Satoru Iwata announced at a financial briefing that Nintendo would begin offering select titles digitally on the 3DS and Wii U starting with New Super Mario Bros 2 in August, and at launch for the Wii U.
It is currently unclear which games will be made available digitally beyond the new Mario game and upcoming brain training game Onitore. Although third parties were left out of the conversation, Nintendo-published games at least can expect to have this buying option. Digitally purchased games would be stored on the system's SD card, and would only be playable from the system on which it was purchased. If existing eShop features extend to this software, a user can also expect to be able to re-download previously purchased titles at any time.
Nintendo also plans to let retailers in on the process, allowing them to sell digital codes for games over the counter. This measure would allow retailers to set their own prices for the games, letting them to bring buyers into stores with promotional sales. Nintendo justifies this measure as trying to reach the type of person who is wary or unable to make Internet purchases, but still wants to benefit from having non-physical media on their device.
Nintendo has historically been slow to adopt online features, but this announcement makes good on promises made at the 3DS' launch - that Nintendo is ready to deliver a decent online experience. Already with the 3DS we've seen the adoption of a universal friend system, a major improvement to the per-game codes used on the DS. Now we're going to have the futuristic option of downloading a game without going to the store! It's almost like Nintendo is trying to compete with smartphones or something. They're even starting to catch up with the Vita which has all of its games available digitally.
Personally, I've changed the cartridge in my 3DS only once, and that was to play an old DS game. Ever since I got those 20 "ambassador" games, I've considered my 3DS to be more of a digital platform than a Game Boy. It helps that I have little interest in any of the games currently available for the platform, but I will certainly enjoy downloading New Super Mario Bros 2 when it becomes available.
Even considering all the gusto they exhibited with the release of the Wii, Nintendo is the kind of company that hates to try 'new' things. They research a concept extensively until they find a way to use it to their benefit at low cost. The 3DS itself is a perfect example of this behavior. They refused to adopt 3D technology until they could eliminate the user experience hurdle of the glasses. In this case, too, they've been unwilling to adopt digital distribution like their competitors because it changes too much, because there's too many little hurdles to jump.
They've made an unusual allowance for retailers, and I'm betting it's for the sake of their more traditional shareholders who don't want to see the market landscape change too much. But, Nintendo is losing money here because each game code is sold to the retailer at a lower cost than they'd get from the user directly. It's nice to consider those brick and mortar establishments, but digital sales still circumvent the problem of used games, which have been a primary source of income for many game stores. The amount of people still wary of Internet purchasing drops daily. What kind of people would end up at these stores to purchase their digital games? Perhaps Nintendo only wants to keep retailers involved so that they can increase the exposure their new system gets.
The apparent future of games lies within digital distribution. Already, it's difficult for me to remember the last time I actually put physical media into a console or device. With Nintendo finally jumping into the arena, it's only a matter of time before stores like GameStop have to find a new way to break even.