Nintendo has revealed more information about the Switch hardware along with some games. It’s a subversive and risky powerplay, and I’m extremely interested in how this will turn out. In this article I’ll give the pros, cons, and most importantly, the possibilities of what the Switch represents to the gaming industry, which means I’ll also be talking about the current sad state of the console industry itself.
“Overpriced Last-Gen Gimmick Console”
A lot of people are complaining about the price of the Switch, but for the wrong reasons. They say it’s not as powerful as the PlayStation 4, which is cheaper by this point. That’s a stupid comparison. The PS4 is cheap because it’s not worth much. It’s an old system — released in 2013, if you can believe it — and it still has extremely little to offer despite four highly successful years of selling units. I’d argue that while the Nintendo Switch doesn’t showcase the “next generation” of graphics and processing power, neither did the PS4 when it was released, and neither does the new “PS4 Pro” Sony is trying desperately to wedge into the middle of the console cycle. Let’s face it: the PC market has grown and become mainstream enough that no console will ever feel “next-gen” in terms of power anymore. They are permanently behind the curve.
If you think about it, consoles have always tried to innovate in other ways, such as allowing local multiplayer setups, improving user interface and accessibility, and pushing controller design to new areas of exploration so that games can feel new and different. But none of those things evolved lately. Local multiplayer is all but dead on consoles these days. The user interface for all three systems has become worse than any previous generation (the PS4, Xbone, and Wii U all have terrible clunky interfaces for their operating systems). Controller designs have converged into a single boring layout that refuses to evolve. The Switch represents the first genuine attempt to move forward in all three of these categories in a long time, and therefore it’s a “next-gen” push in the true sense. I’m not saying it will be successful, but it’s at least trying. Dismissing every step in a different direction as a “gimmick” is precisely why the console industry is stuck in a rut, making identical systems that don’t impress anyone. In this paradigm, the PC industry continues to lure players away and cater to the full range of prices and options.
A more fundamental problem is that people are judging it as a home console to begin with. This ignores the reality that it’s a handheld you can play on your TV, not a home console you can take on the go. It’s odd to me that people refuse to talk about it this way, but I guess it does make sense. The inclusion of the “Dock” which boosts performance (turning 720p games into 1080p games instantly) is indisputably a core, central feature, and Nintendo is marketing it accordingly. However, Nintendo is also trying to hide the fact that they’re abandoning the console market altogether. They don’t think home consoles have a healthy future, and they’re right. The Nintendo Switch is a premium handheld with its own 720p resolution screen and a decent battery, and therefore it unavoidably costs more than an dedicated home console would. Home consoles require a separate display and an external power source, making them cheaper. Once you factor in the JoyCon controllers (idiotic name) you are technically getting what you pay for in terms of hardware. The JoyCons have surprisingly advanced features, bumping up the price tag significantly. It’s only when you leave the United States that prices start to get gougey, as you can see in the picture above. But no matter where you shop, the accessories are ridiculous, and deserve complaint.
“Fair Priced Next-Gen Revolutionary Handheld”
Are people correct to call the Switch an overpriced last-gen gimmick console? No, but I do wish it was cheaper. Right now, the problem is that ordinary customers (ie. not Nintendo fans) probably won’t buy it at this price, and they certainly won’t buy multiple. But the potential is there. Price matters so much this time around because the Switch is the first system I can think of that will get exponentially more exciting when multiple people in the same household own one. Head-to-head multiplayer with up to eight people looking at their own screens is one of the greatest selling points in gaming history, period. I dare you to dispute me on that. Owning two Nintendo Switches at $250 each is worth a lot more than owning a single $500 system; but at $300 each it’s just not feasible.
Additionally, for handhelds, ownership has a proven viral effect. As friends and strangers watch you having fun in places where they’re bored — during commutes, in airports, schools, workplaces, etc. — they get jealous and consider buying one. The Switch promises to allow two-player experiences even when you just have one system, so you can “Share The Joy™” with somebody nearby. That’s assuming you trust them not to run away with your $65 JoyCon and sell it on eBay the next day. You want a handheld system like this to fall within the “impulse buy” price range, because you want everybody to have their own and multiply the viral effect.
All we need are the games to show off the potential. The Nintendo Switch presentation was mostly about explaining the hardware, because they wanted to avoid the disastrous confusion that plagued the Wii U’s launch. They want business investors, developers, publishers, gamers, and the dumbest mainstream journalists to walk away knowing what the system actually includes, and what it does. It wasn’t a games showcase, this time. That will happen at E3, GDC, and TGS later this year. What are some games that could instantly turn the tide in the Switch’s favor? That’s easy. An enhanced port of the current Pokemon games, which have already been rumored to be coming to Switch, would sell hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of systems instantly. A new Monster Hunter would remind everyone that the Switch is indeed their next-gen handheld, and win over those doubters who see it primarily as a home console. A new Bayonetta or Platinum game, including a new Wonderful 101, would soften the system’s edges for all those hardcore action game fans. An enhanced port of Smash Bros, or practically any other Wii U game, will attract gamers who skipped the Wii U altogether but still respect the games. That’s the pattern we’ve already been seeing. A new 2D Mario, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Yoshi, or you-name-it installment would reel in even more fans. Unlike the Wii U, the Switch is a console everybody is secretly considering; they’re just waiting for the right announcements. Nobody will care if it doesn’t get AAA ports of games coming out on the other platforms, it just needs to build a library of its own exclusives.
