Retail vs. Digital in the Nintendo realm

This article was originally posted on IGN on May 2, 2012.

Back in my day, there was no such thing as this digital mumbo-jumbo. You wanted a movie, a game, a book, an album, you went to the store and bought one. Then you came back home and watched, played, read or listened to it. You would spend hours organizing your shelfs, because of course the albums have to be organized in release order, and of course the books have to be organized in chronological order. After using it, you could do whatever you wanted with whatever you bought: give it, lend it, sell it, burn it, throw it out the window, your call. All of the sudden, this thing called iTunes showed up. With it, you could buy a specific song without the rest of the album without having to lift yourself from the computer chair. I you happened to own an iPod, you could transfer those songs to the device and listen to them anywhere. And for just 99 cents per song.

It wasn’t long before publishers realized they could do something similar for other items of culture. iTunes itself offers movies and TV series for purchase and download, Amazon has had a very successful journey in the realm of electronic books and Valve was able to unite PC gamers in their platform, Steam. Since video games are the focus today, let’s talk about Steam. Offering computer games through a digital service is fairly simple. It doesn’t take much effort to find a PC with over a thousand gigabytes of storage with good Internet access. In fact, it’s nearly unthinkable to buy a retail copy of a PC game in today’s age: I haven’t bought one in nearly five years. Other digital services have showed up to try and compete with Steam, but few have found much success. In this market, the more users you already have, the more new users you tend to get. Not to mention Steam usually has great prices and some really insane discounts from time to time.

In the console world, things aren’t that simple. The largest hard drive to come built into a console today carries 320GB. If you want more than that, you have to buy the drive and replace them yourself. For many of us, this may seem trivial, but I’m sure our mothers don’t think the same way. There are many people out there who, met by a “disk full” message, would think the appropriate solution is to head to a GameStop and buy another Xbox or PlayStation. Other than that, it requires either an Wi-fi router or an Ethernet cable near the TV where you play your games, which, believe it or not, not everyone has. For those and other reasons, I believe discs and cartridges will still be around for a few more years.

Nintendo is a newcomer to digital distribution of full games. Wii, DSi and 3DS have online stores, but you can only buy classic or smaller titles in them right now. It seems the first Nintendo game to be available in both digital and physical forms will be New Super Mario Bros. 2, coming in August. A sensible choice, since New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a really lightweight game in terms of byte size, and that’s probably not going to change for the new game, which means you’ll easily be able to fit the game in the 2GB SD card that comes with the system. But you don’t want just one game, do you? You want as many games as you can – and that’s not very much on a 2GB limit, considering some 3DS games have already passed that mark. If you’re going to embrace digital copies on the 3DS, you’re probably going to find yourself buying an 8GB, 16GB or even 32GB SD card sooner or later. That’s an extra investment of $10 to $30. In Wii U’s case, even a 32GB card won’t be much, and you’ll probably end up wanting an external hard disk drive (if you don’t already have one). A more expensive investment, but perhaps a worthwhile one, since you get the bonus advantage of games loading faster from HDDs than optical discs.

The last, and probably most important, thing to consider is pricing. As I’ve said before in my article about Wii U’s price, video games are really expensive here in Brazil. A new 3DS game costs R$149 (nearly 80 USD) around these parts, which is no low price. However, an eShop game that costs $4 in the US sells for the fair price of R$7 here. If the same logic were to apply to downloadable retail game, we could get them for as low as R$80 – quite an improvement over 150. However, if Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network are anything to go by, it’s not that simple. Taking a look at the Brazilian prices for games in both services, there’s a notable leap between the ones that aren’t available at retail and the ones that are, but they still tend to be a little cheaper than the hard copies. Even if they only manage to cut a few bucks from the games’ prices, it’s better than nothing.

In conclusion… If the price is right and the retail copies don’t have any bonus to them (like Kid Icarus Uprising had the stand and AR cards), I won’t mind spending a few bucks on a larger SD card and may go full digital on Nintendo sytems very soon.


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