Let's not beat around the bush here: WiiWare hasn't been a runaway success. Many Wii owners are unaware the service exists, what it offers and why they would want to use it, and those console owners who are familiar with the Wii Shop Channel are just as conscious of its myriad problems: poor content, dull presentation and navigation that makes simple browsing a chore.
Things could have turned out so differently, though: just as Nintendo led the way with motion controls, its competition has shown digital storefronts can be a varied and vital component of a console's success. Where did WiiWare go wrong, and what lessons can be learned for the future?
Considering the huge number of Wii consoles sold worldwide and the machine's built-in WiFi adaptor, WiiWare's audience should have been assured from its launch, but Nintendo failed to offer its expanded audiences a compelling reason to access the store.
In the years when Nintendo-published titles enjoyed success after success at retail, WiiWare's potential lay wasted. Wii Fit Plus could arguably have been a downloadable add-on pack, the minigames from Wii Play were ripe for expansion as standalone titles and the only appearances we saw from big name Nintendo franchises were spin-offs developed out of house: Dr. Mario Online RX, Pokémon Rumble, My Pokémon Ranch.
Other publishers had the right idea: Konami's ReBirth series gave us new outings in a classic style from Contra and Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, and Capcom's resurrection of the Blue Bomber in Mega Man 9 and 10 is still a high watermark for the service. Nobody's catalogue is more ripe for updating than Nintendo's of course, but the company stayed away from digital-only entries in its biggest series — understandable considering the limited take-up of WiiWare, and certainly not unusual when compared to Sony and Microsoft's strategies, but a download-exclusive Mario or Metroid, for example, would have shown Nintendo was serious about the service. Nintendo is subject to the same restraints as other developers however, and the service's measly 40MB file size limit imposes serious restrictions on teams with even moderately grand visions.
The press release for North American downloads comes out a matter of hours before the games are available. What's the big mystery?
Even when the good games do hit the service, it's not always easy to find information about them, and here too Nintendo must take its portion of the blame. Although the official Nintendo websites are often updated with an incomplete list of upcoming releases a few days in advance, the press release for North American downloads comes out a matter of hours before the games are available. What's the big mystery? Developers are often told their release date and price only a week or two in advance, a fairly short time to build buzz around your game, whether in stores or online.
There's also no real showcase for WiiWare online, other than here and the Wii's Nintendo Channel. The official PlayStation Blog often features guest posts from smaller developers, and Xbox community man Major Nelson regularly hosts interviews, reveals release dates and more for Xbox Live Arcade titles. Nintendo's websites host game pages for select downloadable games, but nothing on the scale of the competition's offerings. We're not suggesting Nintendo should handle marketing for games from other publishers, but anything that increases awareness of the service would surely be beneficial for all concerned.
Digital distribution is becoming increasingly important to platform-holders and developers with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offering full Blu-ray and DVD downloads in addition to smaller titles. Many industry figures believe that game downloads present a serious threat to bricks and mortar retail: EA CEO John Riccitello believes the company's digital business will exceed its packaged goods division by the end of 2011, with some companies estimating as much as 40% of all game sales in North America are made through digital channels.
As more and more gamers look to download games for value, WiiWare has been left behind with rigid pricing, in stark contrast to regular sales on Steam that have become almost mythical in their ability to excite gamers to buy games. Nintendo may not be interested in the 'race to the bottom' on digital prices, but many believe the company's perception of value is at odds with the rest of the industry, and it should look to adjust its sights in future.