How important should online play be for Nintendo?
Japan, the U.S. and Europe are all about to recieve a number of online titles, or have done so in recent months, forming Nintendo’s first major steps into home console online play.
However, this is an element of gaming that truly began to develop in the previous generation, and has been pushed as a must-have feature this time around. With so much hype surrounding its rivals’ online systems, should Nintendo be following suit and pushing its own online offerings?
Is online play that important to the gaming demographic or is it something of a luxury that people aspire to?
Could Nintendo be the company to promote online gaming to a wider audience, rather than the hardcore, orc-bashing, alien-shooting gamers?
We’ll be answering these question and more in the latest NintendoSpin roundtable.
— James says —
The first question I’d like to address is: is online play even that important? Depending on the game, playing against real people can be nigh on indistinguishable from when you play against the computer, particularly in rigid games such as Pokemon. This is particularly true of Nintendo’s systems, as both the DS and Wii depend on those inescapable friend codes, preventing the level of interaction that can make online play so enjoyable.
If online play is nothing more than a series of menus with a few usernames, codes and ranks, is there really a point in online play, you may as well concentrate on developing more realistic AI for computer-controlled bots.
It can also be argued that, even with text chat, voice chat and all the other interactive add-ons the rival systems offer, online play is still not as interactive as a multiplayer should be. Playing Mario Kart DS over Wi-Fi prevents you from seeing the expression on your opponent’s face as you send a blue shell up their tailpipe, often one of the highlights of a family Kart fest.
Granted, i may be speaking from the point of view of someone who has little to no experience of online gaming, but it seems like yet another way to cut yourself off from the world and interacting with complete strangers that you will never meet.
— Clark says —
No amount of AI ingenuity will replace the randomness of humans. I know Halo isn’t a favorite around here, but it’s a great example of the extent of players’ crazy antics. Sometimes you don’t know what you were thinking when you charged the enemy with a sniper rifle. Or maybe you miraculously stuck somebody with a plasma grenade from halfway across the map. What’s so impressive about seeing a programmed bot do that? AI bots typically just piss me off.
I don’t play online much. I, too, prefer local games with people I know. I like the social aspect. But I’m older now, and it’s difficult to get together with two or three other people to play some Cel Damage. I’m lucky if I can squeeze in a two-player game with someone over the age of ten. And I can’t be the only one who frequently finds him/herself in this position. Granted, online modes are often plagued with idiots who like to ruin it for everyone else, but at least the option is there. At least you have the option to call up your out-of-town buddy and say, “Hey, I’m bored. Meet me in Animal Crossing. Your town.”
Online play won’t become the end-all of gaming, but it will be a huge factor. It already is. And Nintendo’s latency has created one of the most clunky, restrictive online systems possible. Game-specific friend codes are a bad idea. You already knew that. The problem with the friend code system is that the games aren’t any fun unless you are hooked up with “friends.” Clubhouse Games features a great chat/drawing program that coincides with the casualness of the overall package, only it doesn’t work when playing with strangers. I understand Picto-Chat is something that can quickly turn perverse, but seriously… there has got to be a better way to do this. I don’t know enough people who own DS systems to be able to play them whenever I want, and I’m not about to trade friend codes willy-nilly with people on GameFAQs. Too much work, for one, but then you’ve done nothing to circumvent the people the friend code system wants you to avoid in the first place.
I’ve played a good amount of online games on the DS. Initially, I thought it was cool, but I haven’t checked in to the Wi-Fi server for several months, now. The games I have played have been laggy to the point where they are not at all enjoyable. Bomberman Land Touch is supposed to be a frantic game of drop and run, but when it starts chugging at 1/3 its normal speed, why bother? Mario Kart also suffers due to lag, because you can’t gauge when to use green shells or bananas. Just when you think you are going to hit a player, they suddenly teleport to the other side of the track. Okay, it’s a free service. But I can get free online games on my computer, and they actually work.
So my point: online is important, but the way Nintendo is handling it makes it feel like it’s not. Obviously, online isn’t important to them. Nintendo has the franchises that would make a killing in a decent online world, though. Smash Bros. online could be so many kinds of awesome. However, its implementation will most likely be as barebones as you can get, and I have a feeling it will just leave us disappointed.
