They Just Don't Care

This weekend a story with horrifying implications came over the airwaves of the Internet Gaming Forums. This story is of such gravity and importance that I decided to delay my usual Monday morning semi-philosophical wanky gaming article for a day and inform you, our dear reader, of its existence so you can gird yourself for the impending doom to come.

So, without further delay, here is the terrible news: Nintendo’s online service will continue to require separate friend codes for every different game. That’s right. There will be no unified friends list. Ok. You can sit down and catch your breath now.

This story about Nintendo game over one of the two forums I read. Let’s see, one of the first replies was something along the lines of

… fuck you for this, Nintendo. Fuck you very hard.

This took me a bit by surprise. On the one hand, it makes sense that people reading an online forum about video games would would think that online gaming is important. Therefore it would make sense that the people on the forum would be disappointed that Nintendo has stuck with their tedious friend code system.

On the other hand, it is astounding to me that anyone would make a unified online profile and matchmaking system the single feature from which their entire view of a particular system is drawn. It’s just not that important. Yes, Microsoft makes a lot of revenue off of Xbox Live. Yes, Blizzard prints money. But those are just two companies with online customer bases numbered in the tens of millions. There are something like 200 million active console gaming devices, and who knows how many hundreds of millions of units of offline games sold for that hardware. Even the bathtubs of money that Blizzard has with World of Warcraft pale in comparison to the total amount of money in the whole industry.

On the third hand, it’s also safe to say that it is an area of future growth. More people are connected every day. If you want to survive through the next few product cycles, you have to figure out how you are going to exploit this for money.

Microsoft has decided that a good long term strategy is to aggressively pursue the online gamer. They have spent the last five years building a unified hardware and software infrastructure for Xbox Live. In addition, they have required that games on the system use this infrastructure for all of their online needs. They even make the publishers make up those stupid achievements so we can all get our pavlovian online treats. This strategy make a lot of sense for Microsoft.

I can’t really tell what Sony is thinking. They are sort of out to lunch lately.

Nintendo has taken a cautious approach. Basically, to play games with your friends online, you have to spend a few minutes tediously writing down some numbers and entering them into your machine. You can then try to jump into a game with them. Apparently, this is an unforgivable sin for a few different reasons.

First, there is the claim that the system is somewhere between tedious and clunky and completely crippled and unusable. I would agree that the system is inconvenient. I don’t know that I’d call it crippled or retarded.

Second, there is the claim that since Nintendo was building an online gaming system anyway, they surely could have built something equivalent to Xbox Live “while they were at it.” This ignores a very important fact: no one has been able to build an online matchmaking system as good as Xbox Live at its best. Even on the Xbox 360 itself, only Halo 2 gets this completely right. Most of the others, even big titles like Gears of War, don’t come close. I don’t know what the current state of the art on PCs is, but the last time I tried to play online using Steam I wanted to put an ice pick through my aorta because it would hurt less.

So, yes, it is true that what Nintendo has built for online gaming is not as nice as Xbox Live. But, the claim they could just roll out an Xbox Live killer from their back pocket is one that only someone with a very loose connection to actual reality could make. In reality, building such a service would cost Nintendo a lot of extra time and money. This is not time and money that Nintendo wants to spend. I don’t really know anything, but I think Nintendo has analyzed the situation and decided that people who buy the Wii may want to use an online service to do things like download virtual console games or read the world news, but that online gameplay is not a high priority. Given this, they have decided to build something more limited and cheaper than what Microsoft built.

All of this makes sense to me. But then, I am not much for online gaming, so I guess it makes sense that it makes sense to me. Nintendo is basically doing what I want them to do. They are providing some interesting online services, but they are not wasting a lot of money trying to ape Xbox Live. This meets my needs and expectations perfectly. Since my needs are obviously exactly what the mainstream wants, Nintendo is obviously doing the right thing.

Of course, the angry forum-boys are angry precisely because their needs are the most important and Nintendo is ignoring them. This is what I call the “I am the most important customer in the whole world” fallacy. We all like to think that we are the only market that matters, and that our tastes drive the desires of the whole nation. I think this fallacy is what drives the anger of the forum wrathboys. They simply cannot understand why Nintendo would so blatently ignore their needs and desires when their needs and desires are so clearly the most important. They don’t understand why Nintendo does not care.

And here we hit an impasse. I can try to calmy explain why Nintendo doesn’t care, or at least why they have higher priority products to build. Nintendo doesn’t think that this part of the online service is that important to their users. Nintendo might be right or they might be wrong. I don’t really know, although I suspect they are right. This leaves the angry people in the forum without satisfaction. To them, Nintendo is obviously doing the wrong thing. They can only conclude that Nintendo doesn’t give a shit about what they want. This is a harsh reality to live with, but sometimes it’s true. Sometimes they just don’t care. Sometimes what you want just is not that important.