When it comes to download game platforms, Nintendo's had to evolve rapidly. The arrival of the DSi and Wii online stores brought the famous company into the realm of the download market for the first time; both services have produced a number of top-notch gaming experiences, and in some cases proved to be the making of small, independent development studios. Of course, as early steps into the market both of these services had flaws, some due to the limitations of the respective systems, and others a result of Nintendo policies that were, perhaps, stringent and difficult for developers to work around.
Nintendo has shown a habit of continual improvement, however, as the 3DS eShop has demonstrated. The painful file size limitation of DSiWare software was lifted for the new system's download exclusives, no doubt enabled by the improved technology and flexibility to play games directly from an SD card. That lifted some shackles for developers, which has brought us some high quality games that also come with meaty file sizes — Mighty Switch Force! is a notable example. We've had developers such as Shin'en Multimedia tell us directly that the 3DS eShop is a "big step forward", while sharing its hope that the progress will continue to Wii U's platform. For plenty of developers, the possibilities of the download markets are obvious, and Nintendo is gradually making changes that ensures its systems are attractive options.
As expected, the Wii U eShop — as the branding suggests — follows some of the precedents set by its 3DS forbear. For one, we still use real money to buy games, rather than dreaded Nintendo Points, and the layout has undoubted similarities. Of course, it has a big TV and touchscreen to work with, so the structure promises to be more enjoyable to use, over time, while content-wise it's come out of the gate with five intriguing download-only titles and an extensive range of retail options. Add in neat touches such as ditching the mysterious memory "blocks" in favour of a straight-up file size in MB, and we have a platform that is full of potential.
The user experience will evolve and, in all likelihood, improve with future system updates. Content is king, however, which is why it's heartening to see a thoroughly solid-looking launch line-up, but more importantly positive words from Trine 2 developer Frozenbyte have brought to light vital improvements in the publisher/Nintendo relationship. Speaking to IGN, marketing manager Mikael Haveri explained that developers were being given greater power and independence with their content, notably with pricing.
That's what we love about the new eShop. We have the power to price our products as we please, with just some basic guidelines from the big guys. The step to this is purely from Nintendo’s side and they clearly see that [their] previous instalments have not been up to par. We can set our own pricing and actually continuing on that by setting our own sales whenever we want. It is very close to what Apple and Steam are doing at the moment, and very indie friendly.
The previous policy of Nintendo setting pricing is clearly an area that Frozenbyte is pleased to avoid, and it's the promise of publishers being able to run their own sales that's enticing. The 3DS eShop has seen some sale periods, often with one sale item per week, but it seems possible that we'll see an expansion of this on Wii U.
Of course, there are likely to be a number of necessary limitations. We can't imagine that Nintendo will allow a race to the bottom to occur with eShop pricing, with publishers outdoing each other with increasingly cheaper offerings. It's quite possible that the "basic guidelines" referenced by Haveri mean just this, that certain limits are in place. If this is the case then it seems perfectly sensible, as Nintendo will want to maintain its policy that games have a value, and that throwing downloads at consumers for pennies and cents, as happens on Android and Apple devices, simply won't be sustainable. The launch prices, ranging from $9.99 to $19.99, reinforce this, as they're all solid prices that rest in increments of $5. There was no developer pitching a day one download at $0.99, effectively undermining the value of their own game to chase more downloads and making the others seem too expensive.
Yet still, developers can set the bar, which is only right as they'll know their games better than anyone else and will have instincts in terms of what their value should be. The empowerment of indie developers goes further still, with Haveri also explaining that Nintendo's told them that there are no basic payments for each patch or game update, suggesting that frequent updates will be allowed "almost as much as we want".
He described this as "huge" for developers, and it's easy to see why. A high profile example of a game suffering from patch fees is Fez on Xbox Live Arcade. The developer, Polytron, had produced a patch to fix various bugs in the game, yet it was discovered that it corrupted a small percentage of gamer's save files — it was a big seller, so plenty were affected. Fez owners were told to avoid this update due to the issue and it was withdrawn, yet it re-appeared weeks later with the save corruption issue still present. The developer stated that it would have cost them "tens of thousands" of dollars to re-certify a new patch with Microsoft, which was considered too expensive.
As you can imagine, that caused great consternation for gamers that wanted an improved version of the game but risked destroying their save data. Both Polytron and Microsoft were criticised, yet based on Haveri's comments this shouldn't be an issue that arises on Wii U. It's common that games aren't absolutely perfect when launched, it's a fact of the industry, but committed and conscientious developers will have the means to improve the experience over time. With indie developers working on tight budgets, the only constraints will be on time and staff, and its refreshingly open of Nintendo to remove the barriers of excessive fees.
The policy on pricing and patches may only affect us in terms of getting the occasional discounted game or downloading some updates, but the potential impact on developers could be significant. Nintendo's in, arguably, the toughest gaming marketplace we've known with its download offerings. Developers have options with PC platforms, Android, iOS, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network; that's a lot of competition. Yet it's steps like these, that match or perhaps exceed the options on other platforms, that could win smaller developers over while also encouraging loyalty in those already on board.
It'll all help, and as a site that likes the concept of download games enough to review every single one, we can't help but be optimistic about the possibilities.