What would such a subscription service involve? The most obvious component would be access to Nintendo’s incomparable back catalog of games. Right now the company sells individual titles as $5-10 downloads on the Wii U and 3DS, releasing them one by one. This approach was progressive when it launched with the original Wii ten years ago, but it’s out of touch today.
The overwhelming response to the NES Classic Edition, a mini version of Nintendo’s first console with 30 pre-loaded games, demonstrates that people are very into the concept of playing old Nintendo games even if they’re not interested in buying individual downloads. Nintendo’s classic library is a genuine differentiator for the company, and offering it all on demand for a monthly fee would be both the most accessible and lucrative way to leverage it.
The next component is a long shot, but it would help Nintendo sidestep some of its biggest problems. If the NX really is based on Nvidia mobile hardware, I’d love to see it include Nvidia’s GeForce Now streaming service as part of the same subscription. GeForce Now lets you play games that are running on PCs somewhere in Nvidia’s data centers and stream them to devices like the Shield tablet and Android TV. You can buy games individually, and there’s also a library of titles available with a monthly fee.
GeForce Now needs a solid internet connection, of course, but it’s worked well for me whenever I’ve used it, and it would guarantee a level of third-party support that Nintendo hasn’t managed to achieve in decades. Since the games run on high-end PCs, the NX’s likely power disadvantage would be less of an issue, too — Nintendo could keep the cost down on the system itself, yet still be able to claim that it plays advanced, complex titles like The Witcher III that it would otherwise have no hope of attracting to its platform. It’s been hard to see who’d use GeForce Now as a primary method of playing games while it’s been restricted to Nvidia devices, and services like OnLive and PlayStation Now have failed to set the world alight for various reasons. But smart integration into the NX could make the experience a lot more palatable to a mainstream audience.
Of course, I don’t expect Nintendo to stop developing its flagship titles and charging $60 for them individually, nor should it — games like Mario Kart 8 were hugely successful even with the Wii U’s small userbase. But Nintendo could boost subscription membership by developing smaller-scale games for the service — the kind of thing it puts on the 3DS eShop today. Sony’s successful PlayStation Plus service, which gives subscribers a wildly varying selection of games each month, shows how people are willing to pay for a steady flow of content from a company they trust. Nintendo would also be able to build on its new My Nintendo service, the Club Nintendo replacement created in collaboration with mobile partner DeNA, to offer subscription-only bonuses and rewards.
The NX needs a business model fit for today
The NX needs a business model fit for today, and a subscription service would guarantee revenue from Nintendo’s loyal customers and make the system appealing to a wider audience; the company could sell it at a reasonably low price and yet support the widest, most technically impressive range of games yet.
This would be a huge change of direction for Nintendo, so it’s difficult to see it happening. And the company could, of course, just continue to sell $60 games and ignore the way people are increasingly expecting to pay for movies, music, and other entertainment in 2017. But looking at how the Wii U flamed out? That actually feels like the bigger risk.