Nintendo Still Loves DRM; The Internet Not So Much
from the like-an-anti-theft-device-combined-with-a-helicopter-parent dept
Of all the walled gardens out there, Nintendo's is one of the most bizarre. On the strength of its software legacy and its skill in capturing the handheld market, Nintendo has been able to erect a bizarre closed system that relies heavily on DRM and an almost self-contained “internet.” It vigorously defends itself against infringement and views its target audience as innocents incapable of dealing with an open connection to the rest of the swearing, violent, bullying world.
Long after the other consoles had moved on to CDs and DVDs, Nintendo held onto its proprietary formats in order to protect itself from piracy. Now that the others consoles on the market have shifted emphasis towards online services, Nintendo has reluctantly joined the pack. Of course, this being Nintendo, the online experience is hampered by its continued belief that its average customer is about eight years old. And the gaming experience itself is crippled by pervasive DRM.
At Ars Technica, Kyle Orland points out that Nintendo's online service is almost great, if it wasn't for all the roadblocks set up in a futile attempt to stop infringement. While Nintendo has made some vague promises about moving to a cloud-based save feature and allows each WiiU to have up to 12 separate accounts, the underlying DRM keeps the experience from ever being much more than a frustrating mess for paying customers.
As Nintendo's Wii U FAQ makes clear, “a Nintendo Network Account can only be used on the console where it was created.” Thus, any games tied to that unique online ID will only work on the first system they're purchased and downloaded to. This is in essence the same setup that Nintendo used to protect downloaded Virtual Console and WiiWare games on the first Wii, a setup that not only utterly failed to stop piracy on the system but also caused headaches for many early Wii owners with faulty systems.
Tying downloaded games to a single system means there's no way for a user to access those games at a friend's house short of lugging the entire system along (yes, the Wii is a lot smaller and lighter than other contemporary systems, but still…). It also means a game downloaded to the Wii U in the living room won't be playable on a second system in the kids' room, even if the same password-protected Nintendo Network ID was used on both systems.
It also means that if your system breaks down, you can't just go buy a new one (or borrow one from a friend) and immediately recover your content using your account. Instead, you have to go through Nintendo's official repair process, waiting up to two weeks for the system to be returned just to maintain the system-locked license data—a caveat I learned about first hand recently. And in the extreme case your Wii U is stolen, it seems there's no way to recover your purchased games (Nintendo has refused numerous requests for comment on its DRM scheme). Sure, you can back up purchases to a USB hard drive, but thanks to this licensing scheme, those backups are no more portable than the actual bits stored on the Wii U's internal storage.
Orland's first hand experience wasn't pleasant. He had over $400 of downloaded games he was hoping to move to his WiiU. During the multistep process — which requires both systems be on and online — his Wii crashed. Big bold letters everywhere during the process warned against turning off either system during transfer. The data being moved isn't the important part. What's absolutely essential during this move is that the licenses transfer intact. Orland couldn't simply re-download his games since the licenses were tied to his original Wii. Nintendo's tech support informed him that there was no other way to transfer license and account data to the WiiU short of sending the Wii off for repairs at his expense and hoping it returned in working order with all data (especially those licenses) intact. The final cost? $85 for the repair and a couple of weeks with $400 worth of games in limbo.
Even when everything goes exactly right, the license transfer process is still a pain. Chris Kohler at Game|Life runs it down thusly:
If you have tons of content — game save data, Mii characters, and downloaded software — on your old Wii, you’ll want to transfer them over to Wii U. The process is about as convoluted as can possibly be. You’ll actually need to alternate between your Wii and your Wii U, which means either hooking them both up to the TV or swapping cables. First you have to get an SD card. Then you have to put it in your Wii U to “prepare” it for transfer. (You’ll need an internet connection to do this so Nintendo can transfer the digital rights to the software.)
Fun stuff, that. Plus, it requires an internet connection just to move your own files from one purchased system to another. Kohler points out that it takes about a half hour to pull them off the Wii and another half hour to load them onto the WiiU. But it's not just the time it takes. It's the ridiculous hoops the user is forced to jump through just to satisfy Nintendo's demands for a clean, closed, DRM-laden system.
