Will the Switch Revive Social Gaming?

It’s late 1996. The holiday season is coming up fast, and the “gift of the year” gracing the top of every kid’s wishlist is none other than the Nintendo 64, Nintendo’s answer to the Playstation and Sega Saturn. Code-named “Project Reality” from its inception and boasting a 64-bit processor, this system was guaranteed to change the gaming landscape with enough oomph to output beautiful 3D-rendered hyper-realistic worlds to run around and explore. With Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64, the bar was certainly set high right from the start.

If you were a kid in the late 90s, you probably have some pretty damn fond memories of those Christmases. At least for me, they were some of the best times I can remember.

Fast-forward a year, to 1997. Nintendo is moving plenty of consoles, and pretty much every house in your average-suburban town has an N64. Every kid in school was talking about Super Mario 64 – remember, this was still pretty new, the internet had about 15 users, and you rode your bike over to your friend’s house when you wanted to talk about video games. Those lunch table conversations were what you had from the night before!

I recall the first time I noticed that lots of people started bringing their quirky little Nintendo 64 controllers to school. I would yank it out of the system before running out for the day, preparing  for the inevitable “wanna come over after school and play Nintendo?” Next thing you know, I’d be hanging out at someone’s house playing some Goldeneye or Mario Kart or Turok: Dinosaur Hunter or Diddy Kong Racing. It wasn’t so much a controller as it was an invitation to the party.

Nintendo succeeded in bringing people together to enjoy a hobby that is, in 2017, considered by most to be a solitary activity. Years ago I was reading an article discussing the phenomenon of World of Warcraft when it was still relatively in its infancy, and the writer concluded that players enjoyed the feeling of being “alone, together,” and that most preferred this to playing single player games by themselves. I think the explosion of online gaming is what changed the landscape – it was now far more convenient to play at home than with their friends, and naturally the progression of video games had a focus on the online component and in turn lost the focus on the “IRL” social aspect.

Nintendo was always the antithesis of this concept. And this is why I think the Switch can revive gaming as a social activity.

playing-n64
How multiplayer games were intended to be played. Source.

I wasn’t particularly fond of the Wii when it launched and even to present day, despite camping out 14 hours outside of a Best Buy to secure one, but Nintendo succeeded big time in bringing people together with the Wii. Can you think of any other game or console that was everywhere in the mid-2000s? From bars to bar mitzvahs, there was almost a guarantee that somewhere in the building there were some people playing Wii Bowling. I specifically remember bars near my college having Wii Bowling competitions. Not only were the sales figures massive for it, but I think just about every household in the United States still has a Wii in it somewhere.

Speaking of which, after looking through my Miis the other day, I can confirm my previous point even more. I had my Wii in my various dwellings through my five years away at college and have no less than 150 Miis that other people have created, solely for Wii Sports. That thing was everywhere and people loved it, most importantly, people who never played video games before.

Of course, going back to the 2017 and the Switch shipping out in a matter of weeks, they cannot pull off another Wii, because the explosion of Wii Sports was already enough of an oddity. It simply won’t happen again, because there’s nothing really “new” that they can come out with at this point to capture the casual demographic like Wii Sports did.

But here’s where I’m hopeful: in the late 90s, you had the N64 controller. It had your save data on there (at least on a memory card), and you could go over to your friend’s house and play games with everyone. In the mid-2000s, you had the Wiimote. It had your save data on there, and you could go over to your friends house and play games with everyone.

Now it’s 2017, your console is lightweight and ultra-portable, and as a bonus, it even has two controllers attached to it. Two separate people can play on each device. And you can grab it and go over to your buddies house and play some Mario Kart. The Switch is 2017s invitation to the party.

Of course, grab-n-go gaming is already possible on the 3DS, but that is where the Switch needs to differentiate with their marketing. The 3DS is a personal handheld experience, while the Switch needs to be marketed as a social gaming experience. I think they have done a terrific job communicating that so far in their commercials, while shying away from putting families and children in their ads, because let’s be honest, it’s the 25-40 demographic who will be supporting them until Christmas. However – they have not done a good job of this at all in their presentations. The commercials and the presentations have been completely contradictory, and Nintendo of America representatives firmly reasserting on numerous occasions that the Switch is a home console first and foremost doesn’t help matters.

Nintendo – you need to keep pushing that trendy “social” thing that people seem to like. More specifically, the one that entails actual social interaction, not simulation over a wire.

Simply put, the Switch needs games that are great to play with your friends, in person. Couch multiplayer and hot-seat multiplayer. Focusing on online play is not the point of the Switch – it’s portable for a reason. This is also an area where I think indie developers really have an opportunity to take some chances and expand a bit from the typically single-player games they put out now. Imagine how cool a modernized Goldeneye-type game would play with the capabilities of the Switch, inside a room with a few friends? Or an action brawler like Gauntlet Legends, one of my absolute favorite games from the N64 that I spent hours playing with my friends? Heck, I’m buying a house this year and I refuse to have a housewarming party before a Mario Party Switch installment gets announced, but that’s a fairly obvious one!

