Talking Point: Gamer Protests Can Earn Small Wins From Publishers
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
From 60Hz retro releases in Europe, to freebies and localisations
It seems that in the modern era of social networks, free online news and consumers with greater choice than ever before, there is always something to get thousands of online commentators hot, bothered and outraged. On many occasions there are justifications and genuine reasons behind controversies, with seemingly needless shabby or disappointing industry practices irritating gamers and encouraging them to seek their entertainment elsewhere. What we've seen in recent times is that the gaming community seems to be wielding a little more power, with notable examples of publishers and developers being burned by protesting consumers and attempting to defuse their anger.
We've seen some examples in recent times on Nintendo systems, with today's latest surprise turnaround being confirmation that the upcoming release of F-Zero on the Wii U eShop in Europe will run at 60Hz. If you still don't know what we mean by that, and wonder what on earth all of us PAL gamers are blabbing on about, check out this outline of the Virtual Console's PAL problem. In a very brief summary, PAL games in the '80s and '90s ran about 17.5% slower that North American equivalents to accommodate TV standards that brought a higher resolution at the cost of a slower refresh rate. While comparison videos exist of titles such as F-Zero X, they can be susceptible to variables such as vehicles travelling at different speeds. The best visual example can probably still be found in the Sonic the Hedgehog comparison below.
As our PAL problem article explains, complaints about this originated in the '90s and returned with a vengeance when the Wii Virtual Console service arrived, with 50Hz releases being fed to EU gamers despite the non-existence of the technical limitations that made them a necessity in previous generations. Rather than an issue of supporting televisions that only a tiny minority would still use, it was more than likely down to Nintendo's VC team saving costs by simply copying the original ROM codes, rather than go to the effort of adjusting to run at 60Hz.
Yet today we see that small landmark, with confirmation that an equivalent to the 60Hz NTSC version of F-Zero will arrive on the Wii U eShop this week. It seems reasonable to speculate that the reaction to the 50Hz version of Balloon Fight on the European Wii U store may have prompted Nintendo to contemplate making necessary changes. After playing 60Hz retro games on the 3DS Virtual Console — such as Super Mario Bros. — and noticing the faster performance and cleaner control response, European gamers took to the web to voice displeasure on forums and via at least one petition. Perhaps a game-changer, from Nintendo's perspective, was the flooding of Balloon Fight's Miiverse community in the region with irritated messages — which you can see in the video below — somewhat tarnishing the idea of a fun site where gamers could share screens of high scores.
Does today's news mean that Nintendo will go to the effort to resolve this issue for all VC releases? Possibly not, and only time will tell, but it's a welcome start. This week has also brought us more surprise additions to Wii U that, arguably, have been driven by a need to placate an online storm. We're referring to this week's announcement that a Rayman Legends challenge mode is coming to Wii U this April as a free eShop download. An online mode that was originally part of the main game, at least we believe it was, is now being bundled up as an exclusive advance offering for Nintendo gamers, to compensate for the fact that a completed game is sitting on Ubisoft's servers until September. Rather appropriately using the social medium of Facebook to give the message, creative director Michel Ancel and senior game designer Michael Micholic also promised that the extra time would also be used to expand the game further, so that technically we should get a bigger, better game alongside the PS3 and Xbox 360 releases in September.
Will that be enough? It's hard to tell, though there will always be those so upset by the original offence that a determination to stand ground will still keep them from the game's eventual release — we would speculate, however, that a number of people will see the free content in April and think that, well, maybe the delay isn't the end of the world after all. Ubisoft also implemented a surprise Wii U eShop sale in North America, which seems awfully coincidental in the circumstances. What we seem to have is a middle-ground — Ubisoft is extremely unlikely (probably a 0.0001% probability) to bring the Wii U release forward from September, but it's providing a free download and a sale as an attempt to warm the icy hearts of spurned fans. It loses little from this gesture, in practice — extra eShop sales won't exactly harm it — but it's a bone for us to chew on.
That delicate balance between companies appeasing consumers while protecting themselves and their profits has also been evident with Nintendo. We need look no further than the 3DS Ambassador Programme. Nintendo had made the decision to slash the price of the 3DS barely six months into its lifespan, and no amount of complaining from early-adopters was going to change that fact. Like with Ubisoft, the decision was final, but the big N offered a take-it-or-leave-it compensation in the form of 20 free retro games — ten NES and ten Game Boy Advance. Some naturally still weren't happy, stating a preference for a reward such as free eShop funds instead, but the free games were all that was on offer. They were basic, competent ROMS, lacking Virtual Console staples such as restore points (though some NES games since on the eShop have been updated for free), with these versions unlikely to have taken Nintendo for too long to get up and running on 3DS. If you didn't want this compensation, tough luck, though many were rather pleased to get so many free games on their new handheld for free.
Were these games "free", as you'd paid more money for your system? It can be debated, but they were factually free, as no-one had forced early consumers to buy the handheld at launch price, and there'd been a solid six months of playtime up to the price cut. For those that had no interest in the VC-lite downloads there was still disappointment, but ultimately Nintendo, and Ubisoft in the case of Rayman Legends, could have done absolutely nothing. We're seeing a trend, however, of companies weighing up the odds — costs ÷ fan fury = benevolent gesture. Both Ubisoft and Nintendo, in these cases, have offered something that costs them little but, nevertheless, are products that have value to the customer. Another example, arguably, is Nintendo of America buckling to eventually release Xenoblade Chronicles in the region. Perhaps it was always the plan, but stalling being accompanied by consistent consumer complaints such as those from Operation Rainfall combine to suggest that fan-pressure had a role to play.
While we don't think game companies are going to throw too much goodwill and free content around — they're interested in profits and sales, ultimately — there seems to be a shift in dynamic to suggest that they need loyal fans more and more. To return to the 50Hz PAL issue, when that originated in the '90s there were less alternatives for gamers who'd had enough. It was more expensive to setup a gaming PC, and the vast range of games and devices on platforms such as Android and iOS hadn't even been conceived. Now, however, games companies are under increasing pressure to act when fans threaten to walk away, as the "traditional" games industry of dedicated hardware and their games is currently in decline. The bare facts are out there; sales are dropping across the board in the retail industry, and companies can no longer act as the big bosses and do as they please — gamers can easily walk away to other sources of entertainment.
While this is arguably a very positive development, with more games companies seeming to actually get rattled and care when fans vent fury, we all need to remain in control and reasonable at our end. We deserve to be treated fairly as consumers and receive good value products, while having every right to expose shoddy practices, but perhaps it's vital that we don't protest too vigorously over comparatively small matters or refuse to forgive. If we want to keep the gaming console industry strong and enjoy fantastic games, we need to keep developers and publishers on their toes and, if they react to appease us, support the industry that we love. If we were to all protest and refuse all Ubisoft games or never buy a Nintendo console on day one again, then we'd cut our noses off to spite our own faces.