, and his Amiibo costs almost as much as the game it's used for.
As a result of this, Amiibo have missed their intended purpose and even their intended audience. Right now, Amiibo are collector's items first and foremost, with each new Amiibo being a new treasure hunt. Meanwhile the more 'casual' Nintendo fans couldn't care less about a lot of them. But wasn't the original goal to make affordable figures of popular Nintendo characters, so that everyone could buy their favorite character and have it add something cool to their games? What happened to that? Why would I buy a Shulk if all he's going to do is sit there on my shelf? How is the Wii Fit Trainer supposed to cash in on her unexpected fanbase if she only works in Smash? And why would anyone want all three Splatoon Amiibo for just a few extra challenges in one game?
I'm one of the biggest Nintendo fans on this site, and you know how many Amiibo I have? I have one.
Sure there are many (MANY) more characters that I like, but looking at these figures as a gamer rather than a collector, they're just not worth it to me.
So how do we do Amiibo right? How do we get the average gamer involved, and how do we strike the balance between making Amiibo a justifiable purchase without hitting the sensitive nerve of on-disc DLC? Well, I think there are two ways. We can go wider, or we can go deeper. In other words: less is more, but more is also more.
Less is more
This is what I would call the 'wide' approach, and it's relatively simple:
Every Amiibo should be supported by every game, and they should do something fun but small.
This approach fixes two glaring issues at once: every Amiibo is now worth the money, and you dispel the spectre of locked DLC.
Like I said before, the main problem with many Amiibo is that they just don't do enough outside of one or two games. Little Billy at Toys'r Us won't be able to convince his mom to get him that awesome Pikachu figurine, unless he can answer the ultimate partypooper question: "So what's it for?"
However, if every character is compatible with a wide range of different games, that paints a vastly better picture. "Well I can use it in that new game I got for my birthday! And remember that game dad and I play together? It works with that one too! And when I've saved up enough of my allowance I'm gonna buy that new Mario game that I can use it in! Can I have it now pleeeaase!?"
So what should an Amiibo do under the wide approach? That's the big one. This will require some careful balancing, but I think it can be done. In fact we've already seen one game get it perfectly right: Yoshi's Woolly World. Yoshi's Woolly World supports every Amiibo that was available at the time of its release. Every Amiibo unlocked a special color scheme for your in-game character, most of which were very cute and funny. Check it out:
If every game had something like that, Amiibo would be damned amazing. Super Mario Maker did something similar, so it's not like this can't be done.
It doesn't necessarily have to be color schemes though, although I'd hold it as a valid and sensible option. I would like to challenge game developers to get creative here, think outside the box. But still, how cool would it be if in Zelda WiiU your shield had a picture of your Amiibo character on it? Or how about if in Captain Toad each Amiibo would unlock a (keyword: 'a', as in one) bonus level based on your franchise of choice? What if in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash you could play in Hyrule Castle or a Pokemon Stadium? Why can't we get a Pikachu hat in Splatoon? Or what about if in Star Fox Zero, your favorite character would contact you on your com device to cheer you on?
I have to reiterate that for this wider approach to work, every game needs to have something like this. Or at the very least most games. You won't sell anyone on a single costume, but you will sell them if they can expect every Nintendo game to have something fun like that. At the same time, none of the content is so significant that it will be missed be someone who doesn't have certain Amiibo. If you don't like Sonic, you probably won't care that you can't get your Sonic Yoshi. As a result, Nintendo wouldn't get nearly as much criticism for 'sketchy DLC'. Everyone can get something that they like, and they only lose out on some superficial stuff for characters they didn't care about in the first place.
The other benefit here is that Amiibo become much more approachable. You won't have to consider which Amiibo gives the most value, you can simply pick your favorites. That one Amiibo I own is a Link, and I bought him because he unlocks the Spinner in Hyrule Warriors. I like Link a lot, but he's not the one I would've picked as my favorite; not by a long shot. I'd much rather have a Samus, Zelda, Ganondorf, Shulk, or Mewtwo. But why would I get any of those when Link is so much more functional? On the flip-side, you bet your ass I'd have a Shulk right now if in Twilight Princess HD I could replace the Master Sword with the Monado.
Now, I realize that this is going to be expensive to do. These things require extra work and there are also some licensing issues that are hard to overlook. Even in Yoshi's Woolly World the Pokemon Amiibo weren't functional; likely because The Pokemon Company didn't cooperate. While I do recognize that as a problem, I'd also argue that this is something that Nintendo set themselves up to. Everything I've described here is what I consider to be Nintendo's original promise of what Amiibo were meant for. This isn't new. It's also nothing that a good contract can't fix. The license holders for these characters surely get a share of Amiibo profits, so there's no way you can't negotiate with them to let developers use their characters for some fun stuff.
Another way to cut costs is to simply have fewer different Amiibo. Nintendo should stop creating a new Amiibo for every game and instead focus on the core (most likely the Smash roster). Make sure everyone is worth the price of admission before moving on to the next batch; don't stuff gamers' shelves with tons of Amiibo that are all essentially useless.
