January 20th 2003

e-Cards: A marketing nightmare

You know, it's an obvious fact that I would like the e-Reader to succeed as a gaming sub-medium. While the dot code technology used to encode data on e-Cards is somewhat limited, it still has a lot of potential for many different types of applications. I think the diary entries I've written so far tend to prove that.

However, the success of a gaming medium does not depend solely on the technology used. There's also the whole marketing aspect to consider, and any industry insider will tell you that marketing is an enormous beast of complexity, especially when it comes to video games.

One marketing issue is a product's visibility in retail stores: A video game placed in a really visible spot is more likely to be bought, and when your video game is placed with a hundred other games behind a glass window, you better make sure the picture on your box grabs the attention of potential buyers.

With this said, I must say I'm really dismayed at how retail stores are selling their e-Card packs. Here are a few examples, based on my personal experience:

Most parents who walk into these stores will probably never buy e-Card packs for their kids, because they're used to looking for video games in boxes, not trading cards locked away in a cardboard package. So the only actual buyers of e-Cards will be those who walk into the stores knowing exactly what they want, and will ask the store employees for help if they can't find the e-Cards they're looking for. That's not exactly a winning situation to begin with.

There's always the shoplifting issue to deal with when placing this kind of item in a store. But seing how store managers are actually dealing with this issue demonstrates that most stores are simply not "equipped" to sell trading cards in their electronics department. Most of them place the cards together with conventional video games, behind a glass window, and they don't seem to realize that they're hurting e-Card sales by doing this: Trading cards sell better when potential buyers can touch them and browse through them.

It seems to me like Nintendo has a big problem on its hands. Some stores seem to be adopting this passive attitude towards the e-Reader, as if it was just a fad that was going to die within the next month or so. I can't really blame them, since Nintendo's track record isn't exactly spotless when it comes to releasing new electronic gadgets. Just look at the Visual Boy fiasco...

Is the e-Reader condemned to remain a gimmick because of these "down-to-earth" marketing issues? Let's say that third-party companies such as Capcom, Konami or Activision jump onto the e-Reader bandwagon and start making lots of different e-Card series. Department stores already have a problem with the NES and Animal Crossing-e cards manufactured by Nintendo, so what's it gonna be when many more e-Cards hit the market? Will the stores and boutiques adapt? It's a little hard to predict...

A real solution

I exposed this problem on the IGN forum, and someone came up with a great idea: A stand-alone cabinet, made by Nintendo, and designed specifically for e-Reader products. I gave it some thought, and while I like the idea of a cabinet, I tend to prefer an open rack. I came up with this design:

I truly believe the e-Reader and e-Cards would have a much better chance if they were displayed on such racks. Also, third-party publishers who would like to make their own e-Card series could use these racks as a well-established promotional vehicle; they wouldn't have to worry about the visibility of their e-Cards, since Nintendo's e-Reader racks would concentrate all the available e-Card packs in a single, recognizable location.

Other solutions

There are also other ways to sell e-Cards. One way involves packaging e-Cards together with toys. The idea is not exactly new, as you can already find certain toys with trading cards included. Here are a couple of examples:

Toys and e-Cards are like chocolate and peanut butter! Imagine buying a Hot Wheels toy car, and being able to "import" this toy car into a Hot Wheels video game by swiping the e-Card included with the toy! Just visit the toy department of any store, and you'll see lots of other possibilities. They could also package e-Cards with GBA games...

Another avenue Nintendo should explore would be the different trading card series produced by Wizards of the Coast. They already offer trading cards based on successful franchises such as Harry Potter and Star Wars, in addition to the Pokémon Trading Card Game. And let's not forget the immensely popular Magic The Gathering! All these series could be enriched with encoded data compatible with the e-Reader. There are also other opportunities, like the Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game made by Konami and Upper Deck. If enough e-Card series based on these established trading card franchises are made, comic book shops (who have shunned e-Cards until now) will surely develop a better opinion of the e-Reader. For Nintendo, it's a goal worth pursuing, but it's not something the company can pull off on its own. Business partnerships are unavoidable.

No matter what Nintendo's plans may be for the e-Reader, I'd say they have their work cut out for them, and it's not just a question of making more e-Card series to satisfy the demand of e-Reader owners...