“Free Stuff Sells Stuff”. Surprise!

Back from imposed haitus. You really don’t want to know.

Nintendo is asking a simple question. “Did the Free Game offer affect your purchase of Mario Kart 8?”

It seems like a complete no-brainer, when you look at it. Not only did purchasers get Mario Kart 8 – brilliant on its own, fantastic with friends around – but they got to pick one of a selection of games covering quite a number of bases, from the sublime The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Pikmin 3 to the ridiculous and not-that-great Game and Wario. Getting two games for the price of one – especially when the main game you’re buying is getting widely praised across the board – is no doubt the bargain of the year to some people.

But that this is even news to Nintendo is surprising.

Sony learned the secrets of free stuff a few years back, post-PSN Hack. It knew it had to do something – ANYTHING – to soften the blow, to ensure that customers already frustrated would have a reason not only to return, but to purchase a subscription to a service which had already been blown wide open by unscrupulous individuals. It’s where PS Plus was born, giving out several free games each month across the PS3, PSP and PS Vita (and more recently, the PS4). Over the years, Sony have certainly not scrimped on quality either; Demon’s Souls was given away at one point, no doubt capitalising on the fanaticism of Dark Souls but equally showing where Dark Souls had come from, the genesis of what birthed last generations most surprising hit. They’ve also pretty much given away the whole Uncharted trilogy too, alongside other games like Catherine, Dragon’s Dogma and Far Cry 3; often barely months after their official release!

What’s all the more surprising is despite Sony’s general financial position being one of untenable losses, it admits that the PlayStation division is currently profitable; perhaps not a runaway success story in quite the same way, say, the Nintendo Wii was, but in the same breath it would be tremendously disingenuous to do that. A profitable enterprise is a profitable enterprise, and in the gaming landscape as it currently is, money is certainly not to be sniffed at in any real volume. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the PS Plus service is driving a lot of that money; it’s a regular and substantial income from millions of customers each and every month, so they get to keep access to that library of games. It likely doesn’t fluctuate financially nearly as much as some games releases do.

And let us be real here – Microsoft clearly got in on the action with Games With Gold as well. Admittedly, Microsoft was a little cavalier with what it originally started offering; compared to what Sony was dishing out to its subscribers, Microsoft was frankly in the dark ages still experimenting with fire. But over time, even Microsoft has discovered that people like free stuff; even if it’s not technically wholly FREE, being a perk of subscribing to a service. But then, you often get some pretty good games at substantially less than you’d often buy them for, so it does feel like a bargain nonetheless.

Giving people the impression of value is a hugely important part of the games market today. Games are expensive; people don’t all have the ability to buy tons of games, and so these two subscription services – from Sony and Microsoft – are obviously capturing a market that began to emerge during the last generation; a more casual, more discerning market that isn’t going to rush out and buy all the games all the time. And the upshot of such services is likely third parties get a cut out of it all too, allowing games that perhaps may not be as profitable or as notable a chance to shine and make a little extra cash on the side.

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Remember Me! got a lot more credit on PS+ than it ever did as a commercial release…

Nintendo giving away Nintendo games isn’t really the same league as this, but with Mario Kart 8 selling 1.2 million units in a weekend, and with more good sales numbers to come, Nintendo also is going to look carefully at the free game promotion. It’s not the first time Nintendo has done this; it gave some away with the 3DS Ambassador Programme, and last summer during a glut of decent 3DS titles, it offered people a “buy two get one free” arrangement. The latter is certainly notable because it was quite a successful promotion; people sometimes bought a second game just for the sake of getting the third free one. Because it SOUNDS like a good deal, even though I’m going to guess a fair few didn’t really play those two extra games with any conviction. We’re odd like that, as consumers. We feel kind of sated by getting the deal, but we never quite work out if the deal we got was to our advantage or not.

With a good start, that’s 1.2 million extra games downloaded from the Nintendo eShop; games which obviously don’t make Nintendo any real profit. Except, they probably do.

Some people went out and bought a Wii U expressly for Mario Kart 8; these sales add to Nintendo’s worldwide tally, which increases confidence in the product and secures share prices a little. They probably wouldn’t buy the games in question willingly – or would certainly delay purchases – but getting people to buy Mario Kart 8 on release, at a full RRP in a lot of cases, certainly adds to everyone’s pockets. Getting people simply to part with their money is the objective here, giving them reasons to come over and be with your platform. And this past week, a lot of the general criticism of Nintendo softened somewhat, as many commentators I noted started saying, “PS4 and Wii U; the killer duo this generation”. Nintendo may again be relegated to the companion console, but at the same time, that could mean it’s on the right track to muscle in on both other companies user bases once again.

