Talking Point: Should Nintendo Regularly Offer Free Games for Download?

Is continuing in Four Swords' footsteps the answer to the $0.99 download mentality?

As of last week, every DSiWare gamer can download The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition for free. This was originally a full retail title, now with added wireless connectivity, a new single-player mode and bonus levels. Compare that to Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition, which cost $30 more and simply ported an even older game to Wii without any new features, save a bonus book and soundtrack CD that drew some criticism. This, then, is no small potatoes.

Bob Dylan once said of the times that they're a-changin', and the same is true today. A dollar used to go a long way – you could buy a coffee for two quarters or call your friends collect for 99 cents, still leaving you one cent for a shiny new pennywhistle. And today, you can still buy a video game or two just as inexpensively if you know where to look. That place, of course, is the download shop on an iOS or Android device. But that's not the story with the Nintendo eShop, where the good people at the Big N strive to preserve the value of quality software by charging $1.99 at the very cheapest. It's not that simple, though. We now live in a world where consumers expect rock-bottom prices and feel ripped off if asked to pay five dollars or more. For better or worse, the mentality has changed. How can Nintendo stay relevant and still maintain its integrity?

One possible answer is to regularly employ the strategy of the aforementioned anniversary editions of Four Swords, which, of course, comes for a limited time without a price tag. It's a thank you to the fans that have supported the series over the years and a commemoration of a great series. It's also, potentially, a great way to get peoples' attention who think of the smartphone or tablet as the best place to go for affordable software.

If mom and pop don't stand a chance, how can Nintendo expect the average customer to see its logic?

In a world where five dollars is just too much for a download game in the eyes of many, perhaps this strategy, if employed on a regular basis, would offset the potential perception of DSiWare as largely a rip-off. It need not always prove as monumental as this release, as long as the free title is high-quality and has the same type of polish and marketing. Even a few free Virtual Console releases, untouched, every month would do the trick. Largely this is what the Ambassador programme accomplished, though that was a case of no-frills roms whereas here, the more attention-grabbing (and marketable) frills, the better.

There's still, of course, the problem of iOS and Android titles going up in price when they reach a Nintendo console. Zenonia for DSiWare is eight times the price of its iStore counterpart, Burn the Rope is more than ten times as expensive on WiiWare as on its original iOS format, and Surviving High School, $7.99 at the eShop, is $0.99 at the iStore, complete with updates and weekly episodic downloads. But Nintendo's philosophy stands against devaluing software, making the case that these games should never have been available for such a low rate in the first place. While this may be true, placing one product and a possibly improved version thereof next to each other at such a price differential means that to the average consumer, the cost of the Nintendo catalogue is just too high. Whether a game is worth $7.99 or $0.99 is a different story.

From one perspective, Nintendo is preserving the value of video games by making sure that, on their store shelves, they don't cost less than what they're worth. But compare that to any number of examples – for instance, the average consumer will shop at Wal-Mart instead of the local independent “mom ‘n’ pop” store if they can get the same product for a lower price. When a pay check dictates one's life, supporting local businesses and what some would argue as preserving one's morality can sometimes take a backseat to affordability. If mom and pop don't stand a chance, how can Nintendo expect the average customer to see its logic, especially when that person is unlikely to see the human side of such a large, successful international corporation as the Big N? It's not limited to Wal-Mart, either – cheaply made factory goods commonly outsell handmade products, mass-produced fast food generally makes a quicker profit than the locally grown alternative, and lower-quality products that you can buy on the cheap at a department store or supermarket are far more lucrative than those hand-made with care by artisans. We'd all like to say that we buy goods made with care and not on a factory floor when we can, but with the economic reality of budgeting based around payday, a lower price often makes a big difference.

Perhaps the answer is regular temporarily free games in the same vein as Four Swords. If Nintendo's marketing reaches the average person on the street looking for portable gaming, such a promise could sway that person's opinion away from the iOS store and toward the eShop. Other games may seem more fairly priced when counterbalanced by this, regardless of their cost elsewhere. And those consumers, propelled by quality gaming for free, might seek out other titles from the same franchise or studio that they never would have noticed beforehand. Not to mention that once someone is downloading a free title, they've logged into the eShop and might find themselves inclined to browse, especially with Nintendo's updates to its appearance and layout on the 3DS.

Free software isn't unprecedented for Nintendo, either. There's Photo Dojo and Flipnote Studio, for example. This has often felt like a special occasion, and usually is: in past instances, Nintendo has celebrated the launch of the eShop with Pokédex 3D and 3D Classics: Excitebike, while Four Swords marks the 25th anniversary of the Zelda franchise. If the company made this into a regular practice instead of special event, it might turn the heads of those who look at a $5 price tag as asking too much.

Of course, there is a middle ground. It's not uncommon for an iOS or Android title to go on sale for promotional purposes, and Nintendo could easily employ such tactics. A sale connotes a bargain and more than likely would not appear to devalue the game in the eyes of most. Many game companies have argued that the ability to construct their own promotions with a sale price as a factor would help to advertise their games. It would not only give these studios a stronger voice on the eShop and an important control method over marketing, but it would turn the shop into a vibrant marketplace as well, further distancing it from the stagnant feeling of the DSi and Wii Shops of yesteryear. If word began to spread that these sales were occurring, it could be attractive to those for whom affordability is a major deciding factor.

If the company made this into a regular practice instead of special event, it might turn the heads of those who look at a $5 price tag as asking too much.

There's also the argument that Nintendo shouldn’t bother with turning iOS and Android customers' heads. But in the world of digital downloads, the two stores are in competition and shoppers will continue to compare them. The 3DS isn't exclusively a gaming device when you consider applications like Mario Clock and Calculator, the 3DS Video Channel and 3D camera, music and drawing programmes, and the many other examples available for download, while more people are coming to see the iPad and its brethren as legitimate gaming platforms. While gaming is still the primary purpose of Nintendo's handheld devices, there was a time not too long ago when calling people and getting on the internet was by and large the chief function of the smartphone. This overlap in usage translates into the potential for the 3DS to become more and more a multi-function tool, putting it in competition with smartphones and tablets.

In a world where the common view of downloadable software is that it ought to go for under a dollar, do you think that temporarily pricing games for free à la Four Swords is a worthwhile strategy? Or should Nintendo take the middle ground and offer software on sale? Alternatively, should Nintendo stick to its guns and carry on with what it's doing now? Let us know what you think in the comments below!