The Switch's online service will be free until this fall, but to use it all you'll need a smart device handy.
At last night's Nintendo Switch reveal, there was a lot to talk about. Between the games shown off and the pricing and release date info, Nintendo also mentioned something that you might have missed: The Switch will require you to subscribe to its online service for multiplayer.
According the the official Nintendo Switch site, "You'll be able to play compatible co-op and competitive games online by signing in with your Nintendo Account." The online service will initially be free when the Switch launches on March 3, but in the fall of this year, Nintendo plans to launch a paid online service. Its site says, "After the free-trial period, most games will require a paid online service subscription from Nintendo in order to play online." It's worth noting that this service will only be for the Switch, and will not affect Wii U or 3DS online play.
There will be some benefits to paying a subscription to the service, although Nintendo's listing of those benefits has caused some confusion. First, you'll be able to invite your friends to play online, set "play appointments," and chat with friends during online play in games that support it. The strange thing is that those features won't be available on the Switch itself. Instead, Nintendo will launch a "new dedicated smart device app" that will handle those features. A "free, limited version" of that app will be available this summer.
Subscribers will also be able to "download and play a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Super NES) game (with newly-added online play) for free for a month." This is one of the most confusing points. Do you only get the game for that month? Will there be one game from each system, and you have to choose which to play? These details will likely be ironed out in the coming days, but for now how this will work remains somewhat of a mystery.
Finally, subscribers will get "special offers" that "may include discounts on select digital games and content." That's standard fare online services like PS Plus and Xbox's Games with Gold, so it's not surprising to see it. here.
It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that Nintendo is hoping to get onboard the online service payment gravy train. After all, all its competition is doing it. But the fact that Nintendo is going to offer a paid online service means that once it launches, the PC will be the only platform left that isn't charging you for multiplayer.
Also perplexing is the decision to make game invites, "play appointment" scheduling (seriously, that sounds A LOT like work), and online chat available only through a mobile app seems like a huge missed opportunity. Many gamers won't want to have to have their phones or other smart devices) on hand constantly to communicate with friends. It's possible this is due to design compromises, but I'd totally believe that Nintendo just thought it would be better this way.
We should learn more about the Switch's online service in the coming days and weeks, but for now, you should just be aware that the days of playing online for free on your Nintendo console are coming to an end later this year.