Nintendo has released a revised version of its hybrid home/handheld Switch console called the Switch Lite. And this has led to a number of people encountering one of the tricky aspects of our culture’s collective shift to digital media: How do you share games?
With physical media, we all know and understand the limitations. You can hand a game to your family member, but then you can’t play it — obviously. With digital, you can’t just hand something to a friend, child, or sibling. But we should still have the option to share our purchases with people in our lives, right? I think so, and it turns out that Nintendo agrees (so does Microsoft and Sony).
But the way that Nintendo handles the digital-sharing conundrum is far less intuitive than with a game card or disc. So I’m going to try to go over a handful of common situations to talk about how sharing works (or doesn’t).
Because sharing games is often predicated on our relationships, I’m going to break this down based on common family/friend situations. Owning games on one account across multiple devices is very different if you are one, two, or three-plus people. So we’ll use those categories.
First, however, we need to explore the problems and benefits of juggling digital purchases across multiple accounts and Switch systems.
Primary systems and online checks
This is one of those problems that everyone with multiple Switch systems is going to face. I’m going to try to explain this as simply as possible.
Your Nintendo account travels with you. So if you go from one Switch to another, you can sign in and access all of your game purchases. That’s great, but the problem is that you can only set one of your devices as the primary console for your game-owning account.
The primary Switch gets all privileges to launch games whether online or offline. Here’s how it works:
- Primary Switch: Your account can launch any game offline or online and can play them without limit.
- Secondary Switch: Your account can only launch games when you have an online connection. If you go offline (like on a plane or subway), you cannot Switch to another game. And if you don’t get a connection to re-validate your account within three hours, the game automatically closes.
That’s a restrictive system. But in some cases, it is less restrictive than buying one physical copy. You can also migrate which system is primary at any time as long as you have both devices.
Two people can play one copy of a game
One of the best things about buying digital is that you don’t have to buy two copies of a game to play a cooperative mode. You just have to use multiple accounts. If you use just one account, Nintendo has a handy graphic to show how it’ll pause the action on one system to start it on another.
Here’s how it works:
- Primary Switch: Have your friend or family member who does not own the game on their account sign in and start up the game on the primary Switch. It’s important that they use their own, separate Nintendo account. That account will also need Nintendo Switch Online for any online multiplayer mode.
- Secondary Switch: You should sign into your game-owning account on the secondary Switch. You will need an online connection. You’ll also need Nintendo Switch Online if the game is online multiplayer.
With this method, two people can load up the same game on two systems and play together in online cooperative modes. Or you can each load up two different games from the main game-owning account.
I’ve done this:
One license. Two Switch consoles. Both playing online at the same time. pic.twitter.com/Nhh1yo8EtB
— Grubb (@JeffGrubb) September 21, 2019
Cooperative game ownership
Digital purchases also have another benefit. If you have a Switch-owning friend, you can make their Switch your primary system and they can do the same with your Switch. Then as you buy games on your account, they will automatically show up on your friend’s device. And the same is true when they buy games on their account.
The problem here, of course, is that you will need an internet connection to start any games that you own yourself. Whether or not that’s a hurdle for you or not depends on your situation.
OK. Time to go deeper.
How to share Nintendo Switch digital games for one person with two Switch systems
Single life has some benefits. No one asks you questions when you are trying to go to the bathroom. You can order Taco Bell delivery three nights in a row without having to tell anyone about it except the Uber Eats app. And getting your two Switch systems to work is simple.
The problem that everyone is going to have is that only one Switch is going to work offline all the time. Here’s how to deal with that.
For every single one of these problems, you have the option of buying physical. If you do that, you can just pop the game out of one device and into the other. But then you have to carry your library around with you, and who wants to do that?
So the real solution here is to keep one Switch at home and connected to a TV and the internet at all times. If you do that, you could make your travel Switch the primary system. That way, if your primary Switch loses its internet connection, you can still boot your games.
How to share Nintendo Switch digital games for two people with two Switch systems
Sharing digital games is more complicated for couples, siblings, friends, and strangers who swap login information on an internet forum.
The issue, of course, is authentication. But you can make this work if you’re willing to live with some inconvenience.
If you don’t ever want to worry about authentication or primary Switch systems, you could just spend the money to buy two copies of a game. That’s the simplest and most expensive answer to this problem.
If the game isn’t something you’re going to play online together, then you could also buy physical. Just pass it from one person to the other as you finish it.
For digital sharing, however, I think you have a couple of real options. You’ll have to decide if they fit your style or not.
Set each other’s Switch as your primary console
I explained this above a little, but let’s reiterate. Here’s how this works:
- Primary Switch: Set the other person’s Switch as the primary console for your game-owning account. That person then needs to sign in with their own, separate Nintendo account.
