Why the Nintendo 3DS is Just About Ready for Comics in Multiple Dimensions
When Nintendo dropped its beefy DSi XL in 2010, I had high hopes that comics could flourish -- or at least make some headway -- on one of gaming's most iconic portable gaming platforms. While that didn't necessarily pan out in North America, my hopes haven't faded. Nintendo sent ComicsAlliance a 3DS so that we could take a look under the hood and explore its potential as a comics device. While it's too soon to tell whether or not Nintendo or its third party developers will make a concerted effort to cultivate reading or creating comics on the 3DS, the new handheld's brimming with possibilities.
In terms of basic tech specs, the 3DS has surpassed its predecessor the DS (and DSi and larger DSi XL) by a healthy margin and finally houses a screen worthy of full-color comics. Sporting a 3.02 x 1.81" screen at 800 x 240 pixels, the 3DS is close enough in line with Sony's PSP, handheld iOS hardware and other prominent smaller-scale reading devices to showcase digestible digital art.
It's built-in comics capabilities are basic. The 3DS web browser allows users to pull up virtually whatever webcomics they're comfortable reading on the device's dual screens. Like the iPhone and iPad, the 3DS web browser doesn't support Flash. That's a technical hurdle that prevents users from accessing services like comiXology, but if Nintendo opened its device to apps from these kinds of digital distributors, its hardware could certainly support them.
Another thing that worked against the 3DS and its tech was its initial price. Early adopters picked up the 3DS for $249 this spring, which didn't make it the most cost-effective comic book reader option, even if it's a less-than-primary function. With the device dropping down to $169 in August, it's a much more viable option for reading comics on top of gaming.
While the 3DS brings plenty of new digital possibilities to the comics table, its screen size and resolution ultimately make replicating more traditional comic formats a challenge.
There's a few free homebrew comic reading options (definitely not endorsed by Nintendo) for the DS, including Gnese's ComicBookDS software, that allow users to navigate digital comics in a number of formats similarly to the iPad and other devices. These are more for the DIY crowd than the average user, however, meaning Nintendo or a third party developer will be tasked with bringing a licensed comic reader to the table if the device is to become viable.
By adopting a more sophisticated reader, Nintendo could theoretically sell digital comics akin to those sold via iTunes or the PSN (and likely on the upcoming Vita or Sony's S1 and S2 tablets). Provided releases supported multiple navigation/page orientation formats, users already accustomed to digital comics wouldn't have much trouble.
On the flip side, webcomics with wide formats and simple text are fairly easy to digest on the 3DS browser. Powerhouses like Penny Arcade and PvP, along with more indie comics like Overcompensating, Questionable Content, The Rack, Nedroid, Gun Show, Let's Be Friends Again and tons more are already format-friendly and ready for user eyes between rounds of gaming.
Films and videogames based on comic books rarely seem to result in boosted sales for traditional single issue comic books, but with proper care, 3DS multimedia could spur interest in digital content formatted specifically for the device. Green Lantern was the first 3D movie trailer made available via the 3DS and its videogame tie-in, Rise of the Manhunters, was the first superhero title released on the device. Green Lantern wasn't necessarily the hit Warner Bros. had hoped for, but there was some crosspromo potential for digital comics on the 3DS when these items cropped up on the system. With The Avengers coming up next summer, Marvel's got a little time to consider branching out.
Now that the 3DS also supports Netflix, it's capabilities as a motion comics player are pretty evident. We've been vocal about the fact that motion comics aren't really comics, to be sure, but it is another avenue for adapted comic work to be consumed and potentially inspire audiences to check out source material.
As demonstrated by John Padding's fun "Ar of the Covenant" strip (alas, shown here in 2D), the 3DS can really make basic digital comics pop with added layers of depth and color. The difference is more or less the same as seeing a movie in 2D vs. seeing it in 3D -- visual cues and focal points get pumped up and become more dramatic.
Comics have been using glasses-based 3-D tech as a gimmick for years, with recent releases like Seduth and Final Crisis: Superman Beyond demonstrating its use as a legitimate technology for enhancing stories if used deliberately.
The extra work required to format longer-form work for 3DS-specific viewing may deter creators from experimenting too heavily with the process until the device becomes more ingrained in gaming culture, but readers who want to shed their cardboard specs will welcome the work of those who take advantage of the device's stereoscopic display tech.
I know what you're thinking, "Augmented reality comics? Really, dude?" Before you assemble your pitchforks and torches and accuse me of aping Tom Hanks' electronic comics ideas in Big, hear me out. So far AR has done best as a viral marketing tool on devices like the iPhone and Android phones. The Iron Man 2 movie capitalized on the tech with a sort of self-insertion app that put users into Tony Stark's helmet, while over in Japan Mobile Suit Gundam fans could virtually pop a Zaku foe next to the life-size RX-78-2 statue during its stay in Shizuoka. No, these aren't comics, per se, but imagine if a creator purposely implemented AR principles into digital comics.
Each 3DS comes with six AR cards, which work by essentially giving the console's cameras a graphic to track and assign virtual images to. In one of the games, while the naked eye sees a playing card, the 3DS is displaying a massive animated dragon or a series of moving targets for you to shoot. It's a fun way to insert a game into a reflection of your real surroundings, but a comic might work just as well. Imagine, if you will, an augmented reality comic that assigned word balloons to specific character cards and told a unique story depending on which card or cards were read by the device's camera. Would-be readers could theoretically put down, say, an Atomic Robo AR card and navigate through a complete story told in the surroundings of their choice. Can you envision Spider-Man swinging from your desk lamp to your coffee cup? Even if this tech were used as a novelty initially, it's potential to introduce gamers to an expression of the comics medium is pretty charming. Judging from all the comic shops who stock gaming supplies, comic-themed AR cards would also have a convenient delivery system to consumers.
Like the DS before it, the stylus and touch-screen enabled 3DS could prove a fun device to doodle on. Unfortunately it lacks the technical sophistication to support serious illustration work. Those who've played games like THQ's Drawn to Life and its sequels might appreciate the ability to create their own interactive pixel art, but without pressure sensitivity, a larger screen or dedicated comic creation software for easy placement of balloons and caption boxes, user expression is currently limited. There's no reason this couldn't change, however. Japanese gamers have had access to manga creation software on the DS for years. Given the limitations of the 3DS, any comics creation game would work better as a rudimentary teaching tool than a proper self-publishing method, but the basic functionality of drawing stories and sharing them with friends from device to device (or online) is worth encouraging.
While the 3DS wasn't necessarily designed with comics or illustration in mind, it's a powerful handheld gaming device that boasts plenty of potential to put comic material in front of new eyes and foster an appreciation for the medium. As Nintendo's flagship portable gaming device for at least the next few years, it will be interesting to see if creators take advantage of the platform and its inherent gimmicks. The 3DS shouldn't really be counted on to carve out a significant corner for comic sales, but by tapping into all three dimensions, creators and publishers have another avenue for sequential art evangelism.