Talking Point: Nintendo Must Take Careful Steps Into Paid DLC and Free-to-Play

The balance seems reasonable, so far

As more first-party games arrive on the Wii U and 3DS, we may need to stop thinking of paid DLC and free-to-play models as exotic rarities on Nintendo systems. To an extent they still are, in that there's a degree of surprise whenever either emerges in a Nintendo title, but it's quickly becoming the norm, with Mario Golf: World Tour even going so far — in North America, at least — as to brand a collection of packs as a "season pass". Strap yourselves in, traditionalists, your disc / cart no longer has the full game from the off; there are extras, and you may have to pay for them.

Before we all declare the apocalypse and the end of good, honest get-what-you-pay-for games, there are some important points to make. Nintendo is still picky about which games have paid DLC, so it's not become a standard business practice as it has for some big-name contemporaries such as EA, Activision and first-party efforts from Sony and Microsoft. You can pick a number of high-profile releases across Wii U and 3DS that have either had no DLC of any description, or just free goodies — in either category and recent bona-fide blockbusters are the likes of Super Mario 3D World, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Pokémon X & Y. With these games we've all just paid once and enjoyed a lot of content for the money, just as it was in the days of Bit Wars and cartridges.

These examples do reflect a core philosophy shared by Satoru Iwata way back in 2012, when he stated that Nintendo would not deceive gamers with DLC:

And one thing Nintendo has determined as a company policy, what we are not going to do is create a full game and then say, ‘let's hold this back for DLC.' That's not our plan. We're definitely not doing that. It's an extreme example, but I think there are examples of games where you get that initial purchase — the very core part of the game — and everything else around it is all DLC. However, if you do that I believe customers will have no motivation to go out and buy the retail package to begin with.

In a sign of how rapidly the gaming scene has changed, however, Nintendo is moving from being an occasional dabbler in DLC to a more active participant. Since that time in 2012 we've seen paid extras in titles such as Fire Emblem: Awakening, the expanded DLC of New Super Luigi U (also released as standalone software) and Pikmin 3, while tentative early steps in free-to-play have arrived most recently with Steel Diver: Sub Wars and Rusty's Real Deal Baseball on the 3DS eShop. Nintendo, like with online gaming in general over the past few years, has realised that it must react to trends in order to remain in competition not just with other consoles, but smart devices. Not only that, but as a business that desires to make a lot of money, ignoring the option of various content and pricing models simply isn't an option. This is something that was acknowledged by Iwata-san in early 2013, no doubt setting to foundations for the range of varied payment options we're now seeing.

We [as an industry] can now do distribution by digital means as well as micro-transactions, and the ways to obtain money through supporting entertainment have increased. It's a change in our landscape; competing in game-quality, and working on how money is obtained, I think both are things that require creativity. Therefore, I have no intention of denying charged [DLC? subscription?] games, or the free-to-play model. If we were to talk about if Nintendo were to do that, however, I do not much inclination to do that with Nintendo's established well-known products, where people trust their interesting-ness.

For example, for people who are used to Mario games costing 4,800 or 5,800 yen, we will not have a proverbial door to full enjoyment that can only be unlocked via payment. However, this is separate from say, having something where because there are people who want more stages to play on in Mario games, we will create new courses for those people and charge for them. We have already begun this process with some of our titles. For new titles with no established base, if, in the process of development, we found it to suit the free-to-play model, we might follow that route, or we might do something like 'Cheap-to-play'. Our sales methods have been freed up and I have no desire to extinguish that freedom. If we were to release something like that, it is not a betrayal but the birth of an interesting idea through our new found freedom, that's all. I am not talking about changing how we sell Mario or Pokemon.

As per those examples cited at the top of this article, top shelf main entry titles are often being spared DLC. Of those that are having paid extras, the argument can certainly be made that Nintendo's approach has been fair, to date. In the case of retail games with extras, we suspect few would argue that the extra challenges in Pikmin 3 constitute content that should unequivocally be in the main game. Likewise with Fire Emblem: Awakening, a title that is lengthy and enjoyable without any extras — the latter is a sticky point, however, as paid DLC in Awakening can provide substantial boosts to accelerate progress and ranking up.

That perhaps best represents the slippery slope on which Nintendo has to maintain balance. Its free-to-play efforts, meanwhile, outlined above — or 'cheap-to-play' as Iwata-san may prefer — both represent steady and relatively generous packages. Sub Wars actually delivers a fair amount in the free package, and while individual subs are relatively aimless purchases, the full option is attractive for those immersed in the experience. Rusty's Real Deal Baseball is different in that it rewards consistent play and a small investment with a lower cost for more content, through haggling — the initial free content is far less substantial, however. In both cases they adopt either generosity or quirky tweaks to the formula, and as stated by the Nintendo President in 2013 these experiments are kept to new or less-known IPs.

The notable recent example is DLC for Mario Golf: World Tour, which attracted some critical comments upon its reveal due to the very obvious detail that the first pack arrives on day one and includes two full 18-hole courses. It's day-one DLC that often frustrates gamers, as it's clear that this isn't extra content developed after launch, but rather pre-prepared and ready along with the core game. It raises the inevitable question of why it's not simply part of the retail package.

Nintendo's clearly aware of this, as the press release was decidedly cautious and defensive in tone. Before it detailed the three DLC packs and the three-pack set — bizarrely called a "season pass" in North America — the statement pre-justified itself by highlighting the 10 courses included in the core game. The message was simple, that the company was adding extra options to a full package, even being at pains to highlight that the main game's content is equivalent to series predecessors. The company is aware of the sensitivities of day one DLC, and tried to tackle the pre-conception held by some that it's unjustified.

The question gamers should ask themselves, and one we'll address in our review, is whether the core content of the game is — as Nintendo suggests — the expected level that's expected of a retail game; one at a reasonable price on 3DS, too. The DLC appears to contain reasonable value for money, meanwhile, with each individual pack adding two full courses and a playable character; European gamers will also have a chance to grab the three-set pack at a lower rate, an option unfortunately not included in North America. Yet it's a sticking point for some, and by definition the optional nature of the World Tour packs will mean a good number will resolutely stick to the main game.

It's the latest of a fairly busy 2014 of paid download content from Nintendo, on 3DS at least, when you consider those free-to-play options. One arguably pointless option not covered yet, showing that Nintendo is still figuring this side of its business out, are the matches that can be bought in Nintendo Pocket Football Club — they're somewhat hidden away and irrelevant. It's perhaps an example of unnecessary DLC, the type that can draw criticism; the saving grace is that the title doesn't actively plug it to the player.

As Nintendo looks to maximise profits from games, we're likely to see more extra content seeking our credit card numbers. Nintendo is gradually ramping up its activity with DLC and dabbling with new pricing models, so it's likely to be just a matter of time until a higher percentage of games are brought in. The question is whether Iwata-san will be good on his word that core experiences will remain untouched; will we have a 3D Mario with DLC in years to come?

This is a situation that'll continue to evolve. What do you think of Nintendo's paid DLC and free-to-play efforts so far?

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