Talking Point: The Wii U eShop is Raising Tough Questions on Quality Control
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Accessibility is generally considered wonderful, but has its downsides
In the coming weeks we're going to tackle a tricky issue here at Nintendo Life, in which we look at the direction of the Wii U eShop and ask whether a change in structure is required. In general the store shows excellent support for all download games, providing each and every example with a spotlight and decent store placing — at least in launch week — alongside its contemporaries. We've long praised this, and trumpeted the value of support for toolsets like Unity and the Nintendo Web Framework.
Nintendo Life is a site that, as part of its history and future, has always been supportive of Nintendo download platforms, with our policy of reviewing every download game still in place as one of our integral goals. It's also a young marketplace, particularly for Nintendo, after its early but flawed WiiWare and DSiWare platforms, plus the revolutionary — at the time — Virtual Console offerings; this eShop era has seen Nintendo's policies evolve further, with far more welcoming terms allowing more developers to join. The 3DS eShop remains a little more limited in appeal to developers than its home console brethren, simply due to accessibility — it takes more advanced programming skill and experience to develop on the portable, at present. That barrier of entry is lower on Wii U, however, with Unity being joined by the accessible code bases — such as HTML5 — of the Nintendo Web Framework, with tools existing that minimise the amount of technical proficiency that's required, and in theory opening the door to an exciting new group of 'indie' developers.
Yet that's the topic we're raising here, and one that we'll assess with developers in the weeks to come. The question is simple: is the Wii U eShop platform now too accessible? Is Nintendo's desire for content on its stores, and its laudable efforts to enable developers with the tools and support they need, bringing us a negative flipside of titles arriving on the store that shouldn't be there, games that aren't good enough for a home console experience? This very topic is contentious, we're aware, but we also like to think that our efforts in covering the download sector for many years entitles us to tackle it fairly.
We'll be giving developers of various sizes and status to pitch in on the topic, but let's outline the core issue at hand to kick off the debate within the community. What level of quality is acceptable for a game on a Nintendo home console? Where do we draw the line between applauding plucky developers and questioning their place on the hardware? Should the eShop have standards of 'premium' content, or be open to all games, allowing consumers to ultimately decide?
When the Wii U launched, this writer clearly remembers a conversation with a valuable former member of the team — who's since moved on to exciting new things — around the pricing of the eShop's launch line-up. Typically in the £8 - £15 / $10 - $20 range, the question was raised whether the pricing was a little high, especially to 3DS owners stepping onto the Wii U store and perhaps expecting prices a few dollars cheaper. These were debates the developers and publishers no doubt had among themselves, but in this conversation we agreed on a key point — when you buy a game on a home console, you expect a degree of premium quality that isn't necessarily demanded on a portable device. As a result the pricing seemed about right, and as a whole that opening gambit of games delivered that quality, as most that own Trine 2: Director's Cut, Nano Assault Neo et al are likely to attest. Of those opening half dozen games, our review scores never dipped below seven.
Those that remember the early buzz of that launch month in late 2012 will also remember what followed — a game drought. Enticing, quality download games that weren't from the Virtual Console were few and far between for months, with some poor releases also thrown in. It's taken time for developers, whether utilising their own bespoke engines or those such as Unity, to get their projects finished and out of the door. We'd argue that we've seen some genuine recent quality as a result, with the occasional exclusive and a range of high-end multi-platform releases. There are still games coming through that are well below par, with recent targets of our ire being the My Farm entries flooding into the North American store, along with others such as Fit Music for Wii U.
This year has brought another batch of rather different titles, though, with games brought to the system through the Nintendo Web Framework starting to land. It began with BLOK DROP U, which immediately felt different to its downloadable contemporaries due to its simple presentation, combined with a model of a low price and the promise of free updates. Though the flood of smart device games once expected on the Wii U, as the result of an apparent tool to allow easy porting, hasn't happened — we've only had occasional cross-overs — this brought the iOS style to the system. A quick, accessible, inexpensive download that's basic yet, in this case, works as a reasonable purchase.
In general a number of games through this framework have been decent, functional efforts that, in the eyes of our review team at least, have been worthy of middling scores and cautious recommendations — better examples include I've Got to Run! and GEOM. If they cost less than a cup of coffee and provide up to an hour or more of decent entertainment, they arguably hit the mark, though recent weeks have perhaps brought cause for hesitation. We were critical of performance lag in Internal Invasion, for which the Framework platform itself was partially blamed in responses to our review, we slammed BrickBlastU!, and recently awarded a rare 1/10 to The Letter, which has done much to prompt this editorial. The latter can be beaten in under 10 minutes and, frankly, shouldn't be on a home console platform.
