This year’s Game Developer’s conference was a fairly quiet affair where Nintendo was concerned, but if there was one announcement that was going to ruffle the feathers of players, it was the confirmation that the firm would - after years of offering it for nothing - be charging players for the privilege of playing certain Wii titles online thanks to Wii Pay and Play. Although many see this as Nintendo jumping late onto a bandwagon that they surely couldn’t afford to miss, could making the decision at this point in time in particular, as well as factoring in some of the firm’s pre-existing marketing tactics, be one of the cleverest it has ever made?
There is no doubting that Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, first launched in 2002 for the original Xbox console and carried on with the Xbox 360) has set the benchmark for online gaming where home consoles are concerned. Its growth has not been without its fair share of problems, but all in all it has proven to be a massively popular and successful business practice for Microsoft, developers and gamers. Nintendo’s main console competitor at the time, the GameCube, also arrived with the possibility of online play via its Modem or BroadBand Adapter, but Nintendo never looked comfortable at the prospect and only four, third party-only games ever supported it (most notably the Phantasy Star Online franchise).
Fast forward a whole three years later to Nintendo and its intention to launch the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for the Nintendo DS, a service that allowed gamers to experience the likes of Mario Kart DS, Tetris DS and Animal Crossing with players throughout the world - and unlike Xbox Live’s subscription service, it would all be provided free if charge. “It’s no secret that we didn’t invent the concept of online gaming, but we do intend to reinvent it,” explained Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime at 2005’s E3 Expo in anticipation of the service’s launch late that same year.
It turned out that a free Nintendo Wi-Fi service proved to have great pulling power; so much so, that by May 2007 over 5 million Nintendo DS owners had connected to it, clocking up over 200 million gameplay sessions across 65 different titles. By comparison, Xbox Live had attracted 6 million (fee paying and non-fee-paying) members by the same point in time, despite a significant head start.
With the success of online gaming in the handheld gaming sphere secured, gamers waited with baited breath to see just what Nintendo had up its sleeve with the arrival of the Nintendo Wii. The little white box launched in December 2006, but nothing (in terms of player versus player gaming) was made available until the arrival of Pokemon Battle Revolution in May 2007. Since then the likes of Mario Strikers Charged, Madden NFL 08 and Battalion Wars 2 have proven that Nintendo isn’t averse to providing a net-based multiplayer experience on Wii, but clearly nothing to the extent of what is available on rival machines. Take, for example, the omission of online play from the multi-format titles such as SEGA Superstar Tennis, Medal of Honor: Heroes 2 and Mortal Kombat Armageddon and you begin to see what we’re getting at.
Nevertheless, online gaming on Wii is still all provided for free, but disregarding the disc-based shenanigans and its really it is the Weather, News and Internet Browser Channels and, crucially, the Virtual Console that has kept a significantly large proportion of Wii owners in touch with the console’s online capabilities. Checking the latest headlines, weather forecast or exchanging pleasantries via the Wii Message Board pale in comparison to the impact of the Virtual Console, so they do.
Not only has Nintendo successfully managed to keep gamers hooked by drip-feeding them with a small selection of retrograde videogame titles each week, but the simplicity of the service (enhanced by its user-friendly layout) has buttered Wii owners up when it comes to parting with Wii Points. Call us daft, but isn’t purchasing items from the Wii Shop and Virtual Console a strangely enjoyable experience in itself, helped largely, no doubt, by the mesmerising music? We know that a lot of people agree, with Nintendo announcing in October 2007 that more than 7.8 million games had been downloaded. That equals a staggering rate of more 1,000 an hour, maths fans.
And so we come to WiiWare – Nintendo’s answer to Xbox Live Marketplace, where developers are encouraged to create original, downloadable games that be distributed at the fraction of the cost of disc-based titles. With the Virtual Console a massively successful litmus test as to how susceptible Wii owners would be to downloading content and developers flocking to WiiWare’s inviting structure for independent software houses, it seems as if it won’t have any trouble at all in getting off the ground.
Look at Super Mario Bros. (a game they may have owned in various forms in the past). If hundreds of thousands of gamers are willing to fork out for it again, the chances that they might want to own brand new content from Nintendo and an array of other developers on WiiWare is greatly increased. More importantly, gamers young and old, new and experienced, know how to do it without confusion and are happy to do so with the Wii Points currency – something that many Wii owners will testify is easier to spend than a wad of notes on a foreign holiday, where your perception of cost is somehow lost.
All which leads us to the near future and Wii Pay and Play, a service that will charge gamers to experience games online on a title-by-title basis. Many may scoff at Nintendo’s decision, but the fact of the matter is that the move - at some point or another - was inevitable. Despite the deep-set buddy-like affinity that many gamers seem to have with the firm, when push comes to shove Nintendo is a business – and a shrewd one at that. And when one business (Nintendo) sees others (Microsoft and Sony) making easy money through either online play or micro-transactions, it is only natural that they will want to follow.
The difference is that Nintendo has bided its time considerably and waited for all the groundwork to be laid by others. Whether it’s factoring in the ease at which the purchase of digital downloads - be it mp3s, on-demand television shows and the like are made - or the wider-than-ever availability of broadband Internet connections (which had to go some way to the demise of SEGA’s online-enabled Dreamcast console all those years ago), now has never been a better time for Nintendo to begin its own onslaught into the market.
During a lecture at this year’s Game Developers Conference, Nintendo’s Takashi Aoyama explained that the firm will begin to collect “fees for some services that will allow us to adapt flexibly” when referring to the upcoming project. And if Nintendo is continue to compete with the Microsoft Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, without the obvious graphical prowess, it has to match them in online offerings at the very least, something Wii Pay and Play opens avenues up to do.
The introduction of the Wii Pay and Play service and downloadable content, no doubt, going to please third party developers. To take Guitar Hero III as an example, the revenue, longevity and brand loyalty driven by the availability of extra downloadable content and online play is priceless. If this is as successful on the Wii as it has been on the PS3 and Xbox 360, it can only be a positive influence on firm’s to bring their biggest franchises back to the console year after year. A lack of third party supported helped kill off the GameCube in no time at all, and it’s not something Nintendo is likely to want to repeat again any time soon.
Aoyama stressed that many Wii games would remain free to play online and that the boxes for those that were not would be clearly marked with a red Nintendo Wi-Fi logo. Neither a pricing strategy nor which upcoming games might be affected by the changes were mentioned, but having quietly built up an army of millions of willing Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection-playing, Wii Points-spending minions over the last few years, attracting millions of new gamers to the industry and settling them in, all while the concept of playing online for a fee was still being piled upon established gamers in other quarters, could Nintendo waiting until now to unleash its latest online strategy be one extremely clever move?