— Saul says —
How important is online to Nintendo right now? Looking at the current sales data, I’d say not very important at all. Looking at Nintendo’s glacial pace in establishing their online matchmaking infrastructure, I’d also come to the conclusion that it’s just not important to them. The question is, does the demographic that are currently purchasing the Wii (supposedly non-gamers and Nintendo fanboys) care about online? Well, I’m sure some of them do, but judging by the reception the Wii has gotten, it’s just not a priority for them either.
Now, I look at the GameCube and see about a half dozen games that I’d probably STILL be playing today if they had online play. Mario Kart: Double Dash, F-Zero GX, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Pikmin 2, and Final Fantasy: Chrystal Chronicles. That’s a formidable online lineup right there. Yet Nintendo refused to take that direction, and even now, most of their hardcore fanbase just doesn’t worry about when Nintendo is bringing online play to the table.
Even when they do bring their lineup online, I’m not sure anybody is expecting anything other than the barebones, friend code-infested experience that’s plagued the DS. It’s not that I don’t appreciate free online gaming, it’s just that friend codes are quite possibly the most inane gaming-related concept in the last decade, right after the taco talk N-Gage. At the very least though, online play will surely extend the shelf life of key first and third party games. As bad as the DS online setup was, I still had fun with Animal Crossing, Metroid Prime Hunters, and Mario Kart.
Still, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that if online play is important to you, Nintendo is simply not going to satisfy your appetite. Microsoft is light years ahead of either Sony or Nintendo in terms of online integration. So, it’s no surprise that Nintendo is content in providing a much more limited online environment so long as their sales continue to soar. Even basic matchmaking should be more than enough for the demographic that seems to be currently pushing the Wii hardware sales.
— James says —
Well, you say that Nintendo’s demographic doesn’t care about online play, but I would argue that Wii and DS could be the hardware to widen the online demographic.
Online play is currently an undeniably intimidating experience, dominated largely by a hardcore audience. Newcomers to online are deterred from online play because they assume it will be overly complicated, and yet the vast majority of online multiplayers are nothing more than an extension of the single player game. As I said before, in terms of Nintendo games and in terms of gamplay, there is little to no difference between playing against other humans and the computer. If you’re unaware that you are playing online, or if the experience is not that different from the usual offline modes, it becomes less intimidating and more appealing.
I think herein lies the advantage of Nintendo’s overly simplified interface. When I played Halo 2 online, I had to ask to make sure I was selecting the right options to start or join an online match. Mario Strikers: Charged Football is so simple, my five-year-old cousin was quickly able to take on some random Frenchman – to whom he lost, of course.
This brings me back to the domination of hardcore gamers online. If more and more non- and casual gamers embrace online, the influence of hardcore gamers could potentially be diminished. Perhaps not to the extent where these new gamers outnumber the established hardcore userbase, but at least improving the odds of playing against someone a little more forgiving.
— Saul says —
While I agree that the more popular console online experiences can be intimidating, there are two important points to keep in mind:
1. Those games are aimed at hardcore gamers in the first place and
2. The game genres that are most popular on consoles as far as online attract hardcore gamers regardless.
What I mean is: If Metroid goes online, it’ll be just as intimidating as Halo. Your mom won’t be playing it either. To pretend Nintendo has a solution to that is false. The truth is, games like Uno on Xbox Live can be a much more casual experience than anything Nintendo has put online. Nintendo can certainly put more recognizable faces out there for casual gamers, but they don’t seem to care enough. They already missed out on several golden opportunities to drive their userbase online. Titles like Rayman, Mario Party, Super Monkey Ball, Wii Sports, etc. would’ve been perfect for online gaming. You think a title like Smash Brothers is going to be a non-intimidating online experience? Heck, even Mario Kart DS is packed with cheaters and stiff competition.
Finally, when you say that on Nintendo online titles “there is little to no difference between playing against other humans and the computer”, you make it sound like that’s a good thing. That’s terrible!! What’s the point of that? Like I said previously, if you want the non-intimidating experience, it’ll result from non-intimidating games like card games and simple puzzle games that your mom and sister are probably already playing casually at Yahoo or MSN. To dumb down the experience for everyone else is just another slap in the face to gamers who grew up with Nintendo.
