Nintendo is a company that, for better or worse, is completely blind to the trends and innovations of the gaming world around it.
This allows the company to make interesting and bold leaps with its software and hardware, but it also means that Nintendo is often laughably behind the rest of the gaming world when it comes to basic features.
Small steps are being made to fix this issue, but the baffling lack of competitive online or account-based features make the Wii U feel like a prior-generation console. At this point we're not mad at Nintendo, just disappointed. Especially after the release of games like Mario Kart 8 that help breathe new life in the hardware, and a wonderful slate of games shown at E3.
A recent update to the Wii U allows you to move your content to another system, but as a feature the limitations outweigh the gains. You need to have a working Wii U with the content, and a working Wii U that will receive the content. Everything is carried over, and then the original Wii U is wiped. It treats your data as a physical object that can only exist in one location at a time, which makes little sense in 2014.
If you want to see just how ridiculous Nintendo has made this process, something that is all but invisible for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, read the official instructions. There is a bullet-point list of the things you need, and sub-bullets. Do you know how to do it on any other modern system? You log in. There is no step two.
This won’t help if you brick your system, or would simply like to back up your files and information. This is a good thing if you happen to have two working units and want to move your data to another system, but that use case is exceedingly narrow. It's helpful if you want to "upgrade" into a Wii U with more storage or another color scheme, but that's it. It doesn't match up with how people use their modern consoles.
The idea of an account system that allows you to log into any console and access your data has been discussed, but not much movement has been made.
"It just doesn't come up as much in conversation, or if it does come up, it's usually from a standpoint of them also being a consumer as well as a developer," Nintendo of America's Dan Adelman told Destructoid. "But I have never heard a developer say, 'I'm interested in making games for the eShop, but because of this account system, I really don't feel comfortable doing that.' That hasn't seemed to be a barrier at this point."
This sort of explanation is jaw-dropping: The only people asking for a console-agnostic account system are the people playing the games. Nintendo's Satoru Iwata brought up the issue again earlier this year. In January he seemed to understand something had to be done.
"We will manage our relationships with our consumers through [Nintendo Network IDs] in a uniform manner, and connecting with our consumers through NNIDs will precisely be our new definition of a Nintendo platform," he said. "In other words, our platform will not be bound to physical hardware and, instead, will be virtualized."
There has been little, if any movement towards this future announced since then. Nintendo's platforms remain leagues behind its competitors in terms of accessing your games and information. Nintendo saw massive revenue and profits during the company's Wii-era, but apparently saw no reason to re-invest that capital into modernizing the infrastructure that holds its products together.
Learn from Sony
Nintendo actually punishes players who buy games digitally by not allowing them to move the games from system to system, even within the same family. The only way to share games between systems is buying a physical copy at retail. Both Sony and Microsoft know the benefits of increasing their digital sales, including a lower cost of shipping and no middle-man in retail, and have made it simple to share games between systems.
In fact, Sony is a wonderful illustration of how Nintendo is messing up while providing a path forward. Sony had no weapons with which to fight Microsoft when Xbox Live launched, and in fact I'd argue that Sony's online services were inferior to Microsoft's through the last generation. But the company rallied, created a unified system that allowed you to purchase and access content on any device using one log-in, and actually innovated by introducing cross-buy, a way to purchase a game once and play it on your console and portable.
Nintendo is struggling with something that has long been a solved problem, and it's baffling
The PlayStation Network is now a worthy competitor of Xbox Live, and the selection of free games across every one of the company's hardware lines every month has dulled the pain of online play being moved behind a paywall for the PlayStation 4. I can log into my PlayStation Network account and see every game and piece of content I've ever purchased or tried from the PlayStation 3 and PSP onwards, and I can do so from any device, or even my smart phone or tablet. Sony has mastered this aspect of its business, even if the Vita is struggling in sales. The sort of boost this could give the already-successful 3DS line could be impressive.
Sony's advances in the online space have been massive, and the company is now handily outselling the Xbox One with the PlayStation 4. The strength of the PlayStation Network account system is a large part of what makes the product line so easy to use, not to mention fun, and Nintendo has nothing with which to compete.
That's a tragedy for a company with strong console and portable lines, with so much to gain by allowing the use of a single account on multiple systems in the same home.
Nintendo is hurting itself
Nintendo is enjoying a wave of success with Mario Kart 8, which is easily one of the best games of the year. The company's showing at E3, including teasing a new Zelda game, was the talk of the show. Falling behind so badly when it comes to something as basic as an account system isn't just negligent, it's embarrassing. This is the most boring thing for a company to get wrong, especially when so many companies handle their account systems so well.
Nintendo's platforms remain leagues behind its competitors
Nintendo seems to be struggling with something that has long been a solved problem, and it's baffling. They have the money, the time and the talent to make an aggressive push and make up the ground in this area, but there is little evidence anything is being done.
Everyone suffers due to this fixable issue. And let's be clear, a good account system and online infrastructure isn't easy or cheap, but it's attainable and damned near mandatory, especially for a company with as many resources as Nintendo. People love to talk about the piles of money the company sits on, and this is a wonderful way to use a small portion of it. Nintendo is making amazing games, and the Wii U hardware has great promise.
It's time for the system's basic features to catch up with its competitors.