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Nintendo is already repeating the Wii U's mistakes with Switch

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Two weeks from launch and I still have so many questions

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Will Karen’s old Virtual Console games work at this rooftop party, or will she have to repurchase them?
Nintendo

When Nintendo launched the Wii U in 2012, there were a lot of promises about what the platform meant. Now, less than five years later, the Wii U is an unmitigated failure, not just commercially but creatively, and Nintendo is going to take another crack at a tablet-based home console platform with the Nintendo Switch. And while Nintendo has a lot of ‘splaining to do in general, there is no better litmus test for Nintendo’s future success than how well it handles the console’s online functionality.

It’s not going great so far.

Nintendo held a Wii U reveal event in New York City in Sep. 2012, some 17 months after revealing the project and just two months before its release. And despite the years of inadequate online support for the Wii, Nintendo came equipped to that 2012 event with ... not a lot of detail on the Wii U’s online capabilities. “While there were many things missing from Nintendo's showing yesterday,” I wrote at the time, “there is one omission whose absence stands in such stark contrast to the rest of the industry, and even to Nintendo's own messaging today, that it's the obvious place to start: an online service.”

History has a way of repeating itself. It’s been 703 days since Nintendo revealed plans to succeed the flagging Wii U with a new console, the Nintendo Switch (then-codenamed NX), and it had a Switch reveal event in New York City last month, roughly two months before the console’s planned March release.

Nearly everything I detailed that was absent from the Wii U reveal event is absent now with just 14 days to go before the Switch is in customers’ homes.

We didn't see the console's menu system; we have no idea if the much-hated "friends code" system will make a return; in the absence of any kind of unifying "account" with Nintendo, we don't know if future digital purchases will be tied to that profile or to the hardware (as it is currently); and we don't know how the eShop will work which, you'll recall, failed to launch alongside the 3DS just last year.

We do have some clarity into the account system. Nintendo’s initial reveal statement for the Switch (neé NX) promised a new “membership service” thanks to a partnership with Japanese mobile gaming giant DeNA.

Nintendo, together with DeNA, will jointly develop a new membership service which encompasses the existing Nintendo 3DS and Wii U systems, the new hardware system with a brand-new concept, NX, and smart devices and PCs, and Nintendo will be the primary party to operate this new membership service.

It’s notable that the very first acknowledgement of the Switch was also an acknowledgement of the importance of a consistent online identity for Nintendo’s products and an acknowledgement that Nintendo could not do this by itself.

Nintendo

That service — the successor to the Nintendo Network ID — ended up being called, simply, Nintendo Account, and it was launched in North America in February of last year, in advance of the release of Miitomo and the new My Nintendo rewards program. While both the 3DS and Wii U have been updated to support the new Nintendo Account system, the Switch is the first new piece of hardware built with Nintendo Account in mind.

The most obvious answer as to why Nintendo is being so cagey about its online functionality or, really, the entire software platform outside of the games that run on it, is because ... it isn’t done yet. You may not recall, but when the Wii U launched it required a massive day one patch that took, for many, literal hours to download and install. That patch included all of the console’s online functionality which, even when delivered, wasn’t competitive with its peers from Microsoft and Sony. That patch came in so hot, reviewers were waiting until it was made available on launch day to test the Wii U’s online functionality.

So it’s actually heartening to hear that Nintendo has partnered with DeNA to work on one of its core deficiencies, and even more heartening that Nintendo admitted as much over 700 days ago. What’s worrisome is that, on the heels of the Wii U’s disastrous rollout and even more disastrous execution, Nintendo doesn’t recognize the need to convince would-be consumers that this time, finally, it has it figured out and your money will be well invested in the Switch. If consumer expectations — newly transformed by the introduction of smartphones, Kindles and more — confounded Nintendo in 2012 ... well, I’ve got bad news for Nintendo in 2017.

Let’s not forget, despite only selling some 13.5 million units — a far cry from the 100 million some at the company thought it would sell — that Nintendo still managed to convince roughly that many of its faithful fans to purchase a colossal blunder that most others could see coming a mile away. After all, how clairvoyant do you have to be to recognize that Nintendo’s failure to deliver an actual online strategy — amongst other red flags! — in 2012 would be problematic?

Sure, the Wii U was always going to be limited in that regard, with its strange tablet-that’s-not-really-a-tablet hardware, but the Switch is an honest-to-goodness tablet! There is, in fact, a whole technology market for tablets. People like the things! But, lest you think Nintendo realizes the enormity of this opportunity — Apple sold more than 13 million iPads last quarter and even that represented a nearly 20 precent drop in sales from a year ago — the Switch doesn’t appear to be gunning for tablet dominance.

