One of the surprise announcements from Nintendo's big Switch presentation was that it would be introducing a new subscription-based online service for which fans will need to pay a monthly fee. This seems as though it could come as something of a double-edged sword, so we're going to break down some of the pros and cons of this approach.
To begin, we should touch on the broader subject of Nintendo charging for online services in the first place. With the PS4 mandating PS+ for online services, Nintendo became the last bastion of free online play for consoles, and now it seems that PC will be the only platform that still does this. Many fans have understandably been a bit upset at the introduction, and there's some validity to that, but this shouldn't be something that comes as a surprise. The money that it costs to run online services for a platform doesn't just appear out of thin air, and while there are plenty of ways for Nintendo to generate income to support its online features, the most straightforward and hassle-free approach is to simply charge a fee to those that intend on using the services.
And when it comes down to it, the asking price need not be all that much; PS+ costs $50 for a year and Xbox Gold costs $60 in the US, which shakes out to $4-5 per month for the service. Nintendo hasn't yet announced the pricing for its online subscription, but it's reasonable to assume it'll be comparable to its competitors. Some will no doubt still cry foul at having to pay for services that were previously free, but to do so is to ignore the fact that it costs money to run these services. Nintendo — or any other online service provider for that matter — is not obligated in any way to provide free online services to its consumers; those services are essentially a privilege, not a right. With that all being said, concerns over Nintendo charging for online are, in some cases, undoubtedly valid.
Historically speaking, Nintendo has always been a bit behind the times with its online services. Back in the days of the DS and Wii, you had to add friends using a confusing friend code system; it was difficult — if not impossible — to create parties with friends to play games together, there was next to no voice chat support, and so on. The 3DS and Wii U went a long way towards fixing these issues, but still left plenty of room for improvement in terms of creating a hassle-free, straightforward online experience. Though there have been marked signs of improvement over the last several years in Nintendo's online efforts, it still arguably has yet to prove itself in this area. That age-old conversation around a "unified account system" is still going on to some degree nowadays, and the question remains as to whether Nintendo is ready to take this step when charging for online. There's been a lot of catch up being played on the company's part this past generation, so why should we be so quick to pay for a service that may be limited or confusing compared to the offerings on other consoles?
Pricing around this new online service hasn't been revealed yet, but providing value will be absolutely critical to the service's success, and as of now it seems like it may be a little skimpy. For example, Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus provide subscribers with a handful of free games every month that are accessible as long as the user remains subscribed to the service. Nintendo's subscription will provide subscribers with access to one NES or SNES game which will only be playable for one month before being replaced with another. There's been talk in the past of Nintendo offering some kind of subscription access to its Virtual Console library, and it seems like that would be a perfect fit for this new service, but it seems like we're instead being given crumbs.
Another point of contention could be the "exclusive deals" offered to subscribers. For example, PSN regularly offers sales on games that go well in excess of 50% off, and having a PS+ subscription often drives the savings up even further. Most notably, the games on sale are often recent releases that have come out sometime within that season. Nintendo's efforts are a different story. While it is good to see the company doing sales every now and then, they admittedly aren't all too enticing. The latest 'January Digital Deals' sale was passable, but it arguably failed to provide any must-have discounts. Nintendo isn't entirely to blame for this race to the bottom approach the industry has taken to over the past few years, but it's difficult to take its sales seriously when a physical copy can be found for pennies on the dollar. The new subscription service could mark a new era of competitive pricing for Nintendo's digital games, but it will have to make sure these are actually competitive for it to be appealing.
Of course, it's still early days yet, and there's plenty of room for Nintendo to continually iterate and improve on its subscription with fan feedback. For now, we're being offered one NES or SNES game per month that's only playable for a month, but we could easily be given a handful of games for a longer period a year from now. Similarly, flash sales and other such deals that are hard to turn down could become the norm, giving subscribers more bang for their buck in terms of how much they can save when buying games off the eShop. The point is, Nintendo isn't bound to the amenities it's laid out, and there's a good chance that the service will improve considerably as time passes and the company gets a better feel for finding that balance between crafting an enticing service that doesn't hand out too much to those who pay into it.
All else aside, the introduction of mandatory paid online services seems to show that Nintendo is being more intentional with its online efforts this generation. Though there are valid concerns over this new direction the company is taking, the fact that it's making a move as bold as this demonstrates that online is being taken more seriously with the Switch. For example, there'll even be a new smart device app that sounds as if it's solely dedicated to connecting with friends and organizing parties. Five years ago, such an app would have been a ludicrous proposition to be coming from Nintendo, and it shows that the company is endeavouring to get its online services right this time around. It's not entirely out of the realm of possibility, then, to hope that Nintendo's online service could finally grow into a worthy competitor to other platforms with the Switch, as opposed to taking a backseat as in past generations.
We'll likely be hearing much more about the online service in the coming weeks and months, but it seems like we've finally reached a point where common voice chat and a robust party system will be the norm for Nintendo. The voice chat in particular is something to be noted; while it may have been implemented in some fairly one-off ways in the past, it seems as though Nintendo is intent on standardizing the feature with the Switch, and its streamlined setup (or lack thereof) will no doubt be spotlighted by Splatoon 2 when it launches this summer.
It's a bit disappointing that — in a Nintendo-centric conversation — we have to be discussing voice chat as if it's an exciting new feature, and the practicalities of how it'll work through a phone app are yet to be seen in full; yet this is still a case of better late than never. Implementing such a feature shows that the company is taking industry trends more seriously, and is somewhat more concerned with providing a platform that can be competitive (in its own way) with the likes of the PS4 and Xbox One. Even if this is a step that should've been taken long ago, it's about time that the company take that step, and the fact that it appears to be doing so signifies its broader intent on communicating a new message with the Switch.
If nothing else, we're witnessing the dawn of a new day for Nintendo. There are many ways its online could go wrong with the Switch, but there are also many ways it could go right. It gives us hope to see Nintendo making an attempt on this part, and while not all may be too excited for what's to come, action on the company's behalf in this area is better than passive indifference. For better or for worse, the company is taking steps into new territory, and that's something to be excited about, even if experience of the big N's past attempts make us rather cautious.