Talking Point: A Virtual Console Revival Could Be Just a Pricing Revolution Away
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Time for some of those new pricing structures promised by Satoru Iwata
When the Virtual Console arrived on the Wii Shop it was a revelation, an official and guilt-free way to download and play classics from across the history of Nintendo systems and even former rivals from Sega and Commodore. It was an opportunity to sample games from consoles that were missed 'back in the day', or for younger gamers to have an easy route into the gaming legacy that's done so much to define the modern era. Retro collectors may prefer to use the original hardware and cartridges, but for plenty of gamers the Wii Virtual Console was an exciting way to enjoy iconic or little-known gems from past generations.
That was in the Wii era, but like the 'Touch' craze that helped lift the DS family of systems to stratospheric sales, exciting concepts typically progress from an era of buzz and popularity to a period of over-familiarity and malaise. This has partly dogged the Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console platforms, though they've had moments of newness that have brought keen gamers on board — the 3DS had a strong start with some excellent Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, while the peculiar arrival of Game Boy Advance titles on the Wii U eShop has, despite the natural thoughts occurring that they belong on 3DS, brought some terrific experiences to the attention of another generation of gamers.
Though debates about the current-gen Virtual Console libraries are worth having and will always be ongoing, we feel it's time to revisit the issue of pricing — gamers are still paying relatively premium prices for Game Boy, NES, SNES and GBA titles. To begin with a defence of this, Nintendo and the increasingly small number of active third-parties on the VC do more than simply dump a ROM onto a download store. We have the various niceties such as restore points and digital manuals, the latter being particularly attractive with colour scans on the Wii U GBA games; in addition there are localisation processes and age ratings to consider. All of these factors come with associated costs, with staff in each respective region no doubt devoting decent amounts of time to complete the necessary formalities.
A problem with this current Virtual Console era, with the honourable exceptions of those GBA games and rare examples such as EarthBound, is that many gamers have already bought or owned a version of the releases, or perhaps think more closely before putting down $4.99 / £3.49 / €4.99 for a NES title on Wii U — the price is a little higher in the UK on 3DS — when there are retail games, download-only titles and other systems all battling over disposable income. The market is tougher now, as a general rule, than when Nintendo swept all before it in the last generation, and the conventional pricing model applied to the Virtual Console seems increasingly out of touch.
A suggestion could be that, aside from top-tier titles that will sell multiple times regardless of their level of exposure — games such as Super Mario Bros. 3 — we need to see a fresh approach to the pricing models for the variety of other excellent games that, arguably, aren't guaranteed sells. While $5 and upwards will rarely feel like impulse buy territory for games that are well over a decade old — though discounts of $1 to $1.50 can be had for those that have transferred relevant Wii data — the moment those prices are slashed in promotions we see a notable upturn.
Take, for example, the Super Smash Bros.-themed promotion running in the Wii U and 3DS eShop stores in Europe over the past week. A new batch has just been announced, but of the first week's deals the winners have been obvious — highly regarded retro games. Top of the Recent Bestsellers chart in both platform's stores in the UK is Mega Man 2; on the Wii U five out of the six Blue Bomber titles are in the top 10, while on 3DS the number is four; you can add Super Punch-Out!! in third place on the home console. Discounts also generally boost sales on all download games, whether DL-only or retail titles, yet it strikes us that when an NES game is the equivalent of $2-3, a psychological shift makes it more appealing as an inexpensive dip for some retro goodness.
What's interesting with the Virtual Console stores is that, due to multiple generations and entries for franchises, we have various IPs represented by a number of games. We're sure plenty would love to sample these games — the popularity of NES Remix and its sequel attest to that — and it seems that Nintendo should embrace that enthusiasm to aim for volume of downloads, rather than maximising profit off each purchase. It's not just about discounts, but new models could be used to make the Virtual Console an indispensable extra in the eShop.
One option is a subscription service that entitles gamers to choose a set number of games per month at a reasonable discount — $10 a month (renewed each month, not an ongoing or annual commitment) could perhaps allow picks of three GBA games, three SNES, four NES or a mixture across platforms, with equivalents also incorporating the 3DS store; Nintendo Network IDs could allow switching between systems when working towards an allocation. It could be a lot more generous, of course, especially when comparisons can be made with the PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold offerings. We suggest this model for the Virtual Console, initially, simply as it would be easier on a logistical and royalty level for Nintendo, with the number of involved publishers far smaller. This would also play into Nintendo's general policy of trialling ideas before rolling out on a larger scale, as a big N equivalent to PS Plus — assuming it can be made profitable and that it would likely have a rather different form — across new games would also be an exciting development. The key here is that there'd be plenty of bang for buck on retro games.
Another option, that'd also be simpler, would be to simply lower the pricing categories — they're still, in terms of core cost, the same as on Wii. Bundles could also be an option as the libraries fill out: grab all six Mega Man NES games for $10-12, or Super Mario Bros. 1-3 for $5-8. We've already heard Nintendo talk of potentially supporting 3DS and Wii U cross-buy on Virtual Console games in future, which would also be hugely welcome.
It's less a debate about whether these older games should be devalued, but more about assessing the reality of the current market, especially in an era when emulators and ROMs are also around on PCs, phones and so on. Nintendo is entitled to charge for its content, but we're in a different gaming world from the days of the Wii's service; perhaps the target should be mass sales, rather than reasonably high prices in smaller numbers. We're not convinced Nintendo's anywhere near ready to simply lower its standards of presentation and dump masses of content onto its stores without the bells and whistles, but it can do more to entice us to the options that are in place.
A number of the all-time bestsellers on the eShop are Virtual Console titles, in all cases the 'usual suspects'. Yet we feel some complaints and the lingering apathy around the VC would lift with a pricing revolution. It's not as if Nintendo hasn't hinted at pricing ideas that will reward gamers for their loyalty and spending. Satoru Iwata, in the January investor briefing, spoke of developing "flexible price points" and new pricing schemes to tackle the current market. If the company needs a testing ground, the Virtual Console would be ideal.