Plastic. We crave it with the voracity of a black hole. We scour the earth for it, from the comfort of an easy chair or the relative discomfort of an hour long train ride to a mom ‘n pop we’ve heard just might have that one elusive trophy we’ve been after for weeks, months, years. We hoard plastic, we cherish it, we display it proudly. We also stretch our plastic as thin as we possibly can so we can keep bringing in more of it. We are the die-hard, we don’t care what you think, and our collections are never complete.
Last week’s investor presentation by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata was a particularly juicy one for fans, and it had nothing to do with the company’s first annual loss since the invention of the d-pad: Nintendo, not Microsoft, would be the next of the big three platform holders to go all-digital, offering day-and-date delivery of physical and download versions of all first party titles for its modern platforms and setting up infrastructure for third-party publishers to do the same.
Really let that sink in for a minute. Nintendo, the company that saw the dissolution of countless, priceless third-party partnerships during the N64 days due to its continued usage of outdated, expensive cartridge technology to deliver its games, is now giving third-party publishers a major incentive to come back: a bigger bottom line. Publishers choosing to offer downloads get to save on production and shipping costs by limiting their print runs; retailer overheads are lower because less space is needed to display and stock product; and best of all, fewer physical copies on the market means fewer used sales to take money away from the publisher. And don’t worry, Gamestop, Nintendo’s got your back, too: you can sell download codes directly through your stores so people can still pay for digital Nintendo games with trade-in credit. Gamers win too, because really, who wants to carry around a wallet full of cartridges and discs when you can just download all your games directly to your system’s memory? It’s the dawning of a new, perfect era where the size of your game collection is limited not by the size of your abode but the depth of your pockets!
I was beyond stoked when I read the news that New Super Mario Bros 2 would kick off this new era of digital delivery for Nintendo, for all the reasons above and more. I greedily scoured Amazon for the biggest, cheapest, most reliable SD card that would work with the 3DS, and delighted at the possibilities of a Wii U with more than 512mb of internal storage. This was the Nintendo I’d grown up with – the one I’d blindly defended all these years in the face of younger, hipper gamers uninterested in larnin’ they roots – finally growing up with me.
Then I got home, dropped my bag onto the couch, walked into my bedroom, and took a look at my game collection. And it hit me: I can’t really do this…can I?
Just look at all that plastic! Sparkling clean cartridges! Beautiful boxes! Plucky mascots and Gameboys galore! Sure, I could download a new Mario game and it would play just the same as a physical copy, but who would know that I bought it? What group of like-minded strangers could I wow with the scope of my collection? Worse yet, would I be okay knowing that I owned the game but could never slot it in between New Super Mario Bros and Okamiden on my designated “portables” shelf, or would I end up buying a cheap physical copy years later to satisfy the insatiable craving to catch ’em all?
Beyond the sickness of my own collecting habits, the mentality of longtime fans like me presents an interesting challenge for Nintendo. It speaks volumes that the company is willing to embrace such radical change to their way of doing business, but in order to satisfy its stockholders, the company really needs to demonstrate that it can get through to consumers with its new digital offering. And the best way to address the concerns of people like me? Look to the past to define the future. Make digital collecting just as fun, flexible, and addictive as physical collecting. Here are a few subjects Nintendo needs to address to make this a reality.
Digital Rights Management. Here’s an obvious one: device-independent account access. It’s certainly great news that I can download full-sized Nintendo games instead of buying them at retail, but what happens if I decide I want to add a second 3DS to my household, or trade up for whatever next iteration Nintendo has in store? What if…gasp….the Wii U ends up getting a 3DS emulator for compatible TVs (ala the Gameboy Player)? I’m all about options, and if a downloaded game actually has more flexibility than its physical incarnation, you can bet I’ll be making the switch, and probably replacing all my existing games as well. It happened with music and it’s happening with movies and books – there’s no reason it can’t happen with games, too.
Of course, this is all a pipe dream right now, since Nintendo is still tying downloads to specific consoles. But if Nintendo wants its digital offering to take off in a major way, it’d do well to follow Sony and Apple in offering consumers more freedom with their content. There’s actually a significant amount of amazing content on the 3DS Virtual Console, but as long as that content remains incompatible with the Wii Virtual Console, I’m probably just going to keep playing real cartridges, which go anywhere there’s a compatible cartridge slot.
Region Locking. Drop it, or at the very least, allow gamers to switch between regional eShops and download titles that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to in their territory. Worst-case scenario: you have fewer purchases if, and when, these titles eventually come out in a user’s native country. Best-case: hard-core fans who can’t read Japanese but really want Fire Emblem NOW will sample the game at full price, show it off to their envious friends, and then buy it again when it comes out in their native language.
Presentation. For crying out loud, will somebody please figure out a way to make digital collections look cooler? Publishers don’t want you buying virtual goods only to play them, beat them, and delete them. Publishers want your friends to salivate at the sheer awesomeness of your collections so they’ll go home and buy them for themselves. Yet, look at any console stocked with downloadable titles, and you’ll almost always see a variation on the same boring theme: a shelf with cover art, number of players, the publisher’s name, and maybe a brief description of the game, if the publisher can be bothered to submit one.
Presentation done right.
Nintendo, you can do so much better. Think about the iPad, and how much effort Apple put into rendering the stitching on its Calendar app, or the torn off pages in the Notes app. It looks nice, to be sure, but does it really serve any purpose? Well, yes: it shows that the designers put a lot of thought into their user interface. But it goes even further where Nintendo is concerned, because so much of the joy of collecting games is derived from getting something cool to look at before you even start playing.
Imagine, starting with a series of collections, arranged to your preferences – all Mario games, for instance, or all 16-bit RPGs not developed by Square. Now, instead of selecting an icon adorned with a game’s title screen, you actually get to interact with a fully rendered game box. Rotating it around reveals thumbnails which, when clicked on, become making-of-footage, concept art, or links to Iwata Asks transcripts. Opening the box and removing the contents inside allows you to read the instructions (which would fold open like honest-to-goodness paper manuals), view tastefully minimal ads which would link to other games, or play the game itself by inserting it into a virtual representation of its original console. Wouldn’t this kind of presentation encourage you to throw a few extra dollars at Nintendo?
Maybe I’m going a little overboard here with the brainstorming, but in truth, I’m just thrilled – and a little scared – to see what Nintendo’s approach is going to be. It’s wonderful to see the company embracing the future in such a huge way, but in order to move beyond merely surviving the digital transition, Nintendo has to get back to doing what it used to do so well before PlayStation came along: it’s got to set the pace for the entire industry. Nintendo’s already going places I don’t think anybody ever expected to see them. Now they’ve just got to run with it.