Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection and the New Impermanence of Gaming

Farewell, vanishing video game experiences. We already miss the days of buy-once play-forever.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Like many of you, I grew up taking media permanence for granted. Music and movies came on delicate but enduring discs. Books were big ol' bricks made of paper. Video games shipped as thick, nigh-indestructible cartridges.

It wasn't like it is now, when seemingly every form of entertainment can be transmuted into digits and relayed by any number of means. You can simultaneously download torrents of video games, movies, TV shows, books, comics, music and more through the same pipeline and enjoy them on the same computer, phone, or tablet. Currently my Vita sports the entire Final Fantasy series through Final Fantasy X (Tactics inclusive), the entirety of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, the Parasite Eve trilogy, and about a dozen other games, all on a single PlayStation Vita memory card, which isn't even as large as the nail of my smallest finger. That's kind of awesome – but at the same time, it comes hand in hand with the fleeting new reality of video games, a truth that's considerably less appealing for anyone who regards games as something that might actually be worth revisiting more than two weeks after their debut.

Replaying games instead of buying new ones? No wonder it's so hard for publishers to turn a profit these days.

Video games have lost an essential element of cohesion. They're no longer complete works in and of themselves. I know I'm not the only one to lament this fact; plenty of gamers do. You can see it in the demands of those who hold the idea of physical media in high regard, who clamor for a retail release for games whenever possible. But I don't think digital distribution is the enemy. On the contrary, it gives us access to ultra-niche software that publishers wouldn't have taken a risk on when retail was their only option. We missed out on the final DS installment of Capcom's Ace Attorney series, and cult classic Umihara Kawase has never once made its way west. But right now, you can download Ace Attorney 5, and Sayonara Umihara Kawase will be arriving here in less than two weeks – and all because of the lowered barriers made possible by digital distribution.

So what if these games only exist on a memory card? All those Final Fantasies I've purchased via PlayStation Network are mine to enjoy for as long as I manage to hold onto my Vita. Even if they end up being inexplicably delisted, or Sony itself collapses into bankruptcy and shuts down all its online services, I'll still be able to enjoy the games... provided I don't lose my Vita, of course. But how is that different from any older game? I wouldn't be able to play my NES games anymore if I lost those, either.

No, simply possessing a game on some sort of physical media doesn't mean a thing when the content therein is dependent on external services. Both Simon Parkin and Anthony Agnello have recently explored the challenges that face game preservationists and archivists as the medium abandons media. What good does it do you to own a copy of a great game if the servers that provide add-on content have gone offline? Why bother keeping around a disc for an online arena shooter if it's tied to a proprietary service that someday will vanish. When Xbox Live stops supporting Xbox 360 games, you'd better have patched up that copy of Skyrim and snagged the DLC.

A mask this cool doesn't come for free, after all.

This is hardly news to anyone who's been paying attention over the past decade. Plenty of high-profile games have gone dark over the years – everything from Halo 2 to Metal Gear Online. You could argue that dealing with shutdowns is simply the risk you take when you commit to a multiplayer game... but is that a reasonable risk to have to take for games that don't have a multiplayer focus?

Nintendo's recent decision to shut down its Wi-Fi Connection service this coming May is the first time I've been forced to deal with this sort of obsolescence face-to-face. I tend to avoid multiplayer games, including the multiplayer modes of primarily single-player games, so the loss of online support has never directly affected me. Until now, I've been able to dodge the darkened server bullet. But not every DS game that made use of WFC did so for the sake of multiplayer. One of those, it just so happens, was the single game I played more of than any other on DS, and one I had hoped to revisit someday: Dragon Quest IX.

By the time I put my copy of DQIX down a few years ago, I had something like 160 hours invested in it. Maybe a whole two of those hours were spent in multiplayer mode, and that wasn't done through WFC – DQIX offered only local multiplayer. Nevertheless, even though it was a retail-only release, DQIX incorporated online components that require a publisher-supported infrastructure... and once WFC goes away, so do those elements. Specifically, it'll lose out on the brilliantly named DQVC shopping network.

