Nintendo prides itself in being at the forefront of the local multiplayer experience. They have managed to engrave the idea in gamers at large that, if they care about playing multiplayer games locally with their friends and family, there is no better way to do so than with a Nintendo system. Nintendo has sold, and continues to sell, the idea that they are all about bringing people together through their games. But how can this ring true, and yet at the same time they refuse vehemently to implement online features that would likewise bring people together through their games?
Let me posit it like this: My brother and I love playing multiplayer Nintendo games together. There is little in the gaming industry that can rival the great times we had growing up playing Mario Kart, Smash Bros, and Super Bomberman 2. Recently, among the few games able to replicate this experience have been New Super Mario Bros, Portal 2, and Super Mario 3D World. However, these three games have been a rare occurrence, as my brother and I don’t live together anymore, and we only get the rare opportunity to play together during vacations. Sure, we occasionally played Call of Duty together on the Xbox 360, but that got tiring pretty fast. Growing up with Nintendo multiplayer games gave us pretty high standards in that regard.
But here’s another example. Because of Call of Duty: Black Ops, COD: Ghosts, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, our community here in the Nintendo Enthusiast forums has become far richer. Because of the way these games make use of online features, specifically voice chat, it has become the go-to games for many of us to hang out, drink, play games together, and even discuss important topics regarding our work for this site. They really have become closest analogue we have to a living room, a cafe, or a conference room. It’s like a supercharged version of Skype. But more importantly, it has provided us with amazing ways to bond with one another. Just the other day, my fellow forums administrator Matt Costello and I beat the Dire Miralis. It was the culmination of nearly 300 hours of playing that game together, and it required not just for us to apply everything we learned, but to also trust in the other person’s abilities and good judgment. And with less than 1 minute left on the clock, we slayed the beast. It was catharsis, and a testament to the deep connection developed between us since we’ve worked together here at Nintendo Enthusiast. And I haven’t even met him in person yet. This is the kind of power Nintendo could wield if they allowed themselves to “bring people together” not just in person, but over the internet.
But Nintendo are very strange in this regard. They don’t just prioritize local multiplayer; they seem almost opposed to the idea of people having fun together anywhere that isn’t in the same room. They completely disregard the inescapable social contexts of adult life: that people move out to College, get jobs, and start their own families far from home; yet these people long for an excuse to spend some quality time with their estranged families and friends. Nintendo will hear none of that, though. For them, it’s their way or the highway.
Perhaps this isn’t to do much with Nintendo being stubborn, but rather simply with Nintendo being based in a culture that is uniquely innovative and adverse to change at the same time. Such is the technology industry in Japan, that they still use Fax machines. Japan’s technology industry is tied to a particular circumstance called the Galapagos Effect. This refers to the highly specialized life forms that Charles Darwin observed in the Galapagos Island, where isolation from the rest of the world led these animal species to rapidly grow in unique and highly differentiated ways. Japan, too, in their cultural isolationism, has seen its technology forms become highly specialized in ways that the rest of the world didn’t. Nintendo has certainly been part of this phenomenon, as evidenced by their seemingly-stubborn choice to turn their back on industry-wide standards, continuing to forge their own path instead.
And though Nintendo has gotten better about “catching up” to the standards set up by other forces in the gaming industry (without losing their own quirks), future games like Super Smash Bros U and Mario Kart 8 probably still won’t have voice chat functionality. “Shut up, now you’re just being cynical”, I can hear you say. But think back to only a few months ago: does Wii Sports Club have voice chat? No it does not. If I decide to buy that game and play it with my brother, we simply won’t be able to communicate through the game. Our only option would be to use our cellphones at the same time as we play, or set up a laptop with Skype nearby. Beyond that, the only possibility of communication would have to be through some weird in-game version of interpretive dancing, and then I’m not sure it would be enough to communicate the essential phrases, “suck it”, and “I’m just warming up, just you watch”. Because of that, I not only have no reason to assume that the game will have voice chat, but I have reasons to assume that it won’t.
