By Chistopher Warman
And the game Nintendo is reinventing? The business of games.
There exists this perception of Nintendo, shared by both gaming enthusiasts and the general public: Nintendo is old. Nintendo is too cautious. Nintendo makes fine games for kids, but games are not just for kids anymore. Nintendo is running on nostalgia. Nintendo is behind the times. While there is some truth rooted in these generalizations, they enable ignorance to one essential fact: Nintendo is the oldest player in the game industry and a company run by some of the most skilled and disciplined designers, craftsmen, and businessmen in the world. And like any good business, Nintendo is always looking for a problem to solve.
See, there were some major shifts in the video game industry introduced during the last console cycle, the most infamous of which was the concept of paid downloadable content, or DLC, on consoles. DLC has become startlingly prevalent for the bottom lines of game creators of all sizes and, unsurprisingly, frigidly received by the gaming public. To put it bluntly, most people hate DLC. They feel like game creators are intentionally withholding content that would otherwise be in a full- price game for the sake of nickel and diming them later, which is regularly a fair assessment. And, worse, they don’t feel good about their purchase if they do buy in.
The response to these concerns from most companies has been a matter of repackaging the old crap. You can now get “season passes” to access all the DLC for a given game. Companies are hiring “Systems Monetization Analysts” to work with (or replace) their game designers. Some creators are releasing a glut of DLC—like, we’re talking thousands of dollars worth. Meanwhile, Nintendo seems to be posing a riff on their usual question: Can DLC be fun?
In answering this question over the last two years, Nintendo has proven three essential points that will define downloadable content and, by extension, the business of games for years to come.
The value of DLC can and should be to extend the life of a game in meaningful ways.
This understanding is not one that is solely understood by Nintendo, but, for a game creator that’s so retrograde and out of touch, it’s hard to argue with their DLC portfolio. New Super Mario Bros U received the New Super Luigi U DLC, which added 82 stages on top of the game’s original 82 for just half of the price of the initial game. Hyrule Warriors, over several DLC releases, has added eight more playable characters to its existing cast of twelve, as well as new maps and modes. And Mario Kart 8 offers 16 new racetracks on top of the game’s original 32 for only a fifth of the game’s price. The point is, Nintendo is extending fully fleshed-out games and, importantly, extending them in ways that are valuable to the players of those games. With Nintendo’s intimate and extensive relationship with their fanbase, they are well- suited to make smart, targeted DLC for their catalog of in-house games.
The act of purchasing DLC can and should be fun in its own right.
People, in general, enjoy shopping and buying things. And yet people loathe purchasing DLC. Last summer, Nintendo released a game called Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball for its Nintendo 3DS system that attempted to bring the experience of shopping to the DLC purchasing process. This“free” game is a collection of baseball- themed minigames ;the catch is,these minigames have to be purchased with real money and only one demo is free off the bat. However, players can haggle for those minigames with the eponymous Rusty, all the while learning about his pro baseball player youth and his miserable family life. This may sound absurd, but part of what makes shopping at small businesses fun is the connections that are made between people. It’s fulfilling. Sustainable business tends to require customers that don’t hate themselves after doing business with you. Nintendo, with time, could make purchasing DLC as palatable, or even desirable, as shopping in general; that’s a significant and unique paradigm shift.
The functionality of DLC can and should extend across multiple games.
This is the most foreign and radical innovation Nintendo has reached in its DLC odyssey. The traditional understanding of DLC has always been that purchased content adds on to a particular game. But this past holiday season, Nintendo launched a line of multi-game DLC. You may have heard of it: It’s called “amiibo.” Yes, the little plastic Nintendo character figurines that interact with your Wii U and 3DS. You may argue that those toys are not DLC, but they achieve the same ends, including unlocking content that extends a game. The one major difference is a player can buy one amiibo and use it across multiple games. The Mario amiibo, for example, currently adds content and modes to six different games and the program only launched this past November. They’re pretty well-made little statuettes, to boot. And amiibo are selling like hotcakes, to the tune of 6 million in three months, developing quite a community of collectors along the way. If such products become the baseline value proposition for gaming add-on content, it will be Nintendo that was forward-thinking and their competitors playing catch-up.
The best part of this deal for Nintendo is, unlike technological innovations like motion controls and touch screens, these advantages are very difficult for competitors to replicate. Only Nintendo can achieve these facets because of an infrastructure that has grown over more than century and an unparalleled level of control over their platform ecosystems. Outdated as the company may seem, to solve the problems facing the game industry and medium, Nintendo’s unique perspective and values are essential and should be respected and studied, not ridiculed. They certainly understand at least one thing their competitors seem to struggle with: games may be a business, but, they’re still about people having fun. And fun is good for business.