When amiibo was unveiled in 2014, and it was still relatively mysterious, I wrote a feature outlining the pros and cons of the platform. It was a hugely exciting project from Nintendo, and the concerns highlighted weren't in line with what's happened since the toys made their début. In fact, it's amazing to think how much the attitudes and narrative around amiibo have changed in just seven months.
It was my intention to write this piece as a follow-up to some polls we ran two weeks ago, but decided to wait until after Nintendo's E3 announcements. When we spoke about the toys-to-life range in the office before E3 my attitude was simple - Nintendo should scale back on new toys, acknowledge issues and really fix current problems with the range. In recent times the company's been doing the equivalent of an over-ambitious, inexperienced development studio, announcing half a dozen games before one's even finished.
Unsurprisingly Nintendo continued its usual amiibo behaviour, which was to continue aggressive expansion while once again promising to fix stock issues - Reggie Fils-Aime spoke of ramping up production while also admitting that "the consumer demand continues to outpace supply". Quelle surprise.
Nintendo isn't alone in the challenges of meeting toys-to-life demand, of course, but the whole problem with the range is - at this stage - downright wearying. I essentially agree with Disney Infinity executive producer John Vignocchi, who said the following regarding his company's plans on Star Wars stock in consideration of amiibo issues.
There is never an intention to create a shortage of any figures. It is irresponsible and rude to your hardcore fans. They don't want to create frustration or the hunt. So they will be stocking the shelves well!
For my money he's right. There's little justification for Nintendo's problems, even acknowledging issues outwith its control. There have been some port strikes in the US earlier in the year, and even the weird occasion of some toys (in Splatoon bundles) being stolen in Europe, but that's the real world - unfortunate things happen. I firmly believe we're at the stage that, in terms of amiibo, Nintendo is being short-sighted and naive, or incompetent - neither is good.
Early issues with stock were perhaps understandable, and it's also a common trick to allow initial shortages to drive demand, stock and buzz. The idea, though, is to then meet the frenzy of demand in subsequent waves of restocks. It's a trick Apple uses with every bit of hardware it sells - limited initial stock generates images of launch day queues and gives the product a premium perception, and within a relatively short period stock is readily available everywhere.
Nintendo, though, has barely got out of the first phase of generating demand. A small batch of common figures are easy to find, but there are many more that are rarer than gold dust. Even if stock arrives it disappears within hours, often with many on the hunt missing out. The amiibo market is also making some scalpers well off, but that's down to low stock - if supply was meeting demand, scalping would fade to an irrelevance. Even on established sites like Amazon, the only option with many figures are merchants selling figures at double their price, or in some cases much more.
Now, one argument I've heard is that, from Nintendo's perspective, if it sells most of the toys it makes then it'll be happy; keeping inventory low is smart business. In fact, in one of my boring financial results articles in the past year I pointed out that Nintendo's drastically reduced its inventory, with the knock-on effect of contributing to improved profits despite declining sales. Some also point to over 10 million figure sales up to the end of March. Yet those arguments miss the fundamental point.
For one thing, if Nintendo actually manufactured and shipped the toys properly it would sell a lot more, and therefore make more money. The company knows this, as Reggie Fils-Aime has admitted supply isn't hitting demand. If Nintendo makes more amiibo of figures the fans want the most, it will sell more toys. At the moment, far from being business savvy in selling most of the toys it makes, it's throwing money away by failing to give consumers the stock they want. That is - on any level - a problem.
But what does Nintendo do? It announces more amiibo, in more ranges and for amiibo-specific games. I think that's questionable for multiple reasons. It's putting even more pressure on the manufacturing pipeline, it's introducing more varieties that work in certain games and not others - potentially confusing less engaged consumers - and it's also leading to weird game design. Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer still seems strange to me, as it's a very slight spin-off from the brilliant Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and is basically a vehicle to sell amiibo cards. Then there's Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival on Wii U, which didn't seem very appealing to me at E3 and requires upcoming figures to play, though the amiibo cards will also be supported.
Both games seem like the limitations of NFC reducing a game's scope and not providing the Wii U - in particular - with the Animal Crossing game it needs. In my view amiibo and NFC toys are meant to do the opposite and help expand full gaming experiences; in these two games Nintendo seems to be doing the opposite, simplifying concepts to suit amiibo. With all of the reasons outlined above that, again, seems peculiar.
To be fair with the two Animal Crossing games, each will have bundles with amiibo and cards, meaning that those investing have enough to enjoy the gameplay on offer - stock permitting, of course. The Wii U title will be free to download if players have scored the relevant amiibo through other means.
The issue for Nintendo, though, is that its mis-fires with the amiibo concept, and the frustrating stock limitations, have started to alienate some of those that are big enough fans that they'll spend hundreds of dollars on the toys. In our polls - with thousands of votes - the majority liked the use of amiibo in games, so that's positive, but when we asked for an opinion on the amiibo stock 64% (at the time of writing) selected "it's a joke, to be honest, too many figures are rare and over-priced by scalpers". On the question of whether you were still hyped about amiibo, some said the sheen had worn off but 20% opted for "I want to be, but stock shortages and issues put me off in a big way", with no category in that question securing more than 28% in votes.
I'm an example of someone who's effectively turned off by amiibo right now, after being excited enough early on to spend a decent amount of money on figures. Then the stock issues happened, and after one too many pre-order allocations disappearing within minutes I simply thought "sod it". You shouldn't have to give up life and trawl around sites in unfulfilled hope, logging in at specific windows and hoping for the best, only to have a pre-order get cancelled the day before delivery. I really, really want a Pixel Mario for Super Mario Maker, but I'm conditioned to expect something to go wrong; that's a sad state of affairs.
In slashing inventory and squeezing out higher profits from lower sales, Nintendo's in danger of alienating its most loyal fans - ie those that would happily buy millions more amiibo if the desired figures were available. Yes, many of us have Link, that's not the problem. The fact is that Nintendo should have been further ahead in improving the situation by now, but it's failed to do so.
I want to believe in amiibo again and I want it to be a huge success for Nintendo, but the big N needs to help us with that. Rather than produce a Chibi-Robo amiibo and promise restocks that turn out to be barely a drop in the ocean, it needs to commit. If entire games are going to start focusing on amiibo, the least Nintendo can do is make it worth our while.