For Nintendo, the Amiibo lineup has been an interesting move, positioning action figures of some of its classic characters as physical DLC for a wide range of titles. The figures have already been a big success for the company: Nintendo announced at an investors meeting in February that it had shipped 5.7 million Amiibos worldwide, and in March they revealed sales in the United States alone had reached 3.5 million. And that only covered the first three waves of figures, with another wave dropping just after the March sales report and another three waves planned beyond that.
The problem is Nintendo's made finding an Amiibo nearly impossible for a casual shopper. For the early waves in November and December, this made sense, as the company was still finding out what worked and what didn't. In February, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata even blamed the West Coast port strike for the lack of Amiibo and New Nintendo 3DS stock in the United States. Despite the port strike ending in late February, the Amiibo situation has actually gotten worse. This culminated in the pre-orders May's Wave figures, which ground GameStop's network to a halt last week and still sold out in under 30 minutes.
To collect or even simply to purchase an Amiibo, you have to keep track of when pre-orders go live at each retail outlet, but even doing that doesn't guarantee you'll get the figures you want. There's simply not enough stock of Amiibos and Nintendo's communication on the matter has been less than adequate. People don't know when more stock is coming, or if popular figures will be re-printed in later waves, so every figure outside of the core Mario cast is a premium figure. This situation has even led to some hardcore collector's deciding to leave the lineup behind.
So here's our thoughts on the Amiibo situation: What do we think about Amiibos? Is the lineup worth all this madness? Is Nintendo handling the situation correctly? Read on for thoughts from those who care and those who don't!
I'm probably the only Amiibo addict in this crew. The others have bought them for review purposes and Jeremy purchased some other characters on a whim, but I'm the one that follows this weird Amiibo illuminati you have to join just to get the chance to buy an Amiibo these days. I don't buy them for their gaming unlock purposes, I just enjoy having figures of my favorite characters. I currently own Samus, Toon Link, Mega Man, Shulk, Sheik, Yoshi, and Toad. My only speculator-style purchase has been the Wal-mart exclusive Gold Mario from the Mario Party 10.
I was one of those people who waited in GameStop for around an hour last week, hoping to score a Wave 4 pre-order. After Fire Emblem: Awakening, I've become a big fan of the series, so I was hoping to pick up Lucina and maybe an Inkling. I sat there in GameStop while the computers were down. When the system came back up, the clerks processed three people before announcing that Lucina, Robin, and Earthbound's Ness were all sold out. So now it's back into the Amiibo illuminati, finding out when Amazon, Target, Walmart, or Best Buy pre-orders go live.
I've made this point before, but I also purchase Disney Infinity figures. I have most of the Marvel lineup, being a big comics fan, and Stitch, because he's awesome. The thing is, I've never had a problem buying a Disney Infinity figure. Iron Fist was a bit difficult during the holiday season, but I didn't sweat it because eventually he'd be restocked. Warner Bros announced Lego Dimensions today and I'm also not pressed about picking up the figures I'm interested in.
I understand Nintendo is conservative, but we've stepped beyond that. The early Waves I can understand Nintendo not having enough supply or not knowing which figures might be popular. But we're in April, and people can't easily pre-order a wave launching in May. This also means most of these characters won't be seen by the casual consumer at all. The stock is simply too low for these figures and it's starting to affect other markets as avid collector's simply opt to import UK and Japanese figures, since its cheaper than buying US figures at scalper's prices.
And like I've said before, Nintendo has a number of way to fix the problem. They could announce, right now, that they're going to re-release hard-to-find figures in subsequent waves. They could sell some of these characters later through direct Nintendo website sales. They could establish a subscription program, allowing those who really just want to pick up the Amiibos without hassle to pay them a monthly fee to get the figures when they come out. the company even touched on the latter idea when LootCrate briefly offer Amiibos.
But Nintendo isn't doing any of that. The company is either lost and confused, or they don't care. They have the sales they need and keeping the stock low increases demand for the figures. The problem is it's just too tiring at this point. You can't artificially boost demand forever. And people are starting to dip out completely. If you're going to be in the toys-to-life category Nintendo, you need to step up to your competition. Or I'll simply give up this mad hunt like others have and simply spend my money elsewhere.
