It's long been said – mostly by the company's critics, admittedly - that Nintendo 'doesn't get' online. While Microsoft and Sony (and, you could argue, Sega) led the charge when it came to connecting console gamers to the World Wide Web, Nintendo was happy to sit back and focus on producing amazing games and innovative hardware – a strategy that arguably worked just fine during the DS and Wii eras, thank you very much.
That stance has changed with Switch, which – with the introduction of a fancy new paid-for subscription service – is now Nintendo's most 'online' piece of hardware. Even so, the company has stumbled a little along the way; not only was Switch Online embarrassingly late – the console has been available for over a year, lest we forget – but the company has fumbled some key points, one of the most egregious being the confusion over the deletion of cloud saves once your sub expires.
However, Nintendo has shown that it can learn from these mistakes and has taken steps to clarify the cloud save deletion issue. We should, perhaps, expect further changes as the service matures over the next few years, because it's vital to remember that in launching Switch Online, Nintendo is making a significant transition as a company – perhaps the biggest transition it has seen in decades.
"Converting from being a pure console and game development company to one that runs an online service is generally a difficult transition to make," says Brian Johnson, CEO and Co-founder of DivvyCloud, a company which delivers comprehensive policy-driven security, compliance and governance for cloud infrastructure. "Being an online services platform is critical to the success of any console. Not only is it important because of the user experience, but it also changes the business’ revenue model. Moving to a recurring revenue model will provide Nintendo with the ongoing revenue it will need to continue to upgrade the Nintendo Switch."
Johnson used to work at Electronic Arts, and is something of an authority when it comes to this kind of thing. During his seven years at EA, he developed, managed and operated the infrastructure that ran some of the world’s largest online games and led the first migration of a major online game to Amazon Web Services. He also broke new ground by architecting the complex hybrid cloud environments that supported EA’s massive, distributed global computing requirements.
As someone who has been there, done that, and effectively written the rulebook on this kind of technology, Johnson has watched Nintendo's growing pains with interest. On the topic of cloud saves – a bone of contention with Switch owners since launch – he feels that the company has done the right thing by locking them away behind a subscription. "It would be very costly for the console companies to provide this feature for free," he explains. "Also, if we want the console market to continue to innovate, they need a revenue stream that is dependable and predictable."
Nintendo has used the allure of free 'classic' games as a way of driving interest in the service, which – it should be noted – is cheaper than that of its rivals. Despite the difference in price, there have been complaints (from us as well as other outlets) that the selection of free titles is uninspiring, and even the most hardcore NES fan will admit that the painful drip-feed of three games a month is hardly going to have people rushing to take out a sub. "Nintendo has an opportunity to drive consumption via its legacy games," Johnson points out, and he acknowledges that the power of nostalgia can make up for the lack of excitement, in many cases. "While these games are not super exciting, they hold a special place in the heart of many gamers." That appeal – combined with the promise of online play – will no doubt ensure that diehard fans sign up, but in the fullness of time, more value will need to be added to make the platform 'sticky'.
He also sees Nintendo's decision to backtrack on deleting cloud save data as a predictable consequence of this learning process; as we've already touched upon, this is a seismic change for the industry veteran. "One of the most difficult changes a company can make is converting from being a pure 'on the shelf' product to an online services company," Johnson says. "Transitions like these are very culturally challenging for a company. Companies like Nintendo are used to developing in a vacuum, in fear that allowing public input will lead to product secrets being leaked. Ultimately this means that the product hits the shelves with very little customer input, and once the product is built, there is no going back." This is, of course, the opposite of running an online 'service' which is constantly subject to user feedback and can adapt and change more readily than a tangible, boxed product.
We're almost certain to see other games added to the roster as time goes on, and a service which offers SNES, N64 and even GameCube titles for free each month is going to be a lot more enticing than what we currently have. But as Johnson repeatedly points out, it's vital to remember that there's a learning curve here. Unlike Sony and Microsoft – the latter of whom, we should remember, launched its innovative online subscription service without the promise of any free software – Nintendo is trying all of this out for the first time. The choice to backtrack on the cloud save issue proves that the company is listening to its customers, so perhaps we should give Nintendo a little time to fine-tune the experience before we pass too harsh a judgement.
"For a product company like Nintendo, learning when and how to react is not a natural skill," concludes Johnson. "It is one that will have to be learned over time."