The Nintendo Switch comes with a new online service -- but it sounds terrible

After years of waiting, Nintendo finally has a new video game console on the way: the Nintendo Switch.

Nintendo switchNintendoThe Nintendo Switch is both a home console (as seen here) and a portable game console.

It’s a hybrid console: You can play it at home on your living-room television, or you can take it on the go. Here are the basics:

There’s of course much more to the Switch than that.

For instance, one major Nintendo game arrives alongside the console on March 3: “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” It’s gorgeous and massive:

Additionally, the console comes in two flavours — plain grey and neon red/blue:

Nintendo SwitchCorey ProtinDon’t worry, there’s only one price point for both versions of the Switch: $299.

And, most notably for this piece, Nintendo has a new way of handling online play with Switch — it’s called the “Nintendo Switch Online Service.” The new service kicks off at the launch of the Switch on March 3, but it won’t fully blossom until some point later in 2017 — and when it does, it will have a monthly subscription fee attached.

That’s a first for Nintendo: The company has offered online services before, but it’s never charged for them. Nintendo’s competition, Sony and Microsoft, have offered paid online services for years now.

Microsoft set the standard for console-based online services with Xbox Live on the Xbox 360 (which it continues to operate successfully on the Xbox One). Sony pushed forward that standard with PlayStation Plus on its PlayStation game consoles, starting with the PlayStation 3.

As such, there are certain expectations associated with paid online services on home game consoles. Sony and Microsoft charge $10/month for their services, and both offer similar benefits:

  • The ability to play games online with and against other people.
  • The ability to save games “in the cloud” (meaning you can start a game at home, go to your friend Suzie’s house, and continue playing wherever you left off).
  • Free games, every month, that you keep as long as you remain a paying member. There are also discounts on select titles, which change every month.

But Nintendo is Nintendo, and Nintendo rarely acts according to expectation. The Nintendo Switch Online Service is a testament to that history, albeit not in a positive way.

Let’s start with the services you get with a paid Nintendo Switch Online Service account:

Sounds pretty similar, right? Paying members get access to online gameplay, an online lobby system/voice chat, monthly game downloads, and exclusive deals.

What’s missing from the chart, posted by Nintendo, are asterisks. There are some major caveats in even the simplest claims above. Let’s start with that “monthly game download” — Nintendo details it as such:

“Subscribers will get to download and play a Nintendo Entertainment System™ (NES) or Super Nintendo Entertainment System™ (Super NES) game (with newly-added online play) for free for a month.”

Sounds pretty good! Who doesn’t want access to a free NES or SNES game every month? Here’s the catch: You can play that game for a single month, at which point it’s removed from your library and costs money once again. Here’s how Nintendo America president Reggie Fils-Aime explained it to Wired on January 13:

“Essentially you’ve got access to that game for a period of time, and then after the month there’s a new selection. You’ll have the opportunity to buy it, but [after] that month we’ve moved on to another game.”

So, to be clear, you don’t get a free game every month. You get time-limited access to games that came out anywhere from 20 to 30 years ago. This is a demo, not a free game. If we’re splitting hairs, it’s not a “free” game even if you were able to keep it — we’re talking about a paid online service, after all. But let’s move on.

The next sell point for Nintendo’s new online service: “online lobby & voice chat.”

Xbox One (headset)MicrosoftThis is the Xbox One chat headset, which is how you communicate online with other players on the Xbox One. It’s the easiest way to handle online voice chat on game consoles.

Like the “free” game, a caveat extends to this service as well. Rather than attach a headset/mic combo to the system, voice chat is handled through a smartphone app. More clearly: Voice chat is handled by your phone, not on the Switch itself. “Instead of having some sort of bulky gamer headset, you’ll be able to do it right off your smartphone,” Fils-Aime told Wired. “Put in your earbuds that you use for your standard mobile device. We think that’s a pretty sweet solution.”

Say what you will about that solution (I think it’s a bad solution) — the concept of paying a monthly fee to use my phone as a means of voice chat on a game console is illogical at best. Don’t I already pay a monthly phone bill so I can use my phone for voice chat (AKA phone calls)?

In so many words, it doesn’t feel like a value add.

Broad city skype ViacomSkype is free, and it’s the perfect way to comfort your drunk friend who’s crying in the bathroom.

Worse, it sounds like a poor way to handle voice chat on a game console. If I’m reaching for my phone to handle group voice chat, why not reach to Skype or Google Hangouts or any other number of solutions that cost nothing?

Nintendo is also handling friends lists and other stuff like that through its app. That’s all fine, but this stuff should be on the console and on an app (the same way that Microsoft and Sony already handle it).

Finally — most crucially — the service won’t be ready in time for the Switch’s March 3 launch.

Some games have online functionality, and that will work. When “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” launches in late April, that will presumably have online multiplayer. Moreover, it won’t cost you anything to use this online functionality. But voice chat? Those “free” games? Even the concept of an online lobby? None of that arrives on the Switch at launch — it’s planned for “fall 2017,” including an unknown subscription fee.

In many ways, the Nintendo Switch is a step in the right direction for Nintendo. It’s a mostly traditional game console with a relatively low price and a slate of good-looking games in the works. It’s a simple concept that’s easily explained.

But the way that Nintendo is handling online on Switch has more in common with Nintendo’s contemporary blunders than its promising future. With another month-plus until the launch of the Switch, Nintendo has plenty of time to wow us with more information. Maybe all those NES and SNES classics we bought on the Wii and Wii U will continue forward as part of a persistent digital library? Here’s hoping.

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