Should We Be Concerned About The Switch’s Online Services?

After months with only a faint idea of what Nintendo’s upcoming online offering would look like, we finally have some answers:

  • Online play for Switch games will be free until sometime in 2018, and will then be priced at $19.99 for a year’s subscription (with 1-month and 3-month subscriptions available).
  • Subscribers will get access to special eShop deals, access to a special app for smart devices to help coordinate gameplay between friends, and (most interestingly) access to a special set of classic Nintendo games that have been updated to include online play. (The fate of the Virtual Console, however, remains unclear.)

There’s a lot to like about what’s here. Players will have more time to evaluate the quality of the online infrastructure (the paid portion was originally slated to start this fall), the low $20 yearly price tag is a nice surprise that forces Sony and Microsoft to explain why they charge two to three times that amount for a similar service, and the always-available set of classic games is a much better option than the monthly-rotating-game option Nintendo had floated earlier. At a high level, I’m satisfied with what I’m hearing.

Being the paranoid Nintendo fan that I am, however, I can’t help but recall the online infrastructure issues that have plagued the company in the past, and wonder if there’s trouble brewing just underneath the surface:

  • The switch from a sort-of-firm fall 2017 release to a vague 2018 one is a clear sign that whatever is happening behind the scenes is happening slower and/or less successfully than Nintendo expected. Whether this is due to functional or scalability issues is unknown, but it’s clear Nintendo wants to give themselves more runway before asking for money. (The silver lining, however, is that Nintendo is willing to take the extra time to make sure that things work.)
  • $20 might be an aggressive price plan to compete with the existing Sony and Microsoft services, but it could also signal a lack of internal confidence about Nintendo’s infrastructure. People will be mad if the company doesn’t show any improvement in its online offerings, but they might be more willing to rationalize the issues if the service is cheap. (I see this a lot with individual games, where people will say “I don’t like X, Y, and Z, but it’s only ten dollars, so I guess I can’t expect the moon and stars.”) Nintendo may be trying to hedge its bets in case its service turns out to be less than robust.
  • For everything we now know about the service, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. For example, neither the Virtual Console or the ability to save games in the cloud have been addressed yet, and while there aren’t 100% necessary, they top the lists of many gamers’ demands for the system. If Nintendo hasn’t even gotten its online gameplay infrastructure in place, it’ll be a long while before we see these other options, if we ever see them at all. (We also haven’t heard anything about non-gaming services like Netflix, Amazon, or even basic web-browsing, aside from the fact that they’re not being prioritized.)

So should we be concerned about Nintendo’s upcoming online offerings? Perhaps, but it’s not time to panic just yet. This delay will buy Nintendo both an extended beta period to find problems and the time needed to actually fix them, and they’ve been lambasted for their past failings enough times that they’re well aware of them and can come up with a strategy to do things better this time. Coming off the disastrous Wii U era, Nintendo’s done a lot of things right with its Switch launch, so it’s not crazy to think that their online service will follow the same pattern, even if things look a little dicey now.

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