Actually, Mike, while I wouldn't characterize myself as an addict, I ended up owning every single Amiibo up until the Mario Party wave. Really, I did it just because I could — I had purchased a handful at the line's launch, mainly just the interesting or weird characters, and when it turned out I had lucked into two of the line's super-rare figures by virtue of being one of the few people in the world who genuinely likes the Animal Crossing Villager and Wii Fit Trainer, I decided to see just how far I could take it via online shopping, comfortable in the knowledge that I could easily recoup my costs if I decided to sell off what I'd bought. Turns out the answer was that I could in fact go all the way: Aside from paying a small bit of import markup to snag Rosalina, a character I actually wanted for my small collection, I ended up owning the entire set of characters from the first three waves, for which I paid retail price.
But it was a lark for me, and now that the whole thing has collapsed into a singularity of bad supply-chain management, I've whittled my collection back down to where I had intended for it to be: A handful of characters I like, overall popularity be damned. I'll probably import a few characters from the next couple of waves for a modest mark-up, but it's strictly a matter of picking up figurines of the company's more obscure characters now, the guys and gals I like as characters. I couldn't care less about Lucario or Bowser, but I now have a tiny metallized figurine of Mega Man designed in a variant of Hitoshi Ariga's style, and that's awesome. At some point, I'd like to own that figure of Pac-Man riffing on his early "Puck Man" days, too. That such a thing exists as a toy, digging so deeply into the character's heritage, is pretty fantastic for a game history buff like me.
But frankly, aside from the novelty of owning an actual collectible toy based on Wii Fit, this whole Amiibo business has been asinine. I really expect better from Nintendo. The idea of locking in-game content away behind pricey toys is not one of gaming's better trends of late, but then to turn those toys into something that casual fans will never be privy to seems bizarrely self-defeating. If they're going to charge us $50 for the privilege of unlocking the "main" mode of the new Mario Party, maybe it would be ideal if we actually had the opportunity to pay that $50 premium?
Although maybe I shouldn't expect better from Nintendo? The company has always been more than happy to leverage rarity and supply constraints as a business tactic, stretching all the way back to the NES days. I spent months as a kid struggling with the fallout of Nintendo's so-called "chip shortages" for NES games that had fallen temporarily out of print or been delayed due to manufacturing issues. I preordered an N64 and lined up at 5 a.m. one morning in the bitter cold of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf in order to preorder the Wii and secure one at launch, but news of those systems' maddening rarity was all over the news. There was a while during which the little Japanese cafe down the block from my old apartment had a Wii in its front window, on sale for a $100 markup — that's how out of hand it can get. This "oops, we didn't make enough Toad Amiibos! Tee hee!" thing is just the latest permutation of Nintendo's longstanding tradition of creating artificial scarcity for something its customers want.
And honestly, I'm grateful that it's all limited to some stupid figurines that have very little real value in terms of gameplay. (I think the worst so far is Xenoblade Chronicles 3D — your reward for tracking down the excruciatingly hard-to-find Shulk is… bonus coins to unlock image galleries a little faster than you normally would. Thanks, guys.) Now that game distribution has gone digital, there's no such thing as a rare game release, at least until said game gets delisted. No, even Nintendo isn't cynical enough to try and convince us that game data is a finite resource. With games a fluid commodity and the company desperate to make sure systems make it into as many hands as possible, this sort of merchandise offers Nintendo the final frontier for one of its favorite business practices. I have trouble sympathizing with people who are tragically forced to look to eBay or Play Asia to get their figurines — you guys don't know the pain of combing the country from one side to the other in hopes of digging up a single copy of Castlevania, or calling every electronics shop in town once a week for six months straight in the hopes that Zelda II had finally come to the U.S. And really, what are you missing out on? A chance to blow the balance of Smash Bros. even more than it is right out of the box.
But it is a shame that casual gamers and kids are taking this on the chin — the big difference between Amiibo shortages in 2015 and NES shortages in 1988 is that back then there was no such thing as retail hoarders and scalpers. Well, there was, but they had mostly vanished when Cabbage Patch Kids went the way of the dodo. But the rise of the collectors mentality in the '90s and eBay in the 21st century has changed the dynamic of Nintendo's scarcity tactics. Amiibo shortages are raising the ire of core fans, but what's new? Gamers are always angry about something. But this scarcity ultimately is potentially locking the average consumer out of access to game content while lining the pockets of those eager to profit from a badly planned situation, which makes this all seem a poor tactic on Nintendo's part. It's really the opposite of consumer-friendly, which is not a mantle Nintendo's in a position to take on at the moment. For all you 10-year-olds who just want a damn Charizard, the memory of 15-year-old me hunting for a copy of Street Fighter II sympathizes. And I'm sure my frustrated parents sympathize with yours, too.
