There's a worrying trend at present, in which ambitious and creative independent developers announce a sizeable Wii U exclusive, and then have to defend their pricing. That's happened twice in recent times with Affordable Space Adventures and - this week - Swords & Soldiers II. We've also had a reliable source in the eShop development community tell us today that, beyond problems with age rating costs in Europe, many developers are struggling to hit 3000 lifetime sales for their eShop games; that's barely enough for the infamous WiiWare sales threshold. Combine these factors and multiple past examples and there's a problem with the eShop that threatens to undermine - in the long term - its diversity and volume of games.
As a key point before this article gets underway, I'll be writing in first-person, breaking the usual Nintendo Life style. It's branded as an 'editorial' as this is more my personal opinion than, for example, a feature I'd produce to represent Nintendo Life. Nintendo Life's official stance is more balanced than my own, perhaps, but I want to really make a point. With that said, let's consider the pricing dilemma of the eShop, those at fault and the dangers it poses.
To reinforce those recent examples cited above, we've seen developers of two Wii U eShop exclusives driven to defend their pricing. When we ran a community interview with KnapNok Games and Nifflas on Affordable Space Adventures the most prominent questions were about the price; in fact, the studio even had to head off the 'it'll be discounted soon' arguments by explicitly stating it will not be reduced in price until Fall at the earliest. We then had Ronimo Games (Swords & Soldiers II) be so moved by the issue that it sent us a statement defending its own pricing.
These games share the same prices - $19.99 / €18.99 / £16.99. That's about a third of a full price retail game in the US, and perhaps about 40% of a retail game in Europe, or half the price of a discount retail game in both regions for Wii U. That's clearly a problem for a number of consumers, but it's also a conundrum with no real answers for developers. In fact, if sales of these games struggle they could act as a warning to other 'Nindies'; we could be kissing goodbye to sizeable eShop exclusives in the future, especially in the home console space.
Paying for creative work is too unfashionable
We're in unprecedented times in media, whether that's books, film, music, newspapers, magazines or video games. The rate of change has been extraordinary; for example, just a decade ago I bought a newspaper every day, and purchased a lot of physical books - as my creaking book shelves testify. Now I very rarely buy a newspaper, I just visit its website, and I spend so much of my time online that books I read are either eBooks or rare 'treats' that I pick up the old fashioned way from a book store.
Like I do when reading my newspaper of choice, you're reading this for free, with the only cost being some adverts that'll occasionally encroach on your screen. Our hunger for free content has taken over our lives and crept into all kinds of media - many stream music for nothing or pay a low monthly price for services, as opposed to actually buying albums. I once setup and ran an eBook business and failed, as my naive goal was for talented new writers to get a modest payment for their work; my inexperience was the killer. Thousands flog their eBooks for next to nothing, and now you can even subscribe to something like Kindle Unlimited to access a whole range of eBooks for $7.99. It's basically Netflix for literature.
The victims here are creators, be in absolutely no doubt of that. Rather than produce a book, film, video game or newspaper and receive a fair one off price from a consumer, the scrabble is over ad revenues, product placements and commissions. The economies of creative industries have changed, and now musicians have to embark on lengthy tours to make money that album sales once did, and even book authors have to earn their crust in public speaking appointments and festivals. It's all about stealth advertising, a life on the road and diminishing returns, and yet many consumers - me included - have the cheek to complain about annoying pop-up ads or excessive product placement in TV shows. As a 'creator' myself in various aspects, I sometimes catch myself and wonder what the hell is wrong with me.
The problem is that video games have more limited options, and often make bad calls in their business practices. Free-to-play mechanics that are manipulative, or offering discounts on games a couple of weeks after release. Yet we are part of that problem, I most certainly am, and we're making creativity increasingly worthless.
Developers and publishers share the blame
I'll break out of consumer bashing for a moment and revert to the eShop stores, and the errors that have been made by multiple publishers and developers that effectively condition our behaviour, as gamers.
First of all, the eShop is rampant with publishers that let their fans down by rapidly discounting games shortly after they've arrived. Most committed Nintendo gamers have at least one example of supporting a game on day one and feeling like a fool when its price is slashed within a month. Some developers are also downright cheeky and use discounts as a bizarre store-front positioning tactic. As I produce two download update summaries a week I see some of the same names with surprising regularity - I often wonder when Atlus doesn't have games on discount, while games like Trine 2: Director's Cut and various titles from Joindots and EnjoyUp Games pop up regularly. These aren't the only offenders and my goal isn't to single them out aggressively, they just spring to mind.
