You Can't Compete With Free Meets Its Ultimate Counterexample In The NES Classic

from the the-end dept

Of all the frustration-causing mantras of stupidity we here at Techdirt have combated over the years, none is quite as annoyingly wrong as: “You can’t compete with free!” There are many reasons why it’s so frustrating, but basic economics essentially shows that this is a loser’s argument for an inability to compete. Given that there are many examples of competing with free, and the fact that the response to these counterfactuals is generally, “nuh uh, you doody head!” it’s time that the myth of not being able to compete with free be put to rest. For years, we’ve highlighted folks pretty easily competing with free versions of their products, typically by either connecting with their fans in a way that causes them to want to buy the authentic version, or else competing by offering something free versions can’t, be it convenience, authenticity, or included options for purchase. But what we’ve always needed to finally put this stupid mantra to rest is a completely pure counterexample showing that it is flatly, plainly, painfully not true.

Allow me to paint you a picture of the world as it exists today. You will recognize this world, because it is reality. It’s a world in which for thirty years, video gaming has become a staple of our entertainment culture. Those of us that have reached middle age will tell you that gaming has essentially always been a part of our lives. We love it, and we particularly love going back to the olden days of gaming and re-enjoying the games we played in our youth. It’s also a world in which emulators of early game systems are widely available, as are ROMs for the games we played long ago. We can get them literally any time we want, on everything from our personal computers, to our mobile devices, or on cheap computer systems that come fully stocked with these emulators and games. This is all insanely cheap or, more commonly, completely free.

And it’s also a world in which Nintendo’s NES Classic retro console was the best selling console for the month.

That’s the word from retail analyst NPD Group, which reports that “the NES Classic was June 2018’s highest unit-selling hardware platform, while the PlayStation 4 led the market in dollar sales” for the period between June 3 and July 7.

The NES Classic, which costs $60 and emulates 30 games from Nintendo’s first home console, launched in November 2016 to mass shortages as Nintendo underestimated demand. Although the publisher announced that it was discontinuing the device, it later committed to bringing the NES Classic back to stores in 2018. Starting on June 29, the system returned. And then it beat up all the other consoles.

We talked about that shortage ourselves as an indication that the kind of convenience and retro-feel Nintendo could offer with its console competed well with the various free versions online. But even this writer read in shock that this NES Classic was outselling the current iteration of gaming consoles.

Let’s put this plainly: if the “You can’t compete with free!” mantra had even a shred of validity, then we could not live in this reality. It would be impossible. The NES Classic offering from Nintendo is actually in some ways inferior to the free options, given the smaller number of games it offers and its lack of portability and modability. But it offers something the free versions don’t. It offers nostalgia in having a console. It offers having that NES Classic sitting in your entertainment center, serving as a conversation piece along with being a gaming console. It lets fans of Nintendo reward the company for serving them well. It offers legitimacy.

It competes with free and is apparently doing so in record numbers. Whenever someone shouts “You can’t compete with free!” at you, it should henceforth be a simple matter of replying “But the NES Classic,” and walking away. Because this is as good of an example of how dumb that mantra has always been as we could have hoped for.

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Comments on “You Can't Compete With Free Meets Its Ultimate Counterexample In The NES Classic”

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79 Comments
themonkeyking145 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Here twice is one pager "account" begun Jun 15th, 2012.

For a second there, I thought I’d only ever commented on articles by Geigner, which was going to be a hilarious coincidence and not purposeful at all. Turns out, I apparently comment mostly on stuff by Mike.

I’m not terribly involved with the larger Techdirt community, mostly because I only read this stuff during the work week…Today is a slow one, thoight.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Microsoft Office’s Word, Excel and Access can “easily” be combined together to manage a small to medium sized business of several hundred employees, some kind of stock control, some simple data entry and processing forms, etc.

Google’s offering is certainly good enough for some personal bookkeeping, maybe a very small business, but doesn’t have that same level of easy integration into useful business system.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Though OpenOffice/LibreOffice/NeoOffice are all essentially complete replacements for MS software, sadly I wouldn’t say the same about GIMP as a replacement for Photoshop.

