Yesterday Nintendo wrapped up its more thorough unveiling of the upcoming Nintendo Switch platform. As expected, the price and release date were revealed — $299 and March 3 — along with a bevy of launch window software announcements. I have some thoughts.
The crux is that I believe Nintendo has positioned itself for a very difficult future. That’s absolutely not a certainty, as Nintendo’s shown perseverance in extremely challenging circumstances before. But for a company which has faced adversity within the console market for several years now, it’s staggering to see Nintendo acting out several of the same mistakes. It’s worth breaking down what Nintendo appears to be doing right and wrong, just to help ground expectations for the company’s likely volatile future.
1.) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
This is the obvious place to start. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, barring a potentially disastrous delay due to rumored localization issues, is planned to launch alongside the Nintendo Switch. Zelda is Nintendo’s second-best selling franchise outside of Mario, and is guaranteed to sell extremely well — in proportion to platform sales, naturally. Zelda being a launch title alone makes any comparisons to Nintendo’s worst console launches, like the Wii U or GameCube, absurd.
Breath of the Wild is perhaps more than just a launch title, however. The game is a marked turn for the franchise, unique in several very meaningful ways. Nintendo’s done a great job of making it look very good. I’m always wary of overhyping a game based on marketing, but Nintendo could have a defining game to start off the Switch’s lifespan. Breath of the Wild could have a significant impact on the success of the Switch beyond any expectation.
2.) Limited Quantity
It’s always a tricky subject, but it’s important to understand that Nintendo’s strategy of limiting the availability of their consoles is successful in a very unique way. To be fair, it’s less Nintendo aiming to limit access than Nintendo’s standard conservative business practices. Even so, Nintendo has built a dynasty on “slow starts” for its hardware. Consider the Wii U, which generated more revenue than the Wii through its first 6 weeks. The Nintendo Switch will be sold out at launch and remain in very high demand for at least several months. It has nothing to do with launch titles or pre-launch news coverage. Even worst case scenario, the Switch will be a guaranteed success for an indeterminate amount of time post-launch.
Before moving on, it’s worth noting that Reggie Fils-Aimes has spoken in the past day about the Switch not having the same supply issues as the Nintendo Classic did during the holidays. For those unfamiliar, the Nintendo Classic had extremely limited availability even by Nintendo’s standards and has yet to ramp up manufacturing since. Perhaps the Switch will launch in greater numbers than the Wii U or Wii, but it likely won’t be to a significant enough degree to alter the limited availability of the platform. There’s evidence of this already, as the pre-orders for the Switch are already sold out across major retailers.
3.) Year One
The first year after the Nintendo Switch’s launch is poised to be strong. Major releases in Nintendo’s two most popular console franchises, Zelda and 3D Mario, will both be delivered. The Switch will also have the Wii U’s strongest releases, Mario Kart and Splatoon, all ready for the holidays. And while I dislike putting value into rumors, there’s healthy conversation still going about both Pokemon and Super Smash Bros. also coming to the platform and those would both be huge announcements. Compare that year-one line-up to the Wii U’s, which had New Super Mario Bros., Pikmin and a Mario Party game in its first year. The difference is night and day.
Just showing improvement over the Wii U’s launch year isn’t necessarily saying much, but it’s important to recognize that Nintendo is covering their bases with regards to core gamers — the Nintendo faithful. That core is going to be the foundation of the platform whether it’s hugely successful or not. If Nintendo can keep those faithful happy and continue to release excellent first-party titles, then Nintendo’s future is safe.
1.) Launch Line-Up
Despite rambling about what a key launch title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is, the Nintendo Switch has a larger problem — its initial launch line-up. Historically, major platforms like the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One were expected to sell three games in addition to the platform itself. For example, one or two major first-party titles and then one or two third-party games that fit the player’s preferences. How is this bad for the Nintendo Switch? It’s launching with only five games.
Five games are planned for the Nintendo Switch launch: Zelda, 1 2 Switch, Super Bomberman R, Just Dance 2017, and Skylanders Imaginators. I don’t mean to imply that any of the games are bad, but rather that they are each niche in different ways and unlikely to have wide appeal like Zelda. The result is a much smaller software adoption rate than three games. I’m not even sure that’s a launch line-up that will pull a two. And don’t cut this issue short — if the Switch isn’t selling software, then market confidence will race third-party support out the door. This is a hamstringed start for the Nintendo Switch.
