[In this detailed analysis, editor Ryan Langley of Gamasutra sister site GamerBytes looks back at 2009's downloadable console games to determine why WiiWare, DSiWare, and PSP Minis are languishing -- at least from an online press and attention point of view -- while Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network are thriving.]
Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation 3's PlayStation Network have firmly established themselves as successful gaming platforms, capable of supporting a diverse ecosystem of titles. But after more than a year of operation, Wii's WiiWare still has difficulty attracting the same attention online.
2009 saw the debut of yet more downloadable console game programs, this time for handhelds: DSiWare, exclusively for Nintendo's new DSi, and PSP Minis, for all models of PSP as well as PlayStation 3. Since launch, proprietors Nintendo and Sony have faced significant challenges establishing a reputation for -- or even awareness of -- their new services.
So what went wrong?
WiiWare and DSiWare
The Wii and DS brought more games to the digital table than the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network this year, but actually engendering interest in the two platforms is becoming more and more difficult by the day.
There are many people at fault for this. Nintendo itself seems so secretive about the weekly releases that it's become a frustration for gaming websites, even those like GamerBytes that exclusively cover the console downloadable sphere. In the last month or so alone, some 10 new titles have been released in the United States on a weekly basis, but we'd never even previously heard of some of them.
WiiWare games often come out the same day they’re announced, and the only pieces of media Nintendo gives the press are screenshots like these:
Believe it or not, that is the resolution at which these screenshots are officially released. How am I meant to make a decision on buying a game when the only screenshots available are thumbnails? I can't let readers know more about these games when I'm not given the tools I need.
Developers are also often to blame. Most WiiWare and DSiWare games have been self-published, or published by, say, a German publishing label that has no pull in North America. A lot of these companies completely underestimate the need to engage in public relations. That's not how this needs to work.
Take some upcoming releases by Nintendo on DSiWare. There have been three DSiWare games developed by Q-Games and published by Nintendo. Q-Games is well known for its successful PixelJunk
titles on the PlayStation Network, so having such a pioneering developer on DSiWare's side should be something for Nintendo to celebrate.
Instead, the studio's first release, DigiDrive
, just popped up one day without even an official announcement. The same thing happened with Reflect Missile
and Star Ship Patrol
, which just came out in Europe. All of these games are set for release in North America some time during January, but outside of them having being named, there have been no publicity or press releases regarding the games.
To make matters worse, Nintendo has determined that each game must be renamed for the North American and European territories. In the global space that is the internet
, all that does it cause mass confusion. Reflect Missile
in North America. Intersect
. This creates havoc when trying to find reviews or update database websites like Giant Bomb. It's completely unnecessary.
In terms of independently-published games, let's look at Glow Artisan
, a new DSiWare title that was released on the 28th of December. Prior to its release, there were only two other places the game was ever mentioned: it was entered in the Independent Games Festival Mobile, where it was one of 172 entries
-- meaning nobody would ever actually come across it naturally -- and it was announced on developer Powerhead Games' official blog
with a press release a week before launch. At no point does it appear that the announcement was sent to wire services like GamesPress or fan sites like GoNintendo. Nobody knew of Glow Artisan
And apparently the game is really good
. I wouldn't even know but for a single website's review -- and that review was only conducted because the site reviews every single game. Nothing about the game inherently suggests that I should trust the developer of Mary Kate and Ashley
games. Powerhead need to convince someone
, otherwise Glow Artisan
is just another random game on the DSiWare schedule that will get no attention.
Other developers of downloadable games for Nintendo systems haven't helped themselves with their lack of real innovation. There are at least eight Sudoku games on or coming to DSiWare. There is no reason why there need to be so many essentially identical games -- except that they're easy, they're cheap, and two guys can make one in a couple of months. That's not how this new medium should be used, and it makes the whole platform look bad. It makes it feel like the bin of "101 games" discs at a 99-cent shop.
There were plenty of great games on WiiWare and DSiWare this year -- Swords & Soldiers
, Lost Winds 2
, Excitebike World Rally
, and Mighty Flip Champs
, to name a few -- but it's been difficult to get the word out.
In 2010, Nintendo needs to man up and take its downloadable platforms in a new direction. Although some people seem to think that Nintendo's consumers are so 'casual' that they don't read the Internet or check out info or review sites, we think those type of customers are much more likely to stick to retail-only game buying.
And in any case, even the most casual consumers need some criteria to make a purchase. Demos are a great start, but let's hope they continue on that path. And developers need to take charge too. Get the word out there.
The PlayStation Minis
The PlayStation Minis program has been riddled with problems from the start. It's been fascinating to see it all unfold, but there are some quality titles which, much like many on WiiWare, are completely overlooked based on their platform.
The first problem is that Sony didn't announce the ability to play these games on the PS3 as soon as they came out. It's clear why -- Sony wanted to push the program out alongside the PSP Go to promote its new hardware revision -- but this introduced confusion into the marketplace.
Due to some odd circumstance, certain Minis will only be available on the PSP and not the PS3. Tetris
from Electronic Arts is the first culprit -– EA holds the handheld rights to Tetris, but not the console rights. I would imagine Pac Man Championship Edition
may have the same problem, as Microsoft has exclusive home console rights for the game during this console cycle.
Another bizarre inconsistency is that Sony Computer Entertainment Japan has forgone the PSP Minis program entirely, meaning a third of the possible base of owners of PSPs and PlayStation 3s right now cannot go out and buy a Minis game. If your worldwide company cannot unanimously agree to allow a service to exist, something is wrong.
This means many of the "PSN Exclusive" PSP games that have come out recently, like Thexder Neo, Loco Roco Midnight Carnival
, and Elemental Monster TD
, skip the Minis line and go straight to the big list of regular retail games for download. I imagine Tetris
would have gone the same route had Electronic Arts actually been aware of this state of affairs from the beginning.
We also now know why Minis cannot use certain functions like multiplayer: The functionality of the PlayStation 3 and PSP platforms are so vastly incompatible that it would never work. Unfortunately, that's a big missed opportunity, particularly with all the puzzle games coming to Minis that would improve considerably by having online leaderboards. It also means that playing these games on the PlayStation 3 won't allow local multiplayer features or use of the second analog stick.
And yet, despite all these blunders, there are still quite a few great games on the platform -– Blast Off, Let's Golf, Cubixx, Zombie Tycoon
, and more to come -- but thanks to the lack of a good PR push, and the large volume of cheap iPhone ports, websites are losing interest fast. Their editors already have iPhones; why would they bother playing a PSP Minis title when they'll probably be able to get the same game for 99 cents in a month's time?
Sony's weekly store updates on the North American and European PlayStation Blogs aren't helping either. PSP Minis are relegated to the end of the list, usually without a description of what the game actually is. It's hard enough to get people to open up the store at all on their PlayStation 3 systems, let alone to check out the new PSP Minis releases.
I hope that Minis developers take a stand in 2010, creating truly original content made for the PSP and PlayStation 3 platforms -- not just straight ports of iPhone titles, not just myriad identical puzzle games. What the program needs are clever, cheap games that work on both host platforms -- and a good push.
[Full disclosure: I do work for Halfbrick Studios, who has worked on PSP Minis titles. This is an opinion piece based on my thoughts prior to joining that studio.]