Move Over PSN and Xbox LIVE: Here Comes the Nintendo Network

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Nintendo says it’s finally going to get with the program and release an honest-to-goodness online gaming service, dubbed “Nintendo Network,” that’ll cover both the Wii U and 3DS. Hooray, I think.

Say what you will about Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (and Microsoft’s affection for overpriced peripherals, like the legendary $100 USB Wi-Fi adapter), its Xbox LIVE gaming network may be the singular reason the PlayStation 3’s still in Redmond’s rearview mirror. In its 2011 summary, Microsoft claimed it had 40 million Xbox LIVE members worldwide, out of 66 million Xbox 360 consoles sold. If we assume the 66 million figure’s actually high based on significant preliminary system failure and replacement rates — the so-called “red ring of death” — that LIVE membership figure looks even more impressive.

Sony, by contrast, claimed it had upwards of 70 million registered PSN users when it was hacked (to the nines) last April, but the number of paying members using its premium PlayStation Plus service, which launched in June 2010, is probably a fraction of Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE gold-tier base. LIVE remains the model to beat.

(MORE: Nintendo Chief Promises to Do Wii U Launch Right)

What’s Nintendo been up to while Sony and Microsoft carve out online empires? Biding its time? Missing in action? In denial? All of the above?

I’ve never used the Wii for multiplayer, and I’ve only dabbled with the 3DS’s online feature hodgepodge. There’s no sense of congruity to the Wii’s channels or the 3DS’s simplistic tiles, no overlying framework tying the company’s ad hoc online services and multiplayer-enabled games together.

The Nintendo Network could change that, though it’s hard to deduce what it’ll amount to based on company president Satoru Iwata’s abstract rhetoric. Iwata announced the new platform earlier today during Nintendo’s quarterly financial and policy briefing, admitting the current Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection was “focused upon specific functionalities and concepts,” but claiming that the Nintendo Network will “establish a platform where various services available through the network for our consumers shall be connected via Nintendo Network service so that the company can make comprehensive proposals to consumers.”

So it’ll be a place for Nintendo to “comprehensively” sales-pitch users? Probably that, but also for “competitions and communication among users,” says Iwata. Oh, and downloadable content, though Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection technically supports that today.

The real takeaway, I’m thinking (further quoting Iwata):

Also for the Wii U, we are planning to introduce a personal account system compatible with Nintendo Network. With this, for example, the ease of using a video game system when the hardware is shared by multiple family members, which has been a challenge we needed to tackle, shall be improved, and we will also be able to construct and offer the system by combining a variety of different services and content.

Sometimes imitation (in lieu of innovation) is the way to roll. Sony did it with PlayStation Trophies, Steam did it with Steam achievements, so I’ll go out on a limb and read this as Nintendo’s way of (obscurely) saying it’s finally going to add stuff like gamer cards and game achievements (including some form of overall score) and ensure future games adhere to platform standards. And with a little luck, we’ll even see “communication among users” translate as cross-service voice chat. At least give us those three out of the gate, Nintendo.

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