Not a game for the faint-hearted about puns.

Every day, you could stop by Quester's Rest, the central pub that served as a nexus for so much of DQIX's content, and log onto the Internet to find hot deals on rare items. Unique items unavailable through any other means (like Santa hats and birthday cakes) would show up on DQVC. More importantly, though, rare high-level alchemy components – ingredients that would normally take hours to create through proper means – would appear at random on DQVC, allowing you to exchange a chunk of cash in order to save yourself a massive headache for creating the game's most advanced gear sets. Besides the daily stock refreshes, DQVC's overall theme would change from week to week as well, increasing your likelihood of tracking down certain items. For a serious DQIX player, the DQVC became an essential tool, especially for high-level play.

Now DQVC – along with so many other WFC-based features like Pokémon's Global Trade Station and Mario Kart's online racing – is going away forever, and when it disappears so will a key element of a game that otherwise had no need for the Internet. The game won't be unplayable after this, but it will absolutely be less complete — compromised.

I guess it's no big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I find it disappointing on a personal level. It means that second copy of the game I picked up for a future playthrough will largely be wasted. It's bad enough that I'll never be able to have a truly satisfying replay of DQIX since Street Passing comprised so much of the experience; bringing other players' avatars into my Quester's Rest and gathering the treasure maps they brought along kept me entertained at several consecutive PAXes. I can't imagine ever having another opportunity to be in the same space as several hundred other people actively transmitting DQIX Street Passes (remember, in the olden days before 3DS, that wasn't a passive system-level feature), so I'll inevitably miss out on an interesting social element that added high-level perks to the game. And now, with the death of WFC, I'll be unable to access another advanced feature of DQIX.

Now I'll have to farm Metal Slime Kings the hard way.

Even without those components, DQIX remains a pretty great RPG. Nevertheless, when publishers kill off connectivity features, it chips away at the integrity of games like this. But why should they care? There's no business sense in supporting out-of-print games for obsolete systems; Dragon Quest IX isn't making any money for Nintendo or Square Enix at this point, so why worry about the long-term well-being of the game or its community? Sure, some of Nintendo's online-enabled first-party titles are still being sold at retail, such as Mario Kart Wii... but putting aside the fact that the only model of Wii console currently available in stores doesn't support online features to begin with, doesn't it seem awfully coincidental that the WFC shutdown happens just 10 days before Mario Kart 8's launch date?

I've always gravitated toward console and portable games, but as they begin to incorporate more features that could potentially vanish at any time, I increasingly find myself questioning the wisdom of not just giving up and migrating over to PC gaming like so many others I know. Not that Windows-based games are any less likely to see their online support up and vanish at a whim, but unlike consoles PC games don't operate in an entirely closed ecosystem. It's easier to fake a server for a PC game than for a Nintendo game. Sure, PCs have their closed ecosystems, too – Steam, for example, and all those awful publisher-specific services like Origin and uPlay – but the platform lends itself to hacking by its very nature. There's a pretty strong likelihood that when a publisher stops supporting a PC-based game or service that you'll be able to hop onto a torrent site and snag a patch to reenable things almost immediately.

A 3DS or Vita remake of DQIX wouldn't do us any good, since its online features would eventually suffer the same fate. Not that anyone would bother localizing it now that they've given up on Dragon Quest in the west...

Of course, you could argue that consumers have no right to do that, that buying software is merely purchasing a temporary license that leaves you at the tender mercies of a publisher's whims, that you have no personal rights once they yank support for the products you've paid for. But that's exactly the sort of miserable, consumer-unfriendly idiocy that drives many people to piracy in the first place.