Theories and Possibilities
Before I get into my current theories, let me start by admitting that my wild and unfounded speculation about the “NX” was wrong: the Switch is not an “Amiibo machine” designed to sell characters instead of individual games in some kind of giant sandbox Skylanders MMO universe. The Amiibo product line and the Miiverse, it turns out, were not a prototype for some secret convergence of toys and social gaming for Nintendo. I still think that was a neat idea. Now let’s get to the Switch’s future…
(1) The Switch will be Nintendo’s final, eternally evolving platform
If this theory is true, Nintendo will copy Apple’s approach to mobile devices, with an account system, storefront, and operating system that continuously evolves and transfers forward into the future. iOS and Android have both successfully pulled it off, making it so people don’t even feel like they’re losing anything when they upgrade. With PC’s, Windows has been essentially doing this for decades, making their library of “backwards compatible” games endless. I’m suggesting that the Switch will be a series of products, not a solitary device. In two years, we might have the next “Switch” tablet, with better specs and a sharper image quality. The year after, we might get an extra large version with a built-in camera. Those small JoyCons? Why, you just have to “Switch” them with the XL models to fit your big freakish hands.
I believe this could be the real reason it’s called the “Switch” in the first place. This would be a brilliant strategy for staying at the cutting edge, while making the competition look foolish for destroying their back catalog every “generation”. Nintendo might be hoping that it can accustom gamers to treat their gaming handhelds like they would treat their phones, tablets, and PC’s. As long as there’s endless backwards compatibility, people will upgrade without worry. Conversely, people who wait and watch as new games demanding better specs come out for the “Switch” will feel pressured to eventually upgrade too. As an Android user, I saw this happen with the early Nexus tablet I bought. On my phone, I could run Hearthstone just fine, but my tablet was older, so while it could download and install Hearthstone just fine, I got a warning telling me it wasn’t up to snuff when I tried to launch it. There’s no reason the Switch couldn’t do the same thing. (I didn’t buy a new tablet to play Hearthstone on it, but I’m sure there are people out there who did.)
(2) Nintendo is finally ready to please fans
This theory is perhaps even crazier. With the passing of Satoru Iwata, the management of Nintendo has changed dramatically. If my theory is correct, this means Shigeryu Miyamoto is no longer able to dominate the decisions being made in the company, since Iwata had such a soft spot for him that he allowed Miyamoto to screw up constantly. The new president is a humorless businessman who wants to compete and win, not a programmer who idolizes the man behind Mario. According to recent interviews, Miyamoto has had very little input into the Super Mario Odyssey, for example. The dismal failure of the recent Star Fox (designed entirely by Miyamoto) and the lackluster Pikmin series have proven that he’s completely out of touch. Breath of the Wild and Odyssey both look like a triumphant return to form, and if this is the direction Nintendo wants to go, their future is bright.
(3) The Switch will become the ultimate repository for classic games
The Switch presentation was very careful to emphasize how their new system had the “DNA” of many previous platforms. That means it’s pretty much compatible with everything they’ve done before. The Switch may seem gimmicky, but that’s because it combines the gimmicks of every previous Nintendo system. Because it’s eventually going to have every classic game on it. Nintendo 64, Wii, SNES, NES, GameCube, and GameBoy games will flood onto the system, and Nintendo will convince companies like Capcom, Square, and Konami to port over their old games. I suppose the only thing that won’t make the transition will be the DS and 3DS games. And sure, the Virtual Console has been doing that for ages already, but they’re always locked to the hardware instead of your account. The Switch might finally be the turning point, thanks to the help of DeNA, the 3rd party company that’s been partnering with Nintendo for the Switch. Before we knew anything about the “NX”, we knew that DeNA was fundamentally involved with the software side of the system, along with the creation of the MyNintendo account system and the point rewards involved there. The account system transcends hardware and allows you to get points for participating with their mobile phone games, 3DS games, and Wii U together. A taste of things to come? We can only hope, but I think the messaging is all pointing in that direction.
UPDATE: Reggie did an interview with GameSpot and said that the introduction of “Nintendo Account” currently being used, purchases are tied to an account, which would allow them to have purchases carry forward with the account.
