The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Nintendo Switch Online

One step forward, two steps back

The latest Nintendo Direct contained a ton of news, and for the most part, I’d say fans are pretty excited about the myriad of announcements. But one announcement really stood out for all the wrong reasons: Nintendo Switch Online. After more than a year in the market, the Switch will finally have its own paid online subscription service. It is essentially Nintendo’s answer to Sony’s PlayStation Plus and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold.

Leading up to the full announcement in the Nintendo Direct broadcast, fans were speculating about what the services would offer — Nintendo had sketched out the basic parameters (cloud saves, access to NES games, special offers and of course, online multiplayer). But there was a sense that Nintendo would have more to say as part of a full unveiling; how do these special offers work, exactly? Will other games — aside from NES titles — be available? Will there be any exciting surprises?

Oddly, Nintendo pretty much revealed exactly what they’d already laid out with some minor (but important) caveats that I’ll touch on here. But in a very un-Nintendo move, there were really no major (pleasant) surprises here. If you check out any online Nintendo community at the time of publishing this, you’re likely to see a fair bit of angst out there — people are, yet again, disappointed by Nintendo’s approach to online services.

It’s certainly true that there are some problems here, but it’s not all bleak. Some of the decisions Nintendo have made here are very much in line with what other gaming companies are doing; I’d argue, too, that we’re seeing an industry transitioning to a new model of content delivery that is likely to become far more pervasive in the near future.

So, now that the announcement is behind us and we’ve all had time to digest the news, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take another look at Nintendo Switch Online: the good, the bad, and the ugly (and perhaps the potential, too).

Let’s start by breaking down the pros and cons of the service’s major pillars.

The first and most obvious element of Nintendo Switch Online is the ability to play multiplayer games over the internet. There’s not a whole lot to say about this: we’ve been able to play games online on Nintendo consoles for years now. Nintendo has historically refused to charge a subscription for online multiplayer, even when both Sony and Microsoft made this a core part of their offerings (there are a limited number of games that you can play online on PS4 and Xbox One without paid subscriptions). On the one hand, I’m hopeful that a growing base of subscriptions will help Nintendo to fund more robust online infrastructure and continue to support online multiplayer in specific games for a long period of time. But on the other hand, it’s definitely tricky to ask people to pay for something they are used to getting for free — even if that price is nominal at best (the annual membership is a paltry $19.99 USD — for the sake of comparison, an annual PlayStation Network membership is $59.99).

Nintendo spent a good deal of time in the Direct presentation attempting to sell the benefits of their Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app.

Now, I have to admit, I’ve only really used this app before for Splatoon 2. And to be completely fair, it does provide a unique and interesting way of extending the core game experience (you can order exclusive gear through the app, for example, and you can quickly and easily see all of your various stats, as well as check out the current stage rotations). But Nintendo’s insistence on pushing multiplayer voice chat to a third-party device is baffling. If you actually do use the system, it works quite well — setting up groups and chats is pretty quick and easy, thanks to an intuitive UI. But the fact remains that you can’t easily connect with your friends and simultaneously listen to game audio through the same headphones (unless you buy that weird little Splat and Chat gadget by Hori).

In the Direct, Nintendo actually tried to espouse the value of going hands-free on your smartphone so that any random person in your house can join in on the fun. Maybe I’m getting old, but I can’t imagine this being remotely fun; I can imagine it being a headache, and detracting from the experience.

Presumably Nintendo will continue to enhance the smartphone app and I’m sure it’ll improve over time. I also have no idea why the company didn’t incorporate voice chat directly into the Switch OS — though I’m sure there are valid reasons, the fact remains that requiring a separate smartphone for online voice chat will forever be an awkward, cumbersome option (and somehow, paying for the privilege just don’t seem right at all).

One of the features that I was probably most excited about — despite it being something of a no-brainer — is the ability to upload my game saves to the cloud. Finally. Saving game progress on a Switch console (rather than in the cloud or on the Game Card) always struck me as questionable; if I lose my Switch, or it somehow breaks, I don’t want to lose all of my game progress. That’s insane in this day and age. So it’s great that Nintendo is providing a cloud save feature here, even though it’s locked behind the paid subscription (although that’s no different to Sony or Microsoft).

The key difference — at least for now — is that Nintendo aren’t committing to retaining cloud saves if your subscription lapses.

Competing services do retain this data, even if your subscription lapses. The idea is that once you renew your subscription, you can access the data again. At the moment, Nintendo apparently hasn’t implemented a specific buffer period — they are simply saying that your cloud saves are stored so long as you have an active subscription.

To be fair, Nintendo haven’t explicitly said that you’ll lose the data. The language their use on their FAQ is fairly ambiguous — it’s very feasible that the data remains there, and you can access it again once you renew, even if you go for a period of time without an active subscription. However, Nintendo haven’t been explicit about it, and that’s a problem. For now, it makes sense to assume that your cloud saves are lost if your membership lapses, given that Nintendo haven’t outright denied this — hopefully Nintendo will address this fairly obvious flaw as soon as possible.

