Nintendo’s Online Problem might have it on the line

Nintendo has a grand vision of you and your friends playing games like NintendoLand and Super Mario 3D World together on your couch, but more and more these days, gaming tends to be a solitary affair, with players connecting to each other via online connections. The era of split-screen play is over, but Nintendo doesn’t seem to realize it. Despite what they might say in the press, they have been dragged into the online era kicking and screaming. Let’s take a look at Nintendo’s history to see where they’re going, and where they’ve gone wrong in the past.

Playing Games Online

NintendoNintendo released broadband and dial-up adapters for the GameCube, but they were only used for Phantasy Star Online, and LAN Play for Mario Kart Double Dash. Their first foray into large-scale online gaming came in 2005, a year after the release of the Nintendo DS. Nintendo announced Wi-Fi Connection, a service to play Nintendo DS games online. “There’s always someone ready to play” was the tagline, and Nintendo talked about how anyone could play anywhere with a WiFi Connection. Nintendo also couldn’t have picked a better launch title than Mario Kart DS.

Make no mistake, Mario Kart DS was, and still is, a fun title. 8-player online matches are a blast, and they play without any real network issues. Nintendo went on to release several other Wi-Fi Connection titles for the DS, like Metroid Prime: Hunters, Custom Robo Arena, Animal Crossing: Wild World, and the fourth and fifth generation Pokemon titles. However, all of these titles suffer from the same problem: A poor online infrastructure.

The original DS wasn’t constantly connected online in the background. In fact, there was no background; no way to suspend games in action. This meant that trying to connect online would result in a connection attempt to the servers that could sometimes take up to a minute. Online games might have been responsive, but in general, navigating menus and other user interface elements while online was slow and plodding. Other limits of the original DS were an inability to connect to wireless routers using any security beyond WEP, and incompatibilities with routers utilizing SPI Firewalls. The biggest roadblocks, though, were ones Nintendo put in place themselves.

Nintendo Xbox Live, Steam, and other services popularized the idea of a friends list for gaming, but the concept has existed for as long as there have been messaging clients such as AIM or ICQ. Nintendo did not implement this on the DS. Perhaps they couldn’t, due to the system’s limitations, but what they implemented instead can only be called a nightmare: Friend Codes. The first time a game cartridge was put into a system, the combination of the cartridge and the DS system’s serial number created a 12-digit number that represented you in that game. Other users could add you in each game by your 12 digit code. This was extremely cumbersome for several reasons:

  • The 12 digit code was random, and not easily memorized.
  • Each game had its own 12 digit code.
  • After exchanging codes, it could take hours before you were both registered as friends.
  • Each game had entirely different friends’ lists: Someone you registered in Mario Kart wouldn’t show up in Metroid.

This made things like online presence essentially impossible; the only way to reliably find out if one of your friends was online was to message them in one of your services that had a friends list and ask if they were playing. You were also heavily restricted in communicating; Metroid supported full voice chat, but you were only allowed to talk to people on your friends’ list.

NintendoThe Nintendo Wii didn’t make things any easier. Not only did games continue to use friend codes, but there was no reason for those friend codes. Each individual Wii console had a 16-digit system code that, when shared with others, added them to your Wii friends list. There is no technical reason I can think of for friend codes to continue to exist on the Wii, but they did. However, Nintendo did deliver a great online title in Mario Kart Wii. They also delivered one of the worst online experiences I’ve ever had in Super Smash Brothers Brawl.

NintendoConnecting to the online servers to play could be hit or miss. The actual matches themselves were lag-filled messes. However, even when everyone miraculously managed to connect to a game, and lag was kept to a minimum, matches against random opponents were limited to 2 minutes. There were no options to choose a stock-based match, and 2 minutes really isn’t enough time to enjoy a game. I don’t know why Nintendo chose to do this, but it ruined the game before it ever got started.

