It’s-a me! (again)
Nintendo’s virtual console sets a dangerous precedent.
A Game Informer interview with Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo of America’s Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Affairs, has been floating around the web for a few days. A passage quoted by the Opposable Thumbs coverage of the interview struck me as the most interesting. I’m going to re-quote it here to save you a click. (You’re welcome.)
Game Informer: As far as Virtual Console pricing how it breaks down in Europe, Japan, and here, it seems most expensive in the U.S. when you check exchange rates…
Kaplan: Do you drink lattes?
Kaplan: How much do you spend on lattes?
GI: I spend a lot.
Kaplan: There you go. This is something that lasts forever. I think it depends on what you value. I mean, you’re getting something that literally helped raise you as kid. I bet you can spend ten bucks, five bucks, eight bucks, twenty bucks. I’m just trying to get a point of comparison. We actually think that the price is definitely a mass consumer price. It allows people to purchase multiple games, and they can purchase them at the rate that is comfortable for them, is financially feasible for them.
There have been a lot of different responses to this exchange posted online. (Read the full OT post for one example.) But so far, I haven’t read any that have echoed my immediate reaction: Wait a second…don’t I already own these games?
Seriously, think about it. Kaplan comes right out and admits that buyers of virtual console games probably already purchased these games; they “helped raise you as kid.” Now, obviously, if your mom threw them in the trash when you were away at college or something (c.f., classic Star Wars toys), then yes, you have to purchase them again. But what if, like me, you have some of these actual game cartridges sitting in your house right now? What is that $10 for Mario 64 buying me that I don’t already own? Let’s go through some possible answers.
I’m buying the ability to play the game on a new platform. If this were the case, I’d be buying exactly that: the ability to play the game on a new platform. In other words, I’d be buying the emulator software for each platform (NES, SNES, N64, etc.) plus some device to transfer the cartridge ROMs that I already own. I’d be fine with that. Those are all valuable things that I do not already own.
But that’s not how it works. Instead, Nintendo is bundling the emulators for free, and then charging per game. Paying for each game may actually be cheaper, depending on how many games I plan to buy, but that doesn’t make it appropriate.
I’m buying the game in a new format. This notion is probably the reason so few people seem to mind. We’ve been trained to accept the re-purchasing of the same media by the march of ever-increasing (or, more lately, decreasing; see iTunes) fidelity. How many people have purchased the same album on vinyl (I feel old linking that; whippersnappers!), cassette tape, and CD, or the same movie on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and (soon) HD-DVD/Blu Ray?
But all of those purchases are not really for the “same” media. In each case, the information itself has changed—usually for the better. This is not the case with virtual console games, which will be identical in every possible way: no improved graphics or sound, no change in fidelity.
I’m buying the right to time/place-shift something I already own. This entire concept disgusts me. If I own it (e.g., a DVD movie) I should be able to watch it wherever and however I want to, as long as it’s for personal use. I should be able to encode that DVD and watch it on a portable device. I should be able to rip any CD I own and put copies of the songs on my iPod. I should not have to pay extra for these things. Paying for the devices and software that give me the ability to do these things is fine (see earlier point); paying for the “right” to do them is not.
Again, I don’t expect to be given a free copy of something, even something digital, just because I purchased it in the past. If damage or loss happens, that’s all on me. But if I’ve purchased it and I still have it and it still works perfectly, I find it galling to have to pay for it again. Let me reiterate: I don’t find it galling to have to pay, it’s what I’m paying for that bothers me.
This all probably seems pretty academic. No one’s twisting my arm to buy virtual console games. If I don’t like what’s offered, I don’t have to buy it. It’s the free market at work, right? But I’m still troubled by how few people seem to even notice what’s going on here, regardless of whether or not they’re bothered by it. The more accepting consumers (and gamers in particular) are of being charged for the “wrong” things, the more media producers will take advantage of them.
Granted, the virtual console situation is relatively small potatoes. I suspect very few gamers still own working copies of all these old games, plus the old consoles themselves to play them on—maybe so few that it’s a market that’s not worth addressing. But this all connects back to the larger issue. There are things people really want to buy, but that few are willing to sell.
In gaming, for example, there has long been a hot market for emulation. Just look at MAME and the dozens of console emulators produced over the past decade or so. Gamers want to play old games. I’m sure most would do so legally if some rights-holders would step up to the plate and actually offer a way to do so. That may seem like what Nintendo is doing with the virtual console, but in cases like my own, there’s a subtle disconnect between what consumers want and what’s actually being sold.
I’m not calling for a boycott or anything foolish like that. At least Nintendo is doing something to address the market for emulation. But I think gamers should be aware of what they’re paying for, and the precedent it might set for the future.
Let’s look again at Kaplan’s statement about the value of a virtual console game:
Kaplan: This is something that lasts forever.
“Forever,” eh? Ask yourselves, gamers, do you really believe that? How many more times do you think Nintendo will ask us if we’re willing to re-purchase Mario 64? How many more times will we say yes?
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.