Next-gen digital downloads: Wii sets the standard
In a console cycle where the three offerings are so wildly different, one tie that bonds the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 is the ability to download digital content. While each platform offers advantages for different user groups, we learned - after spending a great deal of time (and money) with the three platforms - that it is the Wii that offers the best user experience at this time.
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In terms of sheer volume of content, the Xbox 360 is the unquestioned winner. This should not come as a surprise, since Microsoft already has a year head start over the others (and even longer if you consider that the original Xbox was offering this kind of stuff years before Sony and Nintendo could even implement a comparable online platform). However, I have some gripes about the Xbox Live Marketplace. First off, what is with the Microsoft Points exchange rate? Every 100 points costs $1.25, meaning that a 400 point game, which looks like it should cost $4, is actually $5. I feel like I'm trying to buy Malaysian ringgits every time I convert my money to points on the Xbox. On the other hand, the Wii has the more favorable 1 cent = 1 point conversion, and the PS3 gets a standing ovation for foregoing the points route altogether and simply offering content with prices in US currency.
Once you understand the prices, it is obvious that, pretty much across the board, downloads are somewhat overpriced. I can understand and accept this, at least for the PS3 and the Wii. After all, Sony and Nintendo are letting me have full access to their online servers for free, no matter what I use it for. Microsoft, on the other hand, has a premium version of Xbox Live that costs $50, though I don't actually need that to be able to access the online store.
The only notable price advantage goes to the PS3 for its line of PSOne classics for the PSP. Full versions of Playstation games can be downloaded for $6 each, fairly cheap considering Nintendo is selling Super Nintendo games for $8 on the Wii. However, there are additional costs in being able to play these games. First off, you need a PSP. Even if you want to pay $6 and play the game on the PS3, you can't. The downloads are only valid if you link up a PSP via a USB connection. This also means that you need a fairly large memory stick for your PSP. Some games climb to the 600 MB range, and you must be able to transfer the entire file to one stick. Additionally, all game saves are tied to that file, so you can't just delete and replace games without also erasing all saved data. Considering this, the $6 price shown in the Playstation Store is a bit misleading. So in terms of price, none of the consoles really has an advantage in the end.
I should also add that my download times for Playstation Store content have always been unacceptably long, even when I use a wired Ethernet connection. Wii and Xbox 360 downloads are finished in minutes, while I usually need to wait upwards of half an hour to download a game demo on the PS3. Our managing editor, Wolfgang Gruener, has also experienced connection problems when trying to connect the PS3 to a wireless router that is in the above floor, even though it's just a few feet away. These could be isolated issues, but based on our observations, the PS3 appears to be the most temperamental when it comes to Internet connections.
Another consideration when comparing digital download services is looking at what each platform offers beyond simplistic, arcade-style games. Again, the Xbox Live Marketplace has a bit of an advantage simply due to the fact that it's been out longer than the Wii and PS3 offerings. However, even though XBL offers much more system enhancement content, like themes and gamer icons, I am rather annoyed by the fact that I can't see what I'm buying before I buy it. Pictures of themes and icons are actually buried in the Xbox.com site, but that's not exactly convenient if you're in your living room and want to preview the available downloads.
Right now, the Playstation Store has very little in terms of system enhancements. In fact, the only non-game download it has is Playstation 2 system data, which ensures playback for all PS and PS2 games. We know Sony is working on themes and other downloads that will improve the look and functionality of the main menu, but these features have yet to actually be available. The same is pretty much the case for the Wii, though from what I've seen with "Wii Ware", there is promise. The Wii's channel-based interface really makes system add-ons user-friendly, more so than the PS3 or Xbox 360. For example, a trial version of the Internet browser is currently available as a free download. After downloading it, it just shows up in the main menu like all the other channels. This would seemingly be much more confusing for the other consoles, as their menus are already filled up and any new features would have to go into a sub-menu somewhere.
Nintendo has a couple other big things in its favor. The first is the fact that it has a vast library of classic titles that have long been regarded as some of the best games ever, including Super Mario World, Super Mario RPG, and Mario Kart 64. These are games that Microsoft and Sony can't touch, and generally don't take up too much space. They're immediately must-have titles, a claim to fame that the other two simply don't have. Another thing that Nintendo has going for it, right off the bat, is the interface and navigation of the Wii Shop Channel.
The Xbox 360 has all its content scattered through text-driven menus and sub-menus that can be overly vague for a first-time user. For example, the menu that leads to "all game downloads" does not actually include downloads of games. It just has game add-ons. To purchase actual games, you have to find the Xbox Live Arcade option. Once there, all you see is a textual list of available titles. There are no pictures of the games whatsoever. Sure, you can download demos of almost all of the available titles, but that takes time and space on the hard drive. The bland two sentence descriptions also don't do much to explain the full details of games like Geometry Wars Evolved. Essentially, window shopping is not an option for the Xbox Live Arcade. Users who are just browsing will need to do their own research and download the demo if they want to avoid blind purchases of games.
The Playstation Store is really not any better. Again, there are no embedded screenshots of the titles available in their descriptions, though there is more of a textual summary for the games than there is for the XBL Arcade titles. However, unlike the Xbox platform, demos/trailers are not available for many of the Playstation Store games. The Wii really offers the best interface for browsing. Users can see a couple screenshots for each game or system enhancement, as well as read through a detailed description.
In terms of operability and ease of use, the Wii really takes the cake, and it highlights Nintendo's philosophy with the console. The Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Store are cumbersome and sometimes difficult to navigate. That being said, I would like to see things like game demos and trailers, which have always been available on the PS3 and Xbox 360, in the Wii Shop. I also think Nintendo needs to experiment with games produced exclusively for the Virtual Console. These are things that may or may not come later, but regardless, it is the backbone of the Wii Shop service that makes it more attractive than its competitors. The digital stores are going to continue to evolve, and none of the consoles is even close to offering a flawless platform at this point, but it is the Wii that has the framework best suited for a casual, seamless experience that gives users all the information they need right there in the digital store, and that is the kinds of framework that the other consoles need to offer to incite consumer interest and ultimately more purchases