This week it was confirmed that a sale on Ubisoft's retail Wii U downloads, which arrived in North America in mid-February, will hit Europe this week. It's the latest small landmark in what's become a regular series of subtle evolutions in Nintendo's download platform strategies, and one that strongly demonstrates the company willingly loosening its grip of control over the platforms.
The eShop stores, especially the 3DS equivalent, still appear to be relatively tightly managed by Nintendo; they are closed platforms, after all. The benefit is that the stores aren't a free-for-all with games arriving having undergone no testing or real approval of any kind; yes, we still sometimes get buggy duds, but at least they load properly and generally function, even if still on occasion proven to be rubbish. Aside from some flops, the eShop platforms have also delivered a consistent stream of good quality downloads — both on 3DS and at this early stage of Wii U's life — that shows life in Nintendo's policy of fostering talented developers and encouraging them onto its platforms.
Yet what the Ubisoft discounts and, perhaps more importantly, the download-only equivalents show us is how the strings are being loosened with each successive platform. It wasn't so long ago that the big N's download platforms on Wii and DSi prompted nightmare tales of woe from some developers. Some of the issues included painfully limited download sizes (affected by modest hardware), slow processes to apply updates or improvements and — of vital importance to developers — Nintendo's insistence on setting prices. A lot of these aspects have been revealed through broken NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and whispered conversations, but they all played a part in limiting and restricting even those developers keen to be on the consoles. When you combine the lack of control over pricing with non-existent discount promotions and the well-publicised sales threshold, it was a challenge for some games to make any money at all, which is sustainable for no-one.
The birth of the 3DS eShop helped to resolve a number of these issues, which appears to have been rewarded with a loyal band of small development studios pledging themselves and multiple efforts to the platform. It seems that the dreaded threshold has been dropped, while reading between the lines of developer comments (often taking to forums to defend prices, for example) suggest some greater input into pricing. We've seen some game updates arrive — though admittedly not many — and file size seems to be no real issue at all, with some download-only games taking up a hefty chunk of SD card space. The 3DS store has seen other long-awaited evolutions in recent times, such as regular demo offerings and retail downloads, a first for the big N. It's easy to roll eyes and say "welcome to 2006, Nintendo" but, hey, given the hardware capabilities since 3DS arrived, the company has moved pretty quickly in recent times.
It's the Wii U eShop, however, that's genuinely upping Nintendo's download performance further, while also highlighting some areas where the handheld equivalent can still improve. We've seen early experiments in free-to-play/flexible content offerings (not perfect, but a start), and in our extensive range of Developer Interviews with Wii U launch publishers last year, a picture emerged of a variety of studios — ranging from those loyal to Nintendo and others joining in for the first time — being rather impressed at the company's attitude and accommodations towards them. We were told about the accessible — and cost-free — option to make updates to games, and Nintendo's willingness to offer support as and when it's needed. One major point, and one that meant a lot to developers with experience on multiple platforms, was control over pricing; not only can developers set a price (though we imagine some guidelines are in place), but also run discount promotions. Trine 2: Director's Cut developer, Frozenbyte, described control over pricing as "huge", while Martin Pichmair of Broken Rules explained the value of running promotions after a potential mis-fire in the initial price.
In fact, sales are becoming a regular feature on the store; more importantly, they work. Broken Rules' most recent discount — accompanied by a major update — for Chasing Aurora has seen it rise (at the time of writing) to be the number one "recent bestseller" on the European store, no doubt also enhanced by an advertisement of the promotion at the top of the home page. That kind of dynamic design to the storefront — with promotions, demos and DLC joining in — simply didn't exist on DSi or Wii, and allows Nintendo's platform to compare more favorably with rival systems.
And then we have Ubisoft's sale, bringing a number of major retail titles down to more competitive prices. It's no secret that Wii U software discounts are easily found on the high street and from online retailers, so moves like this are absolutely vital to make the eShop a viable option. The debate about pricing for retail downloads is keenly fought in Nintendo circles, with one side bemoaning the high prices of most games, and Nintendo able to point to notable examples of 3DS titles, in particular, selling well as retail downloads due to convenience — Animal Crossing: New Leaf in Japan and Fire Emblem: Awakening in North America can both be held up as success stories. Convenience is arguably less relevant on Wii U — you're not carrying games around on your commute — so Ubisoft's sale finally offers software at a price comparable to those found by savvy shoppers.
It's not 100% clear whether this initiative is down to Ubisoft or Nintendo (the timing of the North American promotion prompted us to jokingly label it as Rayman Legends damage limitation), but the end result is a genuinely enticing set of prices for those who haven't taken the plunge on titles such as ZombiU or Assassin's Creed III. The timing also makes sense in light of Nintendo's unwillingness to encourage download retail games to overtly threaten retailers. While frustrating for games to see high download prices, from a business perspective Nintendo can't afford to burn bridges with retailers — even if some would like to say otherwise, the world as a whole isn't completely ready to abandon physical discs for download-only gaming. Examples such as this Ubisoft offer make sense, however, as these titles have had their time as full-priced, new games, and are now entering a later phase of dropping down the shelves at lower prices. We'd hope that retail promotions will flow freely in future as titles get older and undergo discounts on the high street; if download retail games are all about offering an alternative choice, as Satoru Iwata has stated, timed price reductions will help to make them a more competitive choice.
These retail discounts, and the Wii U eShop as a whole, aren't anything ground-breaking, nor are they the finished product. Yet at least this new generation of online stores from Nintendo is comparable to rivals, if not excelling or blowing them away. We should also take note of how quickly Nintendo's download model has evolved and improved since the eShop brand arrived on 3DS in 2011. In a short time the big N has done a fair bit of catching up; if it continues at this rate, then its chances of successfully balancing a closed platform with a welcoming developer's environment are at least just that — a chance.