Monday, March 07, 2011


Nintendo Downloads Are Underperforming

So there was a Game Developers Conference recently, and Nintendo gave a big presentation, and everyone's really excited about their plans for the 3DS and everything, but one little detail in Joystiq's coverage of the event stuck out for me:

9:33AM "Nintendo can do better" in the world of digital downloads. WiiWare and DSiWare have underperformed. You guys are hearing this for the first time, of course.

No more attention was given to it than that. I'm sure Nintendo were loathe to detail exactly what they consider underperforming, much less suggest reasons why.

But it's given me pause for thought. I mean, I check Nintendo's weekly press releases every Monday to see what's new and downloadable on the services, but it seems like it's been forever and a half since I've sunk any money into a download. So what's the matter?

The Games Don't Look Interesting

Let's start with the big one. I mean, both services started out great, bringing the heavy guns to the table right away. WiiWare launched with Lost Winds and Dr. Mario, the DSi with Brain Age. And both services have gotten some really ambitious projects in their lifetimes -- the Strong Bad games and World of Goo on WiiWare, Flipnote Studio and Dragon Quest Wars on DSiWare, just to drop a couple names.

But for the most part, the services look like a cesspool of shovelware. I mean, no offense to the people who've developed these games, it's not that they look bad or anything, it's just... there's not really much to distinguish them from each other.

Part of the problem is a lack of publicity. I mean, look at this description of Jewel Keepers: Easter Island from Nintendo's press release:

One day, world-renowned Easter Island expert Professor "H" received a strange letter from the capital city of Hanga Roa. It was a cry for help from an unknown person, saying that something bad was happening on the island. Without hesitation, the Professor, his assistant Joel and his granddaughter Ivie rushed to the island, where many puzzles, mysteries and quests awaited them. Can you help him to reveal the greatest secret of Easter Island?

This tells you nothing about the game. There's not a single hook here that makes me want to find out more about it. You read descriptions like this week after week, and it all becomes sort of a blur.

It doesn't help, of course, that Nintendo has been kind of tepid about offering demos. Often, the easiest way to tell if you'll like a game or not is to try it out. And they're sort of doing that on WiiWare, except that the demos are only available for a limited time. It kind of inhibits the benefit when you're restricting what is essentially advertisement to a very constrained time frame.

The Games Cost Too Damned Much

Compare any game that's released cross-platform -- on WiiWare and Steam, or on DSiWare and iTunes -- and you'll see the Nintendo version always costs more. On top of that, there's the fact that Steam and iTunes occasionally put their software on sale and you can sometimes find some great deals, while Nintendo is, this generation, operating on the philosophy that they don't have to reduce prices to reach their audience.

On top of that, there's Nintendo points. See, 1000 Nintendo points cost $10, but a game that costs 800 Nintendo points can't be bought for $8 -- you have to buy your points in 1000 point chunks. So okay, you spend $10 to get the 1000 points you need for your 800 point game, you've got 200 points left. The next game you want is also 800 points, but you only have 200, so you have to spend another $10 for another 1000 points. You could spend $30 to get 2400 points worth of software. The next $10 you spend on an 800 point game would finally leave you with another 800 points to spend, which is great if there actually is a fifth game you want, but you have to spend a minimum of $40 to get to the point where you've reached parity between what you've spent and what you've received in return. So either they're ripping you off, getting you to pay too much for your software, or they're locking you into this state of making repeated purchases in order to get the most from your money. Either way, they win.

The Whole System is Just Barbaric

If I buy a game through Steam, I can use it anywhere, as if it was a thing that I possessed. If I buy a new laptop, I can transfer my software over, no questions asked. Hell, I can even move my software between platforms, from my Mac to a Windows machine, provided the software is available on that platform. Even iTunes, Apple's tiny empire of proprietary devices and content, allows me to carry my stuff to multiple devices, and I can de-register the ones that I've replaced so I can use it again on new ones.

Nintendo only offers one mechanism for transferring software: you send them a new unit and the broken unit that you want to transfer your data from.

It's really ridiculous. On top of overcharging for content, they're not even pretending that you "own" what you're getting. There are two Wiis in my house: one for the family room and one for the rec room. The family room is where we play the games like Rock Band and New Super Mario Brothers, where everyone joins in and has a good time together, the rec room is for personal games played alone so that the television isn't being monopolized. Wii discs, being physical things that I own, can be moved from one room to the other and used in both machines. WiiWare, being fake junk that I don't own, cannot. And the same basic concept applies to my DSi and my DSi XL -- one goes with me everywhere as my portable entertainment device, the other stays at home where it won't get roughed up and the shoulder buttons won't break.

Sure, Nintendo's coming up with this mechanism for people to move from DSi to 3DS, but they're still clearly terrified about letting people use their software the way they want to -- you only get a limited number of transfers.

If that weren't enough, the systems just seem really limited. WiiWare games look like what I would expect from DS games, and DSi games look like cheap cell phone games. The sort of small-scale projects that these systems were meant to foster seem to be going for full retail releases rather than Nintendo's download services. And I'm sure there's lots of reasons for that -- how many customers you can reach, licensing fees, profit per unit sold, and so on -- but it seems like Nintendo themselves are getting in the way. I was really looking forward to Super Meat Boy after all the good press it was getting on the XBox and PC. This could've been a real hit for the service. But Nintendo refused to move the size cap for their games, and now it's gone forever. I mean, I knew going into this generation that the Wii was the technical underdog, but it didn't matter to me because you can still make good games for limited hardware. Now that we've got a real, concrete example of a good game being cancelled due to hardware limitations, I'm starting to feel a little turned off.

And on the DSiWare side of things, there's the story of Intellivision Lives! It's an Intellivision collection created for the DS by the very small-time Intellivision Productions. The game spent years in limbo because they couldn't find a publisher who would get behind a retro pack for the DS. Then Nintendo announced DSiWare, and the Intellivision folks said, aha! Here's our way to get onto the system at last.

And Nintendo said, "No. Your game is an emulator; that's not allowed."

It's kind of sad, all told. I really think downloadable content has a bright future ahead of it -- it has the potential to be cheaper and easier to distribute. I just hope these are minor stumbling blocks on the way to creating a system that's better for developers and consumers alike.


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