(4) The paid online service will accelerate the operating system’s evolution
Nobody’s happy about the announcement of a paid online service like Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, but I think Nintendo wants to go further than its lazy competition. Again, DeNA will be the key to this. By allowing Nintendo to focus on purely developing games and outsourcing the development of the operating system to DeNA, Nintendo will not only produce more content (by shifting company resources to it), they’ll have an extremely experienced company handling the inner workings of the platform. Charging money for “online services” is quite out of character for Nintendo, since they know the system is for children and low-income gamers in general, but the extra cost of hiring DeNA will need to come from somewhere. Already you’re seeing the Nintendo Switch phone app being showcased, which allows for remote parental controls, messaging, and friend management. Some people are criticizing this change, but it’s actually genius. Parents have smartphones, and children can’t access them; additionally, communicating with friends through mobile phones is natural and convenient, unlike loading up a Switch program and hoping your friends are online at the time. Beats the hell out of the PSN network if you ask me.
Personally I have the Steam App, and I’ve actually used it to talk to my real life and Steam-only friends occasionally. I’ve used it to browse the Steam store when I’m not home. Sony has a similar app for PlayStation users, but it’s limited compared to what Nintendo is promising. This should make you excited. If they’re already trying this hard to get their services in order, there’s reason to believe that they’ve got bigger plans. If they’ve got bigger plans, I believe the paid online service will speed up development and allow them to finally have a universal account, friends list, and storefront system. This ties into theories 1 and 3, too. More classic games, and more forwards compatibility, means eventually having all the games in one place, with a system that can handle it all. Nintendo isn’t capable of making an OS that can handle that, but DeNA is.
People like Jim Sterling have ripped Nintendo a new butthole for their online plans, but guess what? We don’t know a fraction of what they have planned, and we don’t know how much they’ll be charging. Again: this was not the full presentation of features and games. The mention of downloading SNES and NES games every month — games that supposedly will have online multiplayer built in somehow (is this some DeNA magic, too?) — may seem like highway robbery when you find out they’ll take the games away at the end of each month, but if it ends up being $2 a month and it means you can play some of your favorite games with millions of other people who own the same thing, is it still so bad? Every month, everyone is offered a game to play together. The prospect of having a “Game of the Month” that everybody plays simultaneously has its own clever logic. No empty lobbies, plenty of buzz, and a return to something closer to the old arcade scene where people showed up looking to prove themselves. Personally I’d be shocked if these old games were the only thing you’d get from subscribing, because they simply haven’t delved into the account system, Virtual Console, and online services at all yet.
(5) Nintendo is playing it slow and staggering everything to keep Switch in the headlines
This isn’t much of a “theory” — and in fact I think it’s common sense — but for some reason nobody I’ve seen has caught on to the strategy here. The more I listen to other people complain about the small selection of games during the launch window, the high initial price with no bundle, the lack of information about the paid service, and so on, the more I wonder why anyone assumes Nintendo would just dump all its information at the same time. As I’ve said repeatedly in this article, the January presentation was about communicating the basics of the system to journalists and the broad business world, not to entice every player in the world to buy one at launch. Not only would doing so create a massive drought of news for the rest of the year, but it would also create a massive rush initially, which they already can’t fulfill as proven by the fact that they’ve sold out pre-orders within hours of making it available. Be realistic. The Switch is not an off-the-shelf toaster-quality PC with a logo on it like the PS4 or the Xbox One, its a handheld with pretty novel features everywhere. It can’t be produced at the same volume, and so Nintendo is smart to play it slow. In the interview with Reggie I linked above (also here) he specifically says one of the biggest lessons they learned with the Wii U is that there needs to be a steady supply of titles to look forward to at all times, with no major droughts in between. They are teasing information, and they know people are dying to hear more. Why would you blow your load immediately?
Right now there’s a drought of gaming news everywhere. The PS4 and Xbox One are both pushing unlikable upgrade versions that may as well be walking advertisements for the Switch themselves, and very few games are being released. The Nintendo Switch is the only thing interesting that’s happening, so they don’t have to compete with a bunch of crazy headlines until E3 — which is when they’ll be ready with a lot more announcements. By the end of the year, when Super Mario Odysssey is released, you may even have a bundle or two. Personally, considering that Breath of the Wild is a Wii U game that’s being ported over (and let’s face it, Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe are the same way) I don’t consider the Switch to even be “fully launched” until then anyway — which is the same time that their online service kicks in. Right now they’re simply capitalizing on the diehard fanboys, Zelda fanatics, and early adopters who will spread the hype of the system with the aforementioned viral effect. This may as well be a beta testing period. Complaints and discussion around the system between launch and the end of the year will allow Nintendo to consider what kind of accessories, hardware variations, online services, and games to focus on next year. To think that Nintendo has shown us everything they’re planning is just dumb.
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