The Great & Perilous Era of Long-Life Nintendo Games

The morning sun peers over the horizon, rays painting the sky and illuminating the dew on the tree leaves. The birds stir and my alarm shakes me from my sleep far too gradually, considering it’s the weekend. I reach bleary-eyed for the glasses next to my bed, stretch slowly and pull my Switch Lite off the charger. I take it out of flight mode and boot up Animal Crossing: New Horizons, with the volume just loud enough to let the gentle grooves of the soundtrack tell my ears it’s a new day. Isabelle greets me with typical cheer and updates me on the status of my town. There’s Nook Shopping to be picked up, rocks to be struck, fossils to dig up, weeds to pull, villagers to talk to, beaches to comb, a fresh catalogue to peruse. I get stuck in.

Half an hour later, when I’ve done all the tasks that can’t wait until tomorrow, I swap out to Pokemon Shield. All the dens in the Wild Area have been refreshed, after all. So have the Watt Traders. Yesterday one of them had the Substitute TR, which I hadn’t ever seen in the game before, so I have to check them all. I’ve checked the Wild Area News and there are some rare spawns to check out. Plus a new online battle season just started and I only need two or three wins to get into the next tier, securing myself enough BP to buy that Choice Band to help my Barraskewda hit like a missile. So I ride around for a bit, scoping out the daily updates, jumping into a few online raids and a quick battle. I try to brush aside the guilt that I still haven’t finished that new Fire Emblem: Three Houses DLC story and briefly entertain the idea of logging into Super Smash Bros Ultimate to clear a Spirit Board or two – I still need to check out that Trials of Mana crossover after all. But I need caffeine, so I get up.

Such is a normal day in this year of 2020. And as a lifelong Nintendo fan, it feels a bit strange.

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Launch is Not the End

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We stand at a familiar junction. Barring any unforeseen delays (or indeed foreseen, given the current worldwide landscape), we stand at the dawn of a new videogame console generation. We now know that on both sides of the blue/green divide the games optimised for this new generation will not just be enhanced by lightning-fast solid state storage drives, but require them in order to run at all. If spending the extra money and effort to “down-port” a new PlayStation/Xbox game to the Nintendo Switch was already a tricky proposition, it’s about to get several times more difficult. Nintendo has an absolutely gigantic head start when it comes to mind-share and third-party allies compared to where they were at the start of the Wii U era, but they’re about to face a similar problem. Until they are ready to phase into whatever piece of hardware comes next, the Big N is going to need to be a whole lot more self-sufficient.

But triple-A games – even notoriously frugal Nintendo ones – are getting more expensive to develop all the time. They are taking longer to make, and every high-quality release within a franchise raises the bar for the next one. Nintendo is acutely aware of this, and it’s clear they understand the importance of continuing to keep already-released games relevant to fill the major first-party release gaps. Company president Shuntaro Furukawa has been keen to reiterate this point in just about every interview and presentation he’s given in the two years since he took over the top job.

I realise the very title of this post might seem a bit disingenuous to anyone who has spent any length of time around Nintendo games. After all, Ninty’s entire business model for as long as they’ve been making games has been built on the perception that a first-party Nintendo title will keep up its quality – and continue to sell – for years and years. How else do you explain the three-year unchanging price tags attached to the likes of Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, or their repeated appearances in top 10 monthly sales lists? Wii and even Wii U games were also notorious for staying at full price during the life cycle of their respective consoles, and Nintendo’s handheld market approach hasn’t historically offered much spice in that department.

But there’s still something truly next-level about the company’s current attitude. For all the philosophical implications it carries, Nintendo is no longer afraid to improve its videogames after they have launched. Since July 2017, when the Switch was just four months old, Nintendo has been juggling ongoing content support for at least three major first-party titles at any given time – and often more. Such a level of commitment was simply unheard of before the Switch. I put together (with some difficulty) the following rough graph to illustrate what we’ve been dealing with. Each bar represents the period of time from a first-party game’s release date to it’s final piece of meaningful DLC. As much as it pains me I’ve excluded Labo VR add-ons in that categorisation, and releases lacking any DLC are also ignored (The dark red section is based on official promises for the future, but unlike half my Animal Crossing friends I am not a time-traveller so I can’t be certain). Click to expand if you need:

The idea is that updating an existing game takes a fraction of the development resources of making a full-on sequel, keeping players a) satisfied for longer and b) talking about the game for longer. If Twitch/YouTube influencers or even just hardcore fans pick up a game they may have dropped long ago, their friends just might follow suit, and then so may their friends in turn. Switches have been selling consistently well for years at this point, bringing new players into the Nintendo ecosystem all the time. Why invest a ton of money into a new franchise entry when you can encourage a sales spike for the one you already made? The opportunity is uniquely tantalising for Nintendo because they already have a 30+ year reputation of publishing games that are always worth full price.