[B]esides being time-consuming, there’s also a big missing feature. If you had games already stored on an SD card and not on the Wii’s system memory, you have to move them back to the Wii or else you can’t transfer them. But if you have games stored on the SD card in the first place, that’s probably because you ran out of memory on your Wii (not hard, since it only has 512 megabytes in there). So you are screwed. The transfer process will move over all of the digital licenses, but to get those games onto your Wii U, you’ll have to individually download every single one again from the digital store, which will take forever.
This is what you're in for when you deal with a company clearly more interested in pirates than customers. As pointed out earlier by Orland, all the ridiculous DRM crammed into every spare corner of the Wii did very little to stop piracy. Apparently, Nintendo's decided that the original Wii just didn't have enough DRM and has taken it to the extreme with its latest console. The worst aspect of its convoluted “license transfer” system is that the more you've purchased, the longer it takes. Nintendo's concern that someone, somewhere might make off with a free game has turned it into a company that punishes its biggest customers the hardest.
Then there's Nintendo's half-hearted “embrace” of the connected experience, which it approaches with the enthusiasm of someone guilted into hugging a highly contagious acquaintance. True, some of this standoffishness isn't solely Nintendo's fault. It has worked to capture a younger audience than the other consoles and as such, it is stuck following the privacy restrictions handed down by various governments in order to protect children from a variety of online menaces and nuisances. Staying in compliance with these regulations, along with its half-hearted (and deeply suspicious) approach to all things “internet”, means the actual “connected” experience approaches surreality. Back to Chris Kohler:
I signed up for Nintendo Network, Nintendo’s first (!) ever attempt to create an account-based online service for its players. I clicked through the Terms of Service, skimming them. As you do. OK, I’m not going to post anything offensive, no problem. I enter my details into my profile and throw Game|Life’s URL and my Twitter handle in there so people know it’s me. Big mistake. Minutes after I posted my profile, I got a message saying that I had posted prohibited content and that Nintendo had blocked my profile pending a change. The hell? Turns out that you are strictly prohibited from posting anything on Miiverse that might allow someone to personally identify you. It didn’t specifically call out Twitter URLs, but I guess those must also be banned. Nintendo clearly doesn’t want any stories in the press about harassment (or worse) stemming from people meeting on Miiverse. So it is doing everything it can to make sure its members do not know who each other actually is.
In essence, the Miiverse is a great place to meet complete strangers but a terrible place to hang out with friends. How on earth an entire Miiverse full of strangers is supposed to prevent harassment or any other internet-related abuse is beyond me. It would seem that kids would be safer hanging out with people they know, rather than a bunch of avatars who could be anybody.
It gets even stranger. Over in Europe, where the privacy protections for minors are even more severe (and confusing), full-grown adults are finding themselves treated like kids playing hooky.
European Wii U owners are reporting being unable to buy or watch trailers for mature-rated games in Nintendo's Wii U eShop. Eurogamer reports that they are unable to access the pages for ZombiU or Assassin's Creed 3 during daytime hours, even with no parental controls set. Instead, they're greeted with the message “You cannot view this content. The times during which this content can be viewed have been restricted.”
Customer service offered this response:
Dear customer, we would like to let you know that Nintendo has always aimed to offer gameplay experiences suited to all age groups, observing carefully all the relevant regulations regarding content access that are present in the various European countries. We have thus decided to restrict the access to content which is unsuitable to minors (PEGI) to the 11 P.M. – 3 A.M. time window.
Well, Nintendo's outlook is definitely brimming with optimism. Either it feels a very small minority of WiiU owners are above the age of 18, or it thinks 4 hours a day is plenty for selling mature content. Nintendo's not going anywhere anytime soon, but the focus of its business seems to have shifted to attempting to prevent bad things with much less emphasis being placed on providing good things. Fear may be a powerful motivator, but it rarely produces good work.