This week has brought us an interesting story about Wii U eShop restrictions that are limited to European consoles, but perhaps provide greater insight into the relationship between gamers and their new Nintendo systems. It came to light that what we initially thought was a botched parental control issue on the platform was actually a deliberate policy, limiting downloads of 18-rated games to four hours a day — they can be accessed between the hours of 11pm and 3am. This disregards the submitted age on your Nintendo Network ID and the Parental Control settings — even if you have them all disabled — on the system.
Of course, there are (at least) two sides to any debate on this issue, so let's consider the Nintendo angle with this policy. It's a simple argument that states that this is an extra precaution to protect children from 18-rated content, to counter the possibility that a Nintendo Network ID is false or parents haven't applied appropriate parental controls. Both scenarios are entirely feasible, of course, as there'll be some young gamers who will be dishonest in the sign-up procedure as well as some parents that won't be aware that they should handle the console setup and restrict content. We imagine that many parents will avoid this pitfall, but Nintendo's approach is to put in an extra safety net, one more limitation that can disrupt the possibility of a young gamer downloading a mature title.
The problem with this policy, to look at the other side of the argument, is that it places a surprising and unwelcome limitation on older gamers. For those of us that are grisly old veterans and have switched off all parental controls it can be surprising, and peculiar, to hit a roadblock when we want to download a grown-up's game. At its most minor level it may feel to some like a bit of a slap-down — "you naughty gamer, trying to play that zombie game, come back later". If you're the incredulous type your response may be "WTF! Give me my game!"
Could this policy make smaller developers with limited means think twice, if they know their audience will only have 1/6th of the access compared to buyers of other titles?
There are other minor irritations to this policy, too. If a mature title is arriving on the eShop at midnight on launch day and you've decided to go the download route, you can't pop onto your system during normal hours on launch day to download your eagerly anticipated gem, but rather you must wait for a four hour window when you might rather be in bed. This restriction takes away any sense of genuine convenience that download options are supposed to represent: some games aren't available on demand and when you want them, they're only there in the small hours. If you work night-shifts, meanwhile, tough luck.
This is an example, we feel, of Nintendo's caution perhaps going one-step too far, as it's contrary to the policies on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. With so much noise being made about Wii U offering older and so-called core gamers experiences they want, this is the kind of small irritant that undermines that. Perhaps worse, if this policy is applied across the board it could hypothetically affect Indie developers. If a developer decides to produce an 18-rated download only title, will gamers only be able to access it for four hours in the day? Could this policy make smaller developers with limited means think twice, if they know their audience will only have 1/6th of the access compared to buyers of other titles? Perhaps worse is the possibility that the desire to publish on the Wii U eShop will lead to developers compromising their original artistic vision for their game. Suddenly this minor irritation has genuine impact, though surely exceptions would be made.
A possible solution to this could be a simple adjustment to Wii U's settings out of the box. Rather than have Parental Controls off by default, turn them on so the initial setup requires users to opt-out. It adds an extra step and opportunity for parents to moderate their child's access, and would involve only a few taps of the GamePad screen for others. It's not fool-proof, of course, but neither is this four hour policy. With the GamePad having decent range in many houses, what's stopping a minor taking the GamePad into their bedroom and accessing the eShop after 11pm? Parenting is the answer to that question, but then that's the answer to this issue as a whole.
Ultimately, though, this is an unfortunate example of Nintendo, in this case the European branch, attempting to assert excessive control over its gamers. Yes, this restriction can prevent some under-age access, but it's not fool-proof nor is it due to any current EU laws, as far as we can tell — otherwise rival platforms would surely do the same. It's also anything but the industry standard, and is a frustrating policy that could have a genuine hypothetical impact on small development studio's sales. It's nannying that doesn't appear to be in place in North America, which makes it even more baffling. It adds to another early (worldwide) inconvenience with Nintendo Network IDs being locked to one system, which gives us unnecessary limitations; the positive is that issues such as these can be resolved, if Nintendo has the will to do it.
Hopefully this policy will bite the dust eventually. It undermines — even if only in a relatively minor way — Wii U's efforts to be attractive to both young gamers and also those with the most money in their bank accounts, adults.