Talking Point: Nintendo's Curious Decision to Monetise StreetPass

The great social app is now tiered

StreetPass may not have been a technical marvel when included in the 3DS hardware, but it was a typically charming Nintendo move. The idea of simple data exchanges had already been utilised in the original Nintendogs on DS, but the built-in StreetPass Plaza app is accessible to everyone with a 3DS, while the functionality has been used to varying degrees in plenty of games. Basic technology, yes, and perhaps best suited to the packed urban environments of Japan, but it's a fun addition that adds a key social element to the system.

Available since launch day, the StreetPass Mii Plaza has seen some subtle adjustments in updates, while it's been bulked up with additional puzzle panels and StreetPass Quest 2 / Find Mii 2; for some, however, only new puzzle panels will still be occupying their time. While it's possible to walk around a hometown and receive no hits, taking a 3DS to a gaming expo or an event such as a Zelda Symphony concert is an experience in itself, with the well-known activity of constantly clearing out new arrivals and grabbing as many puzzle pieces as possible.

Until now, this was a universal activity shared by all, a common thread for Nintendo gamers, and one of the best freebies — arguably — that Nintendo's ever provided.

And yet today has changed that, in Europe and Japan at least, with the introduction of paid StreetPass games in the revamped plaza. After installing an update — and assuming it's not constantly crashing on you — you can now buy up to four new games at £4.49 / €4.99 each, or a Combo pack for £13.49 / €14.99. Nintendo's been exploring monetisation with DLC in various games, but this is a notable step — ahead of small monthly fees for the World Gallery in Flipnote Studio 3D — where Nintendo has taken a concept that was originally free and applied pricing. The question is, how do we feel about that?

What we're not, in the case of the Nintendo Life team, are gamers that think everything should be free or less than a dollar; we'd argue that there should be an acceptance that gaming experiences have a value that needs to be paid as a reward for developers and publishers. In many respects that can be the justification for Flipnote Studio 3D's online gallery pricing, as Nintendo is paying for servers to maintain the data; clearly an expense it no longer feels the need to swallow as it did in the DSiWare version. It's a specialist app, too, catered to artists and budding animators to create fun GIFs to share with the world.

With the StreetPass DLC, however, we feel there are grounds to question the logic behind charging for the content. In terms of value, we have to reserve judgement to an extent — we will be reviewing the games in good time — but it's more around the context than what's on offer. We have little doubt that, like the StreetPass Quests that came before, there'll be decent value in these games, especially as many players don't necessarily pick up a large number of hits on a regular basis, so each one may take a good while to complete.

The question is how it changes the dynamic and applies tiers to what has, up to now, been a universal and unifying app. It can be argued that it changes nothing, as puzzle panels are still being added for free, but with examples such as StreetPass Battle, the game reacts differently depending on whether the other player owns the same content. There are other obvious incentives, with additional hats and goodies there for the taking in these games, while their variation in play styles — while still tied to accumulating hits — is very welcome after over two years of the same old grind in the original quests.

That length of time for these to arrive does make us wonder whether — as well as considering the fact that an app that was the same for everyone now has paid gates of entry — Nintendo could have taken a high road and offered these as free gifts. Nintendo has given various freebies over the lifespan of the 3DS, with the likes of Swapnote / Nintendo Letter Box and The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Anniversary Edition (the latter on DSiWare) being examples that portrayed a company generous to loyal customers. A more recent example was a free Coin Rush pack in New Super Mario Bros. 2.

And yet, Nintendo has gone to great pains in recent times to emphasize a desire to increase income from digital products, a promise often made when surrounded by shareholders. Fire Emblem: Awakening has been a high-profile example of perks being offered in a map — which may take less than an hour to clear — for a few dollars, while the sale of the modest Wii U Panorama View applications seemed to be overambitious.

Public perception, then, is tough to balance, as Nintendo aims to promote an image of kindness while, ultimately, earning as many dollars and cents from us all as it can. DLC in Awakening may or may not be seen by many as an inevitable part of the modern landscape — nor is it necessary to beat the game — while the freebies in Animal Crossing: New Leaf do nothing but foster goodwill. But with the StreetPass games, 3DS owners may be surprised that the free, pre-installed app that encouraged them to take the 3DS on the road and trade Mii data for over two years is now hawking games at £4.49 / €4.99; it's arguably a similar disconnect to suddenly being charged a penny to send a letter in Swapnote. Suddenly we're not all bound by a unity of purpose when clearing out StreetPass hits and marching Mii characters into battle, as some of us will have glitzier prizes while others plod through the original quest.

Last year, Satoru Iwata promised that Animal Crossing: New Leaf would not have "unwholesome" DLC. So the question is obvious: is the act of monetising StreetPass games just part of the modern gaming scene and a fair attempt to retrieve costs, or is it unwholesome? Consumers will ultimately decide.

StreetPass Plaza screens courtesy of Official Nintendo Magazine.

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