Talking Point: The Nintendo Network ID Creeps Ever Closer to Being Fit for the Modern Age

There's still some distance to go

Since the Wii U launched with its shiny new Nintendo Network ID system, we've been both pleased and frustrated with its implementation. The fact it's tied to the home console hardware has led us to be critical, on occasion, to the point where we once rather cruelly equated it to the abomination of its equivalent on the Wii and, until December, the 3DS.

Yet the term Network ID is only partly right: yes, it’s an ID that manages online interactions, which is excellent, but it’s also locked to one system. It’s not engaging with the cloud and opening up your Wii U experience, it’s chained to your console. If you want to be really, really harsh, you could call it a glorified Friend Code.

As we admitted, that's being really, really harsh, but there's an element of truth to the matter. Since those words were written we've had subtle reminders that the Network part of the name is indeed relevant, as it's used to login and use the rather neat web browser version of Miiverse; 32GB owners also have the Nintendo Network ID Premium promotion, essentially loyalty points that are turned into funds that, from December, will in theory be good for spending on the 3DS — though 3DS purchases won't accumulate these points, naturally (Update: as pointed out to us, this was the case anyway as it was a redeemable code. This joint funds system will simply add convenience). The ID and Wii U software of Miiverse and the Friend List make adding friends much easier than before, while we've seen improved online multiplayer gaming — compared to most examples on Wii — on occasions when developers have actually endeavoured to implement it.

So improvements have been creeping in, with the recent Nintendo Direct announcements of shared eShop funds and Miiverse on the 3DS finally bringing Nintendo Network IDs to the handheld device. Before we delve into caveats and what still needs to be done, let's consider the major positives of those two moves. For one thing, shared funds is ideal for those that still top up their accounts in blocks of money or through fund cards purchased at retailers; not all gamers simply buy each download with the exact funds on a debit card. It's a simple matter of convenience and simplicity that only one virtual wallet will need to be managed, and may indirectly boost sales of the higher value fund cards — after all, if you regularly buy games from both eShops and have the cash to hand, it may be tempting to whack $50 on the account rather than work up in smaller increments on each device.

The biggest news is clearly Miiverse, and this should be considered from the perspective of those that don't own a Wii U, in particular. As it stands the only way to use Miiverse properly — rather than gaze at the recommended posts on the front page of the browser site or follow URLs to specific pages — is to have a Nintendo Network ID, which necessitates a Wii U. With the ID and the bespoke network coming to 3DS — including communities specific to the handheld's library — this will be the first opportunity for many to participate in what is, to date, Nintendo's most innovative feature to get its gamers communicating with each other.

Consider the fact that, as of 30th September 2013, 3.91 million Wii U consoles had been sold; the equivalent 3DS figure, due to its strong run and longer term on the market, is 34.98 million. Even accounting for the fact that less actual 3DS systems may be in the hands of gamers (due to trade-ins, upgrades etc) we still have a significant number that'll join the service for the first time. There have been mutterings based on Nintendo customer services responses — which, in truth, aren't always 100% accurate — that it may not be possible to send friend requests or direct messages; this has been confirmed to us by Nintendo UK, so in essence the 3DS version will be the second iteration to lack those features, along with the browser based option. The service should nevertheless still be a welcome and valuable addition to the platform.

Ultimately, these two aspects coming in the December system update are notable improvements, while Nintendo is keen for all 3DS owners to setup an ID — or link to their Wii U equivalent. While buying 3DS eShop games will be possible without it, accessing demos and free content requires that login, and it wouldn't surprise us if a thoroughly tempting treat gets provided as a freebie to force 3DS owners' hands.

There are some caveats, as we suggested earlier, that show one of three things: Nintendo is still clinging to some old-school practices, this is the beginning of a phased period of evolution, or perhaps a mixture of both. As outlined in our handy guide to using a Nintendo Network ID on your 3DS, there are question-marks and limitations that could be bothersome. For starters, there'll only be one Nintendo Network ID allowed per 3DS; though the Wii U setup is really just there to allow multiple user profiles and independent save data, the handheld has always been — aside from the occasional workaround with eShop 'family' accounts — a single-user device. Save data, for example, is driven more exclusively by the software on the 3DS, whereas even single-save games on the Wii U — such as Toki Tori 2+ — can be worked around with each separate user having their own save data. That won't become the norm on the 3DS due to the single account rule.

