Wii U: Nintendo’s Digital Strategy Isn’t Convincing Enough

Countdown to Wii U:
– 8 Days Remain -

Though I’ve always been a stalwart defender of the boxed retail model, lately I’ve come face-to-face with some of its limitations. For one, I only have so much shelf space. My entertainment center is already crammed with Wii and PlayStation games, DVDs, and the like – I’d have to retire some of my less-played, less-loved games in order to fit the slew of new titles I’m sure to go after in the upcoming generation. Then, there’s of course the backward compatibility problem. It’s very rare for a game system to support full compatibility with physical games from its predecessor – meaning that if (more likely when) my old systems go kaput, I either have to buy new ones or deal with a bunch of unplayable games.

Given these two constraints, I was really pulling for Nintendo to convince me to go digital with Wii U. I laid out a bunch of proposals in one of my previous Countdown to Wii U articles, “Essentials for a Competitive eShop,” including a strong account system that ensures we’ll never have to re-buy content, a competitive pricing model for digital games, and a wider embrace of legacy titles.

Based on what Nintendo’s confirmed about the eShop in recent weeks, however, the company’s strategy is so far 0-for-3.

Digital games, at least the first-party ones, will cost just as much as the boxed versions. I have to pay the same $60 for a digital copy of New Super Mario Bros. U that I do for a physical one, despite the fact that once I filled up the measly 32GB of storage space with the five or six smaller-size games that would fit (or 1-2 larger games), I’d have to use my $50+ external storage to download more.

The Deluxe Digital Promotion seems to be designed to alleviate this… but let’s face it – two years of 10% back in rewards points just isn’t the same as a flat 10% discount across the board from the get-go.

Third-parties seem to be much wiser about their pricing models, at least in Japan: every single third-party Wii U game I’ve seen pricing for has slashed a good chunk off the retail cost. If these same discounts carry over to the West, I could potentially see myself getting at least a few third-party games digitally… but I’m not particularly keen on splitting up my game library too much between physical and non-physical games. I’d prefer to have as much of my library as possible be accessible right from the system – and if the price deters me from downloading first-party games, that’s a good chunk of the games I’ll likely buy.

This just isn’t a particularly enticing offer; I could use my external hard drive for pictures and home videos and other, more important archival purposes instead. If it meant saving a good chunk of money on all the games I’ll surely buy throughout the system’s life, it could be worth it in the end… but this incentive just isn’t there.

The lack of clarity on how integrated eShop downloads will be with our Nintendo Network IDs is also a concern. We already know that we won’t be able to play downloaded games except for on the system we purchased them for, which suggests that Nintendo’s sticking to the archaic “downloads are system-bound” model they used for Wii, DSi, and 3DS.

The primary draw of a digital account for game downloads is the assurance that your digital content will travel with your account between platforms; Nintendo hasn’t been forthcoming enough about whether this is the case to inspire much confidence in their digital account system. They’ve stated that eShop accounts will be tied to our Nintendo Network IDs, and that those Nintendo Network IDs will carry over to future systems… but does that means the games will carry over, too?

To make matters worse, old Wii Shop Channel content doesn’t appear to have been integrated into the eShop, judging by what appears to be the presence of the Wii Shop Channel in Wii U’s “Wii Mode.” This likely means that all those Wii download titles won’t be connected to our Nintendo Network IDs anyway – instead, they’ll be relegated to some kind of secondary Wii account that isn’t guaranteed to have any continuous relationship with future hardware.

That so many questions simply haven’t been answered yet with about a week to go before launch isn’t particularly reassuring. And since I don’t have enough information to put my full faith in Nintendo’s approach to digital games, I’m fairly sure at this point that I’ll be bowing out entirely. They just aren’t offering enough of the advantages of digital content… while forcing too many of bothersome restrictions.

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