To start, it won’t have Netflix, or any other streaming video apps, at launch and future support isn’t even guaranteed, but rather is “being considered.” Similarly, the Switch won’t even have a web browser — “Since all of our efforts have gone toward making Switch an amazing dedicated video game platform, it will not support it, at least at launch,” Nintendo president and CEO Tatsumi Kimishima told Time earlier this month. These absences are perhaps due less to Nintendo’s vision or planning and more to a lack of support from those app developers, but it’s troubling nevertheless.

Nintendo

We don’t know much about the Switch’s online multiplayer functionality, short of that it will exist, it won’t be free, it may be cheaper than offerings from the competition, its free games come with one hell of a catch, much of it will be managed not on the console but rather a smartphone app and, lastly, while some multiplayer functionality will roll out in the spring, it won’t be fully ready until this fall. Ouch!

One of Nintendo’s most bizarre anachronisms in the world of cloud services and connected devices, is its insistence that video games you purchase don’t travel with you. This is especially strange for a company that makes much of its revenue selling easily lost/stolen/forgotten portable game consoles to children.

I don’t mean portability from one console generation to the next — we’ll get into that in a minute — but rather the archaic practice of tying digital goods to physical hardware. Consider what happens today if you lose your 3DS loaded with games you’ve purchased on the Nintendo eShop. In short, they’re gone, inexplicably tied to the hardware that you purchased them on instead of the account you purchased them with. (Update: As pointed out in the comments, a phone call to Nintendo, and some hoops to jump through, can restore your purchases though there’s a limit to how often Nintendo will allow it.) Here’s Nintendo itself on the matter:

Your Nintendo Network ID is tied to your software and/or additional content you have purchased and downloaded. As the rights of usage for software you have purchased apply only to a single Nintendo 3DS family system, you can only register your Nintendo Network ID on one system.

Your reward for purchasing software directly from Nintendo, cutting out the retail middleman, and saving on packaging and shipping costs is a comically fragile software library, obliterated in an absent-minded instant, and restored via a manual and largely opaque process. My great aunt was born in 1928 when technological innovations included the invention of the iron lung and sound in “Steamboat Willie,” but even she understands that if something happens to her iPad (it’s portable, shit happens!) her purchases remain hers.

Nintendo’s policy isn’t just inexplicable, it’s consumer hostile ... and I have no idea if the Switch, another portable Nintendo system, will remedy it. A blurry piece of fine print spotted in a surreptitiously captured early unboxing (thanks, leaky retail channel!) indicates the Switch is finally correcting this massive, embarrassing issue ... but Nintendo hasn’t confirmed it. Again, the Switch comes out in 14 days.

And about portability from one generation to the next ... will your existing Wii U eShop and Virtual Console purchases work on the Switch, or will you have to repurchase them as you did from the Wii to the Wii U? Imagine needing to purchase new copies of a book when you purchase a new Kindle model ... this isn’t far off. Nintendo has always been precious about its vast library of classic games, but asking people to purchase and repurchase access to the same games across new generations of hardware is increasingly at odds with what customers expect of their purchases. To contrast, once the Xbox One became compatible with select Xbox 360 games, users found those games (if purchased digitally) magically appear in their console libraries.

During the Nintendo Switch reveal, Nintendo showed off the console’s user interface for exactly three seconds. Here it is:

This briefest of glimpses, coupled with a reticence to discuss the system’s functionality beyond it plays games, further coupled with the company’s troubled history with building meaningful online systems, does not fill one with hope that Nintendo has overcome this hurdle with just two weeks on the clock. That same early Switch owner shared three minutes of the console’s menus and, while it feels rather bare bones, with much locked behind a pending software update, it’s more than Nintendo has shown us by an order of magnitude.

Look, I preordered the Switch. In fact, I preordered it from four different retailers (such is my confidence that Nintendo is capable of properly predicting and, in turn, satisfying retail demand). I’d very much love to be proven wrong here. Maybe, in some corporate boardroom in Kyoto, a group of very smart people decided that it was a wise strategy to continue to leave would-be purchasers of this new hardware in the dark regarding one of the company’s most visible and acknowledged weaknesses.

Maybe it’s just people like me, the cynical press, who want to only see the worst in absences like this, Nintendo’s unwillingness to be transparent about the realities of its products ... but I’m honestly having a hard time seeing anything else. The absence of clarity on myriad facets of the Nintendo Switch platform, and notably the online components, is overwhelming. It’s deafening. The awkward missteps taken in avoiding it have me legitimately worried about the company’s judgment. A robust online strategy was the one thing Nintendo had to come clean with to convince me it understood its current failure because this entire situation is familiar. We’ve been here before. And if Nintendo doesn’t have its platform figured out this time, it may find itself repeating a history it would rather forget.


Watch: Nintendo Switch unboxing and impressions