Wii U: Essentials for a Competitive eShop

Countdown to Wii U:
– 29 Days Remaining -

As we enter into these last few weeks before the Wii U launch, we approach the eve of what could be a new digital era for Nintendo. For the first time, Nintendo is offering a system for which it is possible for all games – including retail games – to be made available for download on day one. Depending on how many third-party publishers choose to take advantage of the service, this could theoretically mean that you’ll be able to get all your Wii U games without ever going through traditional retail. That’s a huge deal.

Of course, that isn’t the only variable to consider when it comes to Wii U’s eShop. We know a host of download-only content will be available, including both legacy Virtual Console titles and the next generation of WiiWare. We know Nintendo’s focused more than ever on individual user accounts thanks to Miiverse.

What we don’t know is what exactly the Wii U eShop experience will be like. Will it be user and consumer-friendly? Will we feel as though we’re getting the full package with digital games versus boxed physical copies? Let’s explore all the areas Nintendo should consider when putting the finishing touches on Wii U’s online store.

This issue is especially close to me because some of the variables at play could potentially make getting games on Wii U not only more convenient if I buy digitally but more affordable as well. I’ve got a 1TB hard drive sitting, still in its box, next to my TV. I’d be more than happy to use it – but only if I feel like I’m getting a good deal on the content that I download.

A Strong Account System

It all begins with the way eShop accounts will be configured. Right now, with Wii and 3DS, your account is bound to your hardware. If you download something on your launch Wii, you can only play it on your launch Wii. If you download something on your 3DS, you can’t play it on your 3DS without jumping through a system transfer hoop.

If you look at the way the most successful digital games platforms handle accounts, however – I’m talking Steam, GoG, and other PC-based services – you can download any of the games you’ve purchased to any number of supported devices on which you run their services. All you need to do is log in with your account. It’s the same system shared by some of the most popular media services of all time, including iTunes and Netflix, both services where content creators have found very healthy ecosystems that have gained widespread acceptance by consumers.

Part of it has to do with convenience. There’s no reason why I should have to jump through those hoops to access my content just because I have a new device to play it on. But it also has to do with not feeling cheated. If I’ve already bought this content, if it’s digital and therefore playable on any device that has the power to emulate it, then I should own that content on any compatible platform.

A transfer app is a whole lot better than having to re-buy content… but meeting the standard set by the digital content industry as a whole, providing content that customers can keep with them over the years without having to hang onto the original hardware it was downloaded to, is essential if Nintendo wants to create a healthy digital platform.

A Competitive Price Model for Digital Games

I don’t have the exact numbers for how much it costs to get a boxed copy of a game to retail, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s a lot higher than the overhead costs for maintaining an online store. And yet from the example set by the introduction of many retail games to various digital platforms – yes, including Steam – these digital counterparts often cost just as much as physical copies.

People are gravitating toward digital, yes, but digital already comes with its own extra costs – the costs for storage for all those games, whether we’re talking included storage or external storage. Wii U’s already at a disadvantage in this department in particular since its Deluxe Set model only offers 32GB of internal flash memory. If someone wants to buy all their Wii U games digitally, they’re going to need a lot of extra storage – and that’s not going to be cheap. Given that this is the case, I think without offsetting those costs by discounting digital games, we won’t see widespread acceptance of digital downloads on Wii U.

Nintendo recently released promotional images for their eShop pre-paid cards that displayed dollar amounts of $50, $35, and $20. Given that Wii U retail games start at about $60 and 3DS games go for $40, these increments don’t really make much sense. A $35 card isn’t enough to get a 3DS game at full price, but $50 is overkill – and $50 comes up short for Wii U retail prices. Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but Nintendo could have offered $20, $40, and $60 cards instead.

$50 for digital versions of Wii U retail games sounds like a pretty good deal. Of course, nothing is confirmed until we hear it from the horse’s mouth – and if there’s no permanent price differentiation between digital and retail copies, I think digital will see a slow rate of adoption on Wii U.

Whatever happens, it sounds like Nintendo’s trying to entice potential digital customers with the Deluxe Digital Promotion, which gives them 10% back on all download purchases in rewards points, but that will only drive digital for the first two years. What about the years that come after?

Expand the Lineup with Legacy Titles

One of the most popular categories of digital download games is older games. It’s one of the reasons why the Virtual Conosle was such a hit on Wii, why PSone Classics are in such high demand on today’s PlayStation products, and why piracy is such a problem today. People want to play those old games – those who owned or played them when they first released (particularly those whose old systems have kicked the bucket), and even a number of newer gamers who never had access to their original platforms.

Old games are a massive potential goldmine. This is especially true for Nintendo due to their long and storied history. Sitting on a legendary back catalog instead of taking advantage for the demand for emulated versions of those games amounts to literally handing over a treasure trove of games to piracy. Nintendo needs to make their hardware the place to play those older games, and they need to make it a top priority.

Every week they wait to release a game due to their “slow trickle” strategy is another week they’re throwing away its value. These games are not going to change significantly between now and their eventual digital re-release. And since shelf space on a digital marketplace endures forever, I’d say there’s little risk and plenty of potential for reward.

Now that GameCube game discs are no longer playable on Wii U, there’s a whole new platform open for them to use to expand the service. Some rumors have suggested that ‘Cube games are inevitable, but the people at Nintendo have been careful to avoid the subject. We’ll find out the truth soon enough.

A Slick and Functional Interface

Let’s be frank, here: the 3DS eShop is kind of a mess. It seems sometimes as though there’s no real rhyme or reason in terms of what content gets featured and what content gets relegated to the search bars. It’s getting better slowly but surely, but meanwhile Sony’s about to debut one of the slickest-looking online games stores we’ve ever seen.

The dashboard on the new PlayStation Store is simple and clean, with big, bold images, very visible prices, and clearly-defined categories all laid out on one screen – no clutter, no scrolling required. This is a lot closer to what we want out of the Wii U eShop than what we’ve seen so far on 3DS.

Still, the 3DS eShop isn’t all bad. It takes all the right touch screen navigation features from mobile phone app stores and adapts them for its two-screen display. You can use a quick gesture to scroll within various categories and tap software icons to instantly bring up the full details on the top screen.

We expect some level of integration with Miiverse so we can browse through the buzz surrounding the various games we encounter via the store, but we’d prefer that Miiverse not totally overwhelm the shop interface. Hopefully we’ll have the ability to multitask within the Wii U OS so we can move quickly and easily between the eShop and corresponding Miiverse conversations without losing our place in the process.

Bonus: Frequent Game Sales

While I don’t think massive game sales akin to Steam sales are exactly necessary, and actually think that they might devalue the games as much as they grow the audience to the extent that people might just sit around and wait for the sales, I think enough customers are accustomed to them that they shouldn’t be overlooked.

Nintendo introduced the “Month of Mario” promotion on the 3DS eShop in the month leading up to the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2, and I think that sales in that vein could be successful without chipping away too much at the value of the games in the process.

What do you think? Are there any features you’d like to see on the Wii U eShop that I haven’t listed here? Share your thoughts on the subject, including not just Nintendo’s approach but the future of digital as a whole, in the comments section!

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