Ultimately, much as I'd like to offer a constructive solution for the publisher-side decay of so many games, I don't have any answers. Do we get rid of consoles? Get rid of innovative online features? Stop buying games? It all seems so defeatist. But then again, the fact that I'll never again be able to experience one of my favorite games of the past five years in its entirety feels like a kind of defeat as well. I had a phenomenal time playing Dragon Quest IX, but I wish I'd made more effort to savor the experience. I had no idea it would turn out to be so ephemeral.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for docexe #1 docexe 4 years ago
    This is something that I have been thinking about, particularly now that I have many games from the Instant Game Collection on PS+. Those games require a check from the servers after the period of subscription has ended to verify that you are still subscripted, so even if I keep subscribed indefinitely for the PS4, I feel anxious about what will happen once Sony decides to discontinue those servers for the PS3.

    It’s a terrifying prospect, but outside of demanding more openness from the platform holders (to at least allow you to patch for the legacy systems), there seems to be very little you can do as a customer, except resign to the fact that someday some functions of your digital entertainment will be unusable. It’s certainly a very defeatist prospect.Edited March 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #2 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @docexe To be fair, that only applies to gaves you have acquired for free. Games you have actually paid money for on PS+ should be yours forever, as far as I'm aware.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #3 metalangel 4 years ago
    This is one of the biggest issues affecting gaming, and it stems from THE biggest issue, online connectivity.

    I likewise have a huge collection of old games that are mine forever, until either their media or the system to play them on breaks. The idea of losing a game is bad, but thinking there could be some fun little parts that are deliberately locked away on the cartridge or disc needing an eventually defunct web service to access them just makes me shiver.
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  • Avatar for jeffk #4 jeffk 4 years ago
    I'd be curious to know how many people still check in with, say, DQVC. Realistically, how many people per day would use that feature at this point? Do you think it would hit three digits globally? At some point it just doesn't make sense to devote resources and employees to something nobody's using. It's the downside to more connected games, but I understand that some of these things are impermanent.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #5 Funny_Colour_Blue 4 years ago
    Yeah, I definitely do not like this.

    In early 2000, when online connectivity was first introduced to consoles, particularly the PS2, many companies did the smart thing as they did on their PC counterparts and left the online functionality intact for these games so that players would still have the ability to continue to host their own individual online games long after the official servers had shutdown; to this day there are actually a handful of PS2 titles that can still go online. Even though the activity on these servers is extremely sparse the online functionality is still there!

    This is how it was at one point and how it always should be, but it's not. So it just makes me extremely weary and incredibly frustrated with any console or video game system that offers any sort of online functionality. Every time you use your PS3, your 360, your 3DS, your Xbox one, your PS4 or your Wii U online you're agreeing to this. That one day, they'll be able to pull the plug and there is absolutely nothing you will be able to do about it except buy the next yearly release or in most cases, nothing at all.

    But guys, I'm telling you, it does not have to be like this! There needs to be a way for players to be able to continue to connect to the online functionality of these games long after the official services have shut down.Edited March 2014 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for jimbo1234 #6 jimbo1234 4 years ago
    Nice choice of screenshots near the top.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #7 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I do not find it a huge deal
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 That mitigates the issue, but there is still the fact that some of the games I have enjoyed the most on PS3 (like Vanquish, Demon Souls or Saint Row The Third) were acquired through the instant game collection.

    I understand that, technically speking, that part of the service is a rent rather than a buy per se, but it’s still not something that makes me entirely happy. My only consolation is that Sony will keep supporting the PS3 for at least another three years before pulling the plug.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #9 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    I know it's considered a bit of a taboo to bring up, but this is why emulation is so important. Sooner or later, those old NES's are gonna break down. All forms of media are basically temporary, but by emulating them on PC they can be preserved far longer than would otherwise be possible. That's why I think everyone should be a bit more open about embracing emulation, it shouldn't be considered a dirty word.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #10 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I agree. Emulation at its best preserves the medium's content in a way the entities that hold the legal rights to that material doesn't care to bother with. Of course, most people just use emulation for free games, but that doesn't diminish its essential importance.