2.) Motion Controls
I never expected to have to discuss motion controls after the Nintendo Switch presentation, because I never expected them to make it such a core focus for the platform. Yet two of the big exclusive announcements of the day were 1 2 Switch and ARMS. Followed by a large part of the presentation spent showing how the JoyCons do motion control. There’s no easy way to say this, but motion controls are potentially a disaster in motion in 2016.
There’s no argument that Wii Sports defined the Wii, single-handedly making it an outrageously successful platform. But since then: the 360 Kinect failed, the Xbox One Kinect failed, the PlayStation Move controllers failed (barring the VR resurgence), the Wii U’s reuse of the Wii’s controllers failed, motion controls in Sony’s DualShocks are entirely unused. Motion controls are a dead gimmick for console gaming and with good reason — no one wants to play them. I would not be surprised if not a single third-party developer implemented Switch motion controls into their game.
No one’s saying the JoyCons shouldn’t have had the technology put into them. It’s very interesting technology and there’s a ton of simple tasks functionality that the tech could be used for. But funding two major motion-controlled games for your new platform’s launch — and no other first-party games than Zelda. What is Nintendo thinking?
3.) Handheld/Mobile Support
I had two major areas of attention going into yesterday’s event; the topics I placed all my hope in. First was the launch line-up, which I was obviously disappointed in. It was the second area that struck me the hardest, though. I wanted distinct evidence of Nintendo understanding the Nintendo Switch’s potential as a handheld device. Frankly, I don’t believe the Switch will compete as a home-console. I believe that even more with the $299 price announcement. But the Switch can compete as the progeny of the 3DS, and it can thrive by leaching into the mobile market.
Not only did Nintendo not indicate any plans regarding moving 3DS development to the Switch — no announcements of ports or handheld franchises coming to Switch — but there was zero indication Nintendo’s even thinking of bringing mobile games to the platform. I’m not saying add an Android store, but even a hint towards a marketplace for on-the-go games would have been worth its weight in gold. Put Super Mario Run on the Switch, put Deus Ex Go on it, put Monument Valley, TsumTsums, SpaceTeam, Neko Atsume — hell, put Clash Royale and Candy Crush on it.
Being able to play Zelda away from the TV is awesome, but it does in no way justify the need for an expensive tablet. Nintendo needs to make clear that there is value in the Nintendo Switch as a handheld device right now. It should be the company’s first priority. If the Switch is going to be Nintendo’s Alamo, the company’s last stand, it’s worth hurting the 3DS and the bank accounts in the short term to come ahead in the long term.
Conclusion – Nintendo vs. the Nintendo Switch
I am a born and bred Nintendo fan. I was raised on Nintendo platforms. And thank goodness, I really do think the Nintendo Switch is a very cool platform with a lot of potential. Zelda is going to be a standout game this year and will absolutely sell millions of Switches. But I think a lot the momentum and positivity Nintendo built up during the holidays has now been spent. Nintendo’s misjudged what made fans excited about the Switch. Focusing on motion controls is a disaster, especially with Nintendo’s two biggest first-party exclusives beyond Zelda built around it. That, and the absence of any focus on handheld-typical games — even early in development projects — is remarkable. Nintendo’s modern hubris is galling.
The good news is I think Nintendo did enough to buy some time. Zelda looks that good. Still, who knows how much goodwill Zelda will buy. Nintendo has to start working overtime. Roll out the eShop and Virtual Console plans before launch. Announce some indie games. Announce more third-party games. It’s probably too much to hope for more launch titles, but get some games to fill the lull between launch and E3. At E3, announce everything — leave nothing back. Nintendo has to define its success now.
Launching in March is a bold move that may pay off by establishing the platform with a reasonable playerbase without heavy competitive influence from Sony and Microsoft. But it’s all working out to be a delay tactic. What Nintendo showed yesterday is not enough for the Switch to succeed. Instead, Nintendo’s now going to have to make holiday 2017 effectively Switch launch 2.0. And trust me, if Nintendo runs out the Switch for the holidays like it’s doing for its March launch, wave goodbye.
Please Nintendo, give up on marketing the gimmicks. Give up on motion controls. Give up on “It’s great fun at home AND on the road!” Make games that are great at home. Make other games that are great to take with you. There’s no mystery audience to discover anymore — they’re all playing games on their phone. The Switch has a ton of potential. But the question I need answered isn’t whether Nintendo knows how to make fans see that potential (surprise, the fans already know), it’s whether Nintendo knows how to capitalize on that potential anymore.