After months of rumors and speculation, Nintendo finally showed off its next system, a handheld-console hybrid called the Switch. It’s safe to say a lot of people are eagerly awaiting its March 2017 release date, but there’s several reasons Nintendo could have another Wii U-esque failure on its hands.
Let’s start with the one that always seems to be Nintendo’s biggest problem: games. Of course the Switch will have Nintendo’s biggest franchises; we already know that the next Zelda game will be coming to the system, and showing Mario and Splatoon games in the reveal trailer suggests they’re coming too (even if Nintendo hasn’t confirmed either). At some point in the future we’ll get a Mario Kart, probably a Super Smash Bros., and other Nintendo licenses will show up, too. All that was always assumed, because Nintendo always provides its consoles with good first-party support.
The major question though is third-party support. In the reveal, gameplay from both The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and NBA 2K17 was shown, and later Nintendo showed a list of 48 partners including developers and publishers like Activision, Capcom, EA, Square Enix, and Ubisoft, as well as middle-ware companies Havok and Unity. This sounds like a resounding show of support from the industry. Not only will the biggest names be there, but with the Unity support, indies will show up on the console too. Great! But wait, haven’t we heard this before?
When reached for comment, Bethesda wouldn’t confirm whether Skyrim was actually coming to the Switch, only stating that they were “happy to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Nintendo on the video.” This may just be PR nonsense, but it sounds awfully weird considering that we saw the game running during the video. Why pretend as if it didn’t happen?
Perhaps Bethesda is hedging, considering Nintendo’s history. There is precedence for games to be announced or even seen running on a Nintendo console, and to never see an actual release. Remember when a long list of third-party publishers including Peter Moore of EA and Irrational Games’ Ken Levine talked up the Wii U as revolutionary, while showing off gameplay from numerous titles in development? EA officially dropped support less than two years later, releasing only four games for the system. Despite gameplay being shown for Dirt and Ghost Recon Online, neither came to the Wii U. As for Irrational Games’ hit series Bioshock, don’t worry, you didn’t miss the Wii U version, it just never happened. This reversal wasn’t an anomaly, either (remember the Gamecube’s Capcom Five?). In order for the Switch to be a success, third-party studios don’t just need to pledge support, they need to release enough games to convince people that buying a Switch gets you more than just the next Zelda and Mario games.
Third-party games will come when these publishers and developers are convinced that they’ll make a profit from Switch games, plain and simple. There’s two factors to making profit: sales and costs. Ultimately consumers will determine sales (pricing is also important, I’ll get to that later), but Nintendo can help keep costs down by making the console’s architecture easier to develop for, or in the case of Skyrim, easy to port to. Based on credible rumors, I don’t know that they have.
Having major engines Unreal Engine 4 and Unity be compatible with the Switch is good news for Nintendo, but it’s only part of the story. If the system’s architecture and power aren’t in line with what developers are used to, that means more time learning how to work with it. Longer development means more cost, which means a riskier investment for publishers. This is especially true with ports, but even console exclusives would have a steeper learning curve with unfamiliar hardware and therefore more risk. So what are developers used to? PS4, Xbox One, and modern PCs have an x86 architecture. PCs vary wildly in power, but the PS4 and Xbox One are fairly close. An ideal console then would also have an x86 architecture and be similar in power to the PS4 and Xbox One. And what specs will the Switch have? According to Emily Rogers’s sources, and confirmed by Laura Dale’s sources, the Switch will not use x86 architecture (instead it has a custom Nvidia GPU chip), and it’s below the Xbox One and PS4 in raw power, outputting in 720p. In other words, not ideal.
Personally, I don’t think most gamers really care that much about power differences between consoles. Power makes for flashy tech demos and for ammo in pointless console war arguments, but again, good games sell systems. If EA for example, which clearly isn’t afraid to pull the plug on a trailing console it has previously praised, has to spend more to develop a Switch version of Madden or Fifa, and the Switch gets off to a slow start, they might decide again that Nintendo’s console isn’t worth that risk. And you can bet if EA is pulling out, other companies will as well.
All this could be irrelevant though if Nintendo screws up the Switch’s pricing. Price is the current big unknown after third-party support, and I’m curious what their strategy will be here. Whether they’re successful or not really depends on how they position it. If Nintendo wants to market the Switch primarily as a home console, people will compare it to the PS4 and Xbox One, meaning anything higher than $300 would be excessive considering the system’s (rumored) relative lack of power. The reveal trailer went in this direction, so even if Nintendo doesn’t see itself as a true competitor to the other two, consumers could be inclined to make that comparison, which would hurt the Switch.
But if Nintendo decides to pivot its messaging going forward and show the Switch as more of a gaming-focused tablet, they might be able to get away with going up to $400. Considering that the best new phones can cost $700, a $400 gaming handheld with a nice 6.2-inch screen and proper controllers might not seem too bad at first glance. That said, unless Nintendo opens up the Switch’s operating system for easy app development (and probably even still if that happened), it’ll never be able to compete with all that a phone or tablet can do. So again, going as high as $400 likely prevents the Switch from grabbing a foothold with consumers.
Obviously, the PS4 and Xbox One don’t have screens on them and they don’t have batteries. It’s true that both of those components add costs, and Nintendo would be reasonable to charge for that. But Nintendo needs to be careful. Even if the Switch has a great games line-up, getting the pricing wrong would be incredibly damaging.
Poor game support and bad pricing are the two biggest threats to the Switch, but they’re not the only ones. Nintendo also has to make sure the Switch’s user experience is enjoyable, and this is also a worry based both on Switch rumors and Nintendo’s history. First off, it sounds like the Switch’s battery life will only be three hours, which isn’t great. This may end up being a non-issue, since it seems like every where we go these days an outlet is nearby, and the console reportedly charges quickly using the USB-C standard, but gaining a reputation for short battery life would be damaging. Another thing that could turn people off is if Nintendo still doesn’t dedicate resources into improving their online infrastructure. Nintendo has been behind the times since online gaming came to consoles, but a good online experience feels like a prerequisite for modern consoles. If Nintendo hasn’t caught up with the Switch, gamers, especially “core” gamers, are going to have trouble taking it seriously.
And lastly, while it isn’t a threat per se, people still care about backwards compatibility. We already know that the Switch won’t be able to play 3DS cartridges or Wii U game discs directly. But, Nintendo could throw a bone to its biggest fans, the ones who supported its previous consoles, and allow a transfer of previously purchased digital games to the Switch. Currently, while many Virtual Console games can be downloaded across multiple platforms, you have to buy it separately each time. Sony has had cross-buy support for some time now. If Nintendo wants to convert Wii U owners to Switch owners, allowing them to take their digital games with them would be a good start.
The Nintendo Switch is still five months from launch, so there’s still a lot of unknowns. But consoles take time to manufacture, and games take time to develop. If the Switch is going to succeed, Nintendo has already needed to make the right decisions, and will need to continue to do so. Based on what we’ve already seen though, the Switch is at risk to become another console failure.
For a different perspective, read why the Switch could be a success.