Nintendo confirmed over the weekend that Fortnite, the planet’s collective mania of the moment, would not require a Nintendo Switch Online subscription in order for players to indulge in their battle royale antics. It’s a bit of a surprise considering how many other titles will require it, even within Nintendo‘s first-party stable. But then again, the company might be trying to make things a little simpler for the game’s audience.
The Big N revealed more details about the heretofore-mysterious Switch Online service last week, including which games would be available in its selection of retro titles, how much the entire plan would cost, and the fact that voice chat is still relegated to the phone app rather than the Switch itself (curses).
It also added on its Switch FAQ page that some multiplayer games wouldn’t require the subscription, mentioning a certain game by name: “Some games, such as Fortnite, can be played online without a Nintendo Switch membership.”
It’s worth noting that Nintendo isn’t the only company to make this exception. According to Epic Games’ FAQ, PS4 players don’t need a PS Plus subscription in order to play the Battle Royale mode online. It’s a good move — the game is free-to-play, so it seems like a low blow to require players pay a fee to enjoy the game’s most popular feature. That said, Xbox players do need Live Gold, so even if Nintendo did charge a price for the otherwise free-to-play game, it would have some precedent.
But when you look at this new step in conjunction with some other things we’ve heard about the Switch port of Fortnite, a pattern begins to emerge. For example, Fortnite Switch players aren’t bound to using the Switch app for voice chat — they can just plug any headset directly into the console and they’re cleared for take-off. And it was only after Fortnite arrived on the Switch that Nintendo announced an unprecedented level of crossplay availability with Xbox, seemingly in defiance of Sony’s well-publicized refusal to do the same. What is going on here?
Why is Fortnite — a third-party game, and not one of Nintendo‘s in-house babies — afforded so much leeway when other games have to knuckle under to the company’s woefully inconvenient restrictions? It’s not altogether surprising when you consider the audience the game brings to a console that might otherwise have slipped into niche-ism.
When it comes to the Switch’s 2018 lineup, it doesn’t quite have the punch of its 2017 debut slate. Last year, we had a new Zelda, a new Mario, Splatoon 2, and a handful of other favorites. Have you seen anything even remotely comparable come out this year? I mean, before Smash Bros Ultimate hits at the figurative last minute in December?
That’s not just me saying it, either — sales of the Switch have dwindled this year compared to its fiery debut. In Q2 2018, the company sold over 100,000 units less than it did the same time the previous year. And why would anyone who wasn’t a first adopter want to buy one now? The answer appears to be mobile Fortnite. For anyone who wants to take their battle royale with them and yet don’t have a phone or tablet powerful enough to handle the game, the Switch is the perfect solution.
Think about it: What would have happened to the Switch if it had never jumped on the Fortnite bandwagon? It would be a nifty device, but it would be defined by the fact that it would be one of the only devices not to give access to the world’s biggest game. And while its fans would be okay with that, the larger market as a whole would probably start to ignore it in favor of other consoles. If you’re a parent of a 12-year-old, for example, you aren’t going to buy your kid a console that doesn’t play the one game they can’t stop talking about.
For that particular group of gamers, the absurdity of using a phone app for in-game voice chat might strike them a bit more than it does those who use it for Splatoon or ARMS. So why not just make things easier and less intimidating by just giving them voice chat? Or by just eliminating the need for an Online subscription?
Fortnite may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the number of people who play it might be enough to buoy Switch sales along until that all-important first-party exclusive hits the shelves at Christmas. And if that’s the case, it’s not really a surprise to see it getting just a bit of wiggle room not given to Nintendo‘s other games. I’m not saying that’s Nintendo‘s primary motivation — just that if it was, I’d understand.