No WiiWare release dates to mark on your Nintendo calendar!

When WiiWare was first announced Nintendo proclaimed that it would revolutionize the way we buy our videogames. This was more than mere hyperbole; digital distribution undoubtedly allows smaller developers and publishers to get their product to consumers with the minimum of expense. However, it would appear that the process of getting games onto people’s machines is running a lot less smoothly than Nintendo might have you believe.

We’ve spoken to one WiiWare developer (who understandably wishes to remain anonymous) and they have a slightly less positive tale to tell about the way Nintendo handles WiiWare titles. It seems that getting solid release dates is near impossible, and in some cases Nintendo is not even informing the developer until the game is actually available for download. Our contact currently has a highly anticipated game awaiting release, but he commented that he was “completely in the dark” about when it would actually make an appearance on the digital shop shelf that is the Wii Shop channel.

This disappointing practice isn’t just confined to WiiWare distribution, though; in relation to the Virtual Console service, we spoke to yet another publisher who was also clueless about when their games would be made available to the public, largely because Nintendo refuse to inform them of what games will be appearing, and on what date.

Digital Download Vs Physical Media

By removing the need to produce physical media such as discs, manuals and inlays, Nintendo has certainly found a way to reduce costs for developers. But at the same time they have removed the privilege of giving those same developers a ‘release window’ by which they can plan their marketing campaigns. How is a company supposed to promote their WiiWare title when they don’t even know when it’s going to be released? This is clearly a case of poor handling by Nintendo, and it is made worse by the fact that developers are sworn to secrecy and cannot reveal release dates to the public even when they are in the rare position of actually knowing them.

It seems this lack of certainty isn’t just reserved for third-party WiiWare titles, though. Witness the recent confusion generated by Dr Mario’s US release; several leading websites such as IGN gave what seemed to be solid dates, only to change them to ‘TBC’ mere days before the game actually touched down in North America. In the absence of dependable dates from Nintendo, people seem to be resorting to conjecture and guesswork, which can only lead to a lot of very frustrated and disgruntled gamers.

Surely this cannot be the best way to market the service? With Microsoft’s excellent Xbox Live Arcade portal, gamers are told about potential releases weeks and sometimes even months in advance; this allows people to build up a suitable level of expectation for the product and must surely result in healthy sales. Why isn’t Nintendo employing the same method for WiiWare? This whole issue is made all the more annoying by the fact that Nintendo of Japan is a lot more forthcoming about release dates for both WiiWare and the Virtual Console. So why not do the same for US and EU releases?

Obviously this whole situation would be totally unacceptable for traditional non-downloadable games, where consumers are used to release dates with at least a couple of month’s notice. Publishers rely on this so they can market their product and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that traditional distribution methods are carefully planned to maximize potential profits. In around five year’s time perhaps over half of the games we buy will be downloadable (if not more), so will Nintendo’s stance change before that time, or will we still be sat clueless in front of our consoles at midnight, endlessly refreshing the Shop Channel in order to see what games we will be granted?

Moan, Grumble, Moan

Naturally, being the cynical chaps that we are, our grievances don’t end there. In the age of downloadable content, worldwide releases should be the norm. Again, Xbox Live Arcade is a clear indication of this, with games being released in North America and Europe on the same day. Sadly, Nintendo appears to have dropped the ball once again on this issue, with staggered release dates between North American and Europe. And of course, there’s the age-old issue of internal storage; Wii owners are already feeling the strain of holding so many Virtual Console games in their system’s tiny memory. Given the size of some WiiWare games, that problem is only going to become worse. If Nintendo is serious about being a major player in the downloadable videogame business, it has to take steps to address this issue as soon as possible, either with a firmware fix that permits people to play games directly from their SD cards (or USB memory sticks) or via some kind of officially-sanctioned hard drive.

WiiWare (and downloadable content in general) is clearly a topic that is going to cause a fair amount of debate amongst Wii owners, so why not let us know what you think by leaving a comment below? Try and keep the gnashing of teeth and wails of discontent to a bare minimum, if you can.