Why free-to-play could be just what Nintendo needs

In many ways, Nintendo seems to be the least likely publisher to embrace free-to-play. Where other format holders have begun to explore alternative financial models, the company has thusfar held fast to its ideals. Satoru Iwata’s GDC keynote in 2011 may have been widely misunderstood, but equally it was easy to gauge his stance on the platforms that have quite evidently been wooing the expanded market away from Wii and DS.

“The objectives of smartphones and social network platforms are not at all like ours,” said Iwata. “For them, content is something created by someone else. Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible because quantity is what makes the money flow. Quantity is how they profit. The value of videogame software does not matter to them.”

Though Iwata later insisted his message was intended to convey the difficulties in “preserving the value of the games we develop”, these did not seem like the words of a man willing to consider the free-to-play model.

Indeed, when speaking recently about Nintendo’s approach to digitally distributed content, he restated his desire not to release “any products that the customers deem incomplete”. “As we have repeatedly confirmed,” he continued, “Nintendo has never conducted and will never conduct what is widely known as a ‘gacha-type charging business’ which asks consumers to pay money without knowing what kind of item shall emerge as a result of their payment, even if such a business model might temporarily yield high profitability”. Iwata’s belief is that such a model would prevent Nintendo from developing a lasting relationship with consumers, citing Animal Crossing as a game that wouldn’t rely on sales of future downloadable content.

Free-to-play could be just what Nintendo needs

Satoru Iwata delivering the keynote address at GDC in 2011

Perhaps Iwata chose to single out Animal Crossing because it is the Nintendo franchise most naturally suited to microtransactions and free-to-play, with its enormous range of customisation options – from furniture to décor and even the clothing of the player’s avatar. Indeed, Godzilab’s iOS titleHappy Streethas attracted a number of comparisons to Nintendo’s bucolic life sim, and shows just how Nintendo’s game might function using a similar financial model.

While the divisive energy systems that ask players to wait or pay to continue their game might seem like the antithesis of the Nintendo way, you need only look at the friendly warnings in games like Wii Sports Resort to see that Nintendo isn’t comfortable with its consumers playing for too long in a single session. And are such restrictions too different from the likes of Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training, which prevents you from taking more than one brain age test per day? Or eShop title FreakyForms, which limits the number of creations a player can make in a single session? Pre-installed 3DS software like StreetPass Quest and Puzzle Swap are built in much the same way.

Besides, there’s already evidence that Iwata and Nintendo are beginning to soften to the idea of users paying for extra content. Downloadable stages have been promised for New Super Mario Bros. 2’s Coin Rush mode, whileNewArtAcademyis set to offer ‘purchase and play’ add-on lessons. Neither is available at the time of writing, but already the eShop offers dozens of songs for Square Enix’s Theatrhythm Final Fantasy for 90p per track, which shows Nintendo is happy for others to take the lead for the time being. And it means that, should the company have a change of heart and embrace free-to-play, it’d have the necessary infrastructure in place.

Elsewhere, Nintendo has begun to suggest that it might be willing to move towards smaller projects that would arguably suit free-to-play better than legacy franchises like Zelda and Metroid, not least given Miyamoto’s recently stated desire to work on lower budget, more experimental titles. Indeed, it’s perhaps telling that both Iwata and Miyamoto have sung the praises of Rovio’s Angry Birds, with the latter also highlighting iOS title Slice It! as a recent favourite. Outwardly, Iwata might be expressing confidence in Nintendo’s current model, but it would be rash to suggest he isn’t aware that smartphone and social games are eating into his company’s profits, nor that Nintendo wouldn’t be ready to move into the app market if pushed.

There will be post-release DLC for New Super Mario Bros 2. Free-to-play is another matter entirely, of course, but it does suggest Nintendo is warming to the idea

There’s an argument, too, that a move into free-to-play would be less risky for Nintendo than for Sony or Microsoft. 3DS aside, Nintendo is in the unique position of making money on hardware sales – Reggie Fils-Aime has confirmed Wii U will be profitable on day one –  and its roster of popular characters puts it in a strong position. It’s not too hard to imagine a free-to-play Smash Bros  or Mario Kart with extensive character customisation options, with a steady flow of new content – stages, tracks, characters and so on – to keep players playing and, of course, paying. And in Wii U’s Miiverse, it has a ready-made social network to help spread the word. Premium Mii costumes or even StreetPass hats would be the logical first step, not least because they’d be instantly visible to other users.

For now, it seems more likely that third-party developers will use free-to-play models on Wii U rather than Nintendo itself. “We have designed the system from a technical standpoint to allow developers to freely take advantage of things like free-to-play and micro-transactions”, says Iwata, “[but] on the other hand, we put the utmost priority on creating games as interactive entertainment with premium value and on asking the world to appreciate their value”. Yet if those developers begin to enjoy the kind of success that proponents of free-to-play like NaturalMotion, Gree and the rest are experiencing on iOS, it may not be too long before Nintendo is convinced – if only through increasing pressure from investors concerned at its miserable balance sheet – to follow suit. Given how much money there is to be made, free-to-play could be just the shot in the arm Nintendo needs.

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