I find the Amiibo craze strangely fascinating. Although they're aimed at kids, it seems to be adults who are making the biggest fuss about them - buying them up like trophies to be collected and cherished, rather than played with. Additional demand seems to be driven through scarcity, with opportunists flipping figures on eBay for profit, and this has further exacerbated the situation. It's all just a bit of a mess, really, that really reminds me of the craze surrounding Beanie Babies in the 90's when you had similar runs on certain types that caused prices to spike - and consumers to get angry when they couldn't find and buy them.
I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist regarding the supply problems - I think Nintendo were just very conservative and simply failed to anticipate demand, and ended up with more of a hit on their hands than they bargained for. And since there's always a degree of lag between manufacturing and delivery to retail, Nintendo are simply stuck with the numbers they have for now. That means for the meantime, they'll just have to deal with the fact that there will inevitably be disappointed and angry consumers who want to buy the figures, but who can't because they missed out on the pre-order nonsense you have to go through to stand a chance of actually buying them.
The fix would be to re-release certain figures as second edition models, perhaps with slightly different packaging. That would enable players who just want to play with the figures to do so, while collectors wouldn't feel their prized first-edition characters they lined up to buy wouldn't lose their value. At least, not until the market finally settles down, and nobody other than the hardcore collectors are particularly interested in them anymore.
I really don't get it. It brings to mind all of the various toy collecting crazes from the late '90s, like Beanie Babies. I understand why people might like Amiibos — they're cool little statuettes of iconic Nintendo characters — but I have a hard time understanding the mania they seem to engender. If I'm going to drop hard cash on a toy, it'll be for something like this. Even their in-game functionality isn't that great, serving only to unlock a handful of maps, or perhaps the odd bonus character.
Anyway, much as I don't understand Amiibo Mania, I think it's a boon for Nintendo. They haven't been this relevant to the interest of gamers and pop culture since the peak of the Wii. And in an era where mobile continues to suck the air out of the gaming space, and Sony and Microsoft continue to hog the headlines, any bit of attention is welcome, especially among kids.
I do agree that Nintendo needs to ramp up Amiibo production and distribution, but I don't actually think that their comparative scarcity is as much an issue as some have supposed. Just the other day I went into a GameStop and saw a rather large rack of the things, with a handful of them being sold to a pair of kids at the front counter. I even thought briefly about buying a Toon Link before deciding that I have enough toys around my house.
Not surprisingly, the loudest complaints about scarcity have come from the adult collectors who comprise a small but vocal minority. They are the ones buying up the stock, waiting in line for hours on end, and dropping $2,500 on Samus Amiibos. They are within their rights to be frustrated by Nintendo's sluggish distribution, but I'm sort of amused by the circle of demand has created. Bad distribution means certain Amiibos are scarce, demand goes up for perceived collector's items, and then said collectors get mad because they can't get their prized toy. That's capitalism in action.
As with everything else, the collector's will eventually get bored and move on, and ten years from now we'll have photos like this for Amiibos. In the meantime, Nintendo will keep smiling and counting their money, delighted that their iconic properties have once again managed to spur so much demand for what is ultimately a mediocre product.
I often wonder if Amiibos would be so in-demand if finding one didn't require some sort of black magic. Let's imagine an alternate reality where you could walk into your local GameStop and see an entire wall of tiny, plastic Marths staring at you from their blister pack prisons: Would you even care?
I try not to be a grump about Amiibos, because policing people's fun isn't my idea of a good time. Still, the amount of rage fueled by these things mystifies me—is this like Dragon Ball, and if you collect the entire set, you're granted one free wish? That's the only thing that could possibly justify the amount of hand-wringing I've seen over these little figurines. To be honest, I think Amiibos are pretty cool, and wouldn't mind picking up a few if my apartment wasn't already full of nerd crap. Even so, the sheer torture involved in obtaining the rarer ones definitely doesn't seem worth it. Hell, I'd love to put Ness on top of my DVD rack, but the second this Amiibo was announced, I knew there'd be no way to make this goal possible without going on a retail scavenger hunt. Even I have better things to do.
I'm not incredibly old, but I'm at least old enough to have lived through this phenomenon plenty of times before. You want the holofoil comics Wizard magazine assured me would pay for my college education? They're not even worth the cost of shipping. And how about that Nintendo Wii some folks (like me) spent more than a year searching for? I'm sure most of them would gladly give it to you just to free up some closet space. So if you're looking to get your hands on those Amiibos for reasons other than resale, just wait a bit. In a few years, we'll be wondering why we even cared so much in the first place.