Nintendo announced that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will have a $20 downloadable expansion pass, much to the dismay of many fans. While a season pass for a Zelda game may seem like a novel thing for Nintendo, the company has long dabbled in pricey premium content — and largely with success.
Dating back to the Nintendo 3DS’ early days, Nintendo has released DLC in the form of level packs, costumes and characters for some of its most popular games. While these have often been made available for free, some of the company’s most popular games received some costly new content.
Fire Emblem Awakening is an early example. Not only did Nintendo sell more playable characters, but new premium maps included exclusive story content. While these were tangential to the game’s main campaign, they offered another way to engage with Awakening’s storyline and cast.
That’s valuable, even necessary, for some players — but Nintendo instead released that content in the form of eight packs, retailing between $6 and $6.50 each. For Fire Emblem players, however, the purchase was largely worth it. More maps and content was welcome, and none of the content was viewed as intentionally excised from the main game.
Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U also had heaps of post-release content, all of which was premium. New stages and beloved characters were sold for varying prices, with players having the option to pay more to get them in both their handheld and console copies of Smash.
Paying for even more fighters felt optional, not necessary. Still, the cost was prohibitive to some. Reviews criticized the price of the new character packs at times as “unnecessarily expensive,” with costs reaching as high as $6.99 for a single fighter and a stage. Fans, though, were given the option to add some of their favorite missing characters back into the game — and that this was just an option, not a necessity, was key.
That was important to former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, as he explained in an interview with Kotaku about DLC in 2012.
“One thing Nintendo has determined as a company policy, what we are not going to do is create a full game and then say, ‘let's hold this back for DLC,’” Iwata said. “That's not our plan. We're definitely not doing that. It's an extreme example, but I think there are examples of games where you get that initial purchase-the very core part of the game-and everything else around it is all DLC. However, if you do that I believe customers will have no motivation to go out and buy the retail package to begin with.”
The season pass model for Breath of the Wild may seem to differ from the more optional offerings of Nintendo’s past, however. It doesn’t just include non-consequential characters and maps, but locks away new story content, dungeons and a difficulty setting behind a fee. Still, Nintendo has shown interest in trickling out substantial amounts of DLC in this fashion with other recent heavy-hitters.
Nintendo gave away Splatoon DLC for several months following its launch in 2015. These ranged from weapons and stages to entire new multiplayer modes. Splatoon’s launch-day version was not the final iteration of the game, but players checking out the new franchise responded well to the slow drip of substantial updates.
“Splatoon has completely eschewed the downloadable content model popularized by Activision's Call of Duty series,” we said of Splatoon in our Game of the Year 2015 piece. “There are no season passes, no map packs and no omnipresent cosmetic DLC. Nintendo did the strangest thing of all this year: It released a $60 game, never asked for another dime and has relentlessly supported it, adding new maps, modes and balance tweaks for free.”
The key thing here, of course, is that Splatoon got all of its new content for free. It also made sense for Nintendo to append free DLC to a completely new property, one that had yet to prove its appeal. But Mario Kart 8’s similar take on DLC seemed to be well-received, even if it came at a cost. Several packs with new racers and course arrived months after the game’s May 2014 launch, establishing Mario Kart 8 as an expanding platform.
Launching what could have been a sequel’s worth of new content for Mario Kart 8 — a game which will be re-released on the Switch with all of that content intact, plus additional new features — worked because it kept fans from burning out on the brand, some argued.
“What we're seeing is a blend of Nintendo sticking to its principles while also adopting ideas pioneered by rivals,” reads a 2015 editorial about the practice from Nintendo Life. “The idea of consistent DLC to keep selling a game well beyond launch is familiar in racing games, FPS titles and a range of genres besides, with 'season tickets' being particularly common ... Yet Nintendo is doing this instead of a frantic annual turnaround of its biggest brands, an area for which it was criticised with Mario games between 2010-2013, in particular.”
The fear of an annualized franchise doesn’t really apply to The Legend of Zelda, which hasn’t seen a new major console release since the Wii days. Nintendo has consistently tried out new ways of doling out DLC to consumers, however, and received praise for the majority of its efforts. Whether Breath of the Wild’s sizable season pass is a hit or a flop remains to be seen, but Nintendo has a good — and lengthy — track record.