GIMP is excellent software, and very impressive, but Adobe is just so far ahead of the pack on that stuff. GIMP lacks some really key capabilities, such as non-destructive Adjustment Layers (this is probably the reason 90% of people who have considered switching decided not to) and full integration with vector tools like Illustrator (photoshop’s Vector Smart Objects, which can be created on the fly with a straight copy-paste from Illustrator, are one of the most useful things in a full graphic design workflow).

I would dearly love to switch from Adobe software to GIMP (and Inkscape too) and I hope one day I will, but at the moment it would mean giving up SO much.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It’s not online-only to operate it (yeah that would for sure be a dealbreaker) but yes it is subscription-based software now (you need to be able to connect at least once every 30 days if you have a month-to-month subscription, or once every 99 days if you prepay, and then it will operate offline the rest of the time). And yeah, not thrilled with that model.

Though I haven’t switched to that version yet – I’m still using old copies of CS6, from before they went to the subscription model. And they are still way ahead of current open-source alternatives.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Re: CS6 – I’m surprised yours still works. Our office uses CS4/5/6 (we have to keep multiple versions because of the various legacy software and files we use). Several of our computers have had one or all of them stop working by saying the software needs to be re-authenticated and the authentication server refusing to accept the valid CD Key. They are valid keys and only used on that single computer. Best we can figure is that the computers it happened to have auto updates on. It seems like Adobe is trying to force us to upgrade to the cloud by giving our versions an end of life.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Pixlr does look pretty nice – though, a lot of the key photoshop featuress aren’t available with the free version. If I’m reading the site right, the aforementioned Adjustment Layers are only in the pro subscription, along with other really critical stuff like layer masks, colour curves, and blend modes. Of course, Pixlr Pro is still much cheaper than Creative Suite.

Really part of the issue is that photoshop is HUGE and can do so many things. There are whole design-related careers that use different parts of photoshop with barely any overlap in the tools they use. Pure photo touch-up stuff has more software alternatives out there – but the more advanced editing and composition capabilities are rarer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Really part of the issue is that photoshop is HUGE and can do so many things.

The Linux/Unix approach is to use more specialized tools, and there are application Like carbon for scaleable graphics (part of the Calligra suite). Also, with multiple Virtual Desktops under Linux, using multiple tools is relatively painless, switch to the desktop with the tool you need next. Often, switching to Linux is not so much a question of finding a replacement for a single program, but rather finding a set of programs that allow you to do what you want to do.

Ubuntu Studio is a good starting place to explore what is available under Linux.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I’ve still yet to see anything that approaches Adobe’s level of integration and cross-compatibility between different tools though. In a complex graphic design workflow, it’s really hard to imagine giving it up.

For one project it may not seem like a big deal to use your vector editor on one desktop, save down to a postscript format, import that into something like GIMP and rasterize it – then repeat this process if you decide you want to change something in the vector or rasterize it at a different size/resolution whatnot.

But multiply that out over dozens or hundreds of jobs combining vector and raster tools, or just one big complex job involving many separate elements, and you can pry my pasteable on-the-fly vector smart objects from my cold dead keyboard fingers 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

You are thinking like a windows user, a Linux user would look for a way of composing the final image, maybe via image magic and a script to monitor input images for changes. It is an approach that pays dividends once you are used to it, although it may take a bit of learning up front.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

With a comprehensive suite, you are limited to what the suite allows, and if a new way of doing something, or new capabilities are developed outside the tool, you either have a cumbersome save and import to use them or have to wait for the suite provider to add the facility. With the separate approach, and external composition, such things are more easily brought into the work flow.

As to a Mac, well Microsoft are working hard to gain the same level of control over what runs on the platform as Apple have over the Mac. Also I can see both switching to a subscription model for the operating system in the not too distant future. They are running into the problem that caused Adobe to go in that direction, too many users were/are happy with older versions and see no reason to pay to upgrade to the latest versions of software.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

With a comprehensive suite, you are limited to what the suite allows, and if a new way of doing something, or new capabilities are developed outside the tool, you either have a cumbersome save and import to use them or have to wait for the suite provider to add the facility. With the separate approach, and external composition, such things are more easily brought into the work flow.