To begin with, Nintendo have not even mentioned the topic at all in every opportunity they’ve had to speak about both Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8; A topic being avoided has never been reason to assume anything but the worst. Secondly, there’s the fact that they are so adamant about “protecting the children” (as if they couldn’t trust parents to take responsibility and lock such features behind the parent-lock controls); it’s possible that they refuse to have public voice chat in their games out of fear that some stranger will taint the innocent children’s ears with curse words, or tales of Vlad the Impaler, or worse, tales of ’90s Nintendo, the retail bully and price-fixer. Finally, there’s the fact that even with Super Mario 3D World, arguably the Wii U’s flagship title and the carrier of Nintendo’s flag, also made no attempts at even any kind of online play. Nintendo’s priorities, at least as far as what makes it into their final products, are not very hard to divine.
But this is where the hypocrisy is at its most evident: If Nintendo is all about bringing people together, and their hardware is developed with Nintendo’s new Mario games in mind, and the new Mario game’s big innovation is the extension of 3D Mario gameplay to the living room (with multiple characters), wouldn’t it be even more impressive to further extend the multiplayer 3D Mario experience to the “virtual living room” that is online gaming?
To further compound the contradictions, they themselves have packed their system with online-oriented features: the gamepad has a player-facing camera and an embedded microphone (of pretty good quality, too), the system has a decent online infrastructure (with extensive connectivity possibilities through Miiverse), a video chat software in the form of the rudimentary Wii U Chat app, and Nintendo as developers have the best multiplayer games around, with emphasis on local multiplayer games where friendly interactions are key to the experience (Mario Party, Mario Kart). Yet they barely use these features themselves! Maybe it’s too much to ask for them to bring the first effective online cross-game multi-user video chat service — a proper virtual living room — in the videogame industry; But they could at least make an effort to take a step forward, rather than firmly planting their feet on the ground and refuse to move anywhere.
I understand there are technological and monetary constrains involved, especially as it concerns tight Holiday season deadlines and the desire Nintendo has to fill up an otherwise ghastly game release schedule. Or at least, I understand these factors in regards to Super Mario 3D World; but in regards to Wii Sports Club? There is simply no excuse for that game not to have voice chat. How Nintendo thought it was enough to simply put the game online and not allow players to communicate in any way, I have no idea. It’s the kind of thinking that makes many skeptical gamers say, “Nintendo is not quirky, they’re just full of crap”.
Of course the reality is that they are actually rather quirky, and have less employees than they have ideas. But that doesn’t mean their priorities aren’t often out of whack.
I have seen players attempt to justify these design decisions. “I don’t want to listen to 10-year-olds screaming obscenities while I’m trying to have a peaceful race in Mario Kart”, is something I’ve heard. I’ve also heard of a “mute” function, as have many developers who have made online games for a while. “If you want to talk to other people while you play, just invite them to your house, problem solved”, is another justification I hear. Sure thing, let me give a call to my friend Matt from Kentucky, Mike from Philladelphia, and Menashe from Toronto, and see if they want to come over tonight for pizza and games. This is just not one of those times that you can make a good argument against options.
Of course, at the end of the day everything that I’ve written here comes off as a bit paranoid and reactionary, considering we still have no confirmation as to whether Nintendo’s future games will support voice chat, or in some way improve their ability to bring people together across the virtual space; but the reason I write it now is because I am in doubt about these things. And I shouldn’t be. I have talked to friends about whether they think Smash Bros is going to support voice chat, and their response has always been, “of course it will”. But then I remind them that Wii Sports Club, the should-be definitive online Nintendo game, does not have voice chat in any way, and they say to me, “shit, you’re right. Damn it, I hope they have voice chat”.
I want nothing more than for Nintendo to make me eat crow on this. I hope that the day after this piece goes up, Nintendo suddenly announces that Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8 will support voice chat, and other exciting online features for those of us that will be largely unable to play this game with local friends for one reason or another. If this article does nothing but make at least one more person become vocal about asking for more online features to supplement their brilliant Nintendo multiplayer games, then I’ll consider it a success. The faster we get to that point where we can all be 100% certain that Nintendo’s next multiplayer game will have voice chat and other useful online features, the better.