Nintendo has now detailed what punters can expect from Switch's paid-for online offering, launching September, and it's all a bit of a mixed bag. It's not bad exactly, but I found it underwhelming for various reasons and, in a way, wondering why it exists at all (beyond the 'making money' part). I still remember being annoyed at paying £40 for a year's worth of Xbox Live Gold to play Halo 2 but, at the time, great online play was a distinguishing factor for Xbox against the console competition. I may not have liked it, but I accepted it. In 2018, the online landscape and the options available look a hell of a lot different.
It's not especially a question of cost, because in this regard the Switch online offering is much cheaper than the competition, though there is one kink that really confuses things. The service will cost £3.49 for one month, £7.99 for three months, or £17.99 for a full year. However, a family membership — allowing up to eight “family accounts” to use the same subscription — will cost £31.49 for a year. My understanding of this is that in a household where there's a Switch and, say, one adult and two kids using it, you'd need to either have all users on one Nintendo account to use online with a single membership, or pay for the family subscription for three accounts to use it.
I reached out to Nintendo for clarification and put that scenario to the company, and a representative replied with details that seem to confirm this.
For €34.99 a year, up to eight Nintendo Account holders can use a Nintendo Switch Online family membership [...] Any Nintendo Accounts associated with the family membership can use the service, whether they are parent accounts or not.
So if you're a household with, say, two adults and two Switches, family membership will work out as a great deal. If you're part of a group of eight friends who are very organised, then it's also going to be a great deal. But if you're a family with a few kids and one Switch in the house then, ironically enough, family membership actually feels a bit mean to me.
I find this uncharacteristic of Nintendo, and doubt it will play well with parents (who these days spend half their lives paying for various video game 'top-ups' across multiple platforms/titles). I'm not saying it's unusual or unjustified. But it feels very 'un-Nintendo' to create an ecosystem where many young siblings will end up having to use one shared account, because their parents don't see why they should pay an extra £13.50 on top of £18. Having one Switch online sub cover one house's Switch system doesn't seem unreasonable, and this 'family membership' feels like it's targeted at online-savvy friend groups rather than actual families.
That grumble aside, £18/year looks good next to Playstation Plus at £49.99/year and Xbox Live at £39.99/year – although, as ever, it's questionable how useful it is directly comparing Nintendo to its rivals. Both Sony and Microsoft include a selection of 'free' games, rotated monthly, as part of the membership, alongside online functionality, store discounts, and more unusual elements like the PS4's option of cloud saves. The cloud saves have never sat well with me, even though I've always had a PS+ sub, because it feels unfair to non-subs: as if a part of the console's technical functionality is being held back in order to sweeten the paid deal. And surprise surprise, this is one of the things that Nintendo has lifted.
It's probably more noticeable with Switch because folk have been clamouring, in that internet way, for save back-ups on Switch for a good while. Well here you are: but you gotta pay for it. The feeling I get is that Nintendo, simply, doesn't have much of a core offer for the Switch online service and so it's piling in whatever it can to sweeten the deal. Have you used the Switch smartphone app? It's not very impressive; the most use I've ever had for it is checking old Splatoon 2 stats. Now "additional features" for this app will be part of the online bundle.
Is anyone excited by that? From one side it makes sense (you'd need to be playing games online anyway to find it worthwhile using the app), but the Switch app is such a minor aspect of the Switch experience that it feels bizarre to see it as one of the online benefits. Like Nintendo is scrabbling for bulk.
Nintendo is doing this because the games offering is so weird. Again, it makes sense in an odd way. People love nostalgia. So for your money you get NES games with new online functionality!
Members will have access to Nintendo Entertainment System – Nintendo Switch Online, a compilation of classic NES games. The collection will initially include 20 games, and more will be added on a regular basis. [...] And for the first time ever, players will be able to enjoy these games online. Depending on the game, players can engage in online competitive or co-op multiplayer, or take turns controlling the action. Friends can even watch each other play single-player games online, and “pass the controller” at any time. Every classic NES game will support voice chat via the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app. It will also be possible to play these games offline.
Here are 10 of the 20 games the service will launch with.
- Ice Climber
- Legend of Zelda
- Balloon Fight
- Mario Bros.
- Super Mario Bros.
- Dr. Mario
- Super Mario Bros. 3.
- Donkey Kong
So let's pause here. Added online functionality sounds great. But "take turns controlling the action"? Not so great. And the fundamental point that cannot be lost sight of: we've been here so many times before. I've played every game on that list. Some I have bought multiple times across multiple Nintendo consoles. I'd guess it's roughly the same for a lot of readers. And here's the thing about nostalgia. I loved these games (Mario 3's an all-timer) and I loved the idea of the NES Classic and SNES Classic. Do I actually play them? In this year of our lord 2018?
My experience is you get half an hour or so of fun and memories. Then, all thirst for the past slaked, I get back on a modern machine and play Rocket League. Your mileage may differ, but I find that the memories of old games – particularly when we're talking about titles that are three to four decades old – are often more meaningful than the reality. Sometimes I get the urge to revisit, but it's not like these games have been rare or are hard to find. As the most substantial aspect of the Switch online service, it's a curious pitch.
This is just the vanguard of course, and the opening wave in the creation of a Nintendo library (and the end of Virtual Console). In the long run this is good for players: the difference between buying Super Mario Bros. 3 five times across five different systems, and just having access to it on Nintendo hardware from now on. It's also a move towards a more contemporary business model, whereby rather than selling you games for a one-off cost every few years, Nintendo offers access to a retro library in return for the recurring revenue of a subs service. It's easy to see how, with the company's first party strength over the years, this service could eventually become a no-brainer (Metroid Prime plox). But as it is, it's 20 NES games.
The way the Switch online service is being pitched doesn't do it for me. The cost is so low that I don't want to seem churlish; it's roughly £1.50 a month if you take the annual sub. Perhaps it's more the context of modern living, quite apart from the video games industry for a moment, where every company is trying to sign you up to recurring services. A few years ago I noticed I had a dozen subscriptions taking a big chunk of cash every month, some of which felt like great value and others I'd forgotten about and never used. I trimmed the fat and since that experience I've been much more careful about signing up for recurring payments. My thought process with the Switch online service isn't "£1.50 is a tiny amount of money" so much as "how often do I use my Switch online?"
The answer is, I'm ashamed to say, not very much. I play online games every day, and use my Switch every week, but the last time the two crossed over was an infatuation with Splatoon 2. Nintendo has some great online titles, but so does Xbox and I've let my Gold membership there lapse (I was just playing everything on PS4 or PC so it felt like a waste). Online doesn't even feel like a key part of Switch software, not in the way that Xbox Live was once such a differentiating factor for Microsoft.
Will I sign up for Switch online? I'll probably chuck a few quid at Kyoto for a month to try it out, scratch the retro itch, and then completely forget to renew it until something like Smash Bros. turns up. And I can imagine that I'll probably resent having to do that, because here's the thing: the actual amount doesn't matter, so much as requiring folk to pay at all. I understand why Nintendo wants players to pay for Switch's online service. But I don't think it's done a great job, in this initial pitch, of justifying why they should.
Update 07/05/2018: I incorrectly said Microsoft accounts each needed their own Gold subscription, and was corrected. You can share one sub between multiple accounts on an Xbox, and I hope the Master Chief accepts my apologies.