Talking Point: Lessons to be Learned from WiiWare and Beamdog

Cool heads should prevail

One news story has been dominant on Nintendo Life since it was posted, attracting a significant number of comments from the community. The news that MDK2 developers Beamdog will never develop for Nintendo again seemed to strike nerves, as strongly worded statements generally do. Writing on Twitter, studio president Trent Oster left no doubt about his company’s future prospects with Nintendo.

We don't do Nintendo development. Our previous experience with Nintendo was enough to ensure there will not be another.

The debate that followed has had arguments that support both Beamdog and Nintendo’s WiiWare policies, so we thought we’d take a look at both sides and, hopefully, find the middle ground.

Complaints shouldn’t be dismissed

We would suggest that Beamdog’s decision and word choice to declare an abandonment of Nintendo platforms was perhaps rash, especially in light of the fact that Wii U’s online platform may resolve the issues raised. If we push that aside, however, the revelations around this issue do highlight factual problems with WiiWare that are tough to ignore. Acknowledging these issues is not, as some may choose to believe, a rejection or betrayal of Nintendo, but rather an important part of recognising weaknesses in the Big N’s digital strategy on Wii.

Expanding on his initial comments in an interview with Gamasutra, Oster described three main issues with publishing on WiiWare: payment policy, file size limitations and game certification. To begin with payment policy, it should be recognised that publishers are typically restricted by an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with Nintendo — an issue that was raised when Icon Games claimed "Nintendo's policies put jobs at risk", citing the fact that it wasn’t allowed to publish sales figures for its own games. The existence of a minimum sales requirement before payment, meanwhile, is reasonably well known, with Gamasutra reportedly speaking to a number of small developers who back that claim. Oster has stated that the required sales before royalties arrive is 6000 units, leading to a lack of any payment for MDK2 since release.

We'd love to see some money back on the title, as it is the best version of MDK2 on any console, but we've yet to see anything.

At $10.00 (plus local sales tax) for 1000 Nintendo Points direct from the Wii Shop in the U.S. – also the cost of MDK2 — that could mean sales of almost $60,000 dollars, roughly, before any payments to the publisher. That of course assumes that Oster’s figure of 6000 units is correct, but if true it potentially represents a lot of money unclaimed if the sales target isn't reached. Although Nintendo naturally incurs costs for maintaining and hosting the Wii Shop platform, it’s clear that this represents a significant financial risk for developers that are, in some cases, small organisations with limited means.

The issue of a 40MB file size limit, meanwhile, has been problematic for other developers, notably Team Meat being unable to compress Super Meat Boy without compromising the content beyond acceptable means. Perhaps a legacy of the Wii’s humble technical capabilities, including its minimal system memory, it’s a policy that hasn’t stopped some fantastic titles arriving on the service, but is a restriction nevertheless.

The final issue, that of the certification process, is perhaps the greyest of the areas mentioned. In some senses stringent tests and standards are necessary to avoid broken games being sold on the platform, while Oster admitted that part of the lengthy process was down to Beamdog keeping QA in-house.

Our time in cert was two-fold, a lack of proper QA on our part and slow report turn around from Nintendo. We'd get a bug, fix it, wait two weeks while Nintendo tested it, get a new bug, fix it, wait two weeks. After nine months from our first submission, we passed certification.

We could have spent more money on our side and hired a certification testing team, but we ran our own small QA effort and ran through the certification requirements on our own. The end product is a better game for the extra testing Nintendo pushed on us, but we likely could have had the same results in a much shorter timeline.

Whether two weeks turnaround from Nintendo on bug fixes is too slow is open to opinion, though a nine month process is understandably frustrating. No matter how loyal you may be towards Nintendo, these are problematic quirks of the WiiWare publishing system that seem to be very real, and are less than ideal for small developers in particular. Other issues such as the Wii Shop layout, limited promotional activity and strict pricing set by Nintendo have perhaps contributed to the dramatic decline in quality software to hit the service in recent months.

Nintendo is learning from its mistakes

The Wii Shop, and WiiWare in particular, has represented the best and worst of Nintendo. On the one hand it was a first tentative step into download-exclusive content, and there have been some high quality titles to grace the platform. The negative side is that developers such as Beamdog have raised major issues, some prohibited by the strict NDA, and the platform has struggled to maintain momentum and a quality library. The light at the end of the tunnel has, arguably, been the 3DS eShop, which has improved the consumer payment system and boasts a more appealing front end that promotes a variety of titles on a weekly basis, amongst other things. The file size limit is also much larger than those seen on the Wii or DSi Shops, with Mighty Switch Force being particularly hefty. It has improvements to make, but the eShop is a step up over its Wii equivalent.

When it comes to digital strategy, Nintendo has been behind the curve in a number of respects, but improvements on 3DS bode well for the upcoming Wii U. It seems highly unlikely that Nintendo’s next home console digital store will make the same mistakes that have been outlined above, or at least not to the same degree as on the Wii Shop. There are arguments to be made for the importance of file size limits, solid quality checks and a sensible payment policy, and hopefully the balance will be adjusted and improved on Wii U, alongside a more dynamic, attractive store front.

With the success of Wii, DS and, gradually, 3DS, Nintendo has a large demographic of gamers to attract with Wii U. Should it succeed and make its next console a sales hit, both Nintendo and smaller developers with a focus on digital titles will hopefully dust down, reach a middle ground, and try again.

What do you think? Are there lessons to be learned from developer complaints about WiiWare? Has the 3DS eShop shown improvements in Nintendo’s policy, and do you think Wii U will get it right? Let us know in the comments below.

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