What this also does is potentially frustrate those that share their 3DS with someone else, as posts to Miiverse — for example — will always be under the same ID; so if you share with a friend or relative they can only post onto Miiverse with your account. This naturally throws up a disconnect between Nintendo Network ID usage on the Wii U and 3DS, as home consoles are commonly shared between multiple users and applying that dynamic to the portable won't be possible. One argument is that this is the norm for portable devices, with smartphones utilising one login for activities; it's debatable whether that comparison works as a phone is a very personal device, perhaps unlike a dedicated gaming system within a family.

It's a tricky situation, as we're sure a number of families and partners may share a 3DS, while in the case of various members of the Nintendo Life staff family members typically have their own devices. For some this will be a nuisance, however, as Nintendo clearly drives users — especially with the inexpensive 2DS joining the market — to have multiple systems in a household. Whether this single account policy was a deliberate strategy or limited due to technical headaches and constraints, is only known within the walls of Nintendo.

What does remain the case with the upcoming December update on 3DS is the fact that the Nintendo Network ID will still be tied-down to the hardware in a borderline literal sense. As an online account stored on servers it is not, literally, a big N block with an engraved username and password that dangles from the system like an awkward keychain, but by 2013 'network' standards it is. The ID will make no difference, for example, to the system transfer process between portables; you still need to transfer all details wholesale with both consoles sitting next to each other, exactly as before. If the "target" 3DS happens to have a different ID on it, this will be removed when completing the transfer.

Therefore the network ID is as tied to hardware as on Wii U; the 3DS system transfer process will continue to be irrelevant if your original device is stolen, broken or unavailable for any other reason, as before. This is still an egregious issue on Wii U, of course, as even to this day there's no Wii U to Wii U transfer process of any kind — not for consumers, anyway, what Nintendo does with its repair and replacement services is different.

And so we have the greatest remaining weakness of the Nintendo Network ID setup, in that it doesn't utilise the Cloud in a meaningful way. If you take systems such as those employed by Apple and Android, it's a relatively simple process to switch devices utilising backed up data in the Cloud; you simply login to a new device and gain access to your purchased goods, with various means and methods to essentially recreate all of your data on a new handset. It's understandable that Nintendo won't allow multi-device support like Apple, for example — it wants players to either share cartridges or buy individual copies; that's a reality still prevalent in the video game industry. Yet in the event of needing to switch to a new 3DS device, having the ability to access purchased content by logging in with a Nintendo Network ID would resolve difficulties of not being able to utilise the local wireless transfer.

More and more data is in the Cloud now, and if Nintendo's systems could allow this cloud-style transfer and simply restrict content access to one device at a time — therefore disabling games on an old system when activated on another — it would avoid horror stories of lengthy customer services and repair sagas, or the fear of losing hundreds of pounds / dollars / euros worth of content if a device is broken or stolen. Sure, someone could in theory activate content on another device and simply keep another with original copies offline until the end of time, but worrying about those scenarios would really be an excessive case of paranoia, restricting progress due to the vague possibility of a tiny minority being mischievous. So much of the best of the 3DS requires wireless to be switched on, so those that manipulate that potential process for one extra set of content hobbles the system, and runs the risk of having that data disabled if they dare to take it online.

It'd need some serious behind the scenes work by Nintendo, but these are policies and practices expected in 2013, and have been standard for a good few years; it'd also, in one stroke, resolve the ludicrous scenario that if you want to switch Wii U systems but keep your purchases — even if it's just to get the lovely Wind Waker HD bundle — you, well, can't.

And so, welcome enhancements remind us that there are still areas where, in terms of network connectivity and user convenience, Nintendo is still behind many of its contemporaries. Caution is welcome to an extent, as we'd rather have systems and processes that work than a gaggle of disastrous implementations, but we certainly hope that Nintendo is still working towards giving us a truly accessible and useful Network ID system.

Yet to end on positives, Nintendo has stated that it will be looking at further improvements with Nintendo Network IDs across various devices, so in basic terms the company appears to have the goal of improving the service. The December 3DS update will also undoubtedly enhance the portable, along with providing greater eShop convenience to those with both the handheld and a Wii U. Millions of gamers are primed to join Miiverse for the first time, which could truly take the social network to a new level.

Miiverse is ready to take off.