The 1970s had pet rocks. The '80s introduced the Chia Pet. And the '90s brought the world the digital lives and deaths of Tamagotchi. In 2005, can a company that built its reputation on the back of an ape named Donkey Kong and a plumber named Mario turn Americans into lovers of virtual dogs?
That's the gamble Nintendo is taking this week as it releases a virtual puppy simulator called "Nintendogs," for its Nintendo DS handheld, to a video game audience more accustomed to guns, gangsters and football than fur, squeak-toys and digital doggy doo.
Accompanying the game is a whole mess of hype touting it as the next big thing. Mainstream reviewers and Internet video game writers have lavished praise on the title, which lets players walk, feed, brush, train and play catch with a realistic-looking puppy as well as enter it into dog shows. Nintendo boasts that 700,000 copies of the game have been sold in Japan since its launch there in April.
Gamers who have been playing "Nintendogs" since its release in Japan offered their accounts of how seductive owning a virtual canine is and how far the charm goes. Hertz Nazaire first tried the game this spring when he imported it from Japan to his home in Connecticut. From the game's virtual kennel, he picked a male Sheba, a popular Japanese breed, named it Drinky and used the DS' built-in microphone to teach it a few tricks. (In Japan and the U.S., three versions of the game were released, each with six breeds available for adoption at the start. Every version eventually allows users access to all of the breeds.)
Drinky proved to be a timid dog. Nazaire leaned into the DS' microphone, blew into it so that bubbles floated out of the game's bubble-blower, and Drinky cowered. Drinky feared a mushroom-shaped squeaky toy. Nazaire took the dog on an in-game walk. "At first I took it to the park, and there were like three dogs there," he said. "Drinky basically got beat down, attacked by other dogs."
Nazaire fed his dog. He petted it, by dragging the system's stylus across the DS touchscreen, where Drinky was displayed. He trained it to sit whenever he said the word "Sony." He tossed flying discs and eventually his puppy came around. "I got attached to it for quite a long time," Nazaire said. But several weeks later, other games got in the way. His dog got fleas, and he decided to leave it alone.
Roberto Garcia-Lago, 23, a game-design student at Florida's Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, also got a copy of "Nintendogs" in April. His Japanese import came from Nazaire, who was recruiting online friends to blog about their dog experiences. The blog (which can be seen here) was started, in part, as a way to rebuff the skepticism of another online associate, a video game message-board regular known as Drinky Crow, who had dismissed "Nintendogs" as a non-game. As a result, Nazaire, Garcia-Lago and the rest of the bloggers were all naming their puppies Drinky.
Garcia-Lago's girlfriend picked out the breed — a Shih Tzu — and the two discovered that their Drinky was a sociable dog. "It was very sad if you left it alone," he said.
The fact that he'd gotten his girlfriend into one of his games was a surprise accomplishment. Garcia-Lago's 9-year-old niece also got drawn in. So, for a moment, did his parents. "My parents are old," he said. "They're like 60, so a virtual puppy like that in their hands was pretty impressive."
But Garcia-Lago found that the very things that were attracting the non-gamers in his life to "Nintendogs" were limiting the game's appeal to him. One problem, for him, was that "Nintendogs" puppies don't grow old. "I'm a gamer," he said, "So when I see that the puppies don't die, I think there's no challenge to it."
In Tokyo, Jonathan Lumb, 30, got his hands on "Nintendogs" right before it officially launched. He raised a Yorkshire Terrier, an "energetic, disobedient" pup that was also part of the Drinky blogging effort. Lumb played his copy of the game for a couple of hours a day for about a week, and quickly discovered that the game's appeal improved the more that people in Tokyo bought the game. The reason was "Nintendogs"' Bark Mode, which allows DS systems within wireless range of each other to automatically exchange copies of "Nintendogs" puppies. Even if the systems are in bags or purses, the connecting machines will let out a yelp, and exchange copies of their owners' dogs, along with customizable text and audio messages and gift accessories.
By taking his "Nintendogs" for a walk in Bark Mode, Lumb was able to find Drinky a bunch of new friends. "Shopping proved to be more productive than the commute, and typically I would find a dog every 20 minutes or so in a busy place." He said that Nintendo eventually set up kiosks that allowed owners to leave copies of their dogs behind for others to pick up.
Left on their own, the Drinky dogs won't go to the big kennel in the sky. At worst, neglect gives them fleas and an irritable demeanor. Garcia-Lago had wanted his puppy to be able to grow and maybe even die. But his niece and girlfriend, who might better represent the market Nintendo is marketing the game to, have said otherwise. His girlfriend told him, "I wish all dogs were like this."