Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Attack of the Blue Shells

One of the games I've been playing lately hasn't been an MMO or a PC based game at all, but a console game: Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U.*

I know that some "real" gamers don't think that the Wii U qualifies as a true gaming console because it doesn't have any gritty shooters on it,** but since the other consoles we have include an Atari 2600 and an Intellivision II, yeah, I think it qualifies.

I realize that some people would argue that the Wii U is technically behind the current gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft, but there is one thing that the Wii U does right: it allows you to play previous gen Wii games on the Wii U. The PS4 and XBox One won't allow you to play PS3 and XBox 360 games, which means you have to keep your old console around to play years worth of accumulated titles. Nintendo might be giving up some profits by following this model, but the goodwill generated by this gesture can't be underestimated. And if you're like our family, who doesn't want to have multiple consoles cluttering a single television, it's a great thing.

Even though consoles have been hooked up to the internet for ages, I still think of them as stand alone non-networked devices. They were the "get a group of people together and play" systems, one step removed from boardgames and pencil-and-paper RPGs.  Therefore, my approach to the Wii U has been to not explore the online capabilities of the system very much.

The one exception has been the online play for Mario Kart 8.

Ain't that the truth. From nintendonews.com.

My account is the only one on the Wii U capable of online interaction***, so I have a say in when we play online with Mario Kart 8. That has put a damper on the mini-Reds' enthusiasm for online play --they'd rather hang around LOTRO or Marvel Heroes for that-- but I introduced my wife to online Mario Kart races last week.

I didn't quite expect her reaction.

You have to put this in perspective; my wife looks at MMOs as a big steaming pile of "meh". She kind of shakes her head at the rest of us and our interest in slaying internet dragons (or internet Sith), but doesn't interfere as long as we stay within a specified budget. She may play her occasional word game as a single player, but she never exhibited any interest in online gaming itself.

That all changed the other day.

She had the day off and was getting a few Mario Kart 8 races in while I was working in the next room. Typically, around mid-morning I'd be ready for a short break and would get up and possibly get a race or two in before delving into something else, but I was stuck in meetings. So when she asked if I was interesting in playing, I had to turn her down.

However, a light bulb went off in my head, and I replied that while I couldn't play, I did have a few minutes between meetings to set her up with an online session if she was interested.

She was a bit skeptical. I know she hasn't heard about the XBox Live horror stories because that sort of news doesn't interest her much, but I figured that she was probably more worried about looking like an idiot on screen.

I assured her it wasn't a big deal, and since people tend to get grouped in with their same point level, you'll be able to find people with similar skill sets.

So I switched users to my account, fired up Mario Kart 8, and got her ready to play.

After I explained the (minimal) differences between a regular VS series and the online game, I retreated to my office and joined the next meeting.

Then I heard a "WOOO!" from the other room.

"I'm playing against someone from Japan! And Germany! And the UK!"

I grinned in spite of myself.

About an hour later, I stretched and wandered over to see how it was going. "Well?" I asked.

"I was going to stop after a few runs, but this is so much fun!"



The Mario Kart 8 online play has two big things that make it welcoming for new players: matching players with similar scores, and limited options for player interaction.

If you take the rating system in Rated Battlegrounds and apply it to all players of online Mario Kart, then you've got the idea how the Mario Kart rating system works. You do well, and your rating rises; if you do poorly, your rating drops.**** You're matched up with players of similar ratings --within reason-- but everybody who plays has a rating.  This means you don't have the scenario that's frequently found in a random WoW BG: a guild group who runs Rateds stomping all over the other side composed of casual BG players. There's nothing that says that a player who picks up a Wiimote with a "newbie" rating of 1000 isn't a high skilled player visiting a friend, but the gear discrepancy and "flavor of the month" build found so frequently in WoW isn't present.

Since both the Wii and Wii U versions of Mario Kart only allow a few set phrases to be used, there's no trash talk between online players. I'm sure that some people get frustrated at not being able to scream "YOU SUCK NOOB!!" or "GO MAKE ME A SAMMICH!" at the other players, but this creates a safe space for everybody to play. It's not unlike the Wizard 101 method of game play, where you're limited in interactions by design, so that parents can feel confident that their kids won't be bullied or stalked online.

Both online design decisions are a win in my book. For my wife, who would likely be intimidated if she were being constantly pounded into dirt or offended the minute some asshat decides to unload on her for being a woman and a noob, this is perfect. And, needless to say, it's good for kids, too, although the mini-Reds are kind of old pros at the MMO scene these days.

Maybe we'll have another MMO gamer in the future after all.

*Yeah yeah yeah, I know; I'm some sort of traitor.

**I'd have said "Rated M for Mature" games, but the Wii U does have some of those, such as Bayonetta 2 and Assassin's Creed IV.

***That's by design, since I don't want to open up a credit card statement and discover that I "purchased" some games or downloadable content (DLC).

****Everybody starts at a rating of 1000.


  1. That's quite a lovely story. It's so nice when you can get a loved one to get a glimpse of what you love about a hobby that they never really "got" before.

    1. The online portion, I think she gets now. I still suspect that MMOs are too complex for her at the moment, but there's hope that she'll find more video games interesting.