Nintendo Switch Online Is Bad, but It Is Salvageable.
Nintendo fanboys are a spoiled lot. Believe me, I know. I'm one of them. It's right there in my writer's bio. We're always whining about Nintendo having DLC or about Nintendo not knowing how to do online gaming. Basically, for a very devoted fanbase, we complain a lot about the very thing we're devoted too. So of course, on January 12th 2017, when Nintendo announced that the online services for the Switch would be a paid service fans went feral.
Yes, Nintendo fans seem to hate Nintendo for following the industry standard. Yet, when Nintendo wasn't following the standard and being a maverick I don't remember anyone rushing to buy a WiiU. Before the Nintendo even released their online service, when very few details were known, the fans of the Ninty were already rushing to trash a service and complain that now they had to pay money for something that was free before.
Okay, fair complaint. But it's the industry standard and Nintendo is being left behind, so what exactly do we get in exchange for our money? Turns out not much. So much for industry standards. I certainly hope complaining about Nintendo Online is relevant, because I'm going to break it down, and then try to rebuild it - metaphorically - to see what can be done to make it work.
What is Nintendo Online?
Nintendo Online is a paid service required to play most online games, not unlike XBox Live or Playstation Plus. There are some games that are playable without this service, mostly Free to Play games such as Fortnite. This is a service that so far is only on the Nintendo Switch and does not impact the 3DS or WiiU, which will continue to allow online play for its users.
Now, I'll get into the "why should we pay for something that was previously free" argument later, but I want to address an example of entitled Nintendo fans. Inkopolis Plaza in Splatoon 2 became a bit of a replacement for Miiverse when Miiverse closed down, allowing players to post pics and messages for other players to see. Normally this makes Inkopolis look more like Tumblr, with political posts and activist posts all over the place. But during the weeks leading up to the implementation of paid online, it was full of posts complaining about the service and goodbye messages.
I have sympathy for people who cannot afford online, I genuinely do. I certainly had to dig deep and sacrifice a few meals to pay for my online service. I consider myself poor. So I want to know why people bought a game that is 90% played online if they wouldn't be able to get the online service?
Rant aside, let's discuss what your subscription to Nintendo Online gets you.
- Cloud Saves for most games
- Access to stream 20 NES games (Now 27 games in the library)
- The ability to play online
- Some select deals for games
Okay. So, not much. But it is half the cost of similar programs like Playstation Plus. Oh, and every individual user of the console has to have their own Nintendo Switch Online account. Yeah...
What Makes it Bad?
Well, the most frequent complaint is that you now have to pay for something you could do for free - play online games. Now, I personally am not opposed to this. Most other home consoles have followed this trend for a while. However, PC has become a popular gaming platform and online is included so consoles are going to have to compete with PC. The budget for making a video game has grown much larger than the rate of inflation and the price of games has increased much slower than the rate of inflation, meaning that making a game is more expensive but buying a game is comparatively cheaper. DLC is often used to fill that gap and personally, I think a paid online service is a better alternative to, let's say, loot boxes. It still doesn't change the fact that for the consumer, paying for something you used to be able to do for free sucks. So it's a valid complaint.
So what's Nintendo doing to make it worth our investment? Not very much. Especially compared to similar services on other platforms. Both XBox Live and Playstation Plus offer free digital games every month, and you can keep these games as long as you continue to pay for their online service. Some of these games are a bit older, but they are definitely high quality games, and in many cases even AAA titles. They both offer cloud saves, much like Nintendo Switch Online, but additionally they offer - without subscription - the ability to back things up to a hard drive and transfer to another console. Those things Nintendo doesn't offer at all. If your Switch is bricked, anything that isn't backed up to the cloud is lost forever. Each internal drive is encoded to that specific device, so even if you were hardware savvy, you cannot take out the hard drive and put it in a new switch. And your data is automatically backed up to the hard drive. There is no way to transfer save data to the memory card. So this already puts the Switch at a huge disadvantage.
Back to cloud saves specifically - one other very serious problem Nintendo has is that not every game will allow you to back up cloud saves. The biggest problem with that is the particular games that do not function with cloud saves. Nothing Pokémon, so no cloud saves for Let's Go Pikachu or Eevee. Nothing in Splatoon 2. So, you spend hundreds of hours playing Splatoon, customizing your gear, collecting exclusive gear, or playing Pokémon and collecting all 152 monsters (I don't own it yet, so there might be more) and you brick your system? Yeah, all those pokémon are gone forever. Of course, normally the best way to avoid bricking your system is to avoid messing with the hardware and not hack it for homebrew. But the next biggest cause of bricking systems is because Nintendo decided to tell everyone that the Switch uses a USB Type C charge, and then not design their system to that standard, so when using a standard USB C cable and a battery pack for playing on the go, the system pulls too much power and it breaks the system and players say goodbye to their Inklings forever.
