Talking Point: Nintendo Should Beware the Slippery Slope of Sponsored DLC
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
A harmless way to make money, or guaranteed alienation of fans?
This week Nintendo confirmed the inevitable, and that was Mercedes DLC coming to Mario Kart 8 in the West, after it had previously been announced for the Japanese market. It'll be free in Nintendo's homeland and, we expect, everywhere else in the world, though Nintendo's refusal to use the word 'free' in its social media announcements for the summer content leaves a sliver of doubt. Let's assume that sanity prevails and it will be free, however, and consider whether this is a harmless way for Nintendo to boost income or the beginning of the gaming apocalypse — it could fall somewhere in-between, of course.
Let's start with some context, and the fact that this isn't the first time that Nintendo has entered into a business partnership for branded content in its games. Sticking to modern times, a notable example is 3DS success story Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which has provided plenty of themed gifts for gamers to enjoy. Two examples tied directly into deals with retailers — in North America some content could only be received through accessing the game online within Best Buy stores, for example, though the DLC itself wasn't identifiably linked to the retailer. In Japan the story was a little different, with a similar idea of receiving content in 7-Eleven stores; in this case, however, the items were branded with the store's logo and openly promoted the retailer.
Another example on 3DS is with Mario Golf: World Tour, a title in which Nintendo runs regular tournaments. In this case there's has been branding linked to a Callaway tournament and related in-game gear, combining the well-known real-world golf equipment company with the fantasy of Mushroom Kingdom Links play. This is around the world rather than only in Japan, and again promotes a brand within the game world, albeit without asking for any additional money from the player.
Take a new Mercedes Benz GLA-class SUV for a spin in the Mushroom Kingdom, with a special GLA-class kart planned to drift onto Mario Kart 8 as additional content this summer!
We've used the terms sponsored in the headline and made an assumption that Mercedes is paying to have its kart created and shared in Mario Kart 8; that's based on the logic that, from Nintendo's perspective, the only way this DLC is worth the effort of developing the kart is in exchange for a decent amount of cash. Mercedes clearly values the Mario Kart brand and wants to be associated with it, and will have paid for the opportunity to appear in the franchise — the first 'real' car company to do so.
We've certainly chewed over the relevance of Mercedes being in Mario Kart 8, and in truth we're not entirely sure the match-up makes sense. Nintendo's brand primarily targets families and enthusiastic supporters of the company and its IPs, and here we have a luxury car — albeit an SUV that could be plugged as a pricey 'family' car — getting promoted. It's an odd mix, and a more affordable typical family brand like Ford, or a fantastical aspect such as a race car, would seem more natural. Whatever the thinking of the Mercedes executives, we're not quite sure it works as a product placement 'fit'.
That aside, the presence of sponsored DLC like this in a franchise as significant as Mario Kart does raise a few alarm bells. Beyond the weirdness of it, there are legitimate concerns over where this trend is going for Nintendo; where it will end. Perhaps a new power-up in a future Mario entry will be a can of Red Bull that 'gives him wings', or Super Smash Bros. will have Nike trainers as an item that give greater speed and agility when dashing around in a battle. What we will say as a concession with the examples highlighted above is that they're all optional content that can easily be ignored. As these deals are struck with increasing regularity, though, will that remain the case?
The fact is that sponsored DLC isn't exactly rare in gaming, with plenty of franchises having branded content — Sim City had Nissan items, and there are shooters / action games with branded multiplayer maps. Some titles have blatant brand promotion in-game, too, such as real-life advertising hoardings in driving titles or banners in football games. Smartphones are home to tacky spin-offs such as the Coca Cola Zero-sponsored PlayStation All-Stars Island. The trend is that these are free offerings or incorporated into existing games, as they're ways for major companies to get eyeballs on their brand.
In terms of Nintendo gingerly going down that route, there are multiple perspectives. An outlook of concern is that Nintendo is demeaning brands it strives to protect, which seems particularly relevant with Mario Kart, and that in-game advertising may not fit with what Nintendo's userbase — and particularly parents looking to give their children safe, fun entertainment — expects of the company. Sometimes regarded as a White Knight in a cynical cash-grabbing game market, it's an image that Nintendo tries to promote. Let's consider Satoru Iwata's dismissal of in-game paid DLC in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, for example, saying that he would not allow "unwholesome" extra content along those grounds. Yet is plugging external brands wholesome? It can be argued that it isn't.
Let's not be naive and over-idealistic, though. We may love Nintendo's penchant to prioritise fun and goofy pleasures, and admire its devotion to innovation and unique gameplay experiences, but it's also a major corporation with shareholders and a desire to make a lot of money. In fact, the company's financial losses of recent years has seen it begin a relatively dramatic increase in licensed products and commercial deals. The company seems to be popping up in McDonald's Happy Meals around the world on a bi-monthly basis, and Satoru Iwata has said the company must leverage its iconic IPs in more licensed products. It's only doing what every company does. If anything Nintendo let some of these areas of its business slide too far in the Wii and DS era, raking in the cash from phenomenally successful hardware and, arguably, getting a little complacent in the process.
We don't need to look far to find examples of Nintendo exploiting brand power in the past, either, with the late '80s and '90s delivering products ranging from cereals to lunch boxes. Perhaps uneasiness in these recent deals, like with Mercedes, is that unlike in Happy Meals where a parent can refuse to take their child to the restaurant and the goods are promoting Mario, sponsored DLC has little to do with the game in question. From a gamer's perspective it's unsolicited, and as we've suggested above the question remains as to how easy Nintendo makes it in future deals for us to ignore the third-party product being branded. Is "Nintendo All-Stars Island' sponsored by Pepsi an inevitability? Are examples of Mercedes in MK8 actually worse, as it's unrelated real-world products being dropped into a game that we've already bought? Likewise with Callaway in Mario Golf: World Tour?
It's a tricky subject, especially as gamers and consumers increasingly demand more from Nintendo. Give us Metroid, give us F-Zero, we want more games, we want a big game for both Wii U and 3DS every month. We want, we want, we want. For Nintendo, it's trapped in delivering more content due to losing so much third-party support, for one example, so must spend more money creating games or paying to publish efforts from other studios. Without Wii and DS levels of sales, it needs to find ways to do that while turning a profit. As a result, this kind of sponsored DLC is perhaps inevitable.
As gamers, we probably can't always have our cake and eat it. We can't expect Nintendo's business practices with DLC, free-to-play and more to be squeaky clean while demanding that it spends as much money and produces as much content as rivals. Something has to give, and we get the GLA-class kart as a result.
Where do you stand on this? Are you entirely unworried by sponsored DLC in Nintendo games, or are you concerned that it could go too far and demean the company's brand? Perhaps it doesn't even matter if we get tacky sponsored content as long as the great games keep coming? Let us know what you think.