It may not be a trend that suits creators, but the public don't like paying for things as much as they used to. It's the great revolution that the internet has delivered - news is free, lots of video streaming is free or has a lower monthly cost, so as a result gamers want their content for less. There's little point in wringing hands and despairing over the loss of value in creative endeavours - it's the reality, for better and worse.
Nintendo, of course, has been adapting to this reality. The common misconception is that the big N is entirely rigid and old-fashioned, refusing to get with the times and still trying to squeeze out profits from old models. That's a lazy and inaccurate perspective, even if the big N shows a little more resistance than other companies at times. While it still places a premium price on retail games, it's taken to expanding those titles with free updates (Splatoon, Super Mario Maker, Splatoon 2, ARMS etc) and adopting extensive paid DLC with others. No franchise is excused from modernisation, whether fans like it or not, with even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild having its own expansion pass. Perspectives vary on all of this, but considering how prominent and successful games as 'services' are (ie games that keep players engaged long term), it's no surprise that Nintendo is joining in.
Let's not forget, either, that Nintendo has dabbled a fair bit in free-to-play on 3DS, Wii U and of course smart devices. Mario and Fire Emblem are on mobile, with Animal Crossing to come and rumours that The Legend of Zelda is next. Nintendo invested money in and benefitted from Pokémon GO, and has shifted attention to expanding its brands through theme parks and merchandise. Nintendo may still cause some to scratch their heads, and may still be strategically cautious at times, but it is adapting to survive and - based on recent Switch sales and share value movement - thrive.
Which brings us to the Nintendo Online Service and, notably, its delay from Fall / Autumn this year into 2018. In reality Switch owners may not lose much - an initial version of the smart device app supporting voice chat and lobbies will still come in a free 'limited' form this Summer (probably alongside Splatoon 2). Beyond that online play will be free for longer, and we'll have to wait before we access retro games from the service.
On the downside, that wait is regrettable, but the original offering that we now won't get was rightly panned - on the table was monthly access to one classic NES or SNES game with added online features, before it was to disappear and get replaced by another. It was underwhelming, to put it mildly, and that was pitched at a time when price was still a mystery.
Now, however, we know that a year of the service with be $19.99USD, or carry higher rates for shorter-term deals. The key, though, is that subscribers will have ongoing access to 'a compilation of classic titles' that they can download and hang onto for as long as they're paying into the service. Three NES games were confirmed initially, (Super Mario Bros. 3, Balloon Fight and Dr. Mario) but the collection will surely grow.
Considering the offering, the 'value' it offers is absolutely relative to the kind of gamer in possession of the Switch; many of us will no doubt love to have old-school classics available (with some online features added) that we can play at home or on the go. It'll be like all those ACA Neo Geo games, but far cheaper and with a Nintendo charm. Of course, like with Sony and Microsoft systems it'll eventually be necessary to subscribe to simply play any games online, so it'll be a modest outlay for the privilege. Whether it is good value over the course of the year will very much depend on the growth of the retro digital 'compilation', and how the 'Nintendo eShop deals' part shapes up.
If the offering and paid features look familiar, that's because it's basically the same as PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold, only cheaper and without 'modern' free downloads. Nintendo's updated proposal came, we suspect, as a response to initial fan feedback to the original pitch and after looking at its rivals. Not only do Sony and Microsoft offer pricier options that include a mix of free current-gen games every month, but Microsoft recently launched its Game Pass at $7.99USD a month. Unlike PS Now, which arguably has the downside of streaming the games, the Game Pass lets Xbox owners choose freely from a group of roughly 100 games that they can download onto their hardware. There's debate over whether it's 'worth it' because of the game selection (which will rotate regularly), but it's certainly a disruptive product, blending the Netflix approach with downloads rather than streaming.
Nintendo, ultimately, had to go cheaper than its rivals, as the Switch simply does not have the library (and won't have for quite some time) to offer full modern downloads. In limiting its free games to retro initially, Nintendo also ensures it doesn't need to pay out notable royalties or fees to third-parties; in the early days it can churn through its own retro content at limited cost.
By opening that Pandora's box, though, Nintendo puts itself in a position where it'll need to re-assess and revolutionise its approach to a prospective Virtual Console; that's a theme we've tackled quite a few times in the last couple of years. In moving with the market to offer 'free' content through a subscription, it then puts pressure on anything else it offers as part of a prospective Virtual Console.
The subscription service, in theory, will offer 8- and maybe 16-bit content at a 'free' rate, which is fitting in this post-NES Mini world. Yet even with newer offerings it'll be interesting to see Nintendo's approach, for example if GameCube titles finally arrive. Perhaps the 'eShop Deals' part of the subscription will be a default discount on first-party Virtual Console games, making 'new' VC titles exclusive to the Switch generation a little more tempting in price. Nintendo has kept a premium price on VC games for three generations of hardware, but perhaps the progression of the games industry will draw them into lower prices and incentivised deals through the Online Service and My Nintendo.
The fact that batches of games will be included with subscriptions may also open the door to other 'bundles' or compilations, another idea we've floated in the past to shake up how Nintendo sells us retro games. From the NES Mini, to tempting releases like Capcom's Mega Man Legacy Collection and the impact of heavy sales and deals through the likes of Humble Bundle, it's increasingly common for platform holders and publishers to shift some content at bargain rates to win over fans. Again, some may say that's not a 'Nintendo-like' way of doing things, but we've seen the company start to adjust to these realities in various ways.
What the Switch offers, at the end of it all, is a way for Nintendo to re-address how it seeks money for old rope. Of course there are expenses to cover in converting ROMS, creating manuals and so on, but ultimately the Virtual Console can be a resource. It can be a source of pleasure and goodwill among Switch owners, and even be a (small) selling point of its own. With the gradual decline of output and buzz of Virtual Console games on Wii U and to an extent 3DS, it's time to shake things up.
The Nintendo Switch could deliver the ultimate Virtual Console; here's hoping that reality will take shape in 2018.