These issues have been fixed in the 3DS and Wii U. Friend codes are gone; you just need to register someone’s system (on 3DS) or Nintendo Network account (on Wii U) to play. Online gaming on both platforms is generally lag free, which is a huge turnaround from Nintendo’s last generation. Various online games have full, normal voice chat, whereas on the Wii, you either needed the ill-fated Wii Speak microphone, or the special jawbone microphone for Call Of Duty. Nintendo hasn’t released many online offerings yet on Wii U, but third-parties have been more than happy to pick up the slack, with Call Of Duty: Black Ops IIMonster Hunter 3 Ultimate, and Resident Evil: Revelations, among many either titles, playable online.

Buying Games Online

The other big feature of online connectivity is the digital distribution of games. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, Steam hadn’t really coalesced into the feature-rich service it is today, with its enormous catalog and ridiculous sales. Nintendo is making strides to be a good digital shop, but they crossed some hazardous terrain to get there.

When the Wii launched, the only games available for download were Virtual Console titles. This library grew and grew over time, but didn’t have the grand selection of third-party titles people wanted; many older games, especially licensed ones, have been lost to the ages; only available in physical form. Nevertheless, they did well for their time, but by the end 2009, the service had noticeably slowed down.

NintendoOriginal games for Wii, entitled WiiWare, didn’t come out for America until May 12, 2008. Launch titles on the service included Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life As a King, and LostWinds. Later on, games like Dr. Mario, Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog 4, Mega Man 9, Mega Man 10, Tales of Monkey Island, and the Bit.Trip series of games graced the service. However, the rush of titles really dropped off after 2009, and aside from some titles in the Bit.Trip series, MDK2, and Retro City Rampage, the service died with nothing but shovelware to show for it.

The first big problem was that the Wii was limited to 512MB of onboard storage. For small Virtual Console titles, and save data for games, this wasn’t a problem. However, larger WiiWare titles quickly engulfed the rest of the system memory. Overflow had to be shunted over to an SD card, and games could not be played from the SD card; you had to do painful swapping. This was eventually rectified with a firmware update that enabled games to be played from the SD card, but this was a big problem for a time.

Another issue was the size limit for games. Xbox Live Arcade titles originally had a size limit of 50 MB, which was raised to 250 MB, before being altogether removed. WiiWare titles have a size limit of 40 MB, and this was never raised. Many popular download titles never came to WiiWare as a result.

The final issue I want to bring up was Nintendo’s policy of not paying developers unless their games reached a certain number of downloads. Last I heard, the team that ported MDK2 still didn’t get paid.

On 3DS and Wii U, all these issues are basically gone. Nintendo has rebranded their online store as the “eShop”, and both smaller digital games and retail games are sold on it. Nintendo offers every first-party game on the day of release digitally on both platforms, and many 3rd-party titles are available this way as well. The 3DS requires the use of a SD card to store downloaded titles, and all units come with a 2 GB or 4 GB SD card. You are free to buy whatever size you want and plug it in yourself. Transferring data is as easy as copying the files from one SD card to another. The Wii U allows the use of any USB external storage device, though due to the constant reads and writes, they do not recommend

Nintendo’s Catching Up To Where The Competition Used To Be

So I’ve basically gone over how Nintendo screwed up online connectivity, and how they have now corrected it. However, they’re now caught up to where their competitors were last generation. While the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are going to have amazing features like the ability to share live gameplay and leveraging cloud computing in unique ways, the Wii U is still dealing with the fact that purchases are linked to accounts, and not systems, so you’re only entitled to redownload things for as long as you own the specific console with the specific serial number.

If you only follow what your competition is doing, you end up where they used to be. Nintendo may have a neat innovation with the Gamepad and off-TV play, but history has shown they are not forward-thinking about online services. Nintendo tries so hard to be different, and offer features like Miiverse and Nintendo TVii, but they will be stuck playing an eternal game of catch-up if they don’t forge ahead.

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