Nintendo is rapidly disproving the suggestion that it's behind-the-curve or old fashioned in the download gaming space. Aspects of the company's decision-making remain cautious, but the Wii U and 3DS eShop stores have not only brought Nintendo up to speed with a number of modern conventions, but in some aspects have led the way. When you look at the stores now and compare them to, say, the first month of the 3DS eShop, the differences in approach and content variety are stark.
Nowadays free-to-play titles are available, Nintendo has run early online trials through its Splatoon Global Testfire, there are frequent promotions of various kinds, we've had some cross-platform and cross-buy titles, and the recent E3 [email protected] promotion served up early demos for some promising titles. Nintendo has shown initiative in freebies and discounts - in the form of 3DS HOME Themes, free downloads for other games - to drive us to the eShop, and the North American subsidiary led the way in making the big N the first console manufacture to adopt the Humble model in the Humble Nindie Bundle.
Those are the consumer angles, but the stores - in particular on Wii U - have also done a lot to encourage developers. Indies having control over pricing and promotions was a key change from the DSi / Wii era, and the Wii U's support of Unity and code such as HTML5 in the Nintendo Web Framework has combined with easier approval processes to welcome a sizeable group of new studios into the marketplace. As we've discussed before, this laissez-faire approach to quality control - ie not much actual quality control - has had both a positive and negative impact.
The latter plays into the focus of this editorial, as Nintendo of America's Damon Baker has stated that Nintendo is exploring the possibility of an 'Early Access' program for the eShop. Early Access, for those not 100% sure on what it means, is fairly self-explanatory and is an ever-present in PC gaming - you can 'buy' a game before it's finished and start playing through early builds, enjoying the game for longer before eventually getting the final version like everyone else. Conceptually it's a little like a new breed of pre-order that is a vital tool for independent developers in particular, though multinational and sizeable publishers also utilise the model.
Early Access can, like download gaming in general, be a mixed bag. Recent examples of early access I've personally enjoyed on Steam - both relevant with upcoming Wii U releases - have been Assault Android Cactus and The Next Penelope. Both were in excellent shape from day one but had limited modes and content, and have evolved over time; in the case of Assault Android Cactus it's been in early access for nearly two years, but it's been noticeably evolving and improving in that time, with the development team posting regular blog updates ahead of its upcoming full release. The Next Penelope has now had its full release on Steam.
In the best cases such as these - with skilful, diligent and dedicated developers - early access is fantastic. Not only do you help the developer pay bills by 'buying' ahead of time, but you learn a little of how a game comes together. You see new content get added, but you get to experience tweaks in visuals, physics and mechanics as improvements are made. With studios like these there's a real sense of community, and you can feel the passion of the work in each updated version you play.
That's the good side, but Early Access is like a bloated, slightly out-of-control crowdfunding concept in that it offers no guarantees. This Games Industry.biz guest editorial from last year does a great job of highlighting a major risk - that a number developers (a majority, actually) simply don't deliver the goods. Games can drift through early access for too long, never get truly 'finished' and then just get dumped out as a final product when it's no such thing. Developers like Witch Beam and Aurelien Regard are shining examples of the merits of this concept, but there are plenty of others that are amateurish, greedy, lazy or a mixture of all three.
Damon Baker, in that interview with Polygon in which he admitted Nintendo is exploring its options, acknowledged this very issue.
Working out some of the kinks, the server loads or what matching those expectations so that it's a prime experience when it does, when the full version actually launches. So there could be some benefits there, but I think it's a very sensitive topic, because you wouldn't ever want to ask for money for something that doesn't become fully-realized.
The Steam early access platform, even with the supposed buffer of the community votes in the Greenlight process, is full of legendarily bad examples - games writers and personalities such as Jim Sterling have established careers highlighting these woes, such is their prominence.
If we were talking about the eShop in its younger days, I'd probably be up for the idea of early access, as there seemed to be some degree of quality control. Now, however, I shudder to think of the horrors and half-finished buggy messes we'd see if the door was opened to the concept.
It's become painfully clear, especially in North America where the ratings system is free and easy-to-use - Europe's will likely be similarly simple relatively soon - that Nintendo's quality control actually revolves around the 'lot-check' list that insists a game loads and fulfils painfully minimal criteria. The big N evidently doesn't actually check that the game is of a certain standard, based on some efforts we've seen, particularly those born out of the Nintendo Web Framework.
That's a whole other debate about quality control and whether there should be any gate-keeping, but the key point is that early access will exacerbate the problem. If downright awful games are flogged on the eShop now, we can only imagine how some developers that are still learning on the job will jump at the chance to take money before they've even finished making the game. There will always be gaming enthusiasts that leap at a concept like early access, and it won't be long before plenty are burned by shoddy practices and unfinished games. Much like Steam's image has evolved from being a beacon of PC gaming at its best to being a no-holds barred, slightly messy store, the Wii U eShop's reputation would be at risk.
I don't think that Nintendo will ever truly moderate or quality-check eShop content again, not beyond existing checks - it requires too many staff members and too much time. It could be argued that it's a backwards approach, anyway; part of the eShop's dynamism and the discovery of hidden gems comes from that democratised approach. For all of the pros and cons, perhaps that shouldn't change.
Early access would have to be different though. It's a transaction reliant upon trust, which can be wonderful - like the examples we gave with Assault Android Cactus and The Next Penelope - but can also be a disaster. If the doors are wide open for the eShop, fair enough, but I'd argue for an early access program that demands specific standards for access. A history of successful releases, an established relationship and respectability with Nintendo itself and the community. In the past I've said there are 'Indies' spelled with a capital and 'indies'. The latter are plucky yet - to be blunt - limited developers that are early in the learning process, and though they can publish with relative ease on the eShop, early access should be a privilege to be earned.
Nintendo's happy to register and monitor YouTube creators, for example, so developing a potential whitelist of approved eShop developers for early access shouldn't be beyond scope. Just because Steam seemingly doesn't have any limits on who can release early access games, doesn't mean that's the right way.
If we're going to take a punt on a game and buy it early, we should do so with genuine confidence - Nintendo and Nindies are more than capable of making it work.