The Sound of Silence: Multiplayer on Wii U

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Hello Darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you ag-
oh wait, never mind, I can’t.

And so goes the sad song about Nintendo voice chat, a tune that’s barely changed since the feature became industry standard more than a decade ago. The silence was easier to bear during the Wii era, when online inexperience and underpowered hardware were legitimate excuses. Now, however, the lack of basic voice chat in first party Nintendo titles has escalated from a frustrating omission to a maddening oversight.

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“Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes…”

The problem is particularly perplexing given Nintendo’s mastery of local multiplayer. Nintendo fundamentally understands the importance of human interaction in multiplayer gaming – just look at the enduring popularity of Mario Kart and Smash Bros. as proof. So why not attempt to replicate that local experience online? Perhaps Edge's recent interview of Yusuke Amano, the co-director of Splatoon (Nintendo’s upcoming multiplayer shooter), holds some answers.

Amano’s decision to cut voice chat was rooted in his personal experiences with the feature. He explained, “When I played online games, I didn’t like the negativity I got and people telling me, ‘You’re crap. Go away.’ So we wanted to focus on the positive aspects of online gaming.” Admittedly, I’ve experienced this type of behavior as well. And, understandably, Nintendo is wary of how such negativity could damage their family-friendly reputation. But is punishing the entire online population for the sins of the few the right decision?

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To illustrate my thoughts more clearly, allow me to share a fifth grade recess story. One winter afternoon, a fellow student took it upon himself to throw an icicle across the schoolyard, which, naturally, landed right in front of the teacher on duty. The teacher, of course, had to discipline the student… except she had no idea who threw the icicle. No one did. There were more than 100 students outside, most of who didn’t have any idea what had happened. So, what was the teacher to do? Well, as punishment for one reckless student’s actions, all the boys in the schoolyard (and only the boys) had to spend the next recess writing an in-depth dissertation on the dangers of icicle-throwing. Fair punishment? Of course not… but that’s exactly what Nintendo is doing.

Though Nintendo’s elimination of voice chat could be perceived as a noble attempt to shelter its younger audience, it could just as well be construed as an effort to coddle them. If kids today can set up a Skype chat more easily than dialing a telephone, is Nintendo really protecting their innocence or just inconveniencing them? More importantly, how long before they jump ship to a platform that actually allows them to communicate with each other? Amano thinks his approach will “grab new players,” but I think there’s a greater possibility it pushes them away. Unlike me, younger gamers aren’t blinded by Nintendo nostalgia. By definition, their potential future nostalgia depends on their current video game experiences (which, given Wii U sales, probably don’t involve much Nintendo).

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“The roller is so OP.” – Art Garfunkel

To be fair, Nintendo’s online policies aren’t simply preemptive measures taken to avoid bad PR. Rather, since the NES era, Nintendo has aimed to deliver the most positive gaming experiences possible to its customers. However, eliminating voice chat doesn’t just curb online negativity; it also robs some of the joy of playing with other people, a.k.a. Nintendo’s bread and butter. Though it may seem risky, the only way Nintendo’s online multiplayer will ever reach the euphoric heights of its local counterpart is to let players talk with one another. Bottom line: it’s past time Nintendo dared disturb the sound of silence.

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Do you think Nintendo platforms suffer from a lack of voice chat? Or are you content playing in silence? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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