— Clark says —
I would much rather play against human opponents, even if they were strangers on the other side of the world of which I had no means to communicate with, than AI players. AI players, no matter how sophisticated, still play by a specific set of rules. In Mario Kart DS, other human players will try to take a shortcut and end up getting stuck, which is hilarious. Sometimes, a player will get a blue shell and hold onto it for the rest of the game just to keep everyone on edge. AI players will never do that. When AI players fall too far behind, they don’t turn around and start driving the other way. And when they do well, so what. Beating a computer opponent can be rewarding, but beating a human opponent who is a complete jerk about snaking is more so.
— James says —
In that case, the solution might be to seek out new online genres that are more evenly balanced. As you said, current online games are aimed at hardcore gamers. First Person Shooters are essentially a hardcore franchise. Arguably the solution would be to create some casual online games too, in order to cater for a wider range of gamers. Wii Sports, as has been observed, would be a fantastic online game. The unfortunate truth, however, is that these, too, would soon be dominated by hardcore players.
Personally, i have high hopes for Battalion Wars II, since it’s a friendly strategy game. The only way to win a multiplayer skirmish is to outsmart the other player and generally have a better strategy. In that case, you would need a human opponent, but it means that victory is fairer and down to actual skill and strategic thinking. As any RTS player knows, throwing every available unit into the fray is a one-way ticket to defeat, so you have to depend on your scruples, rather than mastering a technique that gives you an unfair advantage.
After all, what would be the Battalion Wars equivalent of ‘snaking’ or ‘ace serves’?
— Saul says —
I think one aspect of online communication that you guys might be overlooking is how it limits you when you play against actual friends. Sure, playing random strangers without any sort of communication can (at times) be just as fun as the AI (except in games that require cooperation), but how about when you’re playing with your friends?
Isn’t voice, text, and even video much more desirable when you are playing people you know and like? To use the Mario Kart DS example, wouldn’t it be much better to be able to hear your friends and have the ability to communicate with them both before, during, and after the match?
Or let’s say you just had 3 or 4 straight matches against an online opponent and you enjoyed competing with them. Wouldn’t you like the opportunity to extend them a friend request and be able to communicate with them?
We’re not talking “all or nothing” here, so while Mario Kart DS’ online matches may be fun, they’re also archaic in terms of what the technology can truly offer. I hope that Nintendo, throughout the course of this generation, can expand the user’s ability to interact with each other.
— Clark says —
Trust me, Saul, all those things bug the crap out of me. However, some of the DS games have started using voice chat (with friends only, of course), so all is not lost. But I don’t see that we will be getting much more than that. Nintendo will never allow friend requests with people you meet online.
I hope I’m wrong.
— James says —
As Clark observed, Nintendo are now expanding the technology, with DS games like Pokemon starting to use voice chat, but the progress isn’t fast enough, both in terms of fans’ expectations and comparison with rival consoles and systems.
I think the danger is that Nintendo still don’t trust the internet. Or, perhaps more accurately, they don’t believe that the public trust the internet. Nintendo has always prided itself on being a family company, with players of any age able to pick up their games and use every aspect of them without fear of being overwhelmed or endangered. The current generation, with Wii and DS, is the fruits of their efforts in this and the strongest example to date of Nintendo’s thinking.
However, in the minds of concerned parents, the internet is all too quickly associated with paedophiles, stalkers and too much of the unknown. Having spent generations teaching children not to talk to strangers in public, they now have a system in their homes where children can invite strangers freely.
For the older generations, technology breeds fear and confusion, and its currently those generations that are running the world today. While the internet’s reach is expanding, I would argue that the majority of parents have little to no experience with it. Now, a few generations down the line, this will probably change, since young people are becoming accustomed to the internet and online functionality at a remarkably early age, but for now, the world is still unsure of the internet.
Given the concerns that still surround the Internet today, Nintendo probably don’t want to present a system that can be abused, thus adding to the problem. There is no voice chat or interaction so that personal details cannot be exchanged. There is no way of extending a friend request, because you never know who you are extending it to.
Obviously, they need to grow over this fear. By its very nature, the internet will never be one hundred per cent safe without taking away from the freedom it presents. Nintendo need to take a long hard look at what its competitors are doing and ask themselves why they have not followed their example or improved on it. Having taken one step forward with some gameplay conventions, they can’t afford to take two steps back with others.