Sure. But the reality is (as started this conversation) that’s not generally the case – Adobe’s software has almost every capability long before any competitors, and all the components are extremely interoperable. Most important file formats are universal these days, so there are no import issues – and external composition is no problem when using such formats. Plus, the scripting & plugin capabilities of the Adobe sweet are very robust, so plenty of customization and third-party extension exists.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:8 Re:

Adobe’s software has almost every capability long before any competitors

Except that now you have to subscribe to get any new features. As you likely will when you MAC gives up. While subscription is great for the company, it does hold the users over a barrel as far as costs are concerned, especially when there is no direct alternative software available.

Plus, the scripting & plugin capabilities of the Adobe sweet are very robust

And almost all of those can be used with the GIMP, and only Keypress based macros can’t be used, and GIMP also has it own extensions. Also, GIMP can import PSD files, though it does change some of the layers, so if you ever have to switch, you will not lose all your work.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Re:

Though OpenOffice/LibreOffice/NeoOffice are all essentially complete replacements for MS software, sadly I wouldn’t say the same about GIMP as a replacement for Photoshop.

GIMP is excellent software, and very impressive, but Adobe is just so far ahead of the pack on that stuff.

I’ve never used Photoshop, but I’ve used GIMP a few times and I hate it. Every time I load it up to try and do something, it takes me a good 15-20 minutes to even figure out how to do whatever it is, then I spend another 30+ minutes trying to tweak the settings to get the results I want, then I give up in frustration.

I wanted to select an irregularly shaped image on a scanned page so that I could apply smoothing just to that area, but the image was larger than the screen. When I shrank it down, I couldn’t accurately follow the edges of the image and when I zoomed in, there was no way to scroll the image as I outlined it.

Generally, I agree with using free software, but often, free programs just aren’t that good. After hearing how great Audacity was, I tried to use it to fix the split-second gaps in the audio for a 90 minute video. Unfortunately it was so sluggish with a file that size that it was completely impractical to use it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I use GIMP occasionally for photo touch up, and have been able to do what I wanted without reference to a manual without any problem figuring out what to do. What I did did was spend half an hour or so just playing with the program to see what was in the menus, and what the various tools did. You would probably find Photoshop as difficult to use, because you seem to expect instant skill with using a program.

As to zoom and control, at least under Linux, control scroll wheel controls zoom, and middle button allows the image to dragged in both directions, and are available while selecting etc. release and push the left button to switch in and out of tool use.

themonkeyking145 (profile) says:

Come now, clearly this is simply a case of reality behaving in a way that doesn’t conform to my ridiculous, outmoded, illogical argument. Given that reality is wrong and I am right, we should all stop this nonsense immediately and agree that competing with free is impossible.

Is something I would say if I was a protectionist gatekeeper nitwit.

Ann Nalias says:

But you're defining "free" to suit your notions.

Your definition of "free" here is faulty.

emulators of early game systems are widely available, as are ROMs for the games we played long ago.

If the emulator is hardware, then it definitely has costs. — If software, then at best installing and going through associated hunting / tweaking costs your TIME.

everything from our personal computers, to our mobile devices, or on cheap computer systems that come fully stocked

Repeat above, unless you steal hardware too. "Cheap" is NOT "free".

So "$60 and emulates 30 games" is competing with costs that you hide, and for convenience besides cachet and sure to work, THAT’S what the other ways can’t beat.

Not "free". You can’t compete with free.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: But you're defining "free" to suit your notions.

By that definition, no ‘free’ piracy is free, and the “you can’t compete with free” rallying cry we hear makes no sense. Techdirt seems to be using definition of free chosen by those who use the phrase “You can’t compete with free”, that is to say without monetary cost to the end user.

hegemon13 says:

Re: But you're defining "free" to suit your notions.

