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Set Sales Switch to 'On'

A reaction to the Switch announcement and analysis of the business sense of marketing as a successor to 3DS as much as Wii U

Graham Mclauchlin, Blogger

November 11, 2016

7 Min Read


Set Sales Switch to ‘on’

Or: Why Nintendo may have good reason to be confident in their new hardware

This post originally appeared at http://sushimonster85.com/2016/11/07/set-sales-switch-to-on/

By Graham Mclauchlin @sushimucker

Two weeks ago, Nintendo unveiled the Switch and in so doing, confirmed much of the speculation that has surrounded the device for months. As you’re undoubtedly already aware, the Switch (codenamed NX until now) is a hybrid home/handheld console - two detachable controllers and a TV dock will let users seamlessly transition between big-screen console gaming and a self-contained portable device.


It’s fair to say that Nintendo’s fortunes over the past few console generations have been tumultuous; the Wii was an unbelievable sales success, appealing to seemingly everyone regardless of their normal level of interest (or indifference) for gaming, while on either side of it the Gamecube and Wii U both lagged significantly behind the competing devices from Sony and Microsoft. The Wii U especially has been criticised for poor marketing and a small library devoid of 3rd-party releases; this came after the later few years in the Wii’s lifespan where for many it became dismissed as just another momentary infatuation - the console everybody owned and nobody played.


So far then, so much reason to be wary of another Nintendo home console that’s ignoring the Xbox and PS4 direction of ‘just keep adding power’ and relying on a different philosophy. After all, one person’s unique selling point is another’s quickly-forgotten gimmick. But to think of the Switch purely in home console terms is to ignore half of the appeal, and it’s the half that Nintendo has consistently satisfied since launching their first handheld in 1989. Most recently, that takes the form of the 3DS. I was astonished to discover that there are significantly more people gaming on 3DS than on the PS4 that we tend to think of as this generation’s leader: in the five years since launch, users have bought 280 million games across 60 million 3DS systems worldwide. It's a huge success, especially in Japan, where one person in six owns a version of the handheld.


“One person’s USP is another’s quickly-forgotten gimmick”


If we dig back further, we see Nintendo’s handhelds as the 2nd (DS), 3rd (Gameboy) and 8th (GBA) most successful gaming devices of all time. But it’s the 3DS, launched in a post-smartphone, post-iPad ‘who the hell wants to carry around a dedicated gaming system anyway?’ world that is the closest model for what the Switch may really be working towards. The same 3DS which has quietly become the most successful gaming platform released by anyone in the past 9 years. For the record, as of this summer it was 11th on that list. Oh, and while sales have undeniably slowed over the last couple of years, it’s almost certain that by the end of 2016 it will have moved up by one place, when it outperforms lifetime unit sales of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Handheld gaming is not dead, far from it...we in the ‘core’ crowd just haven’t been paying very close attention.

So, with all signs pointing to no more separation between ‘home’ and ‘handheld’ for Nintendo, the pitch has become ‘get you a platform that can do both.’ The announcement video only ran to 3 minutes, focusing on the philosophy and use-case for Switch and it basically showed two things: Switch played socially, and Switch played solo. I don’t personally know anyone who would take a handheld to a rooftop party and show it off. The concept of social play around the inevitable new Mario Kart and Smash Bros. entries is an easier idea to get on board with, though I’m not sure how many people in 2017 buy into a system just because it does local multiplayer well.


The other side of the trailer though, was basically for people who don’t put games down in any spare minute they have alone. Zelda was a safe pitch for this, but I think it’s pretty telling that Skyrim was the 3rd-party game featured. Despite Bethesda’s strangely cagey non-confirming of the game definitely coming to Switch, what better way than an Elder Scrolls game to show the use of the system for games that you literally don’t put down? It’s basically the hardcore franchise that has also happened to sell like crazy for the last couple of entries. Sure, Skyrim’s old...but it’s also back on sale mere days after the Switch reveal with a remaster that’s putting it back front and centre in people’s minds.


“What better way than an Elder Scrolls game to show the use of the system for games that you literally don’t put down?”


Which begs the question of just how comparable with PS4 and Xbox One the power of the Switch will be. The 2012 Skyrim would seem like a very poor showing 6 months after the remaster launches on older consoles, and add in the confirmed Unity and Unreal Engine 4 support and signs point towards a system more powerful than the Wii U, maybe within spitting distance of the vanilla PS4 and Xbox One. It’s obvious that pure horsepower isn’t Nintendo’s game plan, but the idea of playing current-gen games anywhere, anytime is a mighty tempting prospect.


But is all that really feasible? There are a number of barriers to the powerful portable dream. Battery is one; Switch is running on an updated version of Nvidia’s Tegra processor, and tablets with the Tegra see their battery life reduced dramatically by gaming in comparison to other tasks. Storage is another, while high density flash memory is getting cheaper all the time, a quick glance at the 32gb maximum that the Wii U offered raises serious doubts when we look at the ever-increasing size of patches on current gen consoles and PC. Then when I start thinking about the online sphere: Nintendo’s terrible history with account infrastructure, increasing numbers of ‘always online’ games and a device that by definition users will be taking far away from their wireless networks, and the Switch starts to look like it might have quite an uphill struggle.

Of course, all of those are obstacles that Nintendo will be well aware of and their history shows that regardless of anything else, their first party games will deliver the goods. As for third parties, well, the list of partners is much bigger and more impressive than Nintendo has been able to boast for a long time. But then...the cynical side of me says this is all a little familiar from the initial Wii U reveal.


Bringing big current-gen games on the go is a wonderful selling point. But the logistics of doing so might mean that the pertinent question for third-party devs and consumers alike is how many sacrifices are we willing to make for the convenience of portability. And of course, the X factor in all of that is sales. A world in which the Switch sells like hot cakes will keep third parties interested, feeding the cycle of games selling consoles and install base attracting games. So maybe after everything else, it all comes down to price. Let's not forget, the 3DS from which the Switch is picking up the mantle was so worryingly slow to sell at launch that Nintendo reacted by slashing the price by a third within the first 6 months. 60 million unit sales are the proof of how smart a move that was.


Nintendo, maybe more than anyone else in this industry, are a difficult company to predict - both in terms of their directions and strategies, and in how well those will pay off. Switch definitely feels like an outlier pulling in a different direction to the other home consoles...but that’s nothing new at all for Nintendo at this point. Five years ago, I didn’t feel alone at all in not expecting much for a 3DS competing with smartphones and tablets...but numbers don’t lie and it’d be wrong to call the 3DS anything less than a successful system at this point. There’s always a market for first-party Nintendo games. Apparently there’s also a big market for dedicated gaming devices on the go, too. While lineup, battery life, connectivity and price are huge unknowns at this point, there is absolutely potential for Switch to be big. Nintendo knows that, and that’s why they’re not checking out of the hardware market.

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