Video game fans should feel honored: Nintendo feels comfortable enough with us to open up about its worries for the coming generation of handhelds. Visions of Apple and iPhone dominance keep the company awake at night, and with good reason. Though Nintendo is rich and savvy enough to hold its own in a rapidly shifting market, Apple puts forth some convincing reasons to buy an iOS device instead of a 3DS. One of the biggest reasons: Dirt cheap games. Nintendo relies primarily on physical distribution for its biggest titles, and they sell–but for how long?
“We’re still in a world of retail,” David Perry, the CEO of the Gaikai cloud-based game service said in episode two of Game Theory. “People are still going to retail stores; they’re standing outside before a new product launches. That’s the way it’ll be for the short term. But in the long term, the industry is going digital, and it’s going digital very quickly.”
Too quick for Reggie Fils-Aime’s liking. The CEO of Nintendo of America recently talked to GameTrailers about his growing concern over “disposable” games–games that cost a buck or two for a few hours of entertainment, therefore skewing the player’s perspective on what a video game should cost.
“I actually think that one of the biggest risks today in our industry are these inexpensive games that are candidly disposable from a consumer standpoint,” Fils-Aime said. “Angry Birds is a great piece of experience but that is one compared to thousands of other pieces of content that for one or two dollars I think actually create a mentality for the consumer that a piece of gaming content should only be two dollars.”
You’d expect Reggie to say as much. After all, Nintendo will be hocking 3DS games for $30 USD and up. But there’s something to his warning, too. The App Store has a whole lot of games that are barely worth the $.99 asking price. That’s not even including the clones, the imitators, and the out-and-out rip-offs of previously published games. Indeed, the App Store is a double-edged sword (or maybe a double-edged store?): It makes game programming and distribution far more accessible than it has ever been, but a only the rare few developers truly understand what makes a game fun. And when a studio is already having a hard time functioning on a budget that pays its workers with paperclips and bits of string, quality control doesn’t go far beyond, “Does the game work, mostly? Good, get it out there.” The problem is compounded by the allowance of patches and updates, which make it far less vital for developers to get everything right the first time.
There’s another layer to Reggie’s comments as well, though it’s hard to say if the implications are intentional. Nintendo is fighting a fierce battle with piracy, a problem that stands to get worse if games are increasingly thought of as disposable. The Internet renders merchants and corporations faceless: We don’t see the storekeeper behind the counter, we don’t consider the work that went into packaging and shipping music, games, etc. If consumers feel like they’re entitled to 99-cent games, downloading one for free won’t prick at their conscience because heck, Nintendo can shoulder a lousy dollar, right?
On the other hand, Reggie and Nintendo should already realize that not everything on the App Store markets for 99 cents. Some of Square-Enix’s offerings reach the $10 mark, and are high-quality titles that would fetch a much higher price as a retail release on the Nintendo DS or 3DS. Maybe that already has Reggie and Nintendo worried, and/or has inspired Nintendo to think about the future of game distribution. The company has a lot of work to do if it wants to catch up to what Microsoft, Sony, and Apple have already started.
“When big changes happen [in the games industry], the bigger, more established companies are the ones that have a harder time turning the ship. If you’re in a big boat, you can’t just do a 360,” said Clint Hocking, a Creative Director for LucasArts, in the second episode of Game Theory. “The minute you start saying ‘No, that’s wrong, we need to protect the way games are now!’, you’re toast.”