Nintendo vs. Free-to-Play: Dumb Move?

Nintendo vs. Free-to-Play: Dumb Move?

Nintendo has two new video game systems under its belt: The Nintendo 3DS, and the Wii U (a work in progress). Now’s the perfect time for the veteran company to adopt the newest, hottest trends going on in the games industry. Say, for instance, some free-to-play titles on the Wii U and/or Nintendo 3DS?

Nintendo already has an answer for you: No, never, not on your life.

“Nintendo is not interested [in free-to-play],” president Satoru Iwata told the Wall Street Journal shortly after E3 2011. “We have no intention to provide a property to any other platforms, or making them available in a mode that does not require consumers to pay at all.”

Iwata went on to say that Nintendo is trying to “maintain the overall quality of video games,” and does not want developers to simply park freebees on its platforms. “If we were simply going to say OK, the only the way we could sell more products is by decreasing the price, then there wouldn’t be a bright future and the entire industry will fold,” Iwata said.

“There are great examples of advertising and doing the microtranscactions, and several companies who have come up with [free-to-play]. But on the other hand, if you ask me, is this a system that can be sustained for the long time? I don’t know the answer. And, my point is that I’m not willing to go that direction, as well.”

It’s highly unlikely we’ll see free-to-play content out of Nintendo, at least on Satoru Iwata’s watch. His resolve is certainly admirable: Though Nintendo isn’t above recycling games for a few bucks (hello The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D), it seems to be against the quick, sure cash that free-to-play games command. But should Nintendo be commended for “maintaining” the quality of video games, or is the company just being too bullheaded to realize that free-to-play games are simply another way to play?

Doubtlessly Nintendo is missing out on a great deal of revenue by shunning free-to-play: A Facebook-driven Pokemon game is a recipe for instant success. And every second Nintendo hesitates to bring its own properties into the world of free-to-play, an imitator rises up to cash in (Monster Galaxy, MisCrits, MinoMonsters).

Sounds like the worst kind of missed opportunity, but Nintendo has always done its own thing–and that business model, though far from perfect, has served the company exceptionally well since it began programming video games. In an era where Japan’s stake in the games industry is stagnating, in an era where one commercial failure can cripple a big studio permanently, Nintendo is seemingly the only company that is not rolling out annual layoffs. Nintendo has more than enough money to turn up its nose at the free-to-play model, and that’s what it’s doing.

Also, adopting the free-to-play model wouldn’t do Nintendo any favors in the long term. So far, most free-to-play games are on PC-based social platforms, and Nintendo is not about to put its own consoles in jeopardy by making a Facebook game. Another option would be for Nintendo to distribute a free-to-play game via the eShop, Wii Shop Channel, and/or whatever market the Wii U will launch with. Still a major hassle, as neither the eShop nor the Wii Shop retain credit card information; conducting a microtransaction wouldn’t be nearly as quick and easy as it is on Facebook or an App, where you can click a button and say “Make it so.” If you had to enter your credit card info every time you wanted to buy something in-game, your appetite for impulse purchases would fall dramatically, and the driving force of microtransactions would be neutered.

As far as the free-to-play model goes, Nintendo has said “No” in addition to digging its claws into the bedrock. Yes, it’s a bullheaded stance, and yes, it’s almost arrogant for Nintendo to view itself as the last great guardian against 99-cent gaming. But the company has good reasons for staying out of the free-to-play market, and if there’s one studio that has earned its right to arrogance, it’s Nintendo.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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