Nintendo Switch: Is This Hybrid Console the Future of Gaming?
By Keith Stuart. Updated January 13, 2017.
In 2013, Nintendo opened a new research and development facility in its home town of Kyoto, Japan. Usually, a consumer technology manufacturer opening a new office wouldn’t be news, but this was different: the $350m building would house both the company’s handheld and console gaming R&D teams.
In the past, these groups had been kept apart, producing very different hardware and games for the different markets -- now they would be merged. At the time, analysts thought this was to improve functionality between the Wii U and 3DS, but now we understand this was not the end goal -- the end goal was Switch [pictured above]. This hybrid gaming system, which works as both a portable machine and a home console, now looks to represent Nintendo’s future in the games industry. But what does that mean?
We’ll find out much more about the device in a series of Livestream videos on Friday, but as ever with a new Nintendo product, pundits are questioning its role in the gaming ecosystem. They questioned the dual-screen design of the Nintendo DS after the vast success of the Gameboy; they questioned the boxy, toy-like GameCube, and they stifled laughter at the Wii, with its cheap off-the-shelf components and weird motion controller. Most of these, of course, went on to great success, with Nintendo’s famed business philosophy -- the innovative use of withered technology -- ensuring that money was always made on hardware as well as software. PlayStation and Xbox machines were selling better, but often at a loss.
But the Wii U really derailed things. The first console of the merged R&D generation failed to convince consumers that a home console needed a second handheld screen. There was talk of unique asymmetric multiplayer experiences, but few materialized; third-party publishers shied away and even Nintendo itself under-delivered on truly in-depth, interesting support for the GamePad. Since its launch in 2012, the console has sold around 14m units. PlayStation 4 did that in a year.
Switch is an extension of the Wii U philosophy -- a machine that offers two play forms, one involving your television, the other utilizing a smaller handheld screen. The difference here is that the handheld component is the main console, and it is portable beyond the home. It’s a true synergy of the handheld and home form factors.
But does anyone want that? Right now, analysts are uncertain. One reason is that both the home and portable experiences may be compromised by this merged approach. “I don’t doubt the software will be good but aspects of the hardware concern me,” says veteran industry journalist Ben Parfitt. “Lots of people have very quickly dismissed any suggestion that a 720p screen is inadequate for the device, but I’m not so certain. Most smartphones now pack a higher resolution into a smaller display, and I worry that Switch visuals may be noticeably inferior than the target market is used to. With lots of gamers buying 4K screens for PS4 Pro and Xbox One S, having a device that needs a processing boost from its dock just to achieve 1080p seems implausibly dated.”
Smartphones have become the interesting factor here. For years Nintendo resisted bringing its intellectual property to mobile phones, but in 2015, a deal with Chinese mobile gaming specialist DeNa reversed that, leading to the successful releases Miitomo and Super Mario Run. Last year we also saw the phenomenon of Pokémon Go, downloaded over 500m times, with Nintendo receiving a share of the spoils from microtransactions. But the impact of this strategy has had wider ramifications for Nintendo.
“The general view during the first six months of the year was that 2016 would be dead for Nintendo,” says Chris Dring at industry news site GamesIndustry.Biz. “No Wii U games of note, a smattering of Japanese RPGs in what was probably the 3DS’s final year, and a couple of experimental mobile titles. Then Pokémon Go happened.
“The 3DS has been flying high since then, the Pokémon Sun and Moon games are the fastest selling titles Nintendo has ever released -- which is astonishing. More 3DS games were sold in the UK last month than at any other point in that platform’s history -- not bad for a machine that was coming to an end just six months ago.”
In short, if Nintendo’s dalliances with the huge smartphone market have been this successful, and have had such a positive effect on its legacy machines, why bother with an experimental hybrid system? Why not continue to support the 3DS and Wii lines and concentrate handheld gaming concepts on the smartphone sector?
Perhaps part of the answer is control. Nintendo has always jealously guarded its game brands, and access to its hardware. The controversial “Nintendo Seal of Quality” that has restricted what third-party publishers could release on its consoles since the days of the NES, has created an ecosystem entirely controlled by Nintendo itself. But it cannot maintain that sort of rigid autocratic power in the mobile sector, where it is subject to the hardware and infrastructures of other companies like Apple, Google and Samsung.
Furthermore, games work in a very different way in the smartphone sector, where design, structure and monetization are all governed by free-to-play mechanics. Super Mario Run is very much a mobile phone rethinking of Mario rather than a mobile port of the classic Super Mario Bros series. It’s an endless runner (an accepted smartphone genre), with a try-now-pay-later format that suits the premium-averse phone user. Although Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem titles are coming to mobile, they’re likely to be similarly altered and rethought for this market. We’ve seen from some poor reviews for Super Mario Run that Nintendo’s veteran fanbase haven’t been happy -- they want to full, epic gaming experiences they’re used to. Hence the Switch and its hybrid format. This way Nintendo gets to control content, design and experience.
But even if we accept this, the Switch proposition is troubled -- it relies on games that will essentially play in the same way between the docked and portable formats. The thing is, handheld games aren’t just scaled down versions of their home console counterparts; they have a different aesthetic, and they are designed to meet different patterns of play. The most popular 3DS titles, the likes of Pokémon, Animal Crossing, Monster Hunter and Fire Emblem Fates, are designed to be played over long periods, but in shorter, less focused interactions -- many have turn-based battles rather than real-time, so you can break off and think; their environments are often broken into smaller sections, so you get a sense of achievement in shorter, more scattered sessions. These games fit in with the world around you; they don’t constantly demand your full attention in the way that home console titles do.
So can the Switch produce console games that work outside of the home in this way? Arguably, Sony’s PSP and Vita handhelds never sold as well because they really were an attempt to bring