Monday, 28 November 2011

A Dubious Marketing Technique

I don’t know if this phenomenon applies to other countries, but retail pricing of games is a strange thing in the UK. Or, at least, it has been for the last couple of years. Amid a tough economy Nintendo pushed Donkey Kong Country Returns upon us, and it hit the markets at £45 in November of last year. I found, over a good few months, that this was the case in every game shop I visited: I decided to ask an employee why. Apparently it was much more popular than expected, and few copies were distributed. Flash forward to a year later and new copies are still extremely rare in public, with pre-owned boxes marked around £40. Online sellers seem to be maintaining a high price, too, with a £35 tag on Amazon.

The reason this whole situation re-kindled in my imagination (other than the fact that I was able to borrow DKCR from a friend a couple of weeks ago) is that Nintendo recently registered a loss in excess of £500m. I’m not going to draw a line from the Kong title to Nintendo’s apparent failure (not with the piece of fail that is the one-trick-3DS in the picture), but there is something deeply unsettling about this: such an obviously well-polished title being pushed so gently into the market. Competing games at the time (with similarly high praise from critics) were experiencing cuts at a shocking rate: Assassin’s Creed 2 and then, about a year later, Bioshock 2, dropped £10 from their respective tags within a fortnight. They can now each be bought new for less than £10. I think the thing to take away from this is that Nintendo has maintained a very… interesting business model, at least when viewed against their competitors’ approaches. They produce quality games, and then try to not sell them.

That quality can be assured, though. At least in the case of DKCR. The term ‘solid platformer’ isn’t solid enough to convey this thing’s solidity. It’s dense, even: the kind of re-play value that the older Country games could only dream of. It’s like it was finished, and then Retro decided to finish it again. And perhaps a third time. But that would be it. I do need to level one complaint, though, and considering the cavalcade of issues that can crop up when a platformer is just off, think of the lack of further grievances as proof of a robust product. That said this is a very fundamental issue. I’m not talking about how there are no longer those certain bonus stages where you collect swathes of bananas as a rhino, ostrich or swordfish (though I’m sure this is a disappointing fact for some.) The control scheme leaves a purposeful vacuum. There is no support for the classic pad; no way to re-map controls; and flat-out shoe-horned waggle-tech.

Okay, so that sounds bad. I can’t imagine that Retro made this decision by themselves, because it’s pretty stupid. But which is the dumber thing to perceive: when one of the best titles on a machine makes absolutely no use of that machine’s specific abilities, or if said title ignores a superior control-scheme to facilitate said abilities? In my head it’s a no-brainer. I’m biased by the fact that I had the latter option include the words ‘ignores’ and ‘superior’ in close proximity, though. What I don’t understand is how Nintendo thought this design choice was beneficial: how could limiting player control options possibly result in more sold units? Or is it about obfuscating the fact that this, some of the best gaming the Wii has to offer, could be done better on the competitors’ machines? Like I said before, though: this game is strong. I let a lot of these outward flaws push me away from getting it, but some very poor marketing decisions shouldn’t keep us from games that are awesome.

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