Nintendo has utterly lost control of Amiibos. Somehow, it’s got to get it back.
On Wednesday, Nintendo had a livestreamed web presentation to announce a variety of games and products it will release in 2015. The presentation was festooned with Amiibos of all shapes and sizes. And why shouldn’t it be? The plastic figurines of Nintendo’s popular characters like Mario and Princess Zelda, which interact with Wii U and 3DS games in a variety of ways, have been a huge hit since their launch in November. Of the millions of figures that Nintendo has sold, 63 percent of them were sold in North America.
But even those millions have not been enough. Nintendo vastly underestimated the demand for Amiibo figures, and the extreme scarcity of some of them has created a vicious cycle: Knowing that the figures will disappear from shelves instantly, and that they may never be replaced after the first shipment, fans have begun purchasing the figures the instant they go on sale. They disappear within minutes. Missed the window? Get ready to shell out 300 to 400 percent of retail on eBay, if you’re lucky.
Some observers, recalling crazes like Beanie Babies and baseball cards, see a collectibles bubble that’s about to burst, leaving many disappointed speculators in its wake. If that happens, no one will feel bad for them. But what Nintendo has not been able to do at this point is to figure out a pathway by which fans, who just want Amiibos so they can use them in their gameplay, can acquire them. And that’s an unnerving thought.
The decision that got Nintendo into this mess is creating many, many different varieties of Amiibo in an abbreviated time window. To wit, it is producing one Amiibo for each of the fighting game’s 50 playable characters. Asking retailers to keep 50 individual figures on shelves appears to have been a non-starter, let alone actually manufacturing that wide variety of figures on a rolling basis, so Nintendo’s plan was to bring them out in waves, permanently replacing sold-out figures with totally different figures.
This would have worked perfectly had demand for Amiibo matched up, more or less, with the number of each figurine that Nintendo produced. What actually happened was that demand vastly outstripped supply—and Nintendo then said it had no plans to replenish the sold-out Amiibos. This had two immediate results: Secondary market prices for sold-out Amiibos skyrocketed, and fans (and resellers) resolved to pre-order the next wave of Amiibos as soon as humanly possible.
This has resulted in the sort of scenes we’ve seen play out this week, as the fourth wave of Amiibos becomes available for pre-order. Toys ‘R’ Us told Polygon that it would post up preorders for the new Amiibos, including one that is exclusive to Toys ‘R’ Us, at some point between 7 and 9 a.m. Eastern time on April 3. Instead, preorders went up at 3 a.m. Eastern and were sold out in a matter of minutes.
While the same scene plays out day after day, Nintendo’s public statements—when the famously reticent company actually makes them—fall on the scale between “oblivious” and “tone-deaf.” Here are the first few responses when it put up a blithe tweet about Amiibos Friday morning:
Nintendo spent much of that Wednesday livestream discussing new Amiibo characters, without so much as a nod to the extreme difficulty that fans face in acquiring them.
The closest it came was when it discussed the 3DS game Code Name: STEAM, which uses certain Amiibo figures. “If you weren’t able to get a hold of a Marth Amiibo, don’t worry,” said Nintendo’s Bill Trinen. “We’ll be releasing more Marth Amiibo in May. So stay in the loop, and don’t miss your second chance.”
Asking would-be Amiibo buyers to “stay in the loop” and not miss out is putting the burden on the wrong side of the transaction. Or at least, it’s only half of the solution.
If Nintendo is serious about getting this rare figure (which sells for upwards of $100 today) into more hands, here is what it can do: Sell the entire new batch exclusively through its own direct retail site; give buyers plenty of notice about when it will be available; make sure said availability time is in a convenient window and not in the middle of a work or school day; sell them at precisely said time; and rigorously enforce a one-per-customer rule, scanning through transactions and canceling any attempts at fraud.
If instead Nintendo simply sends retailers a few more Marth figures and the retailers sell them to whichever eBay flippers are online at 2 in the morning on a Thursday, it won’t have mattered how “in the loop” fans were.
Deflating the Bubble
Nintendo could take steps to alleviate fans’ anger in the short term. In the long term, it needs to avoid Amiibo burnout.
The NPR podcast Planet Money recently did an episode on the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering . The show explained how publisher Wizards of the Coast saw a bubble forming, but instead of exploiting it in the short term like the Ty company did with Beanie Babies, it actively worked to gradually deflate the bubble, thereby turning Magic into a sustainable business.
It didn’t exploit fans’ obsessions with getting extremely rare cards. In fact, it worked to make those cards less valuable from a gameplay perspective, and to print many, many more of the new cards it was creating. It was also very up front about these tactics, in an effort to get speculators to stay out of the market and not buy up all of the packages before players could get there.
If there’s a ray of hope in the Amiibo situation now, it’s that Nintendo may in fact be taking this tack in the future. There are Amiibos for the upcoming game Splatoon, but only three of them. Ditto Yoshi’s Woolly World, which has three differently-colored plush Yoshi Amiibos that have the same effect on the game, and are just cosmetically different.
Additionally, as some of the commenters on that Planet Money episode point out, there’s a difference between Magic: The Gathering cards and Beanie Babies. As you collect Beanie Babies, the extra value or joy you get from each additional purchase diminishes significantly. But Magic players can derive more value from each additional card, since it enhances their ability to play the game.
Amiibos need to be more like Magic cards, less like Beanie Babies. In addition to whittling down the varieties of Amiibo into a list that’s more easily supplied to anyone who wants one, Nintendo also needs to be sure that tapping an Amiibo to your game controller unlocks a significant gameplay improvement.
If that is the case, then even those players that burn out on Amiibo—and they are increasing in number, after this week’s shenanigans—might find themselves buying more of the figures, further on down the road, if the benefits to owning them are exceptional.
The question now is, is Nintendo going to be nimble enough to pull that off?