With E3 around the corner, Nintendo certainly is taking stock of recent information. People like free stuff; Nintendo has lots of old stuff it could give away for free, or even cheaper. It’s almost amusing to watch as Nintendo, safe as houses as it may be, suddenly realise that consumers like a good offer. And if it’s “free” or a decent enough perk, they’re not ashamed to part with a little extra money for the privilege. I doubt this will suddenly mean we see a premium subscription service anytime soon from Nintendo – but it can’t be that far from their minds. It’s clearly raking in the money for Sony and Microsoft, for better or worse. Nintendo made a loss last financial year and can’t really afford to ignore what is an obvious, profitable enterprise which is proven to work. If the content is good, and the price is right, it’s unlikely that Nintendo will be any different. Some may lament such a decision; I sort of understand that lamentation too. But that’s the way the winds are blowing. Nintendo would be somewhat foolish to ignore what is an already proven money spinner, especially with the breadth of retro content it has to offer.

Even if they don’t, Nintendo must be aware that ‘free stuff sells stuff’. People like getting more than they expected; they like to feel rewarded, or compensated, or otherwise catered for. Getting GBA and DS games on the eShop is another part of this, as is the current talk of Gamecube games. Having access to these things is nice; even if people are paying for the games, feeling like you have one console that can play everything from the past appears to have value. The Wii U is backwards compatible; something only recently people are making a deal out of. “It plays all your old Wii games as well!” – at a time when Sony and Microsoft have removed their backwards compatibility and are repackaging year-old games for re-release on new consoles, this appears to have actual value (although admittedly, I still believe Nintendo should integrate the Wii Mode more solidly with the Wii U).

All of it culminates to the feeling of a seismic shift within the bowels of Nintendo HQ; for some years, Nintendo has marched to the beat of its own drum and it’s been for the most a pleasant – if derivative – beat. Now, Nintendo is listening to the beats of others in the market, and learning. And that’s quite a substantial bit of progress for a company like Nintendo; progress signifies change, a process that as much as I love Nintendo and what they have done for years, has been a long time coming. It’s beginning to identify key trends, and is trying to adapt to them. Sometimes it works – Miiverse is still a surprisingly pleasant hit – and sometimes… well… you get Tomodachi Life. As in, not quite what you were expecting.

But Nintendo will get some things wrong; that’s inevitable. Right now, Nintendo is working out how it can continue to grow the userbase of the Wii U, and it does seem it is eyeing up the Mario Kart 8 promotion as something it can possibly continue to do, or something it can build upon. Not all the games on offer were that great, no, but still, a couple of them were absolute no-brainers for first-time buyers and habitual procrastinators. And again, it wouldn’t surprise me that Nintendo were looking at the landslide of downloads of Wind Waker HD and Pikmin 3 and considering what it could do with such things in the future; create a greater incentive for new releases with an old one tied to it for free? Or even HD updates being offered for free for a limited time? There is a wealth of potential.

If it chooses to follow Sony and Microsoft into the subscription-based model market, then Nintendo will have to really work on some of its old content. HD updates of Gamecube and Wii games it has some control over would be the order of the day; Resident Evil Remake? Skyward Sword? A regular income from a monthly subscription would no doubt help pay for studios to work on this exact thing, and probably like Sony and Microsoft also deliver a profit on top of that.

Don’t be surprised if Nintendo does start a subs service; or if Nintendo begins to offer bigger incentives to attract new Wii U owners. Nintendo has learned something that we all sort of already knew – that we, as human beings, are suckers for a free lunch. So much so that we often completely ignore when money does change hands – even if you have to pay to get in through the door! We casually overlook such details in order to access stuff we either didn’t need, or didn’t know we needed. And we so often do it singing jovial songs, and with big beaming grins on our faces.

It’s Nintendo playing the catch-up game on this front, after all. Everyone else is already sold on the idea, and has been sold on it for quite some time now.

This is just the modern market. Purists will balk, but Nintendo would be foolish not to adapt to what is a proven, profitable endeavour…

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