- Secondary Switch: This is your Switch, and you sign into this system with your game-owning account. You’ll need an internet connection to start games and to re-authenticate every three hours.
If one of the Switch systems is going to sit connected to a TV most of the time, I would still set it as the primary. That way the other person can still use it to play games when you’re not home.
As always, the problem is connecting your mobile Switch to the internet for authentication. If you have a smartphone with mobile tethering, that should solve the issue in most circumstances. If you’re someone who flies a lot, however, this may not work for you.
The other solution is one that I don’t love because it’s so complicated, but you could try juggling accounts. The benefit, however, is that you can make the travel Switch your primary system.
Here’s how it works:
- Primary Switch: Set the travel Switch as your primary device, but create a new account to play games on that Switch.
- Secondary Switch: The other person then uses your main Switch account on the secondary system.
Basically, this method is about handing your account over to someone else. I wouldn’t want to do this personally because I have so many saves and I can tether to my phone. But if you need to have your travel Switch as the primary, this is probably your best bet.
How to share Nintendo Switch digital games for three people or more with two Switch systems
Any family or group that has more three or more people actively using Switch is going to have a tough time with digital sharing. How do you decide which Switch should get the primary tag? And even in the best scenarios, everyone is going to deal with some level of inconvenience.
Still, let’s try to figure this out.
Every group is going to have different dynamics. No one solution is going to fit everyone. But let’s be clear that you are trying to save money on buying multiple copies of games. If you want to eliminate the hurdles, that’s still the simplest solution.
The other solution is to begin buying games on different accounts. Think about who is going to play a certain game the most, and buy that on their account. If your kid is going to play a lot more Pokémon Sword than you, just make that purchase on their account.
But that’s not going to help for the game library you already have tied to a single account.
Digital sharing is not conducive to groups. So if you want it to work, you’ll have to shape your gaming habits around the system. For that, here’s my suggestion.
Make one Switch the ‘family’ Switch
If one account owns all the games, you’ll probably have to dedicate one Switch to the family. The other Switch will then have to go primarily to the person who owns the games.
Here’s how it works:
- Primary Switch: Make the Switch that will stay at home the primary device. Let everyone play games on this system. Each person should just sign in with their own Nintendo account (or at least one account that is separate from the primary game-owning account).
- Secondary Switch: Make the secondary Switch the one that the person who owns the games uses. You’ll need an online connection to boot up any digital download.
This will enable everyone to pass the family Switch around and use it without issue. It puts most of the inconvenience on the game owner, though. So you have to make sacrifices if you want to do this.
But you do have another decent option.
Migrate the primary console as needed
Nintendo enables you migrate primary ownership of a console once per year if you don’t have access to the original primary system. If you have both devices, however, you can make any Switch your primary console whenever you want and as much as needed.
Let’s talk about how this works, and then I’ll explain how to make a different Switch your primary console:
- Primary Switch: No one Switch should act as the permanent primary. In general, make which ever Switch is going to travel the most away from Wi-Fi the primary console. But if your kid wants to play Link’s Awakening on the Switch Lite on her account, just migrate the primary license.
Here’s how to do that:
- On your primary console, open the eShop app.
- Scroll your cursor over to your user icon on the top right of the eShop screen.
- In this account information screen, select your icon once again, but this time from the left tab menu. It should also have your email address.
- Move your cursor to the right, and then scroll down past your payment information until you get to “Primary Console” option.
- Here, you’ll see one big button that says “Deregister.”
- Now move to your other Switch, and open the eShop with your game-owning account. This will automatically set this Switch as your new primary device.
This trick is especially convenient because you don’t even necessarily have to be in the same room with the other Switch. If you are traveling and need to make your system the primary device for a flight, you can just call home and have someone else deregister the family system for you.
Nintendo could strike a better balance
I plan to follow up this guide with a break down of exactly how Nintendo can improve digital sharing. The problem is that Nintendo’s calculus is about how much exploitation it is willing to tolerate to improve the Switch for families and other legitimate groups.
Nintendo probably didn’t intend to permit two people to play one copy of a game at the same time on two different systems. That is a byproduct that it is has decided to put up with to ensure people feel good about purchasing digital games. And it’s one that Nintendo is accepting as the cost of doing business.
But every time we ask Nintendo for an inch of leeway with our purchases, a lot of people are going to find ways to take a mile. And Nintendo is going to worry a lot more about the exploits than what is fair for the majority of us.
Nintendo’s popularity among families, however, seems like a good reason to improve digital sharing. A middle ground exists that is more convenient for most people without giving up digital rights management.
And the company should push in that direction.