To coincide with the Friday launch of "Splatoon 2," the sequel to Nintendo's 2015 cephalopod-centric shooter, the company has released an app to house the prelaunch beta of the Switch's online services. The app, Nintendo Switch Online, acts as a social network and voice chat application for the portable console's games. It is free, for now, though Nintendo will charge $20 per year from its official launch next year.
In this case, Nintendo has not hit its mark. It feels bizarre to have a separate voice chat app, meaning that you have to have at least two devices to play with someone and speak with them. But, despite the fact that your phone is the device running in chat, changing games on the Switch cuts off your chat. And if you want to do anything else with your phone, you have to hang up — no looking at strategy guides or even turning off your screen.
Finding friends on voice chat feels unnecessarily complicated. For "Splatoon 2," which is the only game that works with the app at the moment, you have to open the app, use the Switch and the game to create an online room, then have the voice chat start on your phone. It's a blot on an otherwise delightful game. "Splatoon 2" is fun on your own, but it's most fun when it's social. This app puts up unnecessary roadblocks to the game's best self.
Sometimes it feels like an actual conference call on your phone would be a better solution. In fact, having done both while playing, I can confirm the call was easier to set up and let me do other things while talking.
If this is what we can expect in the future, it seems to solidify the Switch into a very particular position in the market. The traditional console blockbusters where voice chat is most critical — "Call of Duty," "Battlefield" and their ilk — have yet to make their way to Switch, and there's little indication they ever will. So most gamers will probably look at the Switch as a second console, based on what it can do and the games available for it.
(There are exceptions, of course, like people who are the most interested in Nintendo games, don't have a television, etc. Your personal mileage, as always, may vary.)
That said, social services have become a big part of games. And Nintendo is pushing a lot of multiplayer titles, analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities said.
“Nintendo isn’t really known for multiplayer games, but Splatoon 2 is 5-on-5 gameplay, Mario Kart has multiplayer, and Smash Bros. should have it, so they need to make this easier for consumers,” he said in an email.
There are a couple of bright spots here for Nintendo. For one, the online services are still in beta and could become more polished. That won't address the two-screen strangeness, but it might improve the experience overall.
And even Nintendo's poor implementation of voice chat doesn't harm the Switch as much as I thought it might. For some games (and I'd include shooters, such as "Splatoon 2" here) the dual-device conversations are detrimental. But it is, of course, perfectly possible to play a game without voice chat. Overall, I think the strengths of the Switch as a portable console outweigh even a big comparative weakness like this.
What does raise some warning signs, however, is how shaky the bones and basic design of the online services experience feels. Nintendo has successfully done voice chat before, and it's had years to crib notes from competing services on what works and what doesn't. This doesn't feel informed by any information they could have drawn from that.
Or, as Pachter put it: “I have no clue why it’s so clunky, they need to hire some new people and get into this century.”
With many thanks to my Post colleague Gene Park for being my Splatoon buddy.