I was really looking forward to seeing what Nintendo would do with classic games on Nintendo Switch Online. We didn’t really get any new announcements in the Nintendo Direct — at least, nothing that Nintendo hadn’t said before. But we do know just a little bit more about their offering here.

For starters, Virtual Console as we know it is gone. Nintendo have been clear for a while now that they have no plans for a Wii or Wii U-esque Virtual Console for Switch, so this should come as no surprise. But I do think it’s worth breaking this specific topic down a little further. In my mind, there are two important aspects of Virtual Console that really matter here:

  1. A large library of games across multiple platforms (e.g. NES, SNES, N64, Mega Drive/Genesis, Neo Geo, etc…)
  2. The ability to purchase individual games.

Many gamers seem to be disappointed by the fact that, at least initially, Nintendo are only offering a small selection of NES titles. But I think it’s important to mention a few things to add some balance to the discussion:

  • Whenever Nintendo introduced classic games via a download service, they always built up that library over time (the library effectively started from scratch on the Wii U, for example, even though the Wii had amassed a sizable Virtual Console library over the years). It took time to establish that library.
  • The NES games being added here are enhanced to be playable online — it’s even possible to watch a friend play a NES game and point out secrets or give them applause with an on-screen cursor.
  • Non-Nintendo games are never guaranteed; Nintendo has to manage complex licensing arrangements with each publisher, and these arrangements can (and do) change over time.

Not being able to purchase individual games is an interesting one. On the surface, it might seem like an obvious backwards step. But Nintendo’s approach here is analogous to what Sony do with monthly PS Plus titles; so long as you have an active subscription, you can access and play those games. The moment your subscription is inactive, you lose access to those titles. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are increasingly moving to a subscription-based “on demand” model for delivering content. Right now, only certain portions of their overall libraries are delivered through this mechanism, but I think we can expect it to become more and more prevalent over time (if you’re used to consuming most of your movies and TV shows through Netflix, for example, then you’re already experiencing this model — video games simply haven’t caught up with movies and TV).

The key difference here, I think — and the problem with Nintendo’s approach — is that you can only play these NES games offline for up to 7 days. If you don’t connect to Nintendo Switch Online within that timeframe, you will no longer be able to play these games offline. That feels like a very rough and punishing way to police the system, especially when you consider that the Switch is designed with portability in mind.

Aside from the 7 day sign-in requirement, I think there’s a lot of promise here. As you continue to maintain your subscription, more and more content will be added to an ever-expanding library. At the moment, that library only consists of NES games — but it’s reasonable to expect that Nintendo will add more games (and platforms) over time. A subscription model also makes it more likely that Nintendo and other publishers will be able to experiment with the service and offer niche titles and experiences (again, refer to the now well-established TV and movie examples).

Perhaps the weirdest part of the Nintendo Switch Online announcement was the ultra-brief mention of exclusive member offers. At the moment, these offers aren’t terribly compelling — you can only buy those rather cool NES Switch controllers if you’re a subscriber (as opposed to, say, getting a discount on them by subscribing), and you’ll get some fairly negligible free stuff in Splatoon 2 (in this case, a t-shirt and shoes).

Nintendo are clearly still working on this, because there weren’t able to say anything else about it yet. But if they are going to follow the example set by Sony and Microsoft, they’ll surely need to offer substantial discounts on content purchases for subscribers — I regularly take advantage of Sony’s PS Plus discounts, and in general I’d say they’re fantastic value. Nintendo already discount some products in the eShop, but there’s a bigger opportunity here to offer something special to subscribers (of course, discounts aren’t the only kind of offer that makes sense here — it’d be great if Nintendo offered other exclusive products, like special Amiibo for example, to subscribers). Right now, it’s simply too early to tell how this will shake out.

Although Nintendo are late to the party with Nintendo Switch Online, I can’t help but think the company is still launching this service too early. It just doesn’t seem ready yet.

Setting aside some of the odd strategic decisions (like the lack of voice chat on the Switch console), some aspects of this service are pretty obviously going to require quick remedy from Nintendo in order to avoid significant customer backlash (retaining cloud saves, and making offline access to NES games more forgiving and consumer-friendly).

That said, this is only the beginning. Despite the very Nintendo-esque foibles on display here, I think there’s actually a lot of promise here as Nintendo no doubt expands the service over time. One slight saving grace here is simply that the Nintendo Switch Online service is so cheap when considered against its competitors.

In any case, Nintendo now need to maintain a very tight feedback loop as they roll out the service. Listening closely to subscribers and quickly addressing flaws in the system will be key to retaining a healthy and engaged community.