Ultimately, I think this approach would be the best for Nintendo and for us. It could drive Amiibo sales because they're no longer collectors-only (thus offsetting the costs involved in creating extra content), it meets the promises that Nintendo set for gamers when Amiibo were first announced, it allows developers to have some fun with new characters, and it strikes the perfect balance between making an Amiibo worth the money while not gating content.
In short: Nintendo needs to provide broader Amiibo support, but we need fewer Amiibo and less locked content. Less is more.
More is more
That's not the only solution I see. If the above is the wide approach, this one is 'deep'. It's just as simple though:
Make a full Amiibo-centric game above and beyond Skylanders and Disney Infinity.
I've been hearing this call from the community, and I think it makes full sense. If Amiibo were a response to the success of Skylanders, why not try to beat those guys at their own game? If Nintendo really wants Amiibo to be worth the money, the figures need to come to life.
Skylanders already has this market in the bag, maybe shared with Disney somewhat. However, if there's anyone who can break through that barrier, it's Nintendo. The Skylanders are nice and all, but they're not exactly recognizable. They don't have a TV show (although I wouldn't be surprised), and each new installment just pulls another batch of random characters out of its ass. Disney is a lot better already, each of their playsets is based on a popular movie. Unfortunately, I hear that Disney Infinity is a much inferior game from a gameplay standpoint. On top of that Disney is limited by the fact that most characters represent one movie. I can't deny that Frozen was massively popular, but it was massively popular over two years ago. I have to wonder how much staying power these characters have.
Nintendo, on the other hand, has both the skills and the characters to pull this off. Nintendo games are almost always top-notch, and if nothing else no one understands how to get the most out of Nintendo hardware like Nintendo. As I like to say: Nintendo can make its hardware sing. At the same time, there are quite a number of Nintendo characters out there who can even compete with Mickey Mouse in popularity. Mario, Luigi and Pikachu surely can, but I also think characters like Link, Donkey Kong, Yoshi and Kirby are on the rise. On top of that, Nintendo has access to Sonic in its Amiibo line, certainly not someone to take lightly either. If Nintendo put this kind of weight behind a great game, Amiibo would soar.
Besides, Nintendo already has a head start:
So what kind of game would this be? Well, I'm not entirely sure. I'm not a designer, after all. However, the Skylanders action-RPG formula seems to work quite well for this kind of thing, so that could definitely be a start. Nintendo could also take some inspiration from Super Smash Bros. Brawl's Subspace Emissary, although that would need to be polished to hell and back. Another fun idea is to make a Pokemon-style JRPG, where your Amiibo become your party members. You would either use generic Miis or something, but once you tap in an Amiibo you unlock that character (or perhaps a bunch of characters from that series). Each character would have movesets based on their respective games and you would go around beating up monsters from all the franchises. Reggie Fils-Aime is the final boss.
The main point here is that if Amiibo are going to lock content, they might as well lock all content. I have no doubt that this approach would have its detractors, but if nothing else Amiibo would be more or less restricted to this one game. If you want to get on that train with whichever characters you have that's fine, but it's just as easy to leave Amiibo for what they are. You're missing out on one game rather than missing some content on many different games.
The benefit for Nintendo here is that they can go all-out with Amiibo. If they want to pull out every Mushroom Kingdom character on the books, that's fine. Paper Mario, Birdo, Waluigi, Daisy, every Koopaling, just go for it. Sell them as an Amiibolanders Infinity playset and I'm sure they'll do well. You could even continue packaging them in with other games; instead of on-disc DLC you'd have a complete game plus a new character for the Amiibo game.
In short: if Amiibo are going to be the gatekeepers of content, make sure that there's something big behind that gate. Employ your characters to the full, and make them the core element of an entire game that can stand up to the competition. Leave out the small stuff and, just this once, make everything Amiibo-centric. More is more.
What is more more?
That is my theory. It is mine and it belongs to me, and what it is too.
Personally, I like the 'less is more' approach the most. That's not to say that Nintendo couldn't do both, but I feel that with the wide strategy everybody wins. Everyone can buy their favorite character and use them to their heart's content to unlock cool stuff in their favorite games; exactly what Amiibo were meant for. Making a full Amiibo game would also work, but you're still excluding the people who feel that every game they buy should be complete right out of the box. Instead of striking a balance you just tip the scale all the way to one end. If that were the scenario I'd probably buy one or two new Amiibo, beat the game and then leave it until the end of time. However, if Amiibo got the broad support they deserve, I could see myself buying at least five new ones. I'm not that hard to convince, I just need to know that whatever I buy won't be collecting dust after one game.
I'd also like to hear from you though. What would it take for you to start buying Amiibo, provided you haven't yet? Do you want your Amiibo wider or deeper
in your butt? Would you buy more Amiibo if Nintendo starting handling them differently? Would either the less is more or the more is more route convince you to buy a couple new ones? Or do you just want Nintendo to scrap the damn things altogether?
Whatever the case may be, I think we can all agree on one thing:
We need a Gardevoir Amiibo.