Talking Point: The Uncertain Collectible Future of Download-Only Game Libraries

Servers will surely shut down, but what about the games?

Just before the weekend, a number of Wii Channels were shut down. On 28th June most of the online enabled channels and services — such as Weather, News, Everyone Votes and Wii Connect 24 — went off air; low participation rates more than likely caused Nintendo to deem them an expense not worth maintaining. On top of that, Capcom shut down the Monster Hunter Tri servers at the end of April, in one swoop taking away one of the Wii's finest online games and pushing dedicated hunters towards Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on Wii U.

In some respects this is an inevitable part of modern gaming, as online services don't last forever; we can rebel against it, but it'll always happen. However, as Nintendo platforms increasingly focus on retail downloads and download-only games, we're approaching an interesting tipping point — what happens when the Wii Shop shuts down? Where does all of that WiiWare content go? Even if WiiWare is eventually transferred to the Wii U eShop, what about the next Nintendo home console? Will there be a time when these download games simply disappear, never to be played again?

It's a scenario we're yet to face, as download-only games have only emerged in the most recent generation of dedicated gaming systems, with Wii and DSi being Nintendo's debut efforts. The emergence of the 3DS saw almost all DSiWare titles transfer across to its eShop, while the Wii U has an alternative approach with its Wii Mode, which essentially emulates the older system and, with it, the Wii Shop.

And so, the closing off of various Wii online services in recent times brings to mind an interesting dilemma as we consider the fate not of multiplayer servers and information channels, but of an entire games library in itself. The role of downloadable games continues to increase in the world of Nintendo, and some of them — from the earliest Wii and and DSi efforts to today's efforts — are top-notch, memorable experiences. Their ongoing presence is under threat in a way that retro games are not, because there's no tangible replacement. The same applies for retail downloads, in theory, but in the overwhelming majority of cases they have a physical equivalent on a cart or disc.

So how will we collect or retrieve WiiWare or DSiWare games in 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years? Likewise for 3DS and Wii U eShop titles in the future? There are some scenarios where a user may want to retrieve or buy these download games in years to come; you may have accidentally deleted a game and want to re-download, or there could be issues with your system where memory gets corrupted, or something could go wrong when loading account details on a fresh console — let's assume that account-based systems will eventually arrive from Nintendo, rather than content being locked to hardware. Perhaps it's just down to a personal choice, a desire to pick up a Nintendo download exclusive like Art of Balance in the future.

These are all unanswered questions at this stage, which haven't required an answer due to Nintendo's download platforms not falling outside of the company's standard one-system backward compatibility policy. We're potentially five years or less away from it becoming a real issue with a fresh handheld or home console, however, while the mothballing of most of the Wii's online channels puts the Wii Shop next on the chopping block, with just the occasional Virtual Console release keeping the service active. Will Nintendo facilitate a transfer of all of that content to the Wii U eShop if it decides to shut down the Wii store?

There are broad questions up in the air, in that case, all because of the fundamental difference between physical and download software. You can still, to this day, purchase and use cartridges from the NES and its predecessors in the games industry, and find hardware that's still functional to play these titles. Retro collecting is a serious hobby as a result, and has its own culture and fanbase in the market. As we move forward questions will be asked about whether those days will be lost, or whether companies will make a distinction between optional online services and multiplayer servers, which are shut down, and full download games. It's surely a topic of interest for smaller developers, too, and one we'll follow up on in the coming days and weeks; let's also not forget that, until consumer reaction drove it to a u-turn, Microsoft was ready to push these kinds of issues further with the Xbox One.

So in this time of download vs physical, we've perhaps overlooked the potential short-term dangers for download-only games surviving beyond one or two system generations; will they even be collectible? Lots of open-ended questions, so we want to know what you think.

We've set up a thread in our community forum where you will have a chance to have your voice heard on Nintendo Life. It'll be open until 10pm UK time / 5pm Eastern on Thursday 4th July, at which stage it'll be locked; we'll take the best comments and debate points from that thread and publish them in a weekend feature here on the site. By all means sound off in the comments below as always, but if you want an opportunity to have your comments posted in a feature article, head on over to the forum thread.