Another big problem is the lack of additional content. Players who purchase Nintendo Online get access to one other major service, the NES Online emulator, a streaming service that at launch allowed you to play 20 classic Nintendo Entertainment System games, though since has added five more games and two "SP" Special Edition ROMhacks. The selection is mixed. There are classics such as Super Mario Bros 1 and 3, Legend of Zelda, Double Dragon, and even Balloon Fight. Some popular sports games such as Tennis, Golf, and Tecmo Bowl. Everything else is kind of 'Meh' in my opinion, though they did add Metroid this month, so hopefully we'll get better options as the service grows. The big seller of the feature is the ability to play multiplayer games online with friends and even "pass the controller" online to take turns playing or have a friend help you out while you watch.
And that's it. That is all the bonus content the service gets you. No dedicated servers, no additional game servers as most Switch games still run their online through Peer-to-peer connections where one player is a host. A mediocre classic streaming service. And if you paid for a full year instead of the monthly fee, you got some exclusive Splatoon Gear. That is it. The problem isn't so much that the service is bad, it's that it's mediocre and no one wants to pay for a mediocre product.
How Nintendo can Improve Their Service
Not all is lost. The service is still salvageable in my opinion, but it will take some work. At an investor's meeting, Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa announced that Nintendo Online had a successful launch. Of course, Mario Kart 8 being the 2nd Best selling game on the platform and Splatoon 2 coming in 4th for all time sales probably had something to do with that. In fact, six of the top fourteen best selling games had some kind of major online component that required the service (not including free to play games) and Pokémon Let's Go and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate were right around the corner, so his statements aren't a defense of the service as many players subscribed out of necessity. He did say that the goal now is to make the service more appealing to consumers, but he emphasized that the strategy for that is going to be over the next several years, not the next several months or even "year" in singular.
This of course has left consumers feeling angry and manipulated by the fact that online is a major feature in so many games, and there is an expectation that to encourage subscriptions games are going to be more online heavy in the future.
Now, I don't know what Nintendo's strategy is, but I have a few suggestions for how they can fix their service - or at least if not fix it, make it more palatable.
First - more content on the NES Online. In fact, change it from NES Online to Nintendo Games Online, and not just limit the games to the classic Nintendo System. Of course, there are games I would love to see for the NES on there that are missing, though licensing arrangements with some third-party publishers may be needed. Super Mario Brothers 2 and even The Lost Levels come to mind. Final Fantasy. Heck, the localization of Final Fantasy II had been near completed at the time of cancellation. Maybe release that to the service as an exclusive way to play it in its original version. It might not be the best Final Fantasy (in fact, it's often considered the worst) but it would be a novelty that would appeal to a certain demographic. Battletoads would be fun too, so long as no one breaks their Switch in half in frustration.
Furthermore, as stated, don't limit the service to NES games. Super Nintendo, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance should all be included. And bring back Virtual Console! Not just for Nintendo Online users, but for everyone, with maybe the occasional bonus for subscribers.
Next, we need an option for playing off of servers, either private servers users operate (Playstation Plus allows this) or, since we're paying to play online - Nintendo could host these servers. Honestly, this alone would justify the paid service since servers cost money to operate, that could be their reason for charging us online. Nintendo's online content currently is more of a streaming of the game. In Mario Kart, Splatoon 2, Arms, and presumably Smash Bros. (once released) one player at random hosts the game, while everyone else connects to that player's console and plays, streaming the content. That's how Peer-to-Peer gaming works. While there is an online component for streaming, connecting to any servers hosted is very minimal. A hosted server would justify the additional cost, not boot everyone out of session if the host disconnects - hurting everyone's ranking in competitive play - and hopefully - if managed properly - result in a smoother experience for everyone.
Third - Cloud saves for everything! Nintendo's justification of not doing cloud saves on certain games is because they are worried it will make cheating easier. If you have figured out how to run homebrew channel on your Switch, cheating is already easy, without any cloud saves. In fact, dedicated servers could fix this if at the time you connect online your save data doesn't match with what your most recent data from the server states, there is a very high chance of shenanigans going on. I'd like to know if I need to exchange my console under warranty - I have the extended warranty just for this purpose - I won't lose a year's worth of Splatoon 2 content.
Finally - and this one is very specific - Pokémon Generation 8 will be coming out eventually. For 3DS owners, this was a paid service that allowed players to store their pokémon in the cloud to transfer to future games and keep their favorite critters safe. There is very little doubt that this service will be available sometime after the release of the next main series games in the franchise. So my advice? Since an online subscription will already be necessary for many features of Pokémon such as trading and battling, make the service free for Nintendo Online subscribers. If someone just wants to play the game without any online service and just do the story and "catch them all", then they can pay the fee to transfer their pokémon and complete the pokédex if they don't subscribe to Nintendo Online.
Maybe some of these ideas or too entitled. I am a Nintendo Fanboy myself, so entitlement is kind of my game. But either way, Nintendo needs to do something to fix this service. Because current Switch owners may be committed, but new sales will be affected - or worse yet, the next console could sell as if the WiiU and the Virtual Boy had a lovechild.
Do you have the Nintendo Online service?
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© 2018 Nigel Kirk