The game I played most on the E3 show floor this year wasn’t featured in any press conference. It wasn’t promoted with gaudy, costumed booth babes or sequestered behind closed doors, to be played by a select few. In fact, it wasn’t highlighted on even one of the hundreds of demo stations publishers set up for the show. Yet I and hundreds of other attendees found themselves sampling the title in a way only a gathering like E3 could make possible.
The game in question was the Nintendo 3DS’ StreetPass Mii Plaza, a title that shows off both Nintendo’s penchant for unique ideas as well as its seemingly utter inability to provide a meaningful online experience.
StreetPass Mii Plaza shows off both Nintendo’s penchant for unique ideas as well as its seemingly utter inability to provide a meaningful online experience
StreetPass Mii Plaza makes use of the 3DS’ unique StreetPass feature, a bit of hardware and system software design wizardry that lets the system’s WiFi antenna communicate with other nearby 3DS units, even if both systems are closed and in sleep mode (which might now be better termed “semi-awake mode”). In StreetPass Mii Plaza, this communication takes the form of an exchange of cartoon-like Miis that have been pre-designed and pre-designated for sharing by each owner, along with basic information like hometown, last-played game and selections from a pre-set list of life goals and hobbies (not surprisingly, “playing videogames” was a popular hobby choice among E3 attendees).
StreetPass seems like an idea tailor-made for Japan, where a large proportion of the population makes daily commutes to, from and within dense urban areas on packed trains, and where Nintendo has so far sold 3.46 DS systems for each living citizen (only a slight exaggeration). As a 3DS early adopter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, though, my invisible StreetPass beacons went cruelly unanswered for weeks, no matter how many times I walked to the corner store for a bottle of Mountain Dew.
But through the days of StreetPass disappointment, I looked forward expectantly to E3, where I was sure thousands of other game industry professionals were similarly waiting to perform an automatic, invisible digital handshake with me. If StreetPass didn’t prove itself in such an environment, it seemed clear it would never prove itself at all.
I discovered the first of what would be nearly 200 bites on my StreetPass lure as I was speeding away from the Los Angeles airport to my hotel. James – or his Mii, at least – was a bespectacled, shaggy-haired, red-shirted fellow who enjoys Street Fighter IV, I was told. As soon as I spied that Mii’s cartoony face I was able to identify his creator – a tall, lanky guy who had been standing behind me in the cab line! At the time I had taken his too-wide grin as simple excitement at attending what I imagined was his first E3 (he looked the type), but now that I thought about it, he might have been grinning at the white 3DS case I had hanging from my belt loop (don’t judge me!), imagining that he, too, might be getting his first StreetPass connection.
This initial experience captures one of the main problems with the StreetPass system: The unavoidable feeling that all it’s good for is gathering missed connections. In sleep mode, the system had no way of notifying me that there was a kindred spirit nearby, digitally looking for others like it. Even if I had happened to be playing Street Fighter IV in that cab line, I wouldn’t have known James – who was standing three feet away – was up for a friendly match unless I had hopped on over to the Home menu and then the StreetPass Mii Plaza (or if James had piped up and said something, of course). Instead, I only learned that I had met my first fellow 3DS owner well after I had actually met him!
Collecting Miis from strangers in StreetPass Mii Plaza felt a bit like collecting elegant porcelain dolls fashioned after the people you pass in the park, and then pretending those dolls are your friends.
You might think the 3DS could store James’ system details, so that I could reach out to him through the magic of the internet at a later time (“I couldn’t help but notice your goofy grin in the cab line, but I never imagined that grin might be for me and my 3DS. Up for a quick match?”). Unfortunately, Mii Plaza provides no mechanism for this. In fact, the only way I could communicate further with Jason at all would be if I ran into him a second time, at which point I could set a personalized message to be sent the third time we passed each other (despite using StreetPass amongst the closed group of E3 attendees all week, I never got to try out this feature).
Some StreetPass users I ran into tried to get around this limitation by including e-mail addresses or personal web URLs in the “personal message” that Miis share upon meeting, but since that information isn’t stored permanently in the Mii Plaza, you’d better have a pad of paper handy if you want to make use of it.
I can understand Nintendo’s reluctance to let this kind of follow-up communication happen easily – it would only take one pedophile making illicit contact through a 3DS StreetPass encounter to create headlines that could cause billions of dollars in PR damage. Still, without the option for further follow-up, collecting Miis from strangers in StreetPass Mii Plaza felt a bit like collecting elegant porcelain dolls fashioned after the people you pass in the park, and then pretending those dolls are your friends.
And that’s for complete strangers. The StreetPass experience is even weirder when interacting with people you know. Throughout E3, I found it exceedingly odd to open my system and find an online acquaintance or former colleague staring back up at me, making me realize that I must have been within ten feet of them without actually picking them out of the crowd. Odder still was the sensation of meeting someone in person for the first time, and then hours later finding out we had exchanged Miis without either of us consciously thinking about it (not to mention the oddness of learning my new acquaintance’s dream is “to get fit!”). And then there is the case of the Mii I acquired named Yuji Naka, which made me wonder if I had walked by the legendary Sega game designer or just a fan of his work.
It didn’t really matter. Famous or not, the Yuji Naka Mii I received was a static, lifeless shadow of the person it represented, useful mainly as fodder for the pair of simple mini-games Nintendo loaded into the Mii Plaza. The first, Puzzle Swap, is barely a game at all, acting simply as an excuse to copy and share pieces of Nintendo-themed images between 3DS systems. Since Miis can only give copies of pieces they’ve already obtained from someone else, the game is most interesting as a lesson in viral propagation patterns and the relative popularity of the specific characters in the featured pictures (those Mario puzzles seemed to fill in a lot quicker than the Pikmin puzzles).
Famous or not, the Yuji Naka Mii I received was a static, lifeless shadow of the person it represented.
The other game, Find Mii, was marginally more interesting – a simplified RPG that uses collected StreetPass Miis as one-time-use warriors in a series of turn-based battles. There’s a thin sheen of strategy involved in choosing when to attack and when to use magic, as well as what specific order in which to use each Mii. The Miis are even personalized to an extent, with magical abilities based on their favorite colors and power levels based on the number of times you’ve met them via StreetPass.
Of course, for StreetPass-friendless players, Find Mii lets you trade in play coins (earned by using the system’s built-in pedometer) to hire generic, cat-like Miis, which are just as effective in battle. This again highlights how impersonal StreetPass encounters actually are; instead of treating collected Miis as fellow 3DS owners that you might want to meet and know, Find Mii treats them as resources, to be collected and exploited for progress in a game that doesn’t even care whether they represent a real person or not.
StreetPass has the seeds of what could truly be a revolutionary social networking system – one where connections are first based just on proximity, but have the potential to blossom into deeper relationships based on shared interests and compared game lists and voice chats held over internet game matches – something like Xbox Live, but with a dash of FourSquare thrown in.
As it stands now, though, StreetPass seems destined to be nothing more than a novelty. A pity that a feature based on being close to other 3DS owners ends up only making them seem more distant.
Kyle Orland (http://www.kyleorland.com) has been writing about games professionally for ten years and playing them for roughly twice that. His Mii looks almost nothing like him, thank to a lack of a sideburn option.