Nintendo Switch Sports is here and, while it doesn't revitalize the entire Sports series on Nintendo consoles, it does bring back the same feeling that its predecessors did. With the new game comes new content, including sports like volleyball and soccer. A huge addition is Sportsmates, a new sort of avatar, and the customization options included with them. The customization options seem great, allowing players to personalize their avatars on a deeper level than what was available in the Wii Sports series. That is, until you look into how things are locked behind arbitrary doors. Then it ends up seeming more like a feature that is both unnecessary and not at all consumer-friendly.
Hey, who closed this? Sesame? Open it!
Nintendo Switch Sports is the first game in the Sports series that introduces customizable outfits and accessories. Other games in the series showed Miis in sport-appropriate attire, but nothing that players could choose for themselves. The color of said sports attire was directly linked to the "favorite color" that players assign to their Miis, further reducing customization options.
Cosmetic elements are locked behind a paid subscription and a timer.
It wouldn't be a Nintendo game without a Nintendo-style monkey's paw, however. Sure, players can earn points to acquire tons of cute apparel for their Sportsmates and Miis — but only if they have an active Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) subscription. When I first loaded the game, I went into local play mode to learn the mechanics of the new games. Imagine my surprise when after a game or two, there was no progression bar or even any mention of the outfits advertised in the promotional materials. When playing most games, I prefer to play against AI or alone, so I was forced to head into online lobbies in order to free my Sportsmate from the shackles of the weird tracksuit given to them by default.
Not only are these cosmetic elements locked behind the paid NSO subscription that runs from anywhere between $20 to $80 a year, but they are also locked behind a timer. New items are added every week, and each set has 12 items to collect before getting a completion bonus for an exclusive outfit. There is no gameplay element in Nintendo Switch Sports that benefits from a timer being placed on these items, it's just another factor that pressures players to continue playing.
You can't sit with us
If that sounds bad, then hold on to your tennis racket. As previously stated, additional customization options are locked behind online play. But no, Nintendo says, people playing offline can earn stuff too! You'll be placed in a "trial period," but at least you'll be able to earn things!
Except that the reality of that system isn't as welcoming as it sounds. Non-NSO subscribers are only able to earn two items... per week. As of the time of writing, the Simple Collection, Cute Collection, and Soccer Collection are available, each with staggered availability lasting a couple of weeks. In order to get the themed outfits which are the real draw of the collections, you'd have to collect each of the 12 items per set. This means that the most desirable customization elements are unattainable for those who do not want to pay at least $20 on top of the already hefty $40 to $50 sum for the game, given the arbitrary restrictions placed upon them.
Among the 12 items per set are several randomized items, from hairstyles to different looks for sports equipment, such as a tennis racket. When you earn enough points to acquire an item from a collection, they are randomly selected, roulette-style. This makes it impossible for NSO and non-NSO subscribers alike to select what they want to earn, making things even more frustrating. Choosing to lock extra hairstyles, some of which are Black hairstyles, behind the RNG aspects of collections that release once a week is unnecessary. I can understand clothing and taglines being locked behind random drops, but basic customization elements like hairstyles should be accessible to people with all hair types.
Keeping up with the hidden fees
Nintendo Switch Sports is more of a spiritual sequel to the original Wii Sports than the other games in the Sports series, Wii Sports Resort and Wii Sports Club. With a little more than a handful of games, the objective of Nintendo Switch Sports is to recapture the spirit of living room chaos while introducing nostalgic players to a new console.
The game's intended audience strikes me as being people who want to play it locally with friends and family, making this hyperfocus on online play confusing. Online is also limited to two players, meaning that anyone else who wants to engage in a Nintendo Switch Sports party while earning items will have to sit a few matches out.
Why would the focus fall on online play when the game's audience is mostly interested in local play?
If two players engage in online play on the same console and only one of them has an NSO subscription, the player without the membership would have to watch as the other continued to earn items consistently. Not only does this put pressure on players to pay an additional annual fee to get the full experience, but it coerces people to put out even more for the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack so that two or more players in the same household can be on a level playing field. While the expanded Nintendo Switch Online subscription has other things to offer like retro games and DLC, it may not be worth it for the $80 annual price tag.
Dancing with the FOMO spirit... but make it anxious
As much as companies like to parade the phrase "player choice" around, the fact of the matter is that placing an arbitrary time limit on access to cosmetic items contributes to a psychological phenomenon called Fear of Missing Out, also referred to as FOMO. FOMO is a feeling of anxiety as it pertains to missing out on an opportunity. Those experiencing FOMO may fear feeling regretful that they didn't take an opportunity before it became unavailable and may engage in behavior they normally wouldn't to quell the ever-present "What if?" in their minds.
Cosmetics may be "optional" from an objective standpoint as it pertains to how it influences the core gameplay experience, but you could argue that they do influence the social experience, which, for multiplayer games, is part of the core experience. We've already seen this in the treatment of "No Skin" players in games like Fortnite, where children are bullied for not spending money on skins. While I can't say for certain whether this happens in Nintendo Switch Sports just yet, I can say that even I felt a latent pressure to grind through sports so I could get different outfits.
In games where customization is encouraged, players may feel compelled to have their avatars reflect their real-world selves.
Cosmetics, especially when they involve different elements such as headwear, clothing, and decorations all facilitate player expression. In games where people are encouraged to simulate their own selves, they may feel compelled to have their avatars reflect their real-world selves — at least I do, which is why representation is so important to me in character creation. While Nintendo has been getting better at this in other Nintendo Switch games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, locking hairstyles behind a randomized collection system to force people to play the game is a big step backward.
I'll tell ya what I really, really want
Well then, what should Nintendo have done instead? I hate to point out issues without at least offering a solution, so I'll give my two cents. I'm not opposed to asking players to earn points to get cosmetic items, as it encourages them to keep coming back. However, there's definitely a more pro-consumer way to go about it.
Firstly, unlocks should not be locked behind an online subscription. It's inaccessible and the twice-weekly alternative for non-NSO subscribers is exploitative. If they really wanted to reward NSO subscribers, they could make non-NSO subscribers earn the current normal amount of points, and let NSO subscribers earn points at a 1.5x rate. Hairstyles for a variety of hair types should be unlocked from the start, with extra things like special eye colors being locked behind earning points. As far as I'm concerned, the same system for earning a random item from a collection can remain in place, except with the time limit removed. As more collections release, players can abandon collections they're not interested in and go for whatever tickles their fancy most.
Breaking out in a sweat
As it stands, the implementation of customization options in Nintendo Switch Sports isn't as family-friendly as Nintendo makes it out to be. From basic hairstyles being locked behind this earning system to the arbitrary time limits placed on collections, to players being coerced into paying for an extra online subscription if they hope to express themselves adequately — it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Not making these items online-exclusive and removing the time limit would certainly improve the experience, but for now, I feel like I have to grind through various sports just to keep up.
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