Gamers and press alike have called upon Nintendo to release the online multiplayer source code so that technically-capable gamers can continue to play Smash Bros., and Mario Kart Wii using the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection for as long they want. We reported on Nintendo flipping the kill switch for the Wi-Fi Connection services of the Wii and Nintendo DS & DSi on May 20, 2014 which has led to outlets such as ArsTechnica posting op-eds calling for Nintendo to release the server code to the public if “they really cared about the gamer.” Does this fall under an entitlement mindset or do Nintendo and other game publishers have the responsibility to help make their games available to the public for consumption and historical preservation?
The instigator in the latest batch of discussions about online services came when Nintendo announced they plan to close down the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection services listed below:
- Online play and matchmaking
- Leaderboards and tournament data Sharing of user generated content (ghost data, user created levels)
- User exchange of in-game items or characters (Global Trade Station)
- Free add-on content or downloads (new levels, in-game items, Mystery Gifts)
What this means is that the 60 million people who have purchased a copy of Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart DS will no longer be able to exchange friend codes or race against random people around the world using the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. In short, all of the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS/DSi games that use the Wi-Fi services will be relegated to single player mode only. The Wii Shop and DSi Shop features and applications like the web browser will not be affected…yet.
It should also be noted that the amount of people still playing these games are no where near the numbers when the games first launched. As with most multiplayer games, when the latest flavor of the month arrives the player base dwindles. Nintendo has never released figures as to how many people have used the Wi-Fi connection over the years so there is no accurate information. Going by industry trends, it is safe to assume that the number of people playing today are significantly less than when the games originally launched.
It is the second reality check for gamers as we push further into the digital distribution age. Microsoft gave the console industry the first dose of progress when it shuttered the Xbox live service for the original Xbox on April 15, 2010. Gamers held on as long as they could, refusing to sign out of Halo 2 multiplayer game sessions until the last man standing was finally booted from the server after nearly a month of refusing to sign out.
With the Wii officially out of production and Disney Infinity the last notable release for the console, anyone who is looking to buy a Wii game off the used store shelves for the purpose of playing a game online with friends will be in for a disappointment when they try to connect. The Nintendo W-Fi Connection is out and the Nintendo Network is in. The Wii U and 3DS is where Nintendo is putting the lion’s share of their efforts.
It brings to light questions that the industry is still learning how to face. How do you download DLC for games that are now offline? How can you effectively back up data from a proprietary hard drive as with the Xbox 360? Should we as gamers be free to continue supporting online servers after the official server farm has been switched off? There is no easy answer for these and other questions. They rely too much on not only the console manufacturers, but by software developers and middle ware solutions.
Arguments about preserving the games in their original form for historical purposes have also been made. Ask any serious Dr. Who fan and they will be able to tell you about how the BBC never archived the episodes of the early series and, as a result, many episodes only exist in sketchy audio recording form, and many episodes are thought to be lost forever. Games are no different. When a studio or publisher closes, the end result is that often times the code is lost. A recent example is the Kingdom Hearts series from Square Enix and Disney.
Kingdom Hearts is one of the most successful video game franchises for the two companies originally on the PlayStation 2. Last year, an HD remake of the first few games in the series was produced for the PlayStation 3. In a Square Enix created interview, series producer and creator Tetsuya Nomura revealed that the original game’s code was lost and the great majority of Kingdom Hearts had to be created from scratch for the HD release. If a highly successful game can fall victim to code loss only one generation after its release, imagine trying to hold onto the code for the thousands of games on various platforms.
According to the International Digital Curation Journal, there are number of factors to consider when it comes to game preservation including online interaction. But magnetic drives fail and digital content degrades on physical media degrades over time. This led to people creating emulators which is another subject all together. Addressing the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection issue before us, the source code is only one part of the problem. The rest stems in hosting the servers for matchmaking and that is not an easy task when it is legal. Though this has not stopped enterprising gamers from trying.
Sites like OnlineConsoles.com and WarpPipe.com have attempted to keep the dream alive by bringing together gamers who want to play games online long after the services have been turned off for consoles like the Dreamcast and Gamecube. However, a cursory glance at these sites show that the creators have moved on and the efforts are not as strong as they once were.
In the early days of PC gaming, titles like Doom were developed completely in house by the creators. Lighting, physics, and multiplayer, as well as all the other elements, were created by the same people. In the last generation, a new player emerged which changed the source code offerings forever: Middleware.
When a studio wants to save money, or cut down production time they will purchase a license for software that is easily customizable such as Unreal Engine or Havok Physics. Such agreements usually come with a stipulation that the source code not be released to the public to protect the software from being stolen or misused. If a company like Valve released the source code for Half Life 2, it would not work unless the person who has the source code had their own copy of Havok physics configured to match the modifications Valve would have made.
For online multiplayer, Nintendo may have licensed similar third party solutions they are not legally allowed to release. Beyond the legal and technical issues, branding may be the biggest issue at all at the heart of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
Nintendo’s online functionality is wrapped in an almost ridiculous amount of safeguards. The intent of these safeguards is to keep the children safe and, for the most part, they have succeeded. MiiVerse, a sort of internal Twitter for Nintendo Wii U and 3DS owners, has 3 levels of safety: software filters, user submitted complaints, and a dedicated staff that constantly filters the content on the MiiVerse feed to make sure it is appropriate and not offensive. For online play, voice chat is non existent and to actually have friends involves a tedious process to ensure no one untoward is befriending little Johnny. If Nintendo were to make it so anyone can host a Wi-Fi connection game, that quality control check would be gone and Nintendo’s branding and reputation could be tarnished.
Eventually Nintendo will end the ability to shop and re-download games you have purchased a license to. Sony will likely do the same thing with the PSP and PlayStation 3, as well with the Xbox 360 close behind. While the PlayStation 2 and original Xbox did not have a store front, certain games allowed for DLC such as Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Splinter Cell, which are no longer available. If companies wanted to, it is possible to program games for the eventuality of public distribution, but like Nintendo’s Wi-Fi connection, it isn’t guaranteed nor is it legally required.
Even without Nintendo’s blessing, enthusiasts will undoubtedly find a way to hack together an online community based on the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection, but it will not have the quality or safeguards in place to both protect quality and the consumer. While it is not realistic to expect a company to maintain an expensive server infrastructure for a dwindling minority of players, it is not unrealistic for companies to come up with solutions that can both serve their consumer base while protecting their brands and profits. However in a world with multiple license deals and copyright restrictions the chances of having the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection, as well as other online code being released to the public are getting slimmer every year.
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