Nintendo's social experiment

Nintendo's social experiment
Rick Gibson

By Rick Gibson

August 17th 2012 at 4:15PM

Rick Gibson delves into the console giant's Miiverse for Wii U and whether it can succeed in realising Nintendo's online ambitions

When Nintendo announced it was adding a massively multiplayer frontend to the Wii U called the Miiverse, some began calling it a ‘social network’.

You can find friends and chat with them, post tips in-game and mill around new titles with hundreds of other Miis from your neck of the woods.

The online strategy for Wii U - and to a lesser extent for 3DS - is a surprising turnaround for a company that’s historically been super-cautious about online.

This month, I’ll look at whether Miiverse really is a social network as some have painted it, and where the current plans might take Nintendo.

Facebook’s success is largely founded on its open communication channels, which offer multiple, accessible ways for people to find and notify each other about what’s happening.

In contrast, Wii U players can post comments in-game and directly into the Wara-wara forum that’s the Wii U’s home screen.

Nintendo appear to be backtracking on Iwata-san’s comment about a 30-minute turnaround for moderators to check posts. Moderation of this type adds unacceptably high friction to basic communication, turning posting into Post-its.

If Nintendo removes any messaging delay in favour of blacklist-style chat functionality, this buries a giant landmine in the form of inadequate child protection.

Nintendo may think itself legally in the clear by forcing responsibility on parents to control their children’s access to Miiverse, but any Habbo-style grooming scandal could deliver a devastating blow to Nintendo as a family-friendly brand.

U AND MII

An equally important aspect of social networks is how companies utilise them. Facebook builds these channels so companies can find audiences, enable low-friction access to instantly accessible games and harness the social graph for viral marketing.

Nintendo’s ground-breaking plan for dual online/retail releases may threaten Nintendo’s retail relationships, but at least Miiverse will feature downloadable versions of its first-party titles and probably a fair few third-party ones too.

But ‘play this game with me now’ will still be high-friction for first-time players due to bandwidth constraints and the currently absent hard drive.

But if Nintendo maintains its stance that publishers cannot use Miiverse to recruit players (for fear of damaging user trust), publishers will struggle to get users to recruit friends using gameplay incentives. This will have to change as Nintendo learns the ropes.

What about new commercial models? Intriguingly, senior management at Nintendo tell us that the company will accept new commercial models from publishers, with even freemium microtransaction games theoretically on the cards for the first time.

Designing the backend and payment system for free-to-play microtransactions could put Nintendo on a strategic par with Sony and in territory where Microsoft fears to tread.

Whether Nintendo implements it correctly is another question, and third-party developer input - something Nintendo still struggles with - will be key to ensure it works.

But its sudden openness to new commercial models is no clearer indicator of Nintendo’s dismay at its poor financial results, nor of the wave of freemium optimism sweeping Japanese games companies.

Nintendo has woken up to DeNA and Gree, who are each on track to generate over a quarter of Nintendo’s $8bn sales this year, as well as listening to its closest publishing partners, some of whom - EA and Capcom especially - are starting to make a mint from freemium.

Even if Nintendo rejects the sale of virtual goods in Miiverse, as found in Sony’s Home, full freemium titles on Wii U could be ground-breaking for Nintendo’s audience.

A SOCIAL CLIMBER

True social networks have almost no barriers to entry and this is surely the final nail in the coffin of the theory that Miiverse is a social network.

As for Miiverse being accessible through other devices post-launch, this has been over-reported. Nintendo tells us this means no more than a browser view of Miiverse notification feeds, not Miiverse apps on iPhone or PC, and certainly not Nintendo games on other platforms.

This is a much more cautious approach than Sony’s confusing mobile offering that blurs the line between the closed PlayStation Network and the open world of mobiles.

Unsurprisingly, and just like its competitors, Nintendo isn’t planning on integrating with properly open social networks either. Despite acknowledging the existence of other devices used by its audience, Nintendo has simply taken a baby step into the open.

So Miiverse is clearly no Facebook on Wii U. It lacks the communications and virality of a true social network, appears at this stage utterly half-baked on child protection, but it offers more hope to casual developers interested in experimenting with commercial models than Microsoft’s platform.

Miiverse will still be a fundamentally closed network, and given Nintendo’s focus on experienced gamers, will be overrun from launch into the foreseeable future by fanboys, which may permanently influence its tone.

All told, Miiverse looks less like a social network and more like a Nintendo virtual world. Nintendo’s taking a bold step by making ‘social’ functionality core to its next generation but a steep learning curve awaits.