Wii U’s Online Strategy is a Double-Edged Sword

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Nintendo’s still holding back the curtain on the specifics of Wii U’s online capabilities. We know they’ll be more robust than Wii. We know that third-party software should be able to offer a service on par with what they bring to other platforms. But we don’t know how the system is structured. Will there be a unified online network, like PSN or Xbox Live?

We know a few things: Nintendo’s branded the umbrella for their new online services as “Nintendo Network.” It’ll encompass both Wii U and 3DS. We know that it’ll involve our Mii-based user accounts instead of the system-wide Friend Code, which seems to still exist for the sake of enforcing Parental Controls.

Having watched Nintendo’s moves closely over the last few months, I’m confident in saying that I think I’ve pieced together Wii U’s vision for online – and it’s one of those strategies that you’ll either love or you’ll hate.

Disclaimer: The following is all speculation – based on careful research of Nintendo’s moves and statements about their online efforts. As such, Nintendo’s actual plans may differ drastically from what I’ve laid out here.

Let’s cut right to the chase: I think that Nintendo’s strategy with Miiverse and their strategy with Nintendo Network are one and the same. And I mean that quite literally – Miiverse itself is their unified online system within Nintendo Network. If you’re waiting for Nintendo to “reveal their online system,” you missed the boat back at E3.

Why am I so confident that this is the answer? Just look at the teaser image for Miiverse. See that logo in the middle? Miiverse seems to be poised as Nintendo’s channel for their Nintendo Network services.

So far Nintendo’s billed Miiverse as a social network for gaming, but I think it’s going to be used for more than that. On Nintendo 3DS, if you look at your friends’ online profiles, you can see which game they’re playing – and you can even jump right in if they’re playing a multiplayer game online. Miiverse already promises to expand your ability to see what your friends are doing – I think it’s only natural that we should expect it to allow us to link up with friends to play games together. This could naturally also allow for the more general online matchmaking handled within each individual game to involve Miiverse integration.

And here’s the crux: Nintendo’s not offering a one-size fits-all approach to these kinds of functionalities. They’re handing it over to individual developers to build these features on their own. We’ve already seen them describe Miiverse integration in this way – it’s up to developers to decide how they want to integrate it. We’ll see things like Accomplishments, general chat options, and all the essential game info that Nintendo requires developers to publish to the online games catalog – but beyond that, I think it’s going to be an open canvas.

This can be a good thing in that developers aren’t shackled to conforming to Nintendo’s pre-determined online structures. They don’t have to make heavy use of Miiverse integration in their single-player experiences. They don’t have to use the unified Miiverse account system in their online multiplayer. They can design their online multiplayer system in whatever way they wish.

But the trouble with this approach is that it eliminates popular features like unified cross-game voice chat. Because each game is responsible for designing these features according to its needs, those features remain tethered to the games they’re built for. This could potentially be a huge turn-off to consumers who expect these services to be native to the system. You’ll of course still have the standard Miiverse voice and video chat, but for many consumers that just won’t be good enough.

Of course, I could be wrong altogether. Nintendo Network could offer a host of universal features apart from Miiverse, many of which will surprise people. But judging by what we’ve seen so far, I think we’ve got a pretty clear picture of Nintendo Network already – both the good and the bad.

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