I ordered 1-2-Switch because I wanted something fun to play with my fiancée before Mario Kart 8 is released at the end of April, and this game piqued my interest. One thing that stuck out to me during that presentation (aside from the fact that I thought it looked like a ridiculous yet awesome time), is the focus on how it is played. The players don’t actually look at the screen, but at each other. The system is merely there as a set up to play fun games with another person. Once you start looking at 1-2-Switch as the game show host for an “inside-night” of entertainment while sipping vodka drinks, it starts to become more clear the intentions.

The industry already knows how well retro sells games. Tap into that market and you can recapture the entire audience that is arguably the key demographic for the Switch succeeding – those who grew up playing multiplayer games not with complete strangers, but with friends. The very nature of the hardware of the Switch makes it extremely portable and already allows for two players to play at a time with the attached Joy-Cons. Keep your marketing consistent with your presentations and press releases and make it known that you’re bringing back multiplayer in the way we players with a deep-rooted childhood love of Nintendo remember.

I’m looking forward to taking my Switch over to a buddy’s house and rocking out some Mario Kart and whatever else comes out. I’ve missed playing with friends the past few years and I think the Switch has laid down the foundation to bring back the lost art of classic multiplayer gaming. Here’s my $400 Nintendo, let’s do this.

This was a bit more of a reminiscent piece for me, so I’d also love to hear about your memories playing games with friends as a kid. It’s a lost art and I’d love to see it revitalized in 2017!

5 thoughts on “Will the Switch Revive Social Gaming?

  1. Ironically enough, local multiplayer has always been synonymous with Sega as far as I’m concerned. Week-ends spent beating the crap out of punks and SM mistresses in Streets of Rage at my neighbour’s house, afternoons spent playing Sonic 3 & Knuckles with my sister expertly handling Tails; you name them, I played them. On the other hand, I’ve never played local multiplayer on a Nintendo console, despite the fact that virtually every kid I knew owned a Game Boy with a Link Cable, including my own sister… Talk about gaming moving in mysterious ways!

    To answer your titular question, I don’t think the Switch can revive social gaming in its local multiplayer guise… Nor any other system, for that matter. Gamers have gotten too used to online multiplayer by now, and local multiplayer has become strongly associated with E-Sports in the last years. For better or worse, I think casual local multiplayer is not trendy right now; and I don’t envision the Switch changing that situation, if only because it’s quite a complicated console that won’t appeal to casual gamers and because the accessories necessary for local multiplayer are quite expensive.

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    1. Funny you say that, I was talking to someone else recently who basically repeated the same things I did about Nintendo and multiplayer, but for Sega! I never had a Sega growing up and that’s probably why. It was a geographic thing the more I think about it – some small towns were all about the Sega, some Nintendo. But only the filthy rich kids had both! (Or the kids with older brothers)

      I know what you mean about the trends being towards only gaming, but at some point that switched, and I think it’s possible we can revert. It is a little complicated but I’m hoping it grows on the younger kids as the releases are announced and Christmas time comes around.

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  2. Imtiaz Ahmed

    Good read. As much as I question some things Nintendo does, being as big as a Nintendo fan I am, I’ve always loved their dedication to making gaming social as you said. It’s a big reason why I picked a Wii U over other consoles. Coming from the Wii era, my brother and friends and I had a blast playing games like Wii Sports, Smash Bros and Donkey Kong Country Returns together in the same room, sharing the frustration of the challenges and laughs together. It’s a blast gaming this way. I’ve never liked certain decisions some games made in the past outside of Nintendo to remove vital features like splits screen multiplayer.

    I thing with companies like Nintendo around, I don’t think this phenomena has disappeared. Nintendo has always been dedicated to this even during the Wii U life cycle. Smash Bros, Donkey Kong and Super Mario World 3D are just a few example of them doing just this. Only difference is this generation, no one really bought the Wii U and thus it may seemed like it was fading. I do however think other companies can follow this example. I don’t think gaming strictly online is bad, I think there needs to be a balance between gaming online vs physically together.

    Nintendo has said for things like VR, they think it’s great technology, but it’s not yet there to be social and bring gaming together, so I think statements like this really show where Nintendo’s head is at regarding this. And games like 1-2 Switch definitely take this to another extreme, even everyone doesn’t agree with this game.

    There was a small little comic I read that summed this issue up real nice though. It depicts 2 kids playing a game back in the 90s. One “Hey, let’s play Golden Eye”. The other replies, “OK! Here’s the controller” and done. Fast forward to the current day, the same kid says “Hey, let’s play COD!”. The other replies “OK! Let me get home first and log in and I’ll text you when I’m ready”

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  3. “Simply put, the Switch needs games that are great to play with your friends, in person. Couch multiplayer and hot-seat multiplayer.”

    Loved this article, and this insight. I’ve got my concerns about the Switch, but if Nintendo can pitch it the right way as a local multiplayer machine – a social event in the way that old games were, the way that the Wii once was – then this could take off.

    Liked by 1 person

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