Talking Point: DLC's Increasingly Important Role for Nintendo
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Games are a bit less 'final' than they used to be
It's not so long ago that Sony and Microsoft's platforms began to drown in DLC (downloadable content) while, for Nintendo gamers, it was largely restricted to the occasional Guitar Hero or Rock Band track on Wii. Nintendo had an attitude of adopting online trends and practices in its own sweet time, thank you very much; the Kyoto-based company was busy selling ludicrous numbers of consoles to worry about such matters.
Of course, the capabilities of the Wii and DSi undoubtedly played their part in limiting the emergence of additional content, with both rocking relatively primitive online services and third-parties not necessarily being inclined to invest money in making it happen. For a time the main DLC business elsewhere revolved around franchises such as Call of Duty, and the Wii wasn't exactly the primary system for those kinds of titles.
Of course, that situation is rapidly changing, and Nintendo's shown an impressive capacity for quickly evolving in the online market. The 3DS started relatively quietly on the DLC front, with Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy being a notable contender and showing that, ultimately, music games can be solid earners beyond their initial release. Although it wasn't the first to do it, however, the Coin Rush packs in New Super Mario Bros. 2 were high profile as the first major Nintendo release to jump onto the bandwagon, the content on offer prompting debates about value.
We haven't exactly seen an explosion of paid DLC on the 3DS since Mario's initial foray — more notable strides have come with flexible pricing and plenty of retail downloads — but there's been a fair amount of free DLC; the SpotPass functionality of the 3DS has been delivering nuggets of extras almost since launch day. Yet one recent release has been pushing paid-DLC as a major part of the experience — Fire Emblem: Awakening. While players can merrily progress through the main campaign paying nothing more than the core price, there's a significant assortment of extra maps, either individual or in packs, to choose from. These don't just keep gamers amused, but in some cases provide buffs, characters and experience points that help out in the main adventure, fudging the argument that these are harmless extras. Nintendo, like most other game companies, is picking up on the revenues to be had from download only content for retail games — as Satoru Iwata recently outlined, "digital business", in its various forms, is of vital importance.
Those of us that like to hold up Nintendo as a paragon of virtue, shunning DLC practices that aim to deprive us of our cash, may have to accept that it's joining the game. It's an inevitable progression, perhaps, and will bring with it key points to consider in each case — is the DLC worth its price, does the core game still provide full retail value, and can someone who doesn't want the extras still enjoy the game fully? If major Nintendo franchises continue to see DLC drifting into their products, it'll be an argument that could get feisty.
Yet, whatever your personal view on paid DLC, we'd suggest that we should all want it to have a role on the Wii U. The 3DS is arguably a different beast to the home console, with a pleasing userbase of over 30 million and a real sense of momentum and unique identity with its current and upcoming game library. The Wii U, however, is in the early days of a quest to show that it can entertain the masses as much as competitive systems, both with unique content and, of course, multi-platform titles. It's in the latter that DLC is important, as so many third parties and major franchises make it a vital part of their products. If PS3, Xbox 360, PS4 and Xbox Next have extras on offer, then in the interest of sales we should want the Wii U to have them too, so that the system doesn't look like the odd one out.
So far, on that score, it's been a mixed set of results. Assassin's Creed III has lacked a season pass, but nevertheless has brought its additional modes and story segments to the Wii U eShop, while older ports such as Batman: Arkham City Armoured Edition had all DLC included on the disc. On the negative side we have Mass Effect 3, with some of this content on the disc but no support for extras that have followed, and a similar story — at the time of writing — with Need for Speed: Most Wanted U. In the case of ME3 this absence adds to the frustration that the Wii U received a single game while the trilogy was bundled on other systems, while in the case of NFS:MW Criterion's Creative Director Alex Ward made a valid point about the plausibility of bringing DLC to the Wii U title.
And there's the rub. We suspect plenty of Wii U gamers would love to see full DLC support for multi-platform titles, but developers and publishers may be in a position where they need sales to make it worth their while. The latest title to be faced by the issue has been Injustice: Gods Among Us, with Warner Bros. staying silent before breaking cover to state that it expects the content already on PS3 and 360 to come to the Wii U this summer. Considering some of the losses in this area so far, the phrase "better late than never" springs to mind.
The Wii U, as we've already argued elsewhere, has a big second half of 2013 ahead of it which, if things go well, could be an important period of revival and success. Factors will be prices in stores compared to rival successors from Sony and Microsoft, killer first-party titles — which are most certainly coming — and generally getting the word out about the unique offerings of the Wii U concept. Third party games will also be a factor, and we do have a decent, albeit not comprehensive, list of big releases that are making their way to Wii U. With consumers looking for a new system on tight budgets, combining some big multi-platform hits with Nintendo's own goodies may be a powerful force in stores — but DLC will play a part. It probably won't be the main factor for many, but having confidence that a title like Watch_Dogs or Batman: Arkham Origins will have those optional extras may be important to some. Let's not forget that paid DLC has plenty of fans — download product revenues have been on the up in recent years, and publishers (including Nintendo, based on comments from Satoru Iwata) wouldn't invest so much time and effort into the area if it wasn't paying dividends.
Paid DLC will pop up on 3DS, but it's on Wii U where it may really count. The strategy for winning over customers might not just include a robust lineup of third-party content, but also all of the little extras to accompany these games. Nintendo's system has had a mix of wins and losses with DLC so far; we hope the wins will stack up as the Holiday season approaches.