Back in August we outlined amiibo pros and cons, mainly within the context that Nintendo had revealed little about the figures over the course of the summer months. Many questions have since been answered in terms of how the figures will be used in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, in addition to their minor uses in Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors. Despite this the announcement of 11 more figures coming in early 2015, taking us to 29 in this initial Smash Bros.-related batch, has prompted some interesting debate here in Nintendo Life HQ; it's become apparent that the long-term plans and structure of the amiibo 'platform' are far from clear — if the wrong steps are chosen, we can envisage frustration and confusion becoming a common theme for amiibo owners that don't, for example, wade through lots of web articles for details.
The debate in the team was sparked by the details on amiibo save data, allied with the new amiibo settings menu containing within the latest Wii U system update. The Wii U menu allows you to delete amiibo game data and 'reset amiibo'; this ties in with the official details that state only one set of 'read / write' data can be on a figure at any given time, likely a limitation of the NFC (near field communication) technology. At the moment this is no issue, as only Super Smash Bros. for Wii U will actually write (save) data to the figures, while MK8 and Hyrule Warriors simply read the toy, identify its model and activate pre-loaded features such as items, outfits and so on. What this does raise is questions, however, and concerns that Nintendo's understandable drive to brand and promote the first range for Smash Bros. will lead to future issues.
First of all, let's consider Nintendo's original concept for amiibo, back when it was provisionally called the Nintendo Figurine Platform in the company's investor presentation of May this year; at that point a generic Mario figure was shown as a concept, while it was "not classed as an accessory product of a certain software title but as a platform itself". Below is the illustration that was shown, along with an excerpt of Satoru Iwata's presentation:
In other words, the figurines, which consumers can buy and collect, are going to work with multiple software titles to be released in the future, and we are aiming to develop more software titles compatible with the figurines.
Nintendo has a lot of well-known character IP that has originated in video games, and we have been regularly releasing titles from game franchises that make use of this character IP. This is why I believe a brand-new type of platform will be born when the character IP becomes compatible with NFP.
At the time of the announcement we were full of praise at the concept of a 'platform' of figures that would be functional across multiple games, particularly with the diagram above implying equally exciting features across the board. That is still technically happening, to a degree, though the weight of priority and features is with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Unlike the generic 'one model for all' concept art above, meanwhile, the increasingly sizeable initial range is unabashedly branded for the fighting series, from the packaging to the logo carved into the character's base. The concept of training a fighter up and taking them to play with others is fun, though implementation in Hyrule Warriors and Mario Kart 8 is either basic or rather limited. Hyrule Warriors gives you a new outfit with Link [Correction: you receive the Spinner weapon and related moves] and any amiibo will grant you an item, while at present the special Mii Racing Suits in MK8 will initially be limited to 10 specific amiibo — Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Link, Captain Falcon, Fox, Samus and Kirby.
While these limited features and figure compatibility are understandable from a development perspective, that does little to give an early taste of potential consumer confusion and dissatisfaction. Those that buy Ike, Wii Fit Trainer or even The Villager in the launch range won't be able to enjoy any Mario Kart 8 functionality, for example, which is a list that'll only grow with each passing wave. The figures haven't even arrived yet, and already we have 'amiibo compatible' products offering relatively little or — with MK8 — turning away specific figures.
While we appreciate the sound business reasoning for the 'Smash Bros.' range — it's an elegant way to cover a diverse range of characters while also building additional hype for the release — we're left with lingering concerns. For one thing, it lays the groundwork for Nintendo's generous original concept to become, in blunt terms, a cynical cash cow in the vein of Skylanders and Disney Infinity. It may not turn out that way, but the possibility is there.
On many occasions Nintendo finds a balance between working for profits and showing some generosity — we defy anyone to successfully argue that the Mario Kart 8 DLC double pack doesn't represent good value — yet it's not always the shining beacon of responsibility, and could swing either way with amiibo. There'll be 29 figures by the end of February 2015 (corrected from November), so that's hundreds of dollars worth of products; while only a dedicated few will actually buy them all, the point is that a number of us will spend a decent amount of money, even if it's just on a handful of figures. While the initial line-up offers that exciting idea of a 'platform' supporting multiple games, the MK8 example shows that's only true to a point; more 2015 games will support amiibo, but it's now clear that they may not all support every figure.
Should this inconsistent approach continue, there will be confusion among parents, children, or any consumer that doesn't browse gaming websites on a regular basis. Disney Infinity and Skylanders may be annual cash-grabs, but they're simple in their approach; from generation to generation of games a number of your older figures will work; if you have a toy for the franchise, there are reasonable odds it'll work. It's not 100%, of course, but the branding is clear — with amiibo we have toys with Smash Bros. on the packaging that may or may not work in Mario Kart 8. If games like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Yoshi's Woolly World — as examples — do follow that MK8 model, disappointment will follow for those not closely following figure compatibility; we hope that won't be the case.
Another major unknown, right now, is how the amiibo range will grow. In May we envisioned an altruistic Nintendo releasing relatively generic figures that would see us through a year or two of exciting games, making decent money while giving us true value for our buck. Yet with the branding of this first range, we're left to wonder how many spin-off brands will follow, albeit likely including less figures. Will the new Legend of Zelda have a small batch with special abilities, would fictional games like Luigi's Mansion 3 have a special Luigi with unique abilities, or Super Mario 3D World 2 with Mario and chums in cute cat outfits?
The crunch point will come when a major release has special amiibo features, in line with the read / write options in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Nintendo could easily solve the 'one set of data' issue for toys in these games — figures work fine in read-only games regardless of data, to be clear — yet the indication in its official information (which is far from definitive) is that it may not want to. Having an option in a game to scan a toy and take a backup of data would make sense before wiping progress to use another game, but holding off on that feature makes us buy more figures, bringing us towards the trick of Skylanders et al in creating new gimmicks only possible with each year's newer toys. Also, if we have a Smash Bros. Mario, would he work in a prospective Mario platformer utilising the read / write abilities of the toys, or would that new game only support a specified range and lock-out / limit our existing toy to basic, less fun features?
These are all questions, but they pose the fundamental choice Nintendo has. Will amiibo be a truly unified platform, as suggested back in May, or will it become a relentless cash cow that separates gamers and aspects of games depending on how much they can — or are willing to — spend on toys? If the latter, then this writer's initial enthusiasm for the amiibo concept would wash away and become jaded cynicism normally reserved for the antics of Activision and Disney.
Finally, whichever way Nintendo goes, it's wandered into awkward territory with branding. If a flow-chart is needed to figure out what toys do what in each respective game, the idea of the Nintendo Figurine Platform will have made way for a messy range of accessories. Nintendo's greatest successes with the mainstream audience over the past decade have been based on simplicity, such as touch controls in the DS and Wii Remote motion controls — the company must avoid confusing consumers, above all else.
We're excited about amiibo here in Nintendo Life HQ, but when looking beyond the next few months we certainly have important questions about its direction. We already have some fairly haphazard compatibility in its first two 'non-Smash' games, and we hope the range doesn't become an over-complicated affair. We're also a little concerned — based on precedent so far — that what seemed like an altruistic platform to expose the money grubbing of other NFC toy franchises could, ultimately, have the same goals of monetisation at all costs. That said, amiibo is still just starting out and these concerns are based on one direction it can take — it may still evolve to be the unified, wonderful platform that can bring a little extra magic to our games.
We'll see in time, but what do you make of amiibo's progress and its functionality so far? Share your thoughts in the comments below.