3DS eShop

After hinting that the capability was already in place to do so, Nintendo has announced plans to begin selling digital versions of retail games for 3DS starting with New Super Mario Bros. 2 this August. To date, the only games available through the system’s eShop are smaller experiences specifically designed for release through it; larger titles like Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 are only found on game cards at retail.

The news was made official as part of a financial results briefing conducted by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. With the company officially posting its first annual loss in the three decades it’s been in the videogame business, Iwata was fixated on outlining how things would be turned around in the year ahead. Aside from no longer selling the 3DS at a loss (which is expected to be the case by the end of September), delivering new software, and releasing the Wii U, a digital push is beginning — one that won’t rely only on selling games to those who regularly visit the eShop on their own.

In addition to selling games at retail as it always has, Nintendo will begin offering downloadable versions of its games at retail. Consumers will be able to purchase a 16-digit code than can be redeemed on the eShop for a digital version of the game. Nintendo was seeking a way not to cut retail out of the equation; back in January Iwata said, “There must be a solution other than positioning digital distribution as an enemy to wholesalers and retailers.” During this week’s briefing, he talked about needing to expand the digital business beyond those who are visiting the eShop. Although the connection rate of the 3DS is higher than that of the DSi and consumers are returning to the eShop more regularly, Nintendo thinks it can leverage retail as a way of introducing new consumers to the concept of digital software.

It’s unclear if every Nintendo-published game will be made available in this fashion. Iwata was not specific on the subject, but Joystiq was told by Nintendo that the “majority” of first-party games will be. That also goes for the Wii U, which Iwata announced will have have downloadable versions of its games available at their respective launches.

New Super Mario Bros. 2

Iwata specifically identified New Super Mario Bros. 2 and the new Brain Age, tentatively called Onitore, as two 3DS titles that are guaranteed to have digital versions. He also spoke about other games which 3DS owners may want to play on a daily basis, like Nintendogs and Animal Crossing, as a sort that would make sense to have easy access to right on the system without having to carry around game cards. This is one area where traditional game handhelds are lacking compared to phones and tablets — whereas every game you own on an iPhone or iPad is with the device wherever it goes, 3DS owners have to lug around their game cards. Vita solves this by having all of its games available digitally, although that is an imperfect solution as these games, sold through the PlayStation Store, rarely if ever go on sale. That means even people like myself with a desire to own digital versions of games still tend to purchase physical ones.

Nintendo believes it has found a way to resolve the pricing problem. While it’s suggested that the physical and digital versions be sold for the same price, thereby allowing consumers to choose which version they would prefer, retailers will be free to discount the downloadable game codes just as they do the physical games. In theory that means you won’t be charged extra simply because you want to have your game collection loaded right on the system, aside the cost of SD cards needed to store the games, of course.

This all sounds like great news. It’s very much a welcome option, and the sort of thing that will encourage 3DS owners to bring the system with them wherever they go. And the possibility for downloadable games to go on sale alongside their physical counterparts is one way the digital setup of the 3DS can trump the Vita.

One of the drawbacks is similar to purchasing digital games on other platforms — you won’t be able to share them with others. Iwata specifically stated downloaded games will only be playable on the hardware it was purchased on. For some that may be a deal-breaker, and it continues to highlight the need for Nintendo to develop an account system similar to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.

Nintendo digital business expansion slide

But at least it will be an option to download games when they’re first released. Sony has embraced the practice to some extent on PlayStation 3 and entirely on Vita; Microsoft, on the other hand, remains stubborn on the subject. Speaking with MCV, Xbox Live UK product manager Pav Bhardwaj recently indicated retail games will continue to be made available through the Games on Demand service only once several months have passed since their release at retail.

“It comes down to choice,” he said. “The customer has the choice of going to retail on day one if they really want to buy a particular title, or to wait a couple of months and buy it full price from the Xbox Live Marketplace.”

He’s right that it is a choice, but it’s hardly an optimal one. It’s a choice in the same way, “Would you like to eat pizza or a pile of garbage?” is a choice. A real choice would be allowing consumers to decide whether they want to buy a retail or digital version of a game at launch — having to wait months hardly makes the digital route an attractive option. Bhardwaj claimed the current model is successful, and there are people willing to pay full price for a downloadable game six months after it’s released at retail, leading him to ask, “So why change something you don’t need to?”

Nintendo, on the other hand, talked about providing consumers with a choice, and based on these early details, its plans appear to do a good job of that. Offering codes at retail gives even those without a credit card (or those hesitant to use one online) the opportunity to buy digital games. Assuming the prices are competitive with retail games and there isn’t much of a concern about being able to redownload games if the need should arise, I could see myself buying many of my 3DS games this way. Wii U downloads will be a more complicated matter with the system not being equipped with a hard drive; downloading games that fill up a DVD onto an SD card may not be particularly ideal. But, once again, more options are certainly better than none.

By Chris Pereira