Nintendo’s Relationship To Games As A Service Has to Change

It’s no secret that Nintendo was slow to adopt online play. Given the divided sentiment toward Nintendo Switch Online, many assert that the company still hasn’t properly plugged its ecosystem in. That’s certainly fair. However, it’s nonetheless night-and-day over the anemic online infrastructure of the Wii, for instance. We can’t forget the infamous Skyward Sword game-breaking glitch that required the player to either send in their hardware to fix their save file, or to download a dedicated Wii Channel for a patch. Good times.

Just one year later, the Wii U felt like a comparative revelation. It came equipped with the interactive WaraWara Plaza, robust Miiverse integration, and a stronger emphasis placed upon online connectivity wholesale. Out of the box, the Wii U was a far more modern machine than its predecessor. However, it wasn’t until 2015’s Splatoon that Nintendo’s games started to actually embrace an online future, opposed to simply offering familiar albeit smoother iterations upon Wi-Fi Connection era titles.

Splashing Into Live Service

Splatoon was something different for Nintendo—it was a step into the live service realm. While Nintendo doesn’t use that term explicitly, the company decided to dip its toes into the space nonetheless, hot on the heels of titles like Destiny proving the model’s viability in the console space. Splatoon launched in May 2015 with the promise of continuous free updates to engage players and expand the game’s foundation.

Nintendo made good on that promise, dropping new gear, maps, modes, and Splatfests at a regular clip. At a time when Wii U titles of Splatoon’s quality were few and far between, the game’s long tail kept the community busy. Given the near 5 million copies of Splatoon sold on an install base that topped out at not even three times that, the game was a huge success. It taught Nintendo many lessons, principle among them being the viability of this new release strategy.

Suddenly, the notion of the ‘Nintendo multiplayer game’ adopted a different tenor. In the past, titles of this ilk were regarded for their bountiful content and commensurate options, offering players evergreen experiences. Millions of GameCubes don’t remain hooked up and spinning copies of Mario Party 6 or Melee in their disk trays today because they receive continuous support, obviously. These games remain in fan rotations because from day one they were replete with endlessly replayable content to explore.

A New Strategy For Nintendo

Until 2015, this was Nintendo’s predominant content release strategy. Excellent titles like Nintendo Land launched with loads of asymmetric multiplayer fun. Later games like Pikmin 3 featured robust co-op and competitive offerings. Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U did also—although those games were supplemented with traditional, paid DLC options. For a while, the at-cost expansion was as far as the company was willing to go. Otherwise—save for strange experiments like Wii Sports Club—the philosophy remained consistent. Ship content-complete on day one, and then consider premium post-release additions later.

That was not the case with Splatoon, though. Its content rollout suggested that the way to captivate a player base was not to stuff the disk at release, but to complete it on day ninety or beyond. In the case of Splatoon, a new IP that hinged upon its online multiplayer, that was a valid strategy. Wii U owners, particularly in the absence of similar games on the system, had every incentive to return for these updates. The trouble, though, is that Nintendo attempted to implement this successful model into myriad post-Splatoon titles that didn’t benefit in a similar manner.

After all, this topic is back on the tip of the community’s tongue thanks to the recently-released Mario Strikers: Battle League. With review scores running the gamut from the six range to the nines, this is the first step in a rather familiar narrative. It’s a flawed playbook that Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Golf: Super Rush previously succumbed to. Battle League is content-light and opting to backfill with free updates in the same vein as Splatoon. However, that style isn’t resonating here.

Times Have Changed

There’s a marked difference between Mario Strikers and Splatoon—the former isn’t a new IP. To the contrary, it’s the third game and the first Strikers in fifteen years. It’s also shipping with arguably less content than 2007’s Mario Strikers Charged. Most telling is the roster, which has been pared back to its essentials but is still missing fan favorites like Daisy. The single-player suite is likewise backgrounded, although it’s never been overly robust in past Strikers entries, to be fair.

The problem is that the strategy underpinning Battle League is becoming transparent and pervasive: ship content-incomplete and fill out the package when convenient. With Splatoon, and even its 2017 sequel, there was a sense of intention behind the free updates model. It serviced the core gameplay experience. This strategy brought Splatoon’s world to life and motivated continued engagement with an environment predicated upon keeping players hooked week after week. At the same time, despite that online emphasis, Splatoon 1 had both an inventive single player campaign and a smaller local versus suite also.

Strikers is a victim of comparison. Fans rightfully have the expectation of increased scope after a fifteen year absence. Instead, the focus on delayed content delivery has decreased that scale. Yet, its value proposition is nowhere near as poor as April’s Nintendo Switch Sports. That title is woefully inadequate in terms of features, falling far short of 2009’s robust Wii Sports Resort, and even failing to punch at the weight of that title’s predecessor. We are, after all, still waiting for the free golf update coming in the nebulous Fall period.

