Talking Point: Nintendo Takes One Step Forward, One Back With Retail Downloads

It's not quite right, yet

During last week's Nintendo Direct broadcast in Europe, one eShop announcement that received relatively little fanfare was confirmation that a number of additional first-party titles were being made available on the platform. These titles stretch back to the earliest months of the system: now available on the European eShop for download are Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Star Fox 64 3D, with all four set to arrive on the North American store on 18th October. We also know that all future first-party retail games will have a download option, and that Disney Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion will appear on the eShop.

More games means more choice, of course, and overall we'd say that Nintendo is making steady, sensible steps, something that we've already argued in an initial look at the company's early retail download offerings. By making these titles available for download Nintendo is opening up another obvious avenue to raise awareness of these games, particularly useful in the case of Ocarina of Time 3D and Star Fox 64 3D, with both titles released when 3DS was struggling and seeking a bounce from a surprise price-drop. It was the two Mario releases that truly took off during Holiday 2011, so it's good to see these earlier titles have a second airing; they may be remastered versions of Nintendo 64 titles, but there are sure to be 3DS owners that will be intrigued when they spot them in the eShop.

The addition of the upcoming Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion is also very encouraging, as it suggests that third-party publishers are starting to edge towards offering retail downloads as well. The slowly developing list of available games is including new titles and those that have been around the block, and an optimistic and hopeful future will bring a number of less-common or hard to find titles to the service. We've spoken on various occasions about the benefits for publishers to work on download titles and save distribution costs, and the same principle could apply to retail games that aren't widely available on store shelves. There's some complicated business to be done, such as determining the division of sales between Nintendo as the host retailer and the publisher, but Mickey's upcoming dalliance with the eShop shows that progress is being made.

Those are the positives, but once again we must address the negatives to this proposition. The first is the issue linked to the system's architecture, that purchases are tied to a machine and not an individual's account. While system transfer tools resolve the issue if you switch handhelds permanently, losing your device will see your games go with it, which could be devastating if you build a substantial download library. This could prove to be a temporary issue, as we know that the Wii U's Miiverse platform will be incorporated in a future 3DS system update, and it's expected that a future update will also enable user accounts on the handheld in order to match up with the home console's setup. The moment your download purchases are linked to a user account that's in the cloud and not essentially hard-wired to an individual system, that complaint will go away.

The second, bigger issue, is one that will prove to be tricky for Nintendo to solve: pricing. The new titles are all a cool $40 in North America, and a rather lofty £39.99 — the maximum retail price — in the UK. Of course part of the choice with downloads is whether the convenience of playing without a game card is worthwhile, but the maximum cost does serve as a genuine deterrent, despite the offer of double Club Nintendo points or a free retro game. While Freakyforms Deluxe: Your Creations, Alive! and New Art Academy are less expensive to download due to their UK price-points, it seems unrealistic to charge £39.99 for Star Fox 64 3D, for example. There are reasons for this, of course, and though its a fine title we'd wager that not many would argue that this represents a fair price.

The problem for Nintendo, as the company itself and many others have highlighted, is that it can't afford to compete and undermine valued retail partners. It's a dilemma facing retail downloads on a variety of platforms, with organisations as diverse as EA, Microsoft and Sony seeking to make their download offerings compelling without ripping business away from the indispensable retail market, and being obliged to sell at high prices as a result. By pricing high, Nintendo can establish the line that it's merely an alternative on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, making no effort to compete on price and offering rewards that some simply won't care about. Just because it makes business sense doesn't mean that it works for consumers, however, and the prospect of paying more for a download — on a system without a user account system, don't forget — is a decision with a lot of doubts and provisos attached.

If Nintendo is, perhaps rightly, anxious to keep retailers on board, then it needs to get them to the forefront of its retail downloads. Japan already has various download code cards on sale in stores and online, but the presence of these options in the US and Europe is either sketchy and uncommon, or even non-existent in some areas. If the only way we can get competitively priced downloads is through retail partners, Nintendo needs to make it happen as quickly as possible. Everyone wins: Nintendo sells more downloads and gets a cut, retailers have an opportunity to sell more games but with less physical stock, and the choice between downloads and physical game cards becomes more attractive. Much like the deal to bring Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion to eShop, this will need work to organise the practicalities and iron out agreements, but it's fundamentally necessary if retail downloads are to become a major part of the system.

Considering its relatively belated entry into retail downloads, Nintendo is taking positive and small steps in the right direction. Confirmation of previously released titles arriving retrospectively provides hope for a substantial catalogue in the future, while a third-party title joining in is encouraging. For that step forward though, limited availability and premium prices still represent the biggest problem and a step back on each occasion when a release arrives without a solution; also, the sooner a user account system is provided, the better. Retail downloads are about choice, yes, but the choice could be so much more compelling.

What do you think about the current state of play with Nintendo's retail downloads? Are you happy with what the company has done so far, or do you think changes are needed? Let us know in the comments below.

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