Today's Pokémon Direct broadcast brought 20 minutes of hype for the upcoming Pokémon X & Y, titles that will practically sell themselves regardless. There was some exciting news about limited edition hardware and, oh yes, the choice of Bulbasaur, Charmander or Squirtle as additional starters. Also of interest was the Pokémon Bank, a very 21st Century inclusion that’ll allow you to store up to 3000 ‘mon “in the cloud”, with the Poké Transporter also tying in with the new service to allow you to store and transfer all of your Black & White 1 & 2 Pokémon to the new games. The important detail with the Bank is that it’ll have a yearly subscription charge, reportedly just 500 Yen (about $5 US dollars) in Japan. It’s a brave new world where Nintendo’s going to create a new paid tier in one of its most valuable franchises.
Of course, the argument can be made that maintaining the service has costs that should be supported by the consumer, yet to date Nintendo gamers have largely avoided the trend. It is most certainly a developing trend, however, with Flipnote Studio 3D to include a monthly subscription for its World Gallery, while some kind of free-to-play version of Steel Diver is apparently in the works to open that rather distinct can of worms. Throw in greater use of paid-DLC in some Nintendo games, and the company is gradually monetising content that, previously, wasn’t produced, was free or just part of one up-front cost for the product.
With that in mind, and considering the online play that’s still free with Nintendo, two of Nintendo Life’s editors have decided to give their reactions to the Pokémon Bank and wider issues.
Whether here or on the Nintendo UK live stream of today’s Pokémon Direct, the reaction to the Pokémon Bank quickly evolved from “this looks cool”, to “wait, I have to pay!!!”. That’s a slight exaggeration as some thought about it in more nuanced ways, but in rough terms it was clear that a lot of gamers reacted that way. I’m of the opinion that the rush to monetise these services is a pity, but it’s an inevitability that it’ll happen; all we can do is hope that prices stay reasonable.
Industry wide, at least with game-specific systems, it’s become normal to pay for online services. Microsoft was often criticised for its Xbox Live charges, while Nintendo and Sony were paragons of free online gaming virtue. Sony is backing away from that, however, with PlayStation Plus required for online play on the PS4; in its defence, with the “instant game collection” downloads and more it represents great value on its own, it’s now just becoming more mandatory. Nintendo’s online gaming market is far smaller than on those two systems due to the lower share of CoD and FIFA markets, among others, so the Nintendo Network is likely to stay free for the immediate future.
What Pokémon Bank represents, from Nintendo's perspective, is the creeping attempts to claw in some extra revenue where possible from online. Entirely optional and providing an extra service, it’ll reportedly be the equivalent of $5 a year in Japan; that’s rather inexpensive, but would sure add up to good revenues – beyond the running costs, surely – for Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. Other things that were free are gradually bringing costs, with the still delayed Flipnote 3D also including a priced, subscription-based option with the World Gallery. Just under a dollar a month, though not a tied-in subscription, it’ll also target money that wasn’t part of the business plan in the DS and Wii era.
As a jaded old gamer I thought the new StreetPass games should have been released gradually as free extras for long-term 3DS owners, I shiver when contemplating some kind of free-to-play Steel Diver, and I think it’s disappointing that Pokémon fans will have to pay a little more for all the bells and whistles. Yet then I think about the free online play on 3DS and Wii U, and realise that in the current day it shouldn’t be taken for granted. This is an industry that is increasingly trying to make us buy more extras or pay for online play, so I think we should count our blessings that Nintendo’s taking such small steps.
Don’t want to pay for DLC? Don’t buy it. Don’t want to pay for the World Gallery or Pokémon Bank? Then don’t. It’d be lovely if this stuff was free, but at least we’re still getting fully fleshed out games and free online multiplayer; let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
Everyone likes to get things for free — it's basic human nature. Keeping this in mind, it's perhaps understandable that there's been such a mixed reaction to the announcement of Pokémon Bank. Nintendo is offering a service which has no doubt been the dream of many a fan for several years — you can now take your Pokémon with you even when you buy a new game or upgrade hardware — but the sting in the tail is the news that Nintendo plans to charge a yearly fee to use the service.
On the face of it, that's quite an ask — especially when you consider that players are already out-laying a considerable amount of cash on the title itself. Surely when you're dropping a large amount of money on a retail game, a service like this should be seen as added value rather than a paid-for option? Pokémon Bank isn't DLC — it doesn't unlock additional content — and it falls short of being an MMO-style subscription, too. It's also worth noting that mobile games such as Madfinger's Dead Trigger offer cloud storage to preserve your progress when moving between devices, and it's entirely free — as is the game itself, in fact.
Of course, Nintendo has never been one to play by anyone else's rules and it knows full well that it will make a mountain of cash out of Pokémon Bank — what self-respecting fan isn't going to want to keep their beloved Pokémon safe in the cloud, especially after spending countless hours training them and building up their experience? Given that companies like Microsoft and Sony are already taking cash from players in order to facilitate online play and other features, Nintendo is perhaps entitled to grab a little bit for itself, especially when it's for something that is genuinely useful and in high demand. What it really comes down to is how much is going to be charged; $5 a year seems to be the approximate amount for the Japanese subscription, which is an amount few would even bother to argue with.
That's what we think, but let us know your thoughts in the comments below.