Gamestyle Archive intro: this feature dates from 2003 when Nintendo were stepping back from the rush to embrace the growing online option. Writer JJ.
Nintendo has been the recipient of much criticism for its online stance – or frankly lack of. The critics, who may have included myself until recently, see online gaming as the next step in the evolution of gaming. So why the sudden change in opinion? No, I haven’t been abducted and brainwashed by the elite fan boy Nintendo North clan, or received a promise of Animal Crossing PAL. Apart from being able to admit the error of my ways, recent experiences have forced me to re-examine my reasons and come to a new conclusion.
Nintendo firmly believes that the online market is frankly a minority, and they do not see themselves as developing games for a minority: especially when most Nintendo releases sell in large quantities without such options. There is no argument against such titles as Mario Party, Mario Kart or F Zero GX, which could be highly playable in an online arena. Without question these, and several more Nintendo franchises would make memorable online releases.
Consider the number of Playstation 2 and Xbox units sold in each of the three territories: Japan, America and Europe. Whilst the actual conclusive figures are open to debate, what is certain is that we’re talking about millions, albeit with the obvious exception of Japan and Xbox. Consider further that even in America the number of online users for either the Xbox or Playstation 2 systems has yet to break the magical million barrier, and you realise just how savvy Nintendo has been. Clearly the demand for online console gaming has not broken into the mainstream; yet.
So why hasn’t the mainstream embraced the concept of online gaming as it currently stands? For starters we are still waiting on the first killer app to embrace the concept of online gaming and fully exploit its features. The Xbox may have Ghost Recon, Unreal and Moto GP2, whilst the Playstation 2 offers SOCOM, but none of these will capture the imagination of the public in comparison to Gran Turismo, Mario, Halo or Grand Theft Auto. Interestingly Yamauchi-san (creator of GT series) is unsure as he recently commented “the flickering you see is a technology problem… it’s not something the team has any control over. My problem with this is that the quality of GT will be reduced. It’s not something I’m happy about. Maybe, it’s not the direction in which we should be taking the game.” From this you can deduce two things, firstly the technology isn’t as fully developed as it could be, and secondly how badly GT online is needed by Sony to take its online service above ground.
For many developers the prospect of creating a console release which features online play is not only new, but also not financially viable. The prime example of this is Final Fantasy Online, created by Japanese giant Square Enix. With no experience of developing an online title, the first few months of the game were beset with server and code problems – resulting in constant updates. For such a high profile game (released on the market-leading platform) it took well over a year before the game reached profitability, and it still remains unreleased in other territories. If this was the case for a huge company such as Square Enix, then the majority of American, British and Japanese studios would struggle even more so.
Beyond merely software, further problems exist that need to be overcome before online gaming can be considered mainstream. Broadband penetration in American is fairly standard, but Japan and Europe are playing catch up. There is little price competition in the UK, with the current monthly broadband charges ranging from £25-£30 on the whole. The cost is prohibitive – even if you are able to receive broadband in your area. Add to this the fact that many online releases will involve a monthly or annual fee, and then you are looking at sacrificing a game per month in order to fund your online habit.
The key philosophy for Nintendo is connectivity and followers of E3 will notice that this has been the firms’ buzz word. Nintendo excels at creating offline multi-player experiences and has done so ever since the SNES. The Nintendo 64 delivered the first four player games and established the first steps towards linking with Game Boy Colour – now fully realised with the Gamecube and GBA. The Gamecube design does allow for a broadband adapter, but this has been left to third party developers to exploit. Nintendo instead will use the device to facilitate LAN releases, which promises to bring a new dimension to franchises such as Mario Kart: Double Dash. Many (mostly American) will criticise the lack of online developments from Nintendo, but I cannot help but feel that they are right. Other new experiences await; many have overlooked the possibilities displayed through realistic AI (Halo) or communication (Seaman). The latter release builds itself around an idea, which Nintendo could easily take onboard and develop further.
Online gaming might well be invigorating and competitive, but on current experience it cannot match the environment of sitting amongst friends and playing. The interaction and nature of events becomes far more personal than any online release. Here you cannot lose, and it’s an enjoyable social activity. My partner frowns at the thought of online gaming, but inviting around friends is a far more welcome activity – even though we make noise and argue incessantly. Nintendo understands these social or family values, more than anyone. Given the choice between an online evening or having some friends around – which would you choose?
My own experience of Playstation 2 online has been completely overwhelming – in the negative sense. Unlike most Telewest and NTL subscribers who can connect to the network with the minimum of fuss those of us who have USB modems (supplied by BT fact fans) face a difficult task. BT is the largest broadband supplier with over 1.8 million subscribers (and counting) that supplies its customers with a standard USB ADSL modem such as Speed Touch. Unfortunately this is unable to plug into the USB socket on your console, well technically you could, but it wouldn’t do anything as the network adapter is on the reverse side, and it requires certain software.
So you are left with the option of instigating internet sharing on your PC, which with XP is straightforward enough, but a little more complex for other operating systems. Also required is a cross-over cable that will set you back £10-£20 depending on the length required. Sounds simple doesn’t it? In theory yes, but given that I’m reasonably proficient with PC’s and several friends work in related industries guess how many of us has managed to get this option up and running? A big fat zero. Believe me it isn’t for the want of trying and phoning the technical support at Sony, who were as friendly and informative as possible – even though it seemed they were discovering compatibility problems with network cards all the time. Going online with the Dreamcast was never as painful as this.
One of the main problems is the fact that Sony cannot supply the technical details such as DNS and ISP, which can only come from your Internet service provider. Not only that, but they cannot comment on your PC or offer advise here, because that is down to Microsoft. Initially I did wonder if Microsoft had built into XP some anti-Playstation 2 software, but you can see the complex problems that this option creates. The final solution (for many it will be a step too far) is to purchase a USB router, which BT will gladly sell you via its Playstation 2 solutions page for £100.00. Bear in mind that for most of us the direct cable, which comes bundled with your network adapter won’t be of sufficient length; therefore you’ll need to order one at a similar cost to the aforementioned cross-over cable. Is it worth the cost to experience only SOCOM and Twisted Metal: Black Online? Currently the answer is certainly not.
Now after such an experience (which no doubt is being replicated all over the UK) you can see why I’ve rethought this whole concept of online gaming. The masses won’t stomach such problems, as gaming is meant to be a leisure activity, and not one that equals the hassle of daily life. Until the hardware manufacturers can create a simple method of connection that does not involve additional equipment, then I can only agree with Nintendo.
The time is not now.