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Raising the Common Denominator: Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.


"A rising tide lifts all boats." This phrase, attributed to President John F. Kennedy, is frequently used in the arena of political and economic ideas. The idea is that improvements in a more general environment will increase the well-being of the individual members within the subset of that environment. Rarely, however, is it applied within the realm of gaming when we talk about the industry. But while the phrase is seldom discussed, we actually see it all the time in practice in the gaming industry. We see all sorts of improvements that game companies make that improve the gameplay as well as allow developers to have more tools a t their disposal. Several examples come to mind instantly: graphics engines, better hardware, new peripherals, and of course, online platforms.

A good online platform, needless to say, allows developers of games to add depth, additional content, huge replay value to their games. Certain genres, like first-person shooters, often have the quality of their games judged heavily on the quality of the online multi-player. You can often excuse a game's poor single-player if it has great multiplayer. And in some cases, good multiplayer can allow a game to transcend console generations. Remember those two years between the launch of the XBox 360 and Halo 3, where the most popular game was Halo 2, most likely for no reason other than Halo's addictive multiplayer?

Much of the gaming industry is like this, but as Nintendo fans, this concept is foreign to us. Frankly, that's because we don't have a particularly good online backbone as Nintendo players. My guess is that all of you have experienced, in one form or another, Nintendo Wi-Fi connection (WFC). From the very beginning, Nintendo WFC wasn't all that impressive, but it did have one thing going for it: it was free. We were willing to put up with WFC's idiosyncrasies because it was accessible. At the outset, having a free online platform was, in fact, quite novel. Not only that, but Nintendo attempted to expand access through having Wi-Fi built into the DS without any adapters and by making deals with McDonald's to allow for free use of their Wi-Fi for accessing WFC.
Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection

But now, Nintendo can no longer write off the inadequacies of their online platform due its low price. More and more, we are seeing free online platforms that are vastly superior. Now that the Playstation 3, with its also free Playstation Network, has widespread use, Nintendo has to step up to the plate, particularly if they are trying to sell the community aspect of their games. I was recently watching a commercial for Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. Wii game, and thought to myself how odd it was that Nintendo was using multiplayer as a selling point for the game. People love Nintendo's core franchises, but they also want something new. Nintendo understands this, and I think this is why we are seeing the implementation of multiplayer in their games that we never thought we'd see. This is a foreshadowing of the inevitable.

As it stands now, WFC has many flaws, but the one that stands above them all is Friend Codes. These hard-to-remember, 12-digit codes, unique to every individual game really need no introduction to how annoying they are. But aside from the annoyance they cause the end-user, I think there is another fundamental reason that we must eventually see the end of Friend Codes. The internet is a place that is growing more communal as opposed to sheltered. The notion that we need Nintendo to act as each individual gamer's mother simply will not hold in this age of more, not less internet exposure. To be honest, though, I am not really sure that Nintendo's stated purpose for Friend Codes is the real one, but that's the subject of another article entirely.


But of course, Nintendo lags behind Microsoft and Sony in more than just the having a buddy list department. And now that Apple has just announced the creation of it's free Game Center platform in iPhone OS 4, Nintendo's feet are being held to the online fire. Nintendo needs to do something to differentiate themselves in addition to just canning Friend Codes. They'll need to implement the downloadable content that PS3 and XBox have for sure, but how about a few out-of-the-box ideas? I have a few suggestions.

1. What if Nintendo was the first company to truly make their online platform truly the first one that you can take with you anywhere? Microsoft has account management on their XBox live service through their website, but wouldn't it be nice if Nintendo could take it one step further. I'm thinking iPhone apps, the works. It's not necessarily the killer feature, but it's a start.

2. Nintendo bills its Wii as a system that people, young and old, core gamers and causal gamers, can enjoy. Well, when your Wii breaks, and you want to send it into Nintendo for repairs, the last thing you want to do is think about backing up your data. Unfortunately, because a lot of the Wii's hardware is stuck to the motherboard, a failure of your graphics processor can require a whole new mother board, and consequently, bye-bye data. Backing up to SD cards is an alright way to do things -- perhaps a little user-unfriendly, but it's okay. Oh yeah. One problem. Nintendo doesn't let you back up the most critical games; the ones you want to back up. Games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii won't let you back up even a bit of data. Why? To prevent cheating of course. But these games are the games that you would be most upset about losing data for -- trust me, this exact thing happened to me. A solution? Nintendo should offer an online backup solution as part of its online platform. You see this with services for computer backup with products like Carbonite and Mozy. I mean, we already have WiiConnect24. And in the case of the Wii, Nintendo has a benefit that Carbonite doesn't have: knowing exactly how much space it needs. Every Wii only has 512 MB of storage, so Nintendo can almost perfectly anticipate the server usage. Keeping the data on their servers, Nintendo can prevent people from using their friend's data and cheating in-game.

3. This one is a bit of a steal from Sony, but Nintendo has Bluetooth in its Wii console. Why do we have to use, err not use, WiiSpeak when we could simply use a cheap Bluetooth headset? There isn't much else to say about this one, aside from that Nintendo also needs to start getting voice chat into some of its games! Why is it that Metroid Prime Hunters for the DS is the best voice chat game Nintendo makes when they make you buy a separate peripheral for Wii?

4. WPA/WPA2 support needs to not even be an issue. Seriously, I can't believe I am talking about this. Nintendo knew at the outset that the Nintendo DS would have WiFi, yet they keep all the online capabilities on the individual game cartridges. This means that if you're looking to play a DS game, it's time to go back to the year 2001 and tell your router to use WEP, a long since cracked form of wireless data encryption. At least support WPA, Nintendo! WPA2 would be nice, and it was out before any of your WiFi games, but at least WPA! If you're going to actually use the word "WiFi" in your marketing, then it should at least support all the WiFi standards at least as well as the Sony PSP. To salt the wounds, Nintendo DS even supports AOSS, a seldom-used proprietary system that makes an already really easy task about 1% easier.

Those, particular the second one, I think would help Nintendo differentiate themselves. Make no mistake: We will see a better online platform, and the death of friend codes very soon. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear about it at E3.

Anything you think Nintendo could do?