Ignoring The Competition

This begs the question—why do so many of these live service titles from Nintendo end up in such shoddy positions? Well, that’s because it may not be correct to call these titles “live service.” After all, they offer the aesthetics of the live service, but not what lies beneath. They’re designed around sustained online communities and supplemented with free content at a determined cadence post-launch, sure. Yet, that cadence is often inconsistent and that content is often meager. Nintendo’s offerings have no battle passes or paid seasons. In fact, very few of these titles even have recurrent events or content roadmaps.

Nintendo’s “live services” fail to offer the full suite of expected hooks because something is fundamentally missing: a revenue stream. Save for situations like Splatoon 2’s Octo Expansion, there is no way to pay further into one of these “live service” experiences. As such, there’s little incentive for Nintendo’s development teams to pour continued resources into these games. They already have your $40 for Switch Sports. There’s nothing else to extract from you, no reason to really lock in and round out the package.

Gaming The Players

There’s a reason that the most bustling live service tangential to Nintendo’s stable is Pokemon Unite. It actually is a live service game. Developer TiMi Studio Group continue to refresh that title consistently because they can actually get more money from you. More content means more players logging in, which means more cash spent on premium currency. There is no such feedback loop when golf is added to Nintendo Switch Sports. It’s probably not going to shift any major amount of copies at retail, and it’s not going to weasel any more money out of the game’s current owners. So, it’s back-burnered. This is not an advocation for microtransaction practices to be added to Nintendo’s titles. It’s simply a contextualization of why the inadequate drip feed may occur.

Yet, it’s also one that provokes further exploration into why this model is used then, if it lacks the revenue engine that motivates companies like EA or Epic Games. Well, Switch Sports betrays a potential answer. Its paltry offering felt clearly rushed, which makes this content release strategy feel like a crutch. The promise of more allowed Nintendo to run the game out the door early. Its release felt more tactical than creative; an empty package that simply injects another title into the release calendar.

Nintendo Seal of Quality

Nintendo Switch Online

This is probably of great value to Nintendo—a company who can sell just about anything with its name on the box and a major issue with content droughts. The latter has long been an issue for the company. Unifying the handheld and home console teams certainly helped, and the elapsed time between Switch exclusives has gotten narrower when compared to past eras. However, the Switch’s calendar has been bolstered by many games that clearly weren’t ready for prime time, saddled with a “live service” premise to compensate.

We’re dealing with a materially damaging issue here. Launching games this thin at release only serves to derail their momentum. While the notion of positioning Mario Strikers and Switch Sports as online-leading titles opposed to local ones is already questionable given their past pedigrees, shipping them as feature-incomplete offerings puts these titles’ burgeoning multiplayer communities in jeopardy. There is little incentive for sustained play when the game merely features a half-dozen shallow events. How many people will return the title months later when a seventh finds its way in?

Regrettably, the answer is that few likely will. Nearly two months removed from Nintendo Switch Sports’ launch, all we’ve gotten are a handful of cosmetics that do little to motivate players. The game has nearly no buzz in the community anymore. Copies were bought and sold not only on the basis of its day one content, but also the promise of more to come. Yet, it isn’t here yet. When that ‘more’ finally arrives, no one will be around to greet it. The servers will be empty as players flock to online titles that actually and regularly sustain their player bases.

What Works and What Doesn’t

Although Splatoon had plenty of room to grow at launch, it had a rich progression system, a bevy of offline content, and was quickly, consistently expanded upon with meaningful additions. But most importantly, Splatoon was new. We had never played something like this before. The IP’s freshness and subversive shooter mechanics more than justified engaging with its relatively scant initial offering. Ultimately, that’s a better counterpoint than anything laid out before. We simply didn’t know what to expect from Splatoon, and came to know its identity and scope as it evolved before our eyes.

By contrast, the fans who are dialed into the “live service” debate have played the previous Mario Strikers games. They know what to expect, and they know to expect more. Waiting months to simply play as a character who has been a roster staple for generations—as was the case with Mario Tennis Aces and Super Rush—is not motivating. We all played Wii Sports golf for hours with our family. There is nothing exciting about waiting endlessly to do it again.

You Can Do Better, Nintendo

This is not a call to drop the model entirely and regress to a pre-internet release strategy. It’s simply a call to be smarter. If Nintendo wants to continue with this release approach, it must be done in a more comprehensive way. The company ought to consider a battle pass analog. No premium currency nonsense, but a sustainable, affordable battle pass akin to that of Halo Infinite.

We need something that puts the onus on developers to actually deliver live service content—not the gestural approximation of it. Not months-long droughts compensated for with decades-old characters or modes. “Live service” can no longer be a Trojan Horse for under-baked, discarded experiences. By the time of 2018’s Mario Tennis Aces, this problem was getting tiresome. In 2022, it’s just a continued source of disappointment.