Nintendo's late to online gaming

The debut of the company's first online subscription service comes more than a decade after Sony and Microsoft started similar products

NEW YORK • Better late than never? Except, maybe, for Nintendo gamers.

The company that created Super Mario and Zelda is finally embracing online gaming with the debut of its first online subscription service, charging US$20 (S$27) a year for users of its Switch console to challenge one another over the Web.

The move comes more than a decade after Sony and Microsoft started similar products that now bring in billions in subscription fees.

But Nintendo's late arrival is being met with jeers by large swathes of the gaming community.

Users have had 18 months to test the service for free and the response has been decidedly negative.

Lacking must-have features for today's multi-player titles, such as in-game chat, they are slamming the platform as frustrating to use, susceptible to cheating and prone to connectivity issues.

"Nintendo is at least five years behind, probably more", compared with Sony and Microsoft, said Mr Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit. "It works, but it is the minimum you would expect from an online service."

In June, Nintendo's United States chief Reggie Fils-Aime said it was still "learning about the technical infrastructure" and gameplay design.

He promised the issues would be settled before the official launch.

Nintendo has long ignored online gaming for philosophical and financial reasons.

It became a powerhouse through titles designed to be played alone, such as Zelda and Metroid, or face-to-face with friends in Mario Kart.

There has also been concern that strangers could use the Internet to reach children playing its family-focused titles.

Another factor is the cost of building online networks for a company that has traditionally been financially conservative.

But with multi-player gaming now a huge part of the US$138-billion games industry, the Kyoto-based company had little choice but to embrace online.

To replicate the type of platform used by Sony requires investing in servers around the world and constantly upgrading the network.

Sony's PlayStation network has evolved since it was launched in 2000. That includes investing in servers to enable cloud-based gaming on its PlayStation Now service.

Nintendo eschewed the dedicated server approach and instead embraced a cheaper design called peer-to-peer (P2P).

"With P2P, because players are essentially connected to each other, the speed of the game is restricted to the slowest player's connection.

"So if they have a bad Internet connection, the entire gameplay scenario will run slow," said Ms Penny de Byl, founder of online games education provider Holistic3d.

"If Nintendo wants to address the needs of its gamers, then it will have to consider providing dedicated servers or players will just go elsewhere."

A key advantage of using P2P is that it is cheaper to build and maintain, a reason that Nintendo's online service is charging about one third the price of Sony and Microsoft's. Users are also questioning other features, or the lack of them. Nintendo's system does not come with built-in voice and text chat, forcing users to access a smartphone app.

Most recently, users have lashed out because in-game progress is not automatically backed up to the cloud for all titles, meaning if a player lost or damaged his Switch, all the hours of play could be lost.

Despite the criticism, gamers are using the online service.

Digital sales through the platform jumped 68 per cent from a year ago in the latest quarter.

Ending the free trial may upset gamers, but it is a necessary first step, noted Mr Harding-Rolls.

The recurring revenue stream will let Nintendo fund further development and address concerns raised by players.

"This is why Nintendo has to start charging," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2018, with the headline 'Nintendo's late to online gaming'. Print Edition | Subscribe