Editorial: Nintendo's digital content problem and how the Wii U is making things worse

The Wii U's launch was a bit rocky, to say the least. Missing features, promised TV services and slow-loading, day-one firmware updates left Nintendo fans frustrated and disappointed. The company is still cleaning up the mess too, announcing that it will push two additional software updates to fix the console's slogging load times. A quicker console will certainly be welcome, but the Wii U spring updates are missing an opportunity to close a rift that divides Nintendo from its loving customer base: how it handles digital content ownership.

Ever buy an Xbox Live game? You probably know that purchase is tied to your Xbox Live account, and will be available on any subsequent Xbox you purchase. Not in Nintendo's world; Kyoto's digital sales are tied to the gaming hardware, not the user's account. It's been a sore spot for Nintendo gamers for some time now, and the Wii U was the company's chance to make amends -- except it didn't. Like its predecessors, the new console locks content to the device it was originally purchased on, imprisoning digital purchases in a physical cage. The Wii U takes content confinement a step further with its support for legacy software, providing a near-perfect example of the folly of Nintendo's content ownership philosophy: the isolated sandbox of its backwards-compatible Wii Menu.

Editorial Nintendo's digital content problem and how the Wii U is making things worse

The functionality of the Wii U's backwards-compatible mode is undeniable -- it's a near-perfect replication of the original hardware's system menu. Too perfect. Despite offering a fully functional emulation of Nintendo's previous-generation hardware, the Wii U's legacy support is riddled with muted consequences, perplexing limitations and lost potential. The sandbox itself, for instance, is built on the Wii U's expansive beach of internal storage (8GB to 32GB, depending on the model), but limits itself to the paltry 512MB of virtual storage within its personal playpen. This corresponds with the original Wii's available storage, but stands as an example of how the Wii U fails to deliver a superior Wii experience over the original hardware, presenting an adequate facsimile instead.

Sandboxing the Wii U's backwards compatibility affords Nintendo some degree of protection, isolating the security flaws of the previous generation from the new hardware's operating system. That security comes at a price: isolating one device-based ownership model within another owned device. That is to say, your Wii U content is tied to your Wii U console, but your Wii content can now be tied to a virtual Wii within your Wii U console without giving ownership of its content to its parent Wii U console. Confusing? Absolutely. By isolating Wii content from its new console's core system, Nintendo has fragmented its own ecosystem. Kyoto's failure to integrate this content leaves users to juggle two digital stores on one console. The 3DS adds yet another eShop to the pile, making content management as a Nintendo fan needlessly complicated.

Nintendo has fragmented its own ecosystem.

Unfortunately, Nintendo doesn't see the problem. NOA told us that it feels the "tailored approach" of maintaining three separate storefronts is "the right one," further explaining that the sandboxed Wii menu was designed to "protect the investment that consumers had already made in Wii software." A nice sentiment, but not a very reassuring one: a lost, stolen or damaged Wii U could blip multiple generations of purchases out of existence. Damaged consoles can be repaired for a modest fee, of course, but hardware replacements are at Nintendo's discretion. If you manage to convince the company to move your Wii U Basic content to a Deluxe, you'll need to send both units to its support department to make the transfer. If anything, the company protects content from its users. Makes Nintendo's digital sales push a little harder to swallow, doesn't it?

DNP  Editorial Nintendos digital content problem and how the Wii U is making things worse

Worse still, the new console's most important innovation is still shackled by the bonds of device ownership: the Nintendo Network ID. This personal account finally associates living, breathing humans with a centralized Nintendo account, but cripples itself by refusing to work with any device besides its console of origin. The Nintendo Network ID could have been the unified account gamers have been asking Nintendo for, but instead it's little more than a retooled friend code and local user login. That isn't to say Nintendo isn't trying; the Wii U is the company's most sophisticated online device to date, packing a manageable friends system, an improved shopping experience and even its own quirky social network -- but that alone isn't enough.

Frankly, Mario needs to get with the times.

If Nintendo wants the gaming masses to be comfortable diving into its new digital frontier, it's going to have to make a few changes, none of them minor. First of all, the Wii U's legacy sub-menu needs to go. It stands for everything the company is doing wrong: segregation, stagnation and fragmentation. Cleaning up the Wii U's cross-generational mess and integrating the Wii Shop channel with the Wii U eShop will give users a wealth of content in a single location, instantly expanding the fledgling console's meager digital software library while creating a streamlined shopping experience. The Nintendo Network needs to be freed from its bonds too, registering ownership of purchased content and acting as a unified user account and ensuring customers that their digital purchases are protected against console failure, theft or a fanboy's urge to upgrade to Deluxe hardware. Finally, Nintendo needs to update the 3DS for the newly christened Nintendo Network, allowing users to link their entire Nintendo arsenal under one flag. Truth be told, it's a huge and possibly terrifying task -- but frankly, Mario needs to get with the times.

It's strange to think of Nintendo as afraid of change. This is the company that built a touchscreen handheld with two displays, shook up the industry with motion control and even took the 3D fad for a spin 15 years early, so why is it so behind the curve when it comes to content management and delivery? Whatever its reservations are, the company is trying to catch up -- Wii U documentation promises that the Nintendo Network ID will work with "future" consoles, and a recently announced merger of the company's handheld and console gaming units promises to integrate the architecture of Nintendo's next generation. Admirable goals, to be sure, but we're not certain Nintendo can afford to wait. After all, its competition's next generation is right around the corner.