Talking Point: The Download Games Battle is Just Beginning

So where does Nintendo and the Wii U eShop stand?

As a sign of the increasingly busy — or perhaps that should be frantic — times in which we live, it took a matter of hours for an element of a news item from yesterday to become comprehensively out of date. We're referring to an article where small 'indie' developers outlined Nintendo's approach to self-published download games in comparison to Sony and Microsoft, with the concensus being that this was an area where Microsoft was weak. Perhaps the dismissive language of NyamNyam's Phil Tossell (speaking to Edge) said it best in terms of Microsoft's stance — "do they even have an approach to indies?"

And yet, hours later, Game Informer broke a story that Microsoft is reversing some policies — such as indie developers needing a publishing partner for the One's download platform — that had driven smaller studios away; this also follows more recent moves to drop charges for patches and game updates on the Xbox 360. Another feature to emerge has been that developers will be able to register online to have their standard Xbox One approved as a dev kit, though it won't be a day one possibility when the system launches; in other words, it'll be possible for any system to be used for development, it just requires the approval and necessary steps that follow to set it up.

Microsoft is, much like its DRM-policy u-turns in past weeks, reacting to its rivals and trying to ensure it isn't left behind, and while cynicism is often the first port-of-call it's ultimately a valid practice. Nintendo used to largely shun DLC and be fairly archaic in its approach to download software, but has been undergoing extensive modernisation over the past two years to provide developers and gamers with services more in-line with current-day expectations; shifts in policy are part of the game.

Before going into how Microsoft's approach changes things — or perhaps the degree of its potential impact — we should also acknowledge that the company is holding back on details until the Gamescom event in Cologne, which takes place in late August. There are a lot of unknowns, too, as Microsoft's idea of developers applying to have their system registered for dev tools says little about whether there'll be related costs, whether all developers will have the same tools or whether it'll be tiered in any respect, and so on. There's also much to be clarified in terms of how much the "vision", as Microsoft terms it, of all developers having easy access and golden opportunities translates in the final approach. One sceptic is Brian Privinciano (Retro City Rampage), who said the following to Engadget:

I'm very happy to see this. After all of the developers have spoken out, they're finally listening. However, this is yet another example of them changing policy, but it sounding better than it is when the whole story is revealed. Make no mistake; while this is a great thing, it's again not the equivalent to what other platforms offer. On PS4, for example, developers can tap right into the system; use every bit of RAM and all of its power. Indies have access to everything that the AAA studios do, from platform support to development and release. The indication on Xbox One is that it's essentially XBLIG 2.0. Instead of XNA, it's Windows 8. Windows 8, which is already struggling to gain developer interest, will gain a boost from developers wishing to target the console. However, it won't be as full-fledged as published games on the system.

And so the debate about the battle over download developers, particularly "indies", has another serious player, with Microsoft turning heads with its shift in policy, albeit while encouraging caution with a delay to giving full details. As yesterday's summary of developer comments helped to make clear, a large number of developers are particularly interested in the PS4, but the efforts of Nintendo could be summarised as strong and still improving, with the company quietly going about its business in a constructive way.

Of course, that's been a prevalent message since before the Wii U launched last year, and the majority of our developer interviews have prompted positive comments about Nintendo's enthusiasm in supporting developers and the increasing ease of the process to publish a game. Development kits have sometimes been loaned for free, while it's clearly far easier to become licensed and start down the development path, with free Unity tools and the Web Framework contributing to making the nuts and bolts simpler to apply. All in all, studios that have published on the Wii U eShop or begun the process have, in the vast majority of cases, been enthusiastic about the experience.

So, to go back to our tagline, where does Nintendo stand? For one thing, being welcoming and accessible, though vital, isn't likely to be enough on its own to attract small developers to the Wii U eShop; Sony and — it seems — Microsoft are also welcoming the same group of studios, while the calling of Android and iOS platforms are as strong as ever. The smartphone, tablet and Android console markets are the most accessible of all, but as the app stores show — and to an extent the early days of the Ouya — having a market that open can be a negative, with a lot of amateur and downright terrible games seeing the light of day and crowding the market. A platform without notable gatekeeping may seem to some like a paradise, but it also has serious drawbacks.

In some respects, there are valid concerns — which only the passing of time will address — that Sony and Microsoft's platforms will have similar issues with overcrowding, another point made by NyamNyam's Phil Tossell. The more open a platform, the more content will come, and it's notable that Tossell spoke of Nintendo focusing on "quality over quantity", while KnapNok Game's Lau Korsgaard spoke of the company "establishing genuine human relationships with the indies". It's here that the role of Nintendo of America's Dan Adelman and his team, as well as their contemporaries in other regions, seems pertinent; processes are easier, projects are still authorised and, vitally, processed with a degree of human oversight and interaction.

That's slower than an automated iTunes-style process, of course, which is also rumoured for Microsoft's One plans, but it ensures a degree of quality assurance and structure. We still get the occasional example of dross on the eShop platforms, of course, but neither store is — by any stretch of the imagination — overwhelmed or groaning under the weight of shovelware.

It's a tricky balance, so while Nintendo will continue to cultivate relationships and strive for regular, quality games on the Wii U eShop, we'll quite likely see a higher volume on rival platforms. The eShop will certainly need to secure much-wanted multi-platform downloads — including those from major publishers, such as DuckTales Remastered — while striving for more exclusives like Spin the Bottle: Bumpie's Party and Scram Kitty And His Buddy On Rails. Perhaps this is where the Wii U concept will be particularly vital, with the GamePad offering dual screen possibilities unique to the system — other systems can mimic the idea with multiple devices, but let's not forget that the Wii U still has that functionality intuitively right there in the box.

While download-only games are very rarely system sellers in their own right, they can contribute to a console's overall value to the gamer, and a number of exciting indie games on a platform can be a positive marketing point. Nintendo isn't alone in being welcoming to small studios, is still fighting in a market under increasing strain from other gaming alternatives on multi-functional hardware, and will surely rely on its gatekeeping and personalised approach, alongside the Wii U's capabilities, to continue to attract developers against such varied and fierce competition.

The PS4 and Xbox One markets are still to come, of course, but "quality over quantity" may be a wise approach for Nintendo.