This is an absolutely disingenuous and frankly idiotic reply. If you claim that it somehow costs someone money to install free software on their existing computer/phone/tablet/pi/laptop/media streamer/console/etc, then you are just flat lying.

Does it cost time? Sure. But so does downloading music/movies/etc. Which is EXACTLY where everyone screams “you can’t compete with free” the loudest.

agnimurthy (profile) says:

Re: But you're defining "free" to suit your notions.

If the emulator is hardware, then it definitely has costs. — If software, then at best installing and going through associated hunting / tweaking costs your TIME.

"emulators are widely available…on computers, phones etc." is clearly talking about software, and not hardware. Emulator software and games are only a few search queries away, even for a novice.

"how to play [console] game on computer"
"download [console] emulator for [operating system]"
"download [console] ROMS"

Repeat above, unless you steal hardware too. "Cheap" is NOT "free""

Ah yes, you need a computer or phone to download a free emulator, so it’s not technically free.

With that logic, when you buy a NES Classic from Amazon or online, you should also factor in the cost of your internet connection and the smartphone or laptop that you used to order it, right? Let’s also not forget the "time cost" it would take to ship to you and for you to set up the console at home.

By your own logic, the NES Classic has even more costs than the "free" alternative", and people are still paying money for it.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: But you're defining "free" to suit your notions.

But I think that’s exactly the point: there are costs and benefits that are not monetary.

You can compete with things that are free in terms of monetary cost because they have other costs, such as the time it takes to find and configure them, and the knowledge that you’re breaking copyright law.

The NES Classic can compete with alternatives that have no monetary cost, because it brings value that those alternatives do not (or, if they do, require extra purchases and extra time).

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Working to earn the money for an NES Classic, going to buy the NES Classic, taking the NES Classic home, and setting up the NES Classic on your monitor or TV takes time as well.

And if we were talking about people buying phones and computers just to play thirty-year-old videogames, you might have a point here. But we are generally talking about the downloading and usage of software emulators and ROMs, which takes an insignificant amount of time and effort on the part of both the user and the device. Getting a good emulator is often free (shout-out to RetroArch) unless you want to pay for a quality emulator on mobile devices. Getting ROMs is free, too…provided you give no fucks about copyright law.

The NES Classic competes with “cheap”/“free” on those terms. Despite that competition and the limitations of the console, it sells remarkably well. And that “30 games” comment strikes me as shortchanging Nintendo’s thinking here. Most of the games on the NES Classic are some of the best games in the console’s history (Zelda II is at least well-known). While the selection is minimal compared to how many games were released for the NES, it also ensures a specific level of quality for the paying customer. The NES had plenty of kusoge games in its lifetime; the NES Classic has none.

Therein lies the second-biggest value of the NES Classic as a retro console aside from the “plug-and-play” convenience: a quality selection of games crafted with careful curation. RetroArch can’t do that. NEStopia can’t do that. Nintendo did do that—and they made a whole shitton of money doing it.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: But you're defining "free" to suit your notions.

I’ve calculated the labor time I used to install and hunting and it resulted in USD (I don’t fucking care). Also, the hardware costs are something near USD (I don’t fucking care either because the PC is used for multiple stuff so it will be there regardless).

But if you want real costs for dedicated hardware just look for a Raspberry Pi and Xbox controllers. As for the work you need about an hour to have everything set up and running so just calculate it based on your average income. Of course it doesn’t include all the fun in setting the thing up and I didn’t include the fun in making a personalized case for the Pi. And it comes with approximately a fuckton of games from at least 15 different gaming platforms.

Anonymous Coward says:

Accurate use of "You can't compete with free."

Proposed SF law could force tech workers to actually go out for lunch

From http://www.sfgate.com

.. inside the surrounding office buildings that house tech companies Twitter, Uber and Square, there are thousands of employees sequestered in private company cafeterias, where the food is free.

"And you can’t compete with free," said Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

HA, HA! Not only is Baghdad-on-the-bay (where Masnick allegedly nests) regulating like Nazis against interests of workers, but has THAT quote!

