Nobody likes the Nintendo Switch Online Service, so why do journos keep recommending it?

I’m not the type of person to rant about “ethics in game journalism” but it’s hard to avoid that the field is uncomfortably cosy with the industry, even compared to other types of enthusiast press. Most problems come down to an understandable bias; games journalists like games, and like their jobs. Nobody gets into playing, or writing about games, just to spend all day ripping things apart. Then there’s a professional bubble, in which buying, reviewing, and playing games for a living can create a disconnect from an ordinary consumer.  However, compared to other enthusiast press like home audio or photography, you’re less likely to find a thorough conversation about value in the gaming press.

The industry, and the press, have long recognised and benefitted from cultivating gaming as an identity, far beyond just a hobby, and while this came back to bite everyone on the ass with Gamergate, there are legitimate ethical implications in building a press that exists predominantly to enable and further PR hype. While journalists are often excellent at keeping the ad-men out of the room when reviewing the games themselves, wider industry practice is too often accepted uncritically. This is why I’ve found the coverage of Nintendo’s new Online Service to be so concerning.

Switch Online Logo

Paid online for consoles isn’t new. Microsoft made in mainstream on the original Xbox in 2002, with Sony joining two generations later for Playstation 4. Locking online play behind a paywall has always been a controversial choice, but a lucrative money spinner. Over the years Sony and Microsoft have eased the discomfort of the paywall by adding free games into the mix, with occasional new titles among old classics, or hidden gems that didn’t sell that well the first time around. While the Nintendo Switch has been working for over a year without a paid online service, as of this week, playing online on Switch requires a membership also.

Nintendo enters a market where its competitors were already seen as opportunistic but tolerable, with a lacklustre and lazy offering that nobody seems to actually like. This isn’t just my opinion; most reviewers covering the service express disappointment with its offered features, and frustration at their implementation.

So why are they recommending it?

Nintendo Switch Online Pricing

Let’s take just one of the most controversial aspects of the service, cloud saves. (Though, I would like to add, please read these reviews, and other coverage for yourself. The response has been similarly glum for the whole package.) Without paying Nintendo, the Switch has no way to back up save data. Coughing up cash unlocks cloud saves for some games, and if your  subscription lapses those saves are immediately deleted. Bye-Bye Breath of the Wild shrines.

As you can imagine, this didn’t go down too well. The Metro describes this as “rubbing salt in the wound”, or put most evocatively by Tom’s Guide which stated;

“Saving to the cloud is certainly a major highlight of this service, but it really shouldn’t be. Nintendo is basically kidnapping your cloud saves and asking for ransom money in order to bring them back home safely. Keep in mind that this is also the case if you own a microSD card, as you still cannot back up data to that. And what’s worse is that the company is going to ask for that money every subscription cycle, and if you don’t pay up, your saves are as good as dead.”

Seems equivocal, right? I’d recommend reading the Tom’s Guide review, by the way, which is damning in its criticism of almost every aspect of the service, and then ends like this.

“Despite my burning complaints, Nintendo Switch Online is absolutely worth the $20 per year. Even if you don’t plan to play online, the ability to back up your data is incredibly important to your well-being. I’m not taking the chance that my Switch or game cartridge will drop dead one day, erasing all 160 hours of gameplay on my Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild save. Plus, the opportunity to play classic NES is quite appealing.

What Switch Online really has going for it right now is its price, as $20 for a year is a third of the price that competitors charge. Although it offers only a third of the content as competitors do right now, that may change once Nintendo works out the kinks.”

Nintendo Switch Online Free NES games

This is a common conclusion, overall a feeling a disappointment and a forced hand, but a recommendation because *shrug* waddayagunnado. And the only justification for this seems to be that Nintendo is pricing their service cheaper. In fact, not one review I read could come up with a better reason for jumping into the Switch’s online service beyond “the Switch REALLY needs a save backup system and this is the only way to get one” and “it costs less than Microsoft or Sony.”

And worse than that, are the outlets that are silent on the quality of the service almost entirely, saving their only coverage for drooling over the exclusive (and pricey) NES joy-cons, or showing gameplay of the virtual console titles. For these sites, the existence of Nintendo’s service means nothing except new content to produce.  

I think this is a problem.

What Nintendo has introduced here is a bad product. Nobody wants to buy it, none of the reviews I can find seem to express any genuine enthusiasm for it, and the only feature is offers that didn’t exist in Switch already, most people feel should exist in some form for free. This is all made worse by the fact that it has launched a year into the console’s life cycle meaning the entire service is based on taking things away, not adding to them.

The value of the service can not, and should not be assessed based on its relative price to Xbox Gold or Playstation Plus, it needs to be assessed on its own value, what it offers to Switch owners and Nintendo customers who are not, necessarily, Sony or Microsoft’s customers. It needs to be assessed without entering the presupposition that this service needs to exist, will exist, and that we are all inevitable its customers.

This is not an unavoidable problem. The PC gaming market reviews, and criticises intrusive DRM decisions, the Home Video press has been critical, over the years, of over abundant streaming services, poorly implemented digital copy services, or controversial advertising schemes in blu-ray players. Games don’t need to just be a platform for free marketing, they can take a stand, this might be the time to do it. I’m not suggesting all journos down tools and refuse to cover multiplayer Nintendo titles, but going forward, perhaps more critical assessment of the service’s value, and wether or not individual games justify the monthly cost. Anything other than the fatalistic coverage that sees Nintendo’s service as a done deal we just have to get used to.

We are faced with a problem now, while the gaming press is comfortable criticising games it will not extend its critical faculties to wider industry practices, and Nintendo is benefitting from a widespread decision to treat their online service as if it is an inevitability. This is bad for consumers, bad for the press, and if the Nintendo Switch Online Service ends up being as unpopular with customers as it seems to be for journalists, probably quite bad for Nintendo.