Nintendo throttling Virtual Console to make way for WiiWare

Infendo

225_silhouettes-1600×1200.jpgAt the micro level, it would appear as though Nintendo is gimping its Virtual Console releases as of late. From December 2007 onward, the steady stream of three titles a week has slowed to a trickle, to the point where some weeks have seen just one release or, more recently, nothing at all.

Enter Gamasutra and its bar graphs, however, and a new, more optimistic picture begins to take shape—if you like WiiWare, that is.

With over 200 virtual games released so far, and a wad of cash to show for it, Gamasutra puts forth, and I agree with, the opinion that Nintendo’s online strategy has shifted away from “safe” games to interesting, innovative new ones (A brief aside: people won’t pay a premium for emulated games they already have, they said—pshaw!).

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The chart above is the macro view; the omega to the alpha I alluded to before the jump. You can see that a definitive trend has taken shape in the past two months, and it isn’t shaped like an 8- or 16-bit game from yesteryear.

To the traditionalist, this is a slight tragedy, I imagine. There are PLENTY of awesome NES and SNES games left to release (Actraiser or SoulBlazer in the US, please?), not to mention titles from the other fine systems that grace the Wii Shop Channel today. I’m all but certain they’ll still be around, and will make a resurgence in the winter holiday months, but for now we can see they’ve done their job, and will go into semi-retirement as the new class takes their seats.

The Virtual Console titles were the hook, in a word, that caught nostalgic gamers and new ones alike. They got us used to Nintendo’s clunky (but maturing) online system, and made us comfortable with the idea of downloading a title from an online service (if you weren’t already). They made Ninty a lot of money. Again.

And on that note, Nintendo, for its part, is apparently more comfortable with online distribution than we give it credit for. Thanks in part to the Virtual Console, which sells cheap old school games for an incredible profit, Nintendo has effectively made more money–and produced more games–online than the supposed gatekeeper of online play, Microsoft, as well as the me-too PlayStation Network.

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Granted, as I said, the majority of these titles are re-releases of older games from older systems, but I have yet to find the place where it it is written in stone that says the standard for online play is 16-player deathmatch. On the contrary, online is online, and I think far too many people today incorrectly cede the advantage to Xbox Live because it can handle huge multi-player FPS games.

But, Gamasutra notes that even with WiiWare, Nintendo seems to be slowing its entire online release schedule. This goes against the company’s stated goal of reshaping the standard industry release schedule (front loading strong games in November/December and coasting the rest of the year), but I think there could be a few explanations.

First, you don’t want an online system to be seen as overwhelming your customer base, especially if that base is a bunch of newer players who are unaccustomed to video games, let alone video games that connect to a server. Second, E3 is next month. Like any good, highly secretive company, I imagine Nintendo is saving a few announcements for its prized online baby for then. What better way to disrupt the common release schedule than announce a few games, physical or online, at a July show, with immediate availability (or August)? How very Apple of them it would be, not to mention a great publicity stunt and a solid way to disrupt the annual release cycle in one fell swoop. Lastly, maybe Nintendo does see some slowdown in downloads. Maybe the summer doldrums are here to stay, Nintendo’s grand strategy for year-wide releases be damned. If that’s the case, then they’ll be sitting on games until the fall or winter.

I severely doubt it, however, especially if all those rumors about new franchises, rebirths and first-party titles for Q3/Q4 come true at E3. Nintendo would be competing with itself if that were the case, so I’m going guess that the virtual, online wing of Nintendo is what’s going to sustain the company during the summers and late spring. It sort of already is, when you look at those graphs.

Regardless, the Virtual Console has officially taken a backseat to bigger, better, and unknown things. The numbers are there, and numbers don’t lie. Personally, WiiWare games are right up my alley right now: beautiful, short little games that don’t require a big investment in time or money. That’s not casual in any sense of the word. My pants are casual–I on the other hand am passionately involved in the short games I’m playing, or quirky ones I’m watching others in the room play. That someone is stupid enough to think a puzzle game is the death of video games means very little to me and even less to Nintendo, and they have the profits to prove it.