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Nintendo’s Tense Relationship with Online Gaming

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks playing Splatoon 2 on my Nintendo Switch, and I’m loving it. It’s such a fun game, even when I have to play the stupid Port Macherel level over and over again. I’ve always enjoyed playing shooter games up to a point because there’s so much skill required that I know I’m never going to have. Splatoon allows you to be good at it through pattern learning and strategy even on days when you still can’t aim at an enemy properly, and those extra goals and mechanics make it way more fun for me.

Unfortunately, there’s a dark elephant in the room that Splatoon kind of shines a big spotlight on: while Nintendo is fantastic at making games, they’re awful at making services. This is something that Nintendo fans have known for ages, and we keep holding out hope that one day our favorite game makers will finally learn. But progress seems to be painstakingly slow on this front. Sure, they’ve made improvements. Being able to log into your NID Profile on multiple Switches and manually switch the “Active” one was a good move. The ability to tie your NID to a phone app and your Facebook and Twitter profiles feels like a big step. But there are some huge gaping holes in the NID system and Splatoon specifically which many, many online game designers have fixed in the last decade. At the risk of this turning into a complaint thread, I’m going to try and outline a few of them:

  1. You can’t log into Splatoon on a new device and expect your online profile to be there. This is something that could be so simple: You already have a NID attached to the profile, it already stores certain kinds of data, it even puts that data somewhere where you can access it from a companion app. How hard would it be to just sync that information when you log in to play the game like every other competitive online game does? I know that the Switch doesn’t support cloud saves at all and that they’ve talked about how they’re working on it. It’s still kind of baffling to feel like your profile in an online game isn’t even online.
  2. You can’t create parties and queue into online matches with your friends. Nintendo has added a similar feature that gets the job done: you can “Join” the game that your friend is playing in, allowing you to join the lobby that they’ve already been assigned to. This has the advantage of being able to come and go as you please without interrupting each other’s play. This method also makes it so that you won’t always be on the same team as your friend since the members of the lobby get put into teams randomly. This is probably by design, so as to not create too much unfairness. The big disadvantage is that if your friend tries to join your lobby and it’s already full, they’ll get kicked to a waiting screen, where they will stay until a spot opens up, which could take multiple matches. But the bottom line is, it’s just weird and kind of unintuitive. Just let us do what every other game does and join together with our friends and all queue into an online match as a group.
  3. The voice chat. I don’t particularly care about whether or not they want to put voice chat in their game. I think Splatoon is designed around not having voice chat, and that’s just fine. But it seems pretty silly for them to go to all the work of actually making a voice chat system that’s pointless to use. If we wanted to call our friends on our phones while we’re playing Splatoon, we wouldn’t need a new app for that. It just reminds me of times I’ve been working on ideas for a website or an app with a stakeholder and they’ve rattled off a list of features they want to see which would technically be useful, but are totally unwanted by the user base.
  4. There are a couple of things I want to point out that may or may not be purposefully left out but are still worth mentioning: You can’t change loadouts without leaving the lobby. New players don’t join when somebody disconnects from a match mid-game. During a Splatfest, you have to have a team of 4 or you can’t play with your friends. All weird things that kind of leave us wondering if their designers even thought about these user cases. (Although, I’d give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt and say they did.)

Now here’s the bottom line: Splatoon 2 is an amazing game. Nintendo has always made amazing games, and they’ve always made them in spite of some of the less-than-ideal user experiences you have to go through to play them. When they announced the first Splatoon, it left the fans excited and confused – this was completely unknown territory for a company that had never gotten online play right. Now, a few years later, we’re still kind of left feeling that way.

When Nintendo finally does make it a priority to make the best possible online-profile experience for their users, I’m sure it will be amazing. Hats off to them for the strides they’ve made this year.

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