Talking Point: The Emergence of Download-Only Retail Games

A subtle but important evolution

The past couple of weeks have brought a notable landmark for the 3DS eShop, even if it hasn't necessarily caused internet-shaking headlines or attracted a great deal of attention. Unchained Blades, an RPG that would typically be found in specialist gaming stores or online retailers, if you're lucky, was released by XSEED Games as a retail title on the 3DS eShop, but not as a physical boxed game. It's a title also available as a download for the Sony PSP, but if you want a boxed copy for either system you'll have to import — and have the correct regional system — the Japanese versions. For the localised Western release, if you're in North America, you can go the download route or miss out.

That's made Unchained Blades the first download-only retail title on 3DS, available for $29.99, and Europe will experience the concept soon with news this week that Code of Princess, released by Atlus as a boxed and download release in North America, will arrive exclusively on the 3DS eShop this side of the pond; this is likely to be due to developer Agatsuma Entertainment reportedly taking on the role of publisher in its eagerness to bring the game to as many territories as possible. We couldn't be more pleased here at Nintendo Life; our Code of Princess review explains why.

First of all, let's outline some of the reasons why the idea of download-only games doesn't appeal to everyone. On a relatively sentimental level, it's all about the packaging and manuals, which plenty of gamers still love and prioritise as part of their hobby; quite a few members of the Nintendo Life team will probably admit to being in this group. For plenty of people, whether retro gamers or like-minded younger gamers, part of the fun of this hobby of ours is to have a nice collection of game boxes to organise and protect; they're a physical representation of a gaming passion.

From a more practical perspective, Nintendo's still antiquated practice of tying download purchases to hardware means that a stolen or broken 3DS takes your software with it, something minimised if a handheld is stolen with a single game cart, for example. Arguably, you may be able to get sufficient help from Nintendo Customer Services to retrieve your games and, therefore, get content back that would be gone forever with the theft of a physical cart. That's true, but the current system — easily resolved by tying purchases to a network ID in the cloud, but we've banged that drum before — means that a fix is likely to involve a fiddly process, assuming you have the information required from your hardware and account to retrieve the content. We can't comment on how well the process works from experience — there are loud complaints out there if you search the internet — but it's clear that the current process isn't optimal.

Let's move onto some positives of this news concerning eShop releases of Unchained Blades and Code of Princess, as these titles are pioneering what could be an important part of Nintendo's and various developer's futures. The main positive, we feel, is that download-only releases could promote localisations of games that, without that distribution option, would simply never see the light of day in the West. Both of these titles are perfect cases; while romantics would like to think that games like these have a chance of major sales, the blunt truth is that most of them don't. They're niche releases catered to experienced gamers and fans of the respective genres, and on those terms they quite likely sell enough copies to their audiences to enable the developers to continue working on projects they love.

It's these sorts of releases, which would typically be hard to find in stock at a major mainstream retailer in any case, that could forge a new category of download-only retail releases. With budgets across the gaming and entertainment industries being more stretched by the sheer volume of competition, it's quite possibly beyond the means of many small to medium businesses to contemplate the packaging and distribution costs of getting their games onto the high street. These realities help to explain why we're seeing, arguably, a new level of quality grace the 3DS and Wii U eShop, with download titles at times more typically up to the standard of bite-size retail releases, rather than quirky projects in which enthusiasts like to dabble. There's shovelware, of course, but the standard of self-published work from many small and indie developer's efforts is impressive.

In the case of Unchained Blades and Code of Princess, we have high quality games that are unlikely to achieve mainstream sales success. They can still make money, however, and their arrival on the 3DS eShop signifies not only that developers can find an avenue for their game without costly overheads, but perhaps encourages other small companies to consider stretching their legs to retail-level releases. An issue with this, which perhaps punctures all of this positivity a little and we expect to be debated a fair bit, is price. Unchained Blades costs $29.99, cheaper than a big name retail 3DS title but a lot more than smaller downloads, so its performance will be an early indicator of whether this idea can bring success for the people that we, as gamers, need the most — developers.

Nintendo's platforms, as well as the developers and publishers of all sizes that appear on these systems, are facing more varied and diverse competition than ever before. Download-only retail games are a natural progression if we want to see lesser-known but high quality games arrive on 3DS and, ultimately, Wii U. Nintendo also undoubtedly needs not just big-name developers to support its systems, but the indies that are arguably doing the most to try new ideas and approaches to gaming; by supporting retail downloads in this way, Nintendo can provide another valuable option to these businesses.

We'll conclude with the words of Nintendo of America's Dan Adelman, one of the key figures in the company's download platform policies. As he told us in our interview, he feels that the download arenas are vital to the future of the gaming industry, but that it's gamers that will ultimately determine their fate.

Now with digital distribution, the landscape has changed completely, and it’s possible for smaller teams to make really groundbreaking stuff. And now that even big budget AAA retail games are starting to go the digital distribution route, there’s less cost and therefore less risk built into the process. I’m hoping to see a bigger willingness on the part of game creators to test out new design ideas and continue pushing the industry forward. Of course, for that to happen, we need consumers to show that there’s a market for that.

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