    But, as those previous articles I linked to discussed, even emulation has its limitations, and the closed online add-on content services like DQVC are difficult to duplicate and preserve.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #11 weevilo 4 years ago
    Seems a bit penny pinching in these days of large scale on demand cloud computing to worry about a few thousand people hitting legacy game servers that can be spun up on demand using a fraction of the resources of a single server while running in a VM. Perhaps they're still using dedicated hardware for each game and don't want to bother migrating things over like this. And if the customers don't make a big stink about it, why would they?
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #12 Xemus80 4 years ago
    Seems like this goes hand-in-hand with the idea of video games as a service instead of video games as media.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #13 secularsage 4 years ago
    Sounds like your Vita and mine would get along, Jeremy - I'm glad I plunked down for a 32GB card so I could cram all those great JRPGs on a single device.

    Sadly, the topic of this article is one reason I'm moving away from console game purchases and back to PC gaming. There was a 10-year period where console platforms had some pretty great games that were unavailable on PC, but that's becoming increasingly rare. For today's games, buying them digitally for my PS3/PS4 is a fool's errand in the long run -- they're more expensive and less guaranteed to last than a PC copy. (Ask anyone who purchased a SOCOM game, MAG, MGS4 or some of the EA Sports titles how they enjoy seeing the title they invested time and money into unplayable online today.)

    One virtue of the PC is that it's (pretty much) backwards compatible and game libraries don't remain stagnant -- user community workarounds, emulators, mods, and unofficial patches from former developers can make games play on new hardware and interfaces the original development team never dreamed of having. And if someone ever figures out the portability issue, we might not have to turn to our Vitas to play top-tier games, either.

    The "PC master race" gets a bad rap, but the PC is the only platform were services can be deprecated and then resurrected by users. It's also the only platform where restrictive DRM like uPlay or GFWL can be forced on gamers and then later officially removed when those services die the death they deserve.
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  • Avatar for MightyJAK #14 MightyJAK 4 years ago
    It's a pity that the internet, partially developed to be a decentralized computer system capable of withstanding a nuclear attack, cannot withstand the forces of economics.

    I had never thought the concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂) could apply to the world of videogaming, but here we are...
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #15 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    As far as coincidence goes regarding the date Nintendo WiFi Connection shuts down, my understanding is that it was due to the GameSpy system they licensed for it doing something. I heard they pulled something similar for licenses on some PC games, jacking up the licensing fee by an exorbitant amount.

    That aside, this is something I've long been wary of as the business has moved further and further towards online integration.

    I do have faith that hackers and those who do emulation will figure something out, though-- they always seem to. The very fact you can play BS Zelda through emulation simply blows my mind.

    On a related note, the story about ShiftyLook closing down operations is an interesting example of this in action: They introduced a web browser game, Namco High, at the end of December, and it will be closing down at the end of June-- just over six months later, and that will make all the purchases people made within nigh worthless in any sort of long term.

    Interestingly, they're still selling-- albeit at half price.Edited March 2014 by LBD_Nytetrayn
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  • Avatar for subjectivetruth #16 subjectivetruth 4 years ago
    hank you for pointing out publicly the reason I have decided to stop buying any new gaming systems. The investment is outrageous in the first place and to find out that large areas of game functionality are dependant on greedy corporate fat cats being generous enough to maintain the infrastructure that they sold to everyone is worse. I will not be nickel and dimed to death for the priviledge of playing a game for a month.
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  • Avatar for R2Ian #17 R2Ian 4 years ago
    This terrifies me. Every time I start up Dragon Age and the game has to phone home to confirm all the DLC I own and earned through Flash games and whatnot, I see decent work vanishing in our lifetimes.

    What happens when Steam finally gives out? How will we migrate to whatever comes next, let alone keep it safe for people to study twenty or thirty years from now?

    I can only hope that emulation wizards and piracy professionals (for lack of a better term, hah) will become the digital archivists of tomorrow. They're already playing that role, whether they mean to or not!
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  • Avatar for kingiron37 #18 kingiron37 2 years ago
    Hey guys come playing Pokemon battle revolution with wiimmfi after WFC shut down. There are just a few of us but it's too much fun ;)
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