Reaction: Nintendo's Steady Start in Retail Downloads

It’s only half of the picture

Earlier today we reported that Satoru Iwata had given loose figures for retail downloads in Japan, which started alongside the launch of 3DS XL on 28th July. Speaking to Wall Street Journal, Iwata-san stated that New Super Mario Bros. 2 retail downloads account for 5% of sales in Nintendo’s homeland, but provided the interesting comparison that the figure for Demon Training was 20%. As we hinted in the news article, however, there are plenty of factors to consider that influence these figures, and could result in the worldwide results painting a rather different picture.

To start with the core figures, it’s difficult to pin down precise numbers for the simple reason that Enterbrain sales records in Japan don’t account for downloads, but there’s currently a lack of clarity about whether download code cards available from Japanese retailers are included. The availability of the download codes also dilutes the figures in Japan, as the percentages provided appear to reflect an overall download picture. The question of how many gamers will realistically buy a premium-priced version from the 3DS eShop remains, as a result.

Still, let’s take the figures provided and crudely apply them to the Enterbrain chart figures for both games, as these numbers will at least provide a general impression. If we take 5% of the confirmed New Super Mario Bros. 2 sales in Japan of 790,732, that comes to just over 39,500 copies, while 20% of Demon Training’s 98,088 sales amounts to a little over 19,500 downloads. They may not be massive figures, but they’re not exactly disastrous.

As we’ve already said, though, there’s a question mark over how many of these sales are made directly from Nintendo’s eShop. Nintendo may not actually care too much, arguably, as its efforts to drive gamers onto the eShop are achieved whether a consumer browses and downloads directly or logs in to redeem a code: either way they’re being exposed to the platform. It’s a bigger issue outside of Japan, however, as the only widespread download option available is direct from the eShop, with that offering being priced at the recommended retail rate. Although isolated comments within the NL community suggest that it has been possible to buy a download code from GameStop, for example, it’s certainly not an option on the retailer’s website. The official Nintendo of America game page does say “select retailers” will sell download codes, but at launch this option appears to have been relatively rare. In the UK, meanwhile, an announcement for the game mentions physical copies and eShop downloads, but no codes via retailers.

Why do retail download codes matter? While we’re waiting to hear of potential download figures for North America and Europe in the coming weeks, it’s worth noting that, in this launch period at least, the download offering has been an expensive option. While download codes in Japan were still relatively pricey, retailers were offering deals a little below the recommended retail rate. With equivalent opportunities either rare in North America or non-existent elsewhere, gamers have had to pay more for the privilege of a download version from the eShop. There are wider issues for why that is the case, even if it reflects poorly on Nintendo: primarily it wants to provide a digital alternative without alienating and upsetting its vital retail partners. It’s a silly state of affairs, but as it stands those are the cards that Nintendo has been dealt. The question is, will the pricier and limited download options translate to weaker figures than in Japan? We’re at the mercy of Nintendo to reveal details in the coming weeks.

One more interesting talking point from the Japanese figures is how different kinds of games will evidently perform better as downloads. While New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a full fat Mario platformer, Demon Training is a mental exercise title that requires daily usage in short bursts. It’s understandable that a game that needs regular attention is more convenient as an icon on the system, rather than worrying about carrying and swapping out the relevant game cart. Perhaps this provides a real clue to where retail downloads could be a success for Nintendo, and we’d suggest that future titles demanding daily interaction, such as Animal Crossing: Jump Out perhaps, may be a success on the digital route.

If that turns out to be the case, we wouldn’t rule out future titles from Nintendo, and potentially third-parties, that target that sort of audience. These games would be bigger and more expensive than eShop-exclusive titles, but would be plainly more suitable as a download purchase. Will this create a subset of $25/£20 downloads touted on the eShop, with only a limited stock of physical copies available? It’s a possibility in the coming years.

With all of that in mind, today’s figures provide food for thought. We don’t think the results for Japan can easily be dismissed as an early flop for Nintendo, nor can they be held up as a demonstration of success. Perhaps they’re in the middle, but the coming weeks and months will give us a broader picture for worldwide sales, and we’d suggest that Nintendo will continue to tweak and adjust its digital strategies as the figures emerge.