Where it should be, if you were to go back some generations, is on a shareware PC website as a free download. Before 'indie' was a term thrown around with merry abandon, developers that hoped for a career making games would often learn their trade by making free PC games; if you go further back systems like the ZX Spectrum in the UK were a coder's hotbed. Mistakes would be made, early efforts would perhaps be atrocious, but lessons would be learned. Nowadays, as we've heard from developers of various levels, tools have made producing games far easier and, as a result, the coding apprenticeship of days gone by is arguably no longer required, with the possibility to skip ahead — with relatively little funding and capital — to consoles. We'd question whether that's a good thing, however, as learning from mistakes is surely better done with a small userbase on a PC forum, than on a home console download store.
We're in a peculiar scenario in that we not only have some particularly poor download offerings from established publishers and developers, as will always be the case, but also a range of offerings with budget pricing and production values that we'd also consider to be worthy of stinging criticism. It's immediately clear that some of these games are from first-time developers, and the Wii U is their first platform, and an absence of practical experience doesn't seem to prevent these projects being approved. We appear to have gone from an era of Nintendo being too difficult to work with in which experienced studios — such as the Pickford Brothers — can't get in the door, to the opposite scenario where young developers with no record of producing games can release a download onto the Wii U. Has the pendulum swung too far?
We're going to explore whether a middle ground is required, and whether accessibility should mean a door that's ajar, not wide open. Suggestions could include a tiered system on the eShop, where download studios with a track-record and level of quality are in one tier, and those releasing low budget games as a first or particularly early foray into development could be in a clearly marked 'New Talent' section, or a similar phrase. In some senses Microsoft did this with its Xbox Live Indie Games, consisting of titles developed with the accessible XNA tools and were essentially self-published and peer-reviewed.
There were gems from the idea, but also a lot of games that could be generously described as "underwhelming", sometimes awful; yet they still existed in their own distinct area. Those venturing into this area of so-called "Community Games" knew what they were stepping into due to the branding — those distinctions aren't overtly advertised on the Wii U eShop. Nintendo does curate to a degree, with some special categories further down the store page, but recent releases and general windows in the upper half of the store do little to identify retail from download-only, and more importantly downloads of a certain standard from others that — as highlighted above — perhaps don't deserve such generous exposure.
It's a slippery slope, however, which is why we'll draw on the views of developers at various levels in the weeks to come. If single developers or groups of just two or three had been ruthlessly ignored and deprived of the exposure they deserved, the so-called indie revolution may never have happened with games like Super Meat Boy and Braid emerging onto the scene; likewise projects such World of Goo on WiiWare. Again, though, perhaps the tales of these developers began with work at larger development studios, or in making free games and learning from the online community's feedback. It's also worth noting that they were pioneers in relatively young download platforms; the space is now far more populated and crowded.
If you segregate a platform like Nintendo Web Framework, you're also in danger of automatically sidelining projects that, with the increasing power of those tools, deserve to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with games such as Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition.
There is a sense of the download scene beginning to split into multiple tiers all by itself, ultimately. Teams of a few people — or a slightly larger team of a dozen or so — may work on a game for one to two years, and it arrives as a unique, quality experience, while in other cases projects are getting turned around rapidly, whether in these Web Framework examples or other downloads on the Wii U eShop. We've been criticised by some for giving an inexpensive game with a quick turnaround a low score; the argument seems to be that because it's a dollar, was developed in a few months and has free updates on the way, we should be more generous. Yet surely if it's on the eShop consumers are entitled to expect a certain kind of product, or are those shifting sands? Should standards be lowered if it's a certain kind of game? We'd suggest not in various cases, as the core concept of what makes a game 'good' should apply to all, but there are valid counter-arguments.
We do feel that the eShop is in a peculiar place, however, with a range of these inexpensive, low-budget products arriving in North America, particularly; Europe's ratings and localisation requirements have been beyond the scope, so far, for some of the latest generation of newcomers on the store. On the one hand we applaud Nintendo for providing opportunities to those that have never released a game before, or are doing so on a shoestring budget, yet on the other hand wonder whether some titles should actually be on an equal footing with larger, established download developers who's games are, to be blunt, in an entirely different league. From a business perspective, Nintendo must also consider whether the eShop could better present content to put its best foot forward, or whether it should actually be picky in what titles it invites on board, or at least those given significant shelf space. The platform lives and dies, remember, on the quality of its content and how it presents itself to consumers.
These are tricky issues, and we expect an interesting debate. Our goal is to give all sides a fair say, and to ultimately consider whether the eShop's egalitarian approach needs to be adjusted; whether the open gate should, ultimately, have a more stringent gatekeeper.
What do you think of Nintendo's approach to the Wii U eShop library, along with some of the examples above? Do you like the current policies, or do you feel that greater quality control is needed?