Feature: The State of WiiWare

Where can Wii go from here?

Developers

Without developers there would be no WiiWare of course, but for many of the reasons listed above high-profile teams and publishers have stayed away from putting their digital creations onto WiiWare. Plenty of teams persevered, and while some have continued creating downloadable games on WiiWare, many have shifted to other downloadable services.

Part of the reason lies in the way Nintendo handles paying developers for their game sales. Games must achieve a certain number of sales before developers even see a penny for their hard work — for games under 16MB, games must sell over 2,000 units in Europe or 4,000 in North America, and games between 16MB and 40MB must sell 3,000 or 6,000 units in North America. These limits must be hit within two years — once the game hits these targets the developers get paid, but if a title never reaches that threshold then Nintendo doesn't pay out.

Without many of the tools available to stoke up interest in their game — there are no cut-price sales on WiiWare, no themed promotions and only very limited support for demos — developers may have to wait for months to recoup their investment. Icon Games spent a year developing Soccer Bashi, but nine months later was still waiting to receive money back due to such slow sales: shifting fewer than 10 units a week in PAL territories, the studio admits it'll likely never reach the required threshold. It's easy to see why some developers tried their hands at WiiWare and jumped ship after seeing such stringent rules on earning any money back for their efforts, and The Code Monkeys could no longer afford to trade following lacklustre sales of its Triple Sports series.

We know what you're thinking: neither of those teams could be credited with creating the best games on WiiWare, and we won't argue. Developers deserve to get paid for their hard work, but at the same time the games industry is a business like any other, and if something doesn't sell it won't make money. The same rules that apply to physical product apply to digital sales: marketing is important. No publisher would stick a game on shop shelves with only a press release to support it and expect it to break into the charts, and while many teams working on WiiWare often can't find afford to hire PR firms to market for them, there are still plenty of options available: Gaijin Games has had considerable success with social campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, creating interest with relatively little financial outlay.

It's an old adage that a poor product with good marketing often sells better than a good product with poor marketing; you need only look at the WiiWare sales charts to see proof of this.

Press

Marketing may not be every developer's strong suit, and this is exacerbated by much of the gaming press's indifference to WiiWare. Resigned to the notion that good WiiWare games hit the store once in a blue moon, news, review and editorial coverage of download games on Wii is spotty at best, and you can probably count the number of WiiWare games that received mainstream coverage in the past year on the fingers of one hand. Contrast that with the regular exposure given to PSN and Xbox Live Arcade games and it's clear the media never really backed WiiWare.

Unlike PSN and XBLA where publishers and developers are given a number of download tokens or redeem codes to give to press, WiiWare games can only be gifted through the more convoluted method of adding Friend Codes. While this might not seem a big deal to many, it's simply too inconvenient for the major sites to go through every time they want a game to review. It's costly to buy the games too: buying all the WiiWare released in North America this year costs 19400 Nintendo Points, or nearly $200. For most sites that simply isn't a worthwhile investment, and without an easy way to get the games for free, it soon slipped off their agendas and further away from the mainstream Nintendo audience.

The Future

Nintendo may well take a huge leap with Wii U's online set-up, but it's not just the online gameplay that needs to be sorted: while the 3DS eShop is a step in the right direction, there's much work to be done in the console's virtual store as well. Quality software, ease of use for customers and press and a better integrated experience would all help Nintendo keep up with the digital competition.

What do you think WiiWare's legacy will be? How would you have changed it? Has it introduced you to games you never thought you'd play or disappointed you more often than not?