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Nintendo eShop: A work in progress

4:00 PM on 09.14.2013 // Tony Ponce

NoA's Dan Adelman and Damon Baker lay out Nintendo's digital plans

As we creep towards the one-year anniversary of Wii U's launch, players are readying themselves for the second-generation lineup of games that will hopefully make up for the rather dull spring and summer months. But with upcoming eShop titles like Shovel Knight and Armikrog turning more than a few heads, it may be Wii U's digital software that draws the most attention.

This kind of exposure isn't exclusive to Wii U, of course. Both Sony and (after much kicking and screaming) Microsoft are stacking their new fun boxes with digital delights. The rising importance of a strong indie presence is not lost on Nintendo, which has gone out of its way to rethink its online strategy from the Wii era.

On the final day of PAX, I returned to the Grand Hyatt Hotel to meet with Dan Adelman, Nintendo of America's head of business development, and Damon Baker, NoA's licensing manager. Mario Manor still has plenty of hurdles ahead regarding the eShop, such as turning negative perception of the company around and addressing the lack of a unified account system. But if anyone could provide clear direction on such matters, it would be these two gents.

Or so I thought.

Armikrog - Pencil Test Studios

Even the most casual gaming news reader understands that Wii U has been lacking in new retail game announcements. Publishers realize that software sales on the platform have been poor, so they've opted to withhold software support until Nintendo can build a sizable install base. But Wii U can't build a sizable install base unless it has solid software support -- quite the pickle, no?

On the other hand, smaller independent studios are a lot more willing to take risks with Wii U. Adelman explained, "I think indie developers by their very nature are open to taking risks. They don't have big shareholder communities that they have to answer to, it's really trying something new and taking the path less taken."

To that end, Nintendo has tried to lower the entry barriers in a number of ways, namely through Nintendo Web Framework and a special Unity deal. Though he's discussed both in past, Adelman restated the company's mission with these initiatives: "Nintendo Web Framework allows things like HTML5 and Javascript development, which I really think the big bonus there is just in terms of rapid prototyping and being able to take advantage of the features of the Wii U and seeing like what kinds of new gameplay mechanics you can do with that."

As for Unity, "Normally, you have to pay twice. You have to buy Unity Pro, and then once you ship a game, you have to pay for a license to ship for the different platforms, so we did a deal with Unity so they can get the development tools for free and they don't have to pay any license fees. Really trying to make sure that their break-even point, the financial risk should be so minimal that, you know, why wouldn't they just bring it out to as many platforms as possible?"

Q.U.B.E. - Toxic Games

Nintendo is new to such an open environment, so many devs may still be unaware of the benefits of publishing on the eShop. This is where Baker chimed in: "Really our focus is, like Dan said, on education to the development community, to let them know that it's easier than ever before to develop content for Nintendo platforms."

Roughly 80% of Wii Us thus far have connected to the Internet. That may not seem like much when you factor that fewer than four million consoles are out in the wild, but the percentage is still significant enough to make releasing digital-only titles an extremely viable strategy. Nonetheless, we aren't quite at a stage where digital games have as much mainstream appeal as boxed titles.

"That's kind of my personal mission in life these days," Adelman stated. "If you talk to someone outside of the gaming industry, someone who doesn't necessarily follow [or] read all the blogs and keep up with the latest news, a lot of them are really unaware of a lot of these games. They've never heard of them, don't know that they even exist. So right now, it's a little bit of a niche audience of people who follow all of these games.

"But I'm personally convinced that if you get these games into people's hands and they try them, they'll be shocked. They'll be surprised at how good these games are and say, 'I had no idea you could get these amazing games for $15, $20, $10 sometimes.' So I spend all of my time playing indie games; frankly, it's been a while since I played a full retail game just because there's so much great stuff out there. That probably says more about me than it does about anything else."

Teslagrad - Rain Games

Before he started working for Nintendo, Adelman helped launch Xbox Live Arcade on the original Xbox. You may think Nintendo hired him for that experience, but that wasn't the case. "It's more coincidental than anything else. I don't think Nintendo hired me because of that experience working on XBLA, because when I worked on XBLA, it was before it was a well-known brand anyway. That was back when it was on the launcher disc bundled with different games."

Nonetheless, that time spent with Microsoft clued him on the direction digital console software ought to follow: "The main thing that I think that experience demonstrated to me -- and really just getting WiiWare started -- was there was this natural inclination when you start a digital distribution platform especially back then that it was, well, what digital games are out there? It was casual games, which are great -- match-three games and puzzle games -- but it seemed like a lot of those were very similar to each other. There were a lot of clones of, you know, if there was a popular game, immediately five clones of it. I always suspected that there's got to be a lot more you could do with digital distribution and a lot more variety of content."

As he shared earlier in the interview, Adelman only really plays indie games these days. Not because big games don't have a place, but because he admires the passion and exuberance found in smaller communities. "I remember my first Indie Games Summit at GDC about seven years ago, and it was a small room with folding chairs, and some people were talking about some new little fragment of a game mechanic that they were just working on and playing around with. And I thought, these are my people! These are the guys that I've been looking for!"

The big elephant in the room is, of course, Nintendo's lack of a unified account system. You've all undoubtedly read mountains of comments on this and other sites from users who refuse to make any digital purchases on Nintendo platforms until this glaring issue gets solved. Though this matter isn't under Adelman or Baker's direct control, I had to ask if there have been any new developments in recent months.

Two Brothers - Ackk Studios

The response was disappointing, as you might have guessed, but Adelman at least tried to offer some ray of hope. "We don't have anything new to announce, unfortunately, other than we've definitely heard that feedback many times from both inside and outside the company. It's definitely something that we're very much aware of. All development for the infrastructure really happens out of Japan, so we've kind of communicated this need in the market, and they're very much aware of it and working towards really just always improving the eShop."

Curiously, developers themselves don't have as much of an issue with the current account structure. He continued, "In terms of how developers or consumers are impacted by it, I've definitely read a lot of frustrations from consumers. I actually haven't heard it too much from developers -- it just doesn't come up as much in conversation, or if it does come up, it's usually from a standpoint of them also being a consumer as well as a developer. But I have never heard a developer say, 'I'm interested in making games for the eShop, but because of this account system, I really don't feel comfortable doing that.' That hasn't seemed to be a barrier at this point."

Long story short, Nintendo is aware of matters and is doing things its own way. But we already knew that.

What I took from this interview was just how closely to its chest Nintendo likes to hold its cards. It's quite incredible to see that play out in person after reading countless other interviews and watching major figures like CEO Satoru Iwata and NoA president Reggie Fils-Aime ask for our patience and forgiveness during Nintendo Direct video streams. That's just the kind of company Nintendo is, for better or worse.

Hey! There's a big Wii U update coming soon, so hopefully we'll see serious changes soon.

Tony Ponce, Former Contributor
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