Nintendo Switch Online

We received an email in our personal inbox the other day – Nintendo was offering 50 points (the My Nintendo Platinum Points rather than eShop coins, unfortunately) in return for completing a survey about Nintendo Switch Online. It seems that the company is seeking hard feedback data on its subscription service, and we’d wager it should prepare for some strong opinions from certain quarters.

Nintendo Switch Online launched in September last year and we think it's fair to say it's had its highs and lows. The exclusive Tetris 99 has been a roaring success, cloud saves were very received and the NES library is a nice bonus, although non-universal cloud save support, patchy online performance and the much-lamented smartphone app are just a few of the areas players have (rightly) found complaint with.

Nintendo’s quarterly financial report dropped earlier this week and boasted a 65.3% increase in digital revenue - the addition of NSO subscriptions to the balance books probably has something to do with that as its earnings get lumped in with all other digital profit. While the service’s low price and moderate perks mean that by the end of March more than 9.8 million people had signed up for it in some capacity, there’s still a large chunk of the 36.87 million Switches in the wild that aren’t subscribed. Company President Shuntaro Furukawa responded to investor questions stating that Nintendo was exploring further ways of highlighting ‘the distinct value of Nintendo Switch Online’ and earlier this week we saw that, starting today, Japanese subscribers will gain temporary access to Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. For ten days between 1st and 11th August players can enjoy the entire game and all its modes.

A similar Splatoon 2 demo in March (though not Switch Online exclusive) permitted Japanese players to transfer save data to the full game if they chose to buy it afterwards. Today we get the news that these Game Trials are arriving in the west with Mario Tennis Aces from 7th to 13th August. It’s described as being the first of the 'Game Trials programme', so we can expect more games to come. Yet more evidence of the drive to add value to NSO came with the Spirit Board Challenge Pack 1 for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate players, made available exclusively to Switch Online subscribers.

The Spirit Board pack is a small offering to sweeten the pot for Smash fans, but the offering of 10-day unlimited access to a first-party game is a quite clever new way to leverage the company’s existing catalogue to offer subscribers something substantial. Tetris 99 has proved very popular (indeed, it’s getting its own standalone release), but why not supplement new games with temporary ‘Game Pass’-like access to something that’s already finished?

GameTrials

These Game Trials are more than demos, too – unlimited access to the game for a 10-day period is essentially a ‘free’ rental, a way to hook people into games they might not otherwise slap down £50 for. Core gamers can easily blast through the entire game during the trial period while younger or more casual players get a taste of something new. Everyone's a winner.

Except, perhaps, for parents; this window might prove to be something of a double-edged sword if you've got kids. Yes, the little tykes get access to a new game but 10 days later when they haven’t completed it, they’ll be nagging you to buy the thing. Fortunately, Nintendo is offering the game with a 33% discount throughout the trial and for the week following. Crafty!

As devious as this might seem, it’s hard to argue with ‘free’ access to a full games, however temporary. We put ‘free’ in quotation marks because you are, of course, paying for Switch Online. It’s not really free at all, just as all those Netflix and Hulu shows aren’t, but as part of something you’re already paying for, the chance to blast through some first-party Nintendo titles is better than a kick in the teeth.

It’s a long way from what the competition is offering, though, and Nintendo Switch Online is still far from being a Game Pass or PS Plus competitor. Obviously, it’s much cheaper than those products on rival consoles, so a direct comparison is perhaps unfair, but there’s much to improve if Nintendo want to attract and retain paying subscribers, however nominal the $20 annual fee. Offers like this Mario Tennis event are cute, but we’d argue that patchy online performance in games like Super Mario Maker 2 is a more pressing issue and needs addressing if the company is truly serious about building its online service into a strong platform in its own right. We can argue about questionable voice chat solutions, pointless Friends lists and cloud save exceptions until we’re blue in the face, but experiencing lag and disconnect issues in a Mario platformer via a service we’re paying for is something players shouldn’t have to put up with.

Great fun, but significant lag in a game that looks like Super Mario Bros. 3? In 2019? Over a paid-for service? Hmm.
Great fun, but significant lag in a game that looks like Super Mario Bros. 3? In 2019? Over a paid-for service? Hmm.

Whether these issues are foremost in Nintendo’s mind is unknown, although it’s more than aware that NSO could do with an appeal boost, as the survey we received indicates. Beyond fixing the basics, there are a variety of obvious ways to give the service a shot in the arm. The most blindingly obvious way to from a fan’s perspective is to make SNES games available – an easy win that makes use of existing content. Of course, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, so Nintendo is understandably hesitant to throw them out for ‘free’ while there’s a chance that people will pay just one more time for individual classics like Super Mario World.

More previews from the Game Trial programme would seem to be incoming (it's hardly a 'programme' if it's only one game). Theoretically, this could be extended out to third-party and even indie games in time. The eShop is absolutely crawling with gems that have been overlooked for one reason or another and players are arguably more likely to buy a game in the $5-10 region than a $60 game with a discount. Then again, they're also more likely to have got everything they want from a smaller game during the trial period. We’d obviously want to see this translate into sales to make it worthwhile to smaller developers, but it’s an avenue worth exploring and could help address the eShops discoverability issues.

More exclusives along the lines of Tetris 99 would also be attractive – online experiences that tie into the service itself are a natural fit. Could Nintendo’s mobile offerings do well in a console context or would that muddy the waters too much?

These ideas have potential but also potential pitfalls, and ultimately we’d rather see Nintendo nail the fundamentals first with a better quality technical experience. The door is open, though, for some innovative incentives if the company only has the gumption to invest in truly improving its online offering. Past evidence suggests the path ahead will be a convoluted one involving small steps forward, followed by several backwards, but these recent announcements indicate that there is a bright future ahead for Nintendo Switch Online, if only Nintendo can get out of its own way.

Have you received a Nintendo Switch Online feedback survey? How do you think Nintendo should improve its online service? Would throwing SNES games on there really be enough? Share your thoughts with a comment below.