Consider this your regularly scheduled reminder that Nintendo doesn’t know what the heck it’s doing with online multiplayer games.
Today’s story comes from Hori, a longtime gaming peripheral maker best known for its “fighting stick” controllers. The company unveiled the world’s first Nintendo Switch-compatible headset on Thursday morning, and it’s a weird one. Wait, this headset needs a dongle to work? And a phone?
As shown above, Hori’s headset solution requires a few more cables and components than an average game-system headset. The illustration is a reminder of Nintendo’s own announcement from earlier this year: that the Switch’s eventual online-gaming service will come with a companion app for both iOS and Android devices. When announced, Compared to console solutions, Nintendo advertised this app ecosystem as a cleaner, simpler way to navigate the social aspects of gaming services, including friends lists, matchmaking, and voice chat.
With this Hori announcement, we can confirm what Ars theorized back in January: that all voice chat in Nintendo Switch multiplayer games will run exclusively through its smartphone app. The headset’s artistic ties to the Splatoon shooter series hints at Nintendo’s app service launching in time for the July release of Splatoon 2, though Nintendo still hasn’t confirmed when either the app, or the still-unnamed online service it’s tied to, will launch.
My trepidation on this matter stems mostly from my experience connecting smart-device apps to other game systems. It’s never been “great.”
Smartglass launched as a limited “use your phone as a remote” app for the Xbox 360. I tossed this in the trash almost immediately because of delays between phone button taps and responses on my Xbox. Soon after, a separate Smartglass-powered app went live for Xbox One. Eventually, video games supported Smartglass modes, particularly the first Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare game. This worked by letting players take on a “commander” role in online battles. Instead of manually controlling a cartoony soldier in the game, they could tap on a smartphone or tablet screen to manage elements on the battlefield.
While the mode worked mostly as advertised, it suffered from sluggish performance and aspect-ratio warping, thanks to its reliance on HTML5 as an interface. (This was particularly bad if you accidentally rotated your device while playing, which would temporarily warp and distort the entire live gameplay feed.) PlayStation 4 owners can connect a few games to the smart-device PlayStation app in the same way. This, too, mostly works by serving up HTML5 feeds, and these suffer from issues like ratio warps, hard-to-tap buttons, and obnoxious delays between your taps and responses in your games.
Nintendo’s plan is admittedly different, but not enough to assuage my concerns. As advertised, it will cordon off the entire friend-list ecosystem onto your phone, as opposed to offering special app-only game controls. But this will still require elegantly connecting to your live Switch gameplay.
In Nintendo’s case, the last thing I want is more loose clutter in the connect-to-my-friends process. Should I want to hear a party of four friends talking in a game, I will need to guarantee a second clear signal to Nintendo’s servers. What’s more, Nintendo will need to guarantee an ironclad connection between my three friends, my three friends’ Switch consoles, and my three friends’ smart devices. (If we want to hear important in-game audio while talking to each other, we’ll have to come up with some solution—either a one-ear headset with TV audio turned up, or a complicated headset solution a la Hori’s offering.)
The Switch already requires Nintendo’s danged “friend code” system to connect to known friends, and each online Switch game out so far has its own version of matchmaking—which has required some weird menu-hopping in order to connect to friends, depending on the game. There’s still no word whether existing games will allow Switch friends to connect to each other more elegantly, or if these older games will be left behind by this new Switch app’s protocol; the latter situation will only add to this new app’s cloud of confusion. We’re also still waiting to hear exactly how much the service will cost and how its “one free temporary game per month” perk will play out.
What, you don’t have a rooftop?
Why add these extra points of redundancy and possible failure? Nintendo hasn’t admitted this, but the app ecosystem may have been developed as a compromise to preserve the Switch’s home-portable hybrid nature.
When playing in “docked” or “tablet” modes, the system’s sole headphone jack isn’t accessible. Nintendo elected not to include a headphone jack in its Joy-Con controllers, much like PS4 and (newer) Xbox One controllers. Perhaps that was because of concerns about motion-controlled games. Additionally, Switch does not support Bluetooth headsets, perhaps to increase Joy-Con signal reliability (since all Switch controllers work solely via Bluetooth and, coincidentally, only four discrete controllers can connect to a Switch at once).
As a result, it feels like Nintendo is treating online matchmaking and voice chat as a “niche” feature, worth supporting somehow for interested players but not in a way that would force the Switch’s engineers to make a neater solution. That’s the company’s prerogative, but Nintendo is about to charge players, via its paid online service, for the privilege of jumping through these hoops. According to Nintendo, Switch owners will enjoy free trial access to the service in its first few months. Those months will be a big test for whether Nintendo’s service will be worth paying for once it starts costing money in the fall.
Listing image by Hori