It’s hardly an industry secret that Nintendo is the most reluctant console manufacturer of “the big three” when it comes to pushing online play on its latest home console. Xbox Live has really set the benchmark when it comes to providing what players now readily expect from a gaming experience that takes them into the wider virtual world outside of their own machine, Sony also seems to want to reach that same wavelength, but Nintendo still appears somewhat cautious about the whole idea - a decision that could potentially harm the chances of the Nintendo Wii in the years to come.
Nintendo has been reserved about the process of online gaming for years now. While Microsoft had the ambition, foresight (and monetary funds) to pursue the idea as far back as the launch of Xbox Live with the firm’s first console, Nintendo seemed somewhat reluctant. While allowing third parties to dabble in Internet gaming on the GameCube (most notably SEGA, who provided the GameCube’s only online title, Phantasy Star Online), George Harrison, vice president of marketing for Nintendo of America stated at the time in May 2002 that it saw online projects as “a very interesting market” and one that would be “very small” for the foreseeable future.
That may have been the case, but Microsoft’s openness to developers keen on the idea helped build Xbox Live into what it is today, a fully fledged service that neither Sony nor Nintendo can claim to rival at present. With the Xbox 360 launching a full year before the Nintendo Wii (and with Xbox Live attracting near 5 million paying subscribers as 2007 and the arrival of the Wii approached), you might think that Nintendo’s head honchos would have nodded at each other agreeably across the boardroom table and started working hard towards something similar for their newest machine. Heck, it probably should have happened at least a few years before.
But no, with gargantuan Wii sales throughout the world in 2007, building a credible online service for the machine was probably the least of Nintendo’s worries. Third parties, meanwhile, were getting a little concerned. SNK’s president, Ben Herman, stated in March last year that “Nintendo is still not letting Wii third-party publishers include online capabilities in their games and it doesn’t look like they will during 2007.” And while the situation did slightly improve (both on the third and first party front) as 2007 unfolded, all told the situation was rather pitiful, with only a handful or releases sporting limited online options.
It’s a problem that continues to affect games on the Nintendo Wii into 2008, particularly multi-format titles in which an online offering is a stable part on rival machines. SEGA Superstars Tennis, Rock Band and Madden NFL 09 (which it appears will lack key online components) are just three notable examples. Nintendo seems to be slowly moving in the right direction with the likes of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii, but the severe server problems many gamers have has in relation to the former’s release proves, somewhat, that Nintendo just weren’t aren’t prepared as they should have been. And without a unified structure such as Xbox Live’s, third parties are also all over the place.
Downloadable content is another issue Nintendo is severely lagging behind with, something that looks to be on the mend with the introduction of Wii Pay and Play in the future. And then there’s the debacle, confusion and restrictiveness of Friend Codes and lack of voice chat, both of which are regularly hotly debated. The huge popularity of Xbox Live, Sony’s ambitious plans with Home and LittleBigPlanet, as well as Nintendo’s success with online gaming on the Nintendo DS, prove that the demand is there from players who want to play online, which makes Nintendo’s current paranoia over the home console situation all the more baffling. Baffling and disappointing in equal measures.
Online gaming is integral part of the industry nowadays. It might not seem a priority to Nintendo with the Wii selling so well right now, but come the time where the PS3 begins to catch up with Xbox Live (all the while improving its online service) and in a market more and more developers cater to an audience attracted to such content, the Wii really can’t afford to be left behind, especially in relation to big mult-format games, just because its online component is lacking.
Nintendo’s relatively poor relation towards third parties over a number of issues has been a major contributing factor to its success (or lack thereof) in previous generations, and we reckon, it is imperative that it doesn’t go isolating itself as far as online gaming is concerned during the life cycle of the Wii. The welcoming and relaxed strategy it has adopted to allowing developers clamber over WiiWare should be its inspiration, letting others lead the way a little instead of being so uptight - just lay the foundations properly and let others take advantage of it. C’mon Nintendo, pull your socks up!