Sunday, August 23, 2015

Why People Pirate Amiibo and What Nintendo Can Do About It

Amiiqo disc

The Amiiqo is a recently announced device that can be used with an Android phone or tablet to back up and restore data from Amiibo figures. This data can easily be shared online, which means that the Amiiqo also effectively enables piracy of Amiibo.

Amiibo have only been around since November 2014. They aren't the first major toys to life franchise - Skylanders came out in October 2011 and Disney Infinity launched in August 2013. (U.B. Funkeys in 2007 was a bit before its time, and I'm not sure when Hero Portal started because it's not even on Wikipedia.) They all use similar technology (Amiibo uses NFC while others use RFID) and can thus all be backed up and pirated in roughly the same way. While the Amiiqo is not the first toys to life backup device to be announced (see, for example, MaxLander) it's the first targeted specifically toward Amiibo and is getting more attention.

Why would Amiibo piracy be so much more interesting than Skylanders or Disney Infinity figure piracy? While Amiibo are in many ways similar to those franchises, there are several key differences that encourage piracy.

  1. Amiibo are not opt-in. The only way that Skylanders or Disney Infinity figures affect your gameplay is if you're playing those specific games. And those games use their figures as their central mechanic – so if you've bought the game, chances are you're interested in collecting the figures. They're also marketed mostly toward kids, for whom the figures double as toys.

    Amiibo, on the other hand, aren't tied to a specific game. Anything published on a Nintendo platform is fair game – including the latest installments in long-running non-kid-targeted franchises like Fire Emblem. Playing these games is by no means signing up for the Amiibo collecting experience, but your gameplay is affected regardless.
  2. Smash Bros and Mario Party 10 versions of Mario Amiibo
    Amiibo can only hold one game's data. Want to use your Mario Amiibo in both Smash Bros and Mario Party 10? Well, too bad – there's only enough storage per Amiibo for a single game's data at a time. If you let Mario Party write to your Mario Amiibo, you'll lose your level 50 Mario from Smash. The only officially sanctioned solution is to buy a second Mario Amiibo.

    This is actually the motivation behind the main semi-legitimate feature of the Amiiqo, as it lets you back up and swap out your Amiibo data. This way the technical limitations of Amiibo aren't punishing you for buying more than one game that uses the same character.

  3. Amiibo are interchangeable keys. This may change as developers get used to the idea of Amiibo and incorporate them into their game designs earlier, but right now most games that use Amiibo only use them to unlock content. The main exception is Smash Bros, which like Disney Infinity and Skylanders has the figure represent a personalized character. It's not just Samus – it's your Samus. You've invested time to level her up and customize her abilities, and you can show her off by playing with your friends, who can show off their own Amiibo characters. By making your figure personal and special, the physical figure becomes infused with personality and value.

    For most other games, the Amiibo simply unlocks content. Nothing gets written to the physical figure, so no value is added to it. There's no difference between using your own Amiibo and using someone else's, and thus no benefit to ownership. And using an Amiiqo device to unlock some missions or costumes isn't that different from doing so with an Amiibo if that's all the Amiibo does.
  4. The three Splatoon Amiibo - Inkling Girl, Squid, and Boy.
    Amiibo block non-cosmetic game content. Buying your favorite character to unlock their outfit in a variety of games is one thing - but we're now seeing games come out that arbitrarily lock real game content behind Amiibo taps.

    Splatoon, a brand-new IP, launched alongside three new Amiibo that can't possibly be anyone's favorite characters yet. So how did Nintendo make these Amiibo relevant? By locking gameplay behind them. Each of the Splatoon Amiibo unlocks a set of challenges that you otherwise don't have access to. This sets a scary precedent – now in order to buy a complete game, you may have to buy several plastic toys as well. Or you could just use an Amiiqo and get the full game at no additional cost.

  5. Amiibo are scarce. It's been famously difficult to keep certain Amiibo stocked in stores. Even if you do want to buy particular Amiibo, you may not be able to do so at a remotely reasonable price. Buying them used or from distributors who've marked the price up doesn't really help Nintendo. Nintendo is also not helping the scarcity problem – they're continuing to release retailer-specific Amiibo despite customer complaints. It's an approach not shared by other toys to life franchises - Disney Infinity Executive Producer John Vignocchi called figure shortages "irresponsible and rude to your hardcore fans." So even for Nintendo fans, the motivation to go to the trouble and expense to buy rare Amiibo rather than simply pirate them may be lacking.

Nintendo's response to the Amiiqo has thus far focused on the legal aspects. Here's their statement to Polygon:

"Nintendo actively monitors threats to its product security and the unauthorized use of its intellectual property. Nintendo will vigorously enforce its intellectual property rights and will work to protect its greatest assets, its beloved characters and products."

As I've touched on before, piracy is symptomatic of market failure rather than legal failure. There's no difference in legal standing between Amiibo and other toys to life figures, but there's a lot more motivation to pirate Amiibo. If Nintendo wants to prevent people from doing that, they'd be better off tackling the above problems rather than leaning on IP law. Here are some ways they might approach each issue:

  1. Amiibo are not opt-in. There isn't any getting around this one. Core to the concept of Amiibo is the fact that they extend across Nintendo, rather than being tied to a specific game. That said - if Amiibo are going to be platform-wide, why not take greater advantage of that fact? Amiibo could, similar to Disney Infinity's web codes, ship with unique one-use codes that register the Amiibo to your Miiverse account. Once there, you could do a lot with them - display them on profiles, unlock character-specific avatars, earn rewards in the upcoming loyalty program, etc.

  2. Amiibo can only hold one game's data. While Nintendo presumably could release Amiibo with greater storage capacity, that would increase their cost and wouldn't solve the problem for the millions of Amiibo already sold. As a workaround, Nintendo could release a free app for Wii U and 3DS that lets users swap out Amiibo data.

  3. Amiibo are interchangeable keys. Not every game can allow Amiibo customization the way Smash Bros does, and that's okay. And even Amiibo that do have such uses in some games are just content-unlockers in others, and that's okay too. But perhaps every Amiibo released should have at least one game that uses it in a deep way that adds value to the figure. After all, if there's an Amiibo that no game could reasonably turn into someone's special character, then why does that Amiibo even need to exist?

  4. Amiibo block non-cosmetic game content. Gating significant game content behind Amiibo reduces the value of that game and creates incentives for piracy. When a game doesn't make personal customized use of an Amiibo but just uses it to unlock content, that content should be cosmetic or trivial. This provides nice bonuses for people who own the Amiibo without making people who don't have the Amiibo feel like they are missing out if they don't buy toys they don't want.

  5. Amiibo are scarce. This one's pretty clear, which is not the same thing as easy. Nintendo needs to improve the manufacturing and supply lines. And they need to stop the retailer exclusives - that part, at least, is easy.

Toys to life figures are a recent phenomenon, and the widespread ability to pirate them is even newer. For all the precedent set by Skylanders and Disney Infinity, Nintendo is still in largely uncharted territory, and the way they react will set the tone for years to come. Wouldn't it be great if that reaction were not a war cry about protecting Nintendo's intellectual property but instead a commitment to create products and experiences that are worth paying for?

amiibo are love.

Here's hoping Nintendo chooses to respond constructively and make this market better for everyone.

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