Anonymous Coward says:

I think you’re really trying to see something that just isn’t there.

The NES console is a big hit and I would wager that most of the people buying one were never going to pirate ROMs and setup MAME in the first place. Nintendo isn’t giving pirates what they really want, they’ve launched a mass market product that’s an easy impulse buy for regular people.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…so what? The free alternative still exists. Nintendo made what is essentially a license to print money and cashed in despite the existence of that free alternative. The NES Classic could have legitimately failed because of the age of the games and the easy availability of ROMs. That it didn’t says a lot about Nintendo, brand loyalty, nostalgia, and—most importantly—how to lure people into buying something they could already get for free if they knew how.

Madd the Sane (profile) says:

Re: Re: XNU, Darwin? What are those?

Actually, it’s based off of an experimental kernel called Mach, but it has parts of BSD integrated onto it. They do have some GPLv2 components, but (to my knowledge) no GPLv3. In fact, the lower level parts of Mac OS X, including the kernel, are available via the APSL license. No, you won’t find any part of the GUI released by Apple.

John Cressman says:

It's true

I personally know multiple MAME advocates who maintain their complete MAME libraries (with NES) emulation who went out and bought a Classic NES.

I don’t even fully understand the reasoning myself, but I did witness it first hand in multiple instances.

And the same with arcade machines. It looks like Walmart is introducing smaller stand-up style arcade machines with old arcade games and if I hadn’t just bought a house, one of the gauntlet games would be in my basement right now – ok, not really because if I hadn’t bought the house I wouldn’t have a basement – but you get the idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It's true

I would be one of those people 😛

I have an extensive ROM collection from pretty much all retro consoles, including a fairly large number of MAME games.

My kids and I love playing retro games.

The price point for the NES Classic Mini and SNES Classic Mini were just such that it felt like a good deal.

I’m also that guy buying up retro games at garage sales for a buck or two each, amassing a collection that drives my wife nuts.

Often it’s less about the price, and more about the culture and the experience. It’s ridiculously difficult to find a large percentage of the games that used to exist only in physical form – the artificial scarcity afforded by copyright protection doesn’t much encourage culture and experiencing wonderful things, it often just crushes it.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's true

Often it’s less about the price, and more about the culture and the experience.

This is partly why a few arcades still remain open in the US: Playing a Street Fighter game at home is fine and all, but when you play it in an arcade…well, the mentality of “winner stays, loser pays”—“the weight of the coin”—feels far more palpable.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's true

Arcades are making a bit of a comeback here in Toronto, but they are generally abandoning the coin-operated approach now, since you just can’t as easily convince people to show up with a pocketful of quarters. But now we’ve got a few bars that have huge collections of vintage and newer pinball & arcade machines, all set to free-play mode, with a $5 or so cover at the door. It’s much better that way 🙂 But of course, the “culture and experience” part still very much applies to the social aspect of it, even without the weight of the coin.

Sidenote: EVO 2018 pools for Street Fighter V are happening as we speak! 🙂 Finals on Sunday…

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: It's true

The emulators have a noticeable lag in the controller input. I’d buy the console just to avoid that.

Supposedly you can set the USB polling higher to avoid that.

You know, I was never entirely convinced that USB was the perfect successor to absolutely every kind of connector that people claimed it was.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wait…

“the NES Classic was June 2018’s highest unit-selling hardware platform…"

followed by

Starting on June 29, the system returned.

June only has 30 days.

So this means that the NES Classic sold more consoles in 2 days than any other console in 30 days??!?

You’re right, I think this blows "you can’t compete with free" completely out of the water, especially since you can not only download all those games and play them on emulators, you can ALSO play all those games legally inside existing consoles under emulation.

Rekrul says:

The NES Classic offering from Nintendo is actually in some ways inferior to the free options, given the smaller number of games it offers and its lack of portability and modability.

Its lack of graphics filters, lack of unlimited save states, lack of being able to played hacked and patched games, lack of the ability to use any controller you want, lack of screenshot capability, and (I think) lack of ability to play against someone online.

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