Talking Point: Regional Online Multiplayer Misses the Point
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Wii Sports Club keeps it local, unless you're in a PAL territory
Nintendo can work in mysterious ways at times, especially when it comes to online modes. Some will feel that the company doesn't actually deliver enough online gaming — with many titles committed to local multiplayer only — while we have others serving up regional online play. The latter isn't a cast-iron policy of Nintendo's, which makes its inclusion in some cases baffling and, in truth, counter-intuitive.
Wii Sports Club, in its Tennis and Bowling forms at this stage, appears to limit players to taking on those within their console's region. The Wii U — like the 3DS — is, of course, region locked, and this appears to be a case where Nintendo's simply applied the hardware's limitations into the online mode. When choosing a Club to join in the UK, for example, there are a variety of regions in different nations, while some areas are simply broken down by country. Not all countries in Europe are accommodated, with the typically impersonal "Other" in place for those in countries such as Russia. We say it's regional, but it's really all about the PAL region so, perhaps ironically, a European gamer can take on challengers from Australia, but not the United States or North America as a whole.
That fact alone demonstrates — not that it was really in doubt — that the decision to restrict the online to hardware regions was either strategic or to control resources, not due to any technical problems or issues of lag playing against gamers from the other side of the world. Glancing at a globe should make it obvious to anyone that someone in Europe taking on a player in Australia is involved in a match thousands of miles apart; if distance is the consideration, there should be no more lag or connection issues in that match than one with a gamer based in North America or Japan.
So we have it as a deliberate choice by Nintendo, and it seems an odd one. Some of the most enjoyable online experiences on Nintendo systems have had worldwide online games as par for the course, and have also had well-rounded and competent features. Mario Kart 7 is a shining example of how a fully fleshed-out online game can take a Nintendo franchise to new levels. The communities and region-free gaming in that title mean that many still probably play it to this day, and it even allows groups of like-minded people to organise sessions with each other — we've hosted our own community race nights here at Nintendo Life, and will do so again!
Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on Wii U, a terrific Capcom title, also demonstrates how worldwide online play can enrich an experience — though Japan isn't included in that example. Of course, it was set to be region-locked initially, but such was the uproar from enthusiastic hunters — or perhaps it was a natural delay dressed up as a response to fans — that an update was issued after release to open up the servers to bring together North America and PAL regions. When you combine this with intuitive text messaging on the GamePad, microphone support for voice-chat and simple, easy to access lobbies, you have a terrific setup that attracts a loyal base of gamers. Let's not forget the strong online offering in Pokémon X & Y with global matches and trades, along with constant updates and messages appearing on the lower screen throughout the experience.
There are numerous advantages to worldwide online modes, of course. For one thing it gives you a better chance of finding others to play with; in the case of Mario Kart 7 and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate it's still possible to get into a race or hunt relatively quickly. It's also rather fun to play with others from around the world, especially with the pre-race globe graphic in Mario Kart 7 often showing gamers from nations like Japan, Mexico and a variety of others in a typical race. It's also ideal for those with irregular sleeping patterns, as jumping onto Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate at midnight in Europe will still hook you up with early evening gamers in regions such as North America.
On the flipside we have Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS, which was locked down to regions in online play. This had the disadvantage of not utilising multiple time-zones, of course, but also split up an already modest online base of players further, meaning that after an initial burst of enthusiasm games against varied opponents became hard to come by. If you found yourself playing against someone with a laggy connection and an irritatingly high level of skill with Boo, you'd probably play them again, and then again, and maybe again, as the system looped you around due to the lack of sufficient numbers. Considering it was a title without the clout and userbase of Mario Kart 7, the decision to break online play into regions was odd.
Of course, what Mario Tennis Open included was leaderboards, and generosity means we should acknowledge that managing those leaderboards and rankings may have made sense in a regional sense — MK7 gives each player a ranking, but comparing them to others isn't truly accommodating. In truth that's a flimsy defence, however, as there are download-only games with worldwide leaderboards; it's indicative of a truly safe approach, perhaps tied to saving on costs and development resources.
So what's the deal with Wii Sports Club and its regional club-based system? There are some theories in Nintendo Life HQ regarding this decision — one is that outlined above, that it's a simpler, lower maintenance option to break up the online play to regions, tying into the eShop and hardware region-locking. Another could be a link to the Miiverse integration; the network itself and its communities are split up into "Europe and Oceania", "Japan" and "America", tying in (again) with the region locking policy. The social aspect of these titles allows "pep talk" comments, or sledges/teases in theory, to be pre-set and flashed up during a match. In order to avoid any issues of inappropriate messages — which is sensible in light of recent events with Swapnote — these are Miiverse posts that go through a moderation process before being available. If these messages are filtered to regional Miiverse teams, it's another element that suits a local rather than worldwide approach.
Of course, this can probably be accused of being apologetic rationalisation, finding reasons for this setup without any sense of a meaningful and defensible justification. We'd be inclined to agree, too. While we're presenting pros and cons and explaining different sides, it's safe to say that region-restricted online play seems oddly out of place. We'd assume that Mario Kart 8, for example, will follow its 3DS predecessor — as a minimum — in online multiplayer functionality. With so many gamers active online and part of worldwide communities such as that here on Nintendo Life and social networks, the idea that a new release in 2013 throws up regional road-blocks in online play is unfortunate and unexpected.
We're doubtful that a future update to Wii Sports Club will open up worldwide play and communities that can play each other regardless of continent, but we'll leave room for a little optimism. Let's just hope that, with online modes in the likes of Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros., such restrictions will be nowhere to be found.