Talking Point: Wii U and the Future of the Online Pass

'Project $10' and what it could mean

With the number of gamers indulging in online play on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 at an all-time high, it’s disheartening sometimes to observe how far Nintendo has been lagging behind, as far as online functionality goes. For those lucky enough to own more than one console, the Wii isn’t exactly the go-to machine if you’re serious about teaming up with or competing against players around the world. Downloadable content (DLC) might be prevalent on Wii — the Virtual Console has proven itself especially popular — and services like BBC iPlayer were a step in the right direction, but the much maligned friend codes make playing with friends far more of a chore then it actually should be. It’s not difficult to understand why the unified online accounts, screen-names and friend lists of the 360 and PS3 have seen those consoles trump Nintendo’s otherwise astronomically successful console.

Nintendo has promised that its previous sentiment of “online play isn’t everything” is set to change in the coming years, and any 3DS owners who’ve taken their handhelds online will surely testify that this process has already begun. Despite its shaky start with online functionality the handheld now boasts a number of titles with online play, a neat messaging system, a web browser, its own Virtual Console and the Nintendo Video service, with Netflix already available in North America and Hulu Plus on its way in the future.

Nintendo has promised that its previous sentiment of “online play isn’t everything” is set to change in the coming years, and any 3DS owners who’ve taken their handhelds online will surely testify that this process has already begun.

Online functionality is supposedly going to have a far greater presence on the Wii U as well. Last summer, Nintendo marketing manager Rob Lowe explained how the company is striving for a more robust online service on Wii U, while Peter Moore (COO at EA) has repeatedly bigged up the Wii U’s online functions, which is a positive sign, even if he is remaining irritatingly coy about what exactly these functions are.

Presumably DLC will play a huge part in Nintendo’s new-found desire to prove itself as a major player on the online stage with Wii U. Various company representatives have spoken about the future of DLC on 3DS, pledging their intention to support future titles with additional content and even the desire to keep older titles fresh with DLC as well. However, while all this talk of add-ons — be they offered free or coming in at a premium — from Nintendo itself is all well and good, there’s another more worrying aspect to consider: when it comes to DLC distributed via Xbox Live or PSN, a handful of third parties have exploited this additional content for other reasons besides keeping a game’s experience fresh.

It started out as “Project $10”, a business model coined and pioneered by EA who, much to the chagrin of many gamers, opted to include redeemable codes — functioning as a particular type of online pass — within new copies of many of its games; these codes, when redeemed, would give players exclusive access to either additional content or in some cases the entire multiplayer component of a game. Any consumers who purchased the game second-hand — and thus more than likely without the code included — would have to pay approximately $10 in order to gain access to the locked-out content.

Other publishers such as Ubisoft and THQ followed suit and as a result outrage ensued among many consumers. Yet this business model hasn’t shown any signs of being phased out on either PS3 or 360, and arguably with good reason. Any money that changes hands whenever a game is purchased second-hand goes solely to the retailer, with the publishers losing out on any profits that might have been gained had the game been purchased brand new. Now, regardless of whether or not we agree that the ends justify the means, the employment of this business model has become a staple of the industry on the HD consoles. As publishers often argue, if a company isn’t profiting from its games because they’re being bought second-hand, then the repercussions can be dire. Best case scenario, a few games can’t be budgeted for and get cancelled. The worst case? A company goes under, something that has been occurring with increasing and alarming regularity in recent years.

The Wii has remained unaffected by the Project $10 philosophy thus far, and with the console now in its twilight years and the Wii U looming ever closer on the horizon that seems unlikely to change. However, EA has already pledged “key franchises” to Wii U, which could feasibly include FIFA and Battlefield: both have embraced the idea of giving owners of new copies of games access to features for which second-hand buyers have to pay extra. So, should the Wii U’s online functionality prove itself to be as robust as Nintendo assures us, and should online play and DLC become integral components in the new console’s success, it’s highly plausible that third parties will adopt the Project $10 business mode in order to recoup losses to the second-hand games market.

This might even extend to the 3DS as well. The handheld recently received an update that — among other things — added support for redeemable codes. This may currently only be used in the eShop, but with potential adjustments from developers it could bring second-hand buyers one step closer to having to think long and hard before deciding whether to purchase a game new, or pay for online functions or additional content on top of the supposedly lower second-hand price.

What do you think? Would the proposed online functionality of the Wii U, combined with second-hand games market, force the hands of publishers and have them adopt the Project $10 business model on Nintendo’s next console? Could this method of recouping losses even extend to the 3DS? Do you agree with how some publishers use DLC and multiplayer as a way to force consumers to avoid second-hand purchases? Let us know in the comments below.

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