Customer loyalty programs aren’t a particularly new development, but we’ve only seen the videogame industry making strides to adopt them in the last few years. For such a bleeding edge medium that is relying more on digital distribution, the adoption of these programs only makes sense. Loyalty programs serve as smart business planning moves, encouraging sales and creating a relationship with customers. Better yet, these programs are most efficient when trading in bandwidth rather than in physical goods, which seems like a perfect fit for the games industry as it adopts digital distribution.

But which one gives you the biggest bang for your buck? Now that programs like Club Nintendo and Xbox Live Rewards offer rewards that can also be purchased separately for real money, it’s easy to compare and analyze the real-world value of their respective freebies. Play currency like Microsoft Points and Nintendo’s Coins may obscure the “real” value of items, but that also makes for an easy conversion rate.

It’s worth noting, though, that the rewards aren’t literally worth the dollar value of the points used to gain them. Obviously, the money spent on a game like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword or a service like a year of Xbox Live is meant to give you the enjoyment of those products themselves, but, to have a baseline for measuring bonuses, especially against each other, it’s helpful to take a look at the money you have to output before a reward is gained.

Nintendo entered the game first with its Club Nintendo rewards program, brought to America after years of popularity in the company’s native Japan. It offers a set number of Coins for registering your purchases with a short survey, with bonuses given for taking another survey and occasionally for marking purchase intent. It’s likely the most time-consuming process, but also has some of the greatest variety in paths to earn your respective points. Each first- and second-party game purchase offers points, and the program has enough opportunities to support Gold and Platinum statuses for earning a fairly high set number of Coins in a given year.

However, Nintendo is also inconsistent in the price-to-value ratio, in more ways than one. Wii games, for example, usually cost an MSRP $49.99 and offer 50 Coins (not counting the 10-coin post poll) — implying a direct dollar-to-coin comparison.. 3DS games, usually priced at $39.99, tend to give 30 Coins, while cheaper DS games give 30 Coins as well. Savvy shoppers could maximize their points by going for cheaper products, while early adopters who pay more for day-one experiences usually aren’t rewarded for it. Nintendo sometimes mitigates this with limited-time registration bonuses for a short window after the launch date, but those aren’t offered consistently enough to be counted on.

The problem gets even more confusing once we place values on the prizes based on their purchase price. Nintendo recently began offering game downloads for Wii, DSi, and 3DS, offering wildly different values. One recent crop of the downloadable titles includes Kirby’s Dreamland and Dr. Mario Online Rx for 100 Coins each, and Dr. Mario Express and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for 150 Coins each. In doing so, Nintendo is quietly assigning new values to its own titles. Kirby costs $3.99 for purchase, while Dr. Mario Online costs $10 — a difference of more than double for the same Coin value. Dr. Mario Express costs $4.99, while Majora’s Mask is $10 — again, a difference of double for identical Coin rates. Without dropping the prices in its actual storefronts, Nintendo is assigning greater value to some games than others.

If Nintendo offers inconsistent point values with plenty of opportunity, Microsoft has just the opposite problem.

When you take the two inconsistencies and apply them together, this means that you could purchase two Wii Selects titles for $39.99 and claim a 100 Coin prize. Or, you could spend three times that amount on 3DS games and come up short. Club Nintendo also offers various other rewards like styluses, Game & Watch cartridges, and more, but doesn’t offer those rewards for sale through normal means. The exclusivity of certain products has a value of its own.

If Nintendo offers inconsistent point values with plenty of opportunity, Microsoft has just the opposite problem. Its values are extremely rigid, but it has very few opportunities to earn them. No rewards are given for purchasing games, whether Microsoft-published or not. Instead, the company doles out its rewards for buying peripheral products, like various Gold-level subscriptions to Xbox Live. Surveys are offered for bonuses as well, but without the same level of regularity.

For the time being, the much-maligned artificial currency of Microsoft Points offers a solid structure for the service to offer easy point value equations. The company may be ditching MS Points later this year, so we’ll offer real-money conversions as well. Since we know that 80 MSP equals one American dollar, it’s easy to see the value of each reward opportunity. And that value? Not much, apparently. One month of Xbox Live Gold service, at an MSRP of $9.99, earns you a whopping 10 MSP (12 cents). Three months at MSRP $24.99 gets 30 MSP (37 cents). This all seems engineered to push users towards the full year of Gold Service ($59.99) or a Family Pack ($99.99), worth a much greater 400 MSP ($5). The disparity is so large it makes the lower tiers functionally worthless. Not only that, but it’s curious why a Family Pack can cost almost twice as much but result in no greater reward.

Meanwhile, the other methods promise 20 MSP (25 cents) per survey, and 100 MSP ($1.25) for referring a friend. A few surveys might be able to buy you an Xbox Live Indie game or two, but for larger purchases like Xbox Live Arcade games, you’d need to recommend eight friends — netting Microsoft an easy $480 — to earn enough to buy one $10 game.

These systems are difficult to balance, and not every publisher chooses to follow through with making them. Sony began to introduce a PlayStation Rewards system in late 2010. The program proposed rewards for buying content, answering surveys, playing games, downloading demos, and being active in PlayStation Home and the PlayStation forums. You might notice that many of these activities, such as downloading demos and participating in the forums, wouldn’t result in a direct financial benefit to Sony. While Club Nintendo and Xbox Live Rewards only grant prizes after having purchased a game or content, Sony apparently planned to give rewards merely for participating in Sony activities. In this way, Sony was the one company willing to reward fans merely for being fans.

Then again, the prizes weren’t as valuable. Rather than giving games, points to buy games, or branded merchandise, the PlayStation Rewards system proposed giving relatively inexpensive virtual items like avatars, PlayStation Home items, dynamic themes, and entries into sweepstakes. The beta test of the program eventually added “Quests,” encouraging users to try out different services. Users might be rewarded for watching an episode of PlayStation Pulse, for example, or using the PlayStation Move.

These seemed more tied to money-making features for Sony, but the company ultimately shut the program down. Sony said the program was “not ready to roll out to the public” as planned, and that was nearly a year ago. As far as anyone can tell, the PlayStation Rewards system is effectively dead.

Not all of the rewards come from major publishers, though. Ubisoft eschews real-life rewards and has instead pursued an insular, cross-game rewards system. Registering a U-Play account and playing U-play enabled games gives points to spend on extra game content, ranging from skins to system backgrounds or maps. The benefit to Ubisoft is obvious: It puts you on their mailing list, and your leftover points might encourage you to try out other Ubisoft games. Letting you spend them across different titles means that if a piece of content in Assassin’s Creed didn’t catch your eye, you might spend your points in Splinter Cell instead.

Since each of these services is meant to add value to products, it’s important to keep in mind just how much value is included. Monetarily, none of them offer very significant additions as compared to the $30 or more you’ll be spending to gain them. Ultimately, the so-called value of items is personal. If you care more about a Mario-branded backpack or some nifty DS styluses, then Nintendo’s rewards will carry more weight for you. If you’d rather gather points that can be spent on any content from the Xbox Live Marketplace, then Microsoft’s is the way to go. The loyalty programs themselves, as the name implies, rely on your own interest in the subject to make them worthwhile.

Steve Watts is a freelance writer in the DC/Baltimore area, and has two shelves full of useless geek merch.

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