17 April 2009

WiiWare: Nintendo's Third Party Sweatshop.

A simple firmware update was all it took for WiiWare's Strong Bad sales to double, substantiating claims that prospective customers worldwide had long run out of storage space.

Telltale CEO Dan Connors posted:

"Nintendo's new solution really opens the door for players to add to their collection of downloadable games, which is critical for a series with multiple installments. This is a major step forward for episodic gaming. We're looking forward to even greater success on WiiWare with Strong Bad, as well as other projects."

Dan sounds very positive about Nintendo's 'solution' to the problem that they themselves created, but what about the sales they could have made before now? Were all prospective buyers waiting in the wings last week, or did Telltale lose some custom when the iron was hot? Only future sales figures will tell. It is well established, though, that a majority of software sales are made within the first few weeks of release, even for episodic content. Other, less fortunate WiiWare titles - the dates dictated by Nintendo themselves - have since been buried in a sea of newer releases.

Strong Bad performed strongly, but how did the others do?

Strong demand for a Wii storage solution has been well-documented throughout the games media and blogging communities for well over 18 months, but it wasn't until the Game Developers Conference 2009 that Nintendo finally announced the addition of SD memory card play for the console.

This shot in the foot to downloadable game sales was seemingly at odds with Nintendo's minimum threshold policy - developers are required to achieve four-figure sales to qualify for payment - also confirmed at this year's Game Developers Conference.

So, on one hand developers had to sell 5,000+ virtual copies of their software (slightly less in Europe), while on the other, their potential (and target) consumer base was limited from the outset: Nintendo fans with net-ready Wiis, lumbered with hard drives full to the brim with channels, save files, and retro games before the WiiWare service had even launched. Consumers that wanted to spend their money, but not at the expense of games they had already bought. (If they were anything like me, they would have run out of space after downloading their first WiiWare game of import, Lost Winds.) "Cleaning the fridge" became the vernacular for Wii owners who were forced to delete or re-shuffle games they weren't currently playing to make room for new ones.

So many games to not fit on one hard drive.

Online protest was loud in the Nintendo camp, but at every major press event, Nintendo reps would deny the importance and the scope of the issue. After the recent sales explosion of Strong Bad, I think we can put that assertion to bed. NOA president Reggie Fils-Aime [how the hell do you pronounce that, anyway?] and others have dubbed Nintendo fans "insatiable" on more than one occasion, yet here they were demanding the ability to simply purchase games that were already released. That's right, for the better part of two years, Nintendo fans wanted to give Nintendo more money, but couldn't.

Now that Nintendo's panacea has come down from on high, that problem has been solved (well, if you don't mind swapping SD cards in and out), but what about the problem of the indie developer? The indie developer that, for all intents and purposes, has delivered Nintendo free intellectual property for resale; and thanks to Nintendo's dodgy policy and slack response to demand, will never see a cent for their labours? The indie developer whose game sees release whenever Nintendo deems the time is right, whose sales were neutered by the storage problem, and whose title is now buried under a slew of newer titles? Yeah, let's talk about that problem.

Minimum sales = quality control?

Would you believe that this minimum sales policy is to ensure a certain level of quality in WiiWare titles? You heard that right - quality control on the Wii - the irony is almost delicious! I can already think of a more effective quality control method that will separate the sheep from the goats, and net the developers their hard-earned cash: scrap the minimum sales policy and have time-limited demo downloads. That way the developers will earn royalties from the get-go, consumers can discern whether or not they'll enjoy the game, and the demo will expire so that freeloaders will have to download to play it longer than say, a week. It could reduce the sales of a few games here and there, but it wouldn't do so dramatically - any games that don't sell under this system probably wouldn't have made four figures anyway. A more conservative, but less effective solution would be to reduce the minimum sales required, but I guess that's a decision Nintendo would have to make 'out of the kindness of their hearts.' Either way, it's high time Nintendo loosen their grip on WiiWare. They've been happy to strangle their own profits for so long, would it kill them to share the love?

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