I understand the business logic here - some are manipulating the system to get their games on a 'shelf' regularly through the discounted section. Yet it's a strategy that's damaging, as it's trained eShop gamers to wait and expect - often demand - a quickfire discount. Consumers don't like to feel like fools, and excessive discounting can have that effect.
We also have broader pricing issues. While the Wii and DSi Shop had locked pricing brackets - for better and worse - it's been open season on the eShop. Nintendo's open door policy on content has also had pros and cons: on the plus side we've had a whole range of new developers bring interesting games, but a negative aspect has been some games of undeniably poor quality that should arguably have never made it to the eShop. The issue of quality control has been covered before, but with a focus on pricing we've seen a mix of racing to the bottom and others asking surprisingly high prices for shoddy products.
When you combine factors like these the trust of eShop buyers gets dented, and there's the wider picture as well. Smart devices in particular have made free-to-play and microtransactions a lucrative emerging practice, and these have bled into 'traditional' gaming on consoles. Nintendo is dabbling in both with mixed results, and that also distorts the 'value' of gaming.
With pricing and selling practices in flux, and individual game makers naturally worrying about themselves, we've lost a lot of structure. Gaming used to be simple, with different kinds of games typically having certain price ranges. In the past five years that's all changed, and we get a mess of a marketplace - some are sacrificing the 'value' of their work to try and go viral or achieve mass sales, and others are sticking to their guns and maintaining old-school pricing, deemed to be high pricing by many. Sometimes budget games are right to have a low price - such as Gunman Clive - but not all publishers have enough awareness to maintain a sensible price and value for what they're offering. Pricing across the stores is inconsistent, with rubbish games selling at high prices, gems at budget prices, high quality 'big' games struggling at premium rates, and all sorts of permutations in between.
We, as gamers, share the blame
So, there's been a lot of upheaval and disruption in recent times, but many of the worst practices in game pricing have been driven by us, the consumers. The race to the bottom in pricing wouldn't have happened if the wider market hadn't supported it, and we now have largely negative reactions to pricing that isn't in line with how much we'd spend on a cappuccino. KnapNok Games / Nifflas and Ronimo Games are small businesses that devoted a lot of effort and time into a product, yet when they consider what it's 'worth' the reaction online seems to be "nah, I'll wait for a discount". When did we stop valuing our gaming experiences?
And hands up, I'm part of the problem, I'm a hypocrite. I've bought my share of eShop games at full price to 'support' them, but just this week I uttered the following words in a conversation - "I don't buy anything full price on Steam, everything gets reduced". I can count the number of PSN games I've bought on two hands because I just add PS+ titles to my backlog. Yes, I've been conditioned to do this by Steam and Sony's subscription service, but I've just reinforced these models. I'm a massive contradiction.
I suspect many are, though, and that's what's driven this editorial. I want us to really think about what kind of eShop market we want, and how far we're willing to go to get it. If we want a store of cheap games, slightly sloppy multi-platform ports and constant discounts we should continue our spending habits - I'm referring to the overall userbase, I know some of you aren't following these patterns.
Yet if we want a store with enticing, clever exclusives and a variety of ports that use Nintendo's hardware in interesting ways, then we need to act like it. If a game is $20 and you like the look of it, consider whether you feel the developer deserves to be paid fairly for their work, decide if games have value. It's easy to wait a few months and get something for $10 instead, but even those of us on tight budgets can consciously replace one week's treats with a game at full price. Not everyone has that luxury of extra money that can be saved, it's true, but plenty of us choose to demand our entertainment for free or at low prices, then spend our disposable income on other things.
Games can have value, if we let them
That's our choice though, and we can put our money where our mouth is. That perspective can apply across all sorts of games at varied price ranges; when a developer sets a price, ask yourself - is that price 'fair' and does the creator deserve that trust? If I'd produced a game like this, on my own or in a team with others, would I want others to pay that price? The first question shouldn't be 'when will it be discounted', but 'is this a game I can and want to support at that price?'
Some developers come in too high with pricing, it's case by case, and I've raised my eyebrows at various examples on the eShop. Yet I get frustrated when titles of genuine quality and scope dare to place value on their work and get criticised. My gut instinct is that not all of those criticising the price are asking themselves those questions I've highlighted above, nor have they thought about the consequences of demanding more for less. If creators produce a quality product, we should consider truly supporting it. Behind every game is an individual or team trying to make a living, and the more we devalue their efforts the quicker we drive them away.
Perhaps I'm a hopeless idealist yearning for the days when creators were supported, not simply sources of low-cost or free entertainment. I only hope there are a good number of other hopeless idealists that agree with me.