Of course, this has been no ordinary year. The elephant in the room is the current world health crisis and its gargantuan impact on the already-difficult process of making videogames. In as much as such a thing was even possible, it does not seem to have hit at a good time for Nintendo, as things were already a tad quiet on the first-party announcement front following a gangbuster 2019. So at the time of writing you can safely take everything in the paragraphs above and dial it up a few notches, because since the COVID-19 virus has brought the world to its knees Nintendo has fallen prostrate and begged its fans to pay even more attention to its existing heavy-hitters.

In March 2020 Nintendo straight-up let Nintendo Switch Online members play the entirety of ARMS for a week and a half, a period that conspicuously included a major online ‘party crash’ event. A month later they dropped one of the most substantive free title updates in company history, granting Super Mario Maker 2 creators a host of game-changing tools and the ability to string entire world-spanning campaigns together. The same week they dropped the news that almost a full year after the company ceased it’s two-year Splatfest schedule, Splatoon 2 would be getting a special one-off Splatfest, alongside a balance patch and a substantial demo version of the game. The Earth Day update trailer for Animal Crossing: New Horizons was accompanied by a full-on press release – something usually reserved almost exclusively for brand-new products. The first major episode within the Pokemon Sword/Shield expansion pass was deemed important enough to close out the Q1 2020 Nintendo Direct Mini. The evidence of Nintendo’s current marketing strategy is clear as day, and in the light of recent news that they may be skipping their traditional June mega-Direct timeslot, expect to see even more from this approach in the coming months.

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At What Cost?

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All DLC slates are not made equal, of course. Of the Nintendo-published games that have embraced post-launch additions, around a third can be said to have a decent balance between free and paid content; two or three are represented almost entirely by paid expansions while the clear majority has been free for the whole ride. Yet if there’s online marketing to be done for any of these, whether in a Nintendo Direct, on Twitter or otherwise, the spotlight is shared pretty evenly between all types of DLC. In fact it’s become fairly standard to see new updates for older games taking up equal footing with fresh game announcements within Directs – and in the case of Smash Bros updates, easily eclipsing them.

If the social feeds I follow are any indication, this balanced approach has been decently effective at conveying real value in the parts that do cost money – at least when taken in conjunction with the reasonably generous nature of paid content in first-party games thus far. Controversy hasn’t overtaken the discourse in a major way with any of them, despite some potential roadblocks. If all you play is Super Smash Bros Ultimate, the cost of one of the game’s two fighter passes may seem a bit eye-watering, because you’re not exposed to the more reasonable pricing spread across the Switch ecosystem; but by the same token if that’s really all you play then the concept of such high-quality, detail-rich extra content is going to be a difficult proposition to pass up regardless of price. When you see passionate work being put into something you love, it is that much easier to support that work financially.

Boundaries are still being tested here. The Expansion Pass for Pokemon Sword or Shield is to date the single most expensive piece of downloadable content in a Nintendo-published game that cannot be divided into smaller, cheaper parts. Though we cannot be certain, the track record of Game Freak as a notoriously time-bound developer indicates that it will have an uphill battle living up to the likes of the Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 expansions in terms of single-player story content. And yet the bar it needs to clear in order to seem like a step forward for the franchise is actually quite low, because we know the traditional alternative – Pokemon has been asking players to pay for an entire new game instead of a DLC pack for 20+ years.

Things do get a bit scary for some people reading between the lines here, and it’s an understandable point of view to have. The threat of Nintendo moving into the well-worn territory of chance-based micro-transactions inside full-priced games is real and ever-present. At the end of the day, Nintendo is a business and the old business maxim holds true: People will pay what they think something is worth. That perception can vary wildly from person to person and from game to game, but elsewhere the wider industry has proven that the more time and attention someone puts into a game, the more money they’re willing to spend on it if given the opportunity. In this context a move to the infamous pricing model can seem like an inevitability, especially since companies like EA, Ubisoft and Activision have attempted to normalise it in their games and Ninty has had a taste of the good stuff via the tremendously-profitable mobile game Fire Emblem Heroes.

The thing is, such a move is already considered morally messy and has only received increasing push-back from the public in recent years, especially where a clear path to influencing children is on the cards. If there’s one perception that Nintendo seems to cherish more than the evergreen value proposition of their full-priced videogames, it’s their hard-won family-friendly image. It’s the main reason they have been so agonisingly slow and cautious in their online service improvements, and it’s the major reason why I don’t believe we’ll see this fearful situation happening anytime soon. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the company’s experimental forays into free-to-play economies with the likes of Pokemon Quest and Super Kirby Clash bearing larger and more noticeable fruit in the future.

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The Undercooked

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There is a second potential issue with normalising long DLC support cycles in Nintendo games, and it presents itself somewhat on the other end of the value spectrum. What if a game only ever gets free updates, but that gives Nintendo an excuse to release an incomplete game that they just continue to develop over time? This point of discussion has popped up a few times over the last half-decade – particularly around the two Splatoon games – but really caught fire in Nintendo’s last so-called ‘hangover year’ when the tide of early-2018 Wii U ports was stemmed by Kirby Star Allies and Mario Tennis Aces. Both of these games received substantial year-long patch support that added features, modes and characters to the base game at no extra cost. With such heavy spotlight on these titles, questions were raised as to why Nintendo didn’t charge for these updates – were they trying to compensate for something? Both games inspired vocal complaints about a perceived lack of content on day one; did Nintendo know this and release the games anyway?

The short answer is probably yes, but the significance of that status is up for debate. I can’t speak to Star Allies as my experience with it was limited, though there was plenty of appreciation out there on the internet for its DLC and by all accounts the game was much better after the year was up. Aces, on the other hand, was already one of my favourite Switch games when it came out (and by default the most content-rich Mario Tennis game in a decade by virtue of an included single-player campaign). It soon turned into the number one go-to local multiplayer game for a bunch of my friends thanks to its unprecedented mechanical depth, which brought plenty of tension and ensured no two matches were ever the same. Two months after launch much of the game’s jank and weird missing options were addressed in a transparent reactionary patch that really sold the impression the devs were listening to the fans; after that the new content was essentially just more personalisation. When the monthly characters and costumes began rolling out, they were incentives you had to earn by playing online matches – a clear attempt on the part of the developers to keep players invested. The below shot of the character selection screen shows how hard the game went in this department – The original roster stopped at Chain Chomp.

Whether the DLC approach for these two games – or indeed Splatoon 2 or ARMS or the like – falls into sneakily opportunistic territory, whether it comes as an appreciated bonus, or even whether you find it essential to the health of the game will likely depend on whether you liked the state of the game whenever you picked it up. There is no substitute for a good first impression – it secures favourable reviews and gets early adopters on your side – but in theory the long-term impact of a soft launch is lessened in the context of a mega-publisher constantly looking to re-market slightly older parts of its extensive catalogue alongside the new bits. If you go to buy Mario Tennis Aces right now because you saw it in an ad pumping the local multiplayer offerings of your brand-new Switch, what do you care that it had less stuff in it two years ago? It’s probably not going to cut you up inside that you missed the monthly thrill of seeing who was getting added to the game next.

All of which brings me right back to the top of this page, and the juggernaut that is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. To say that Animal Crossing was already a series famous for burning slowly would be a bit of an understatement, but Nintendo has pulled a bit of a masterstroke with the latest entry if you ask me. I doubt it’s a stretch to say that Nintendo has been learning from its experiments in the Switch (and mobile) era in an everlasting attempt to make its games more everlasting, and New Horizons is Exhibit A. By withholding seasonal content from the game’s code and releasing it when it’s both ready and relevant, Nintendo can have its cake, decorate it in cherry blossoms, and eat it with a delicious aromatic tea on a Sunday afternoon. The gap in experience between time-travellers and the rest of us is inherently capped, the events and other additions that do make it in can be of a higher quality due to more development time, and there is always a good reason to remind players to check in with their island – or, of course, to buy the game for the first time and see what all the fuss is about. In many ways New Horizons represents the pinnacle of everything the Big N has learned over the Switch era thus far.

But it won’t be the end. Oh no. “Everything old is new again” may as well be Nintendo’s motto. Such is their reputation. It’s just that these days, some of the old stuff is slightly newer and some of the new stuff needs the old stuff to work. No one knows for sure that the careful way Nintendo has handled post-launch game improvements so far will continue, and different games will have different motivations for adding both paid and free content going forward. I highly doubt you need me to tell you this, but whether you’ve had a Switch for years or you (somehow) managed to buy one recently, don’t be afraid to jump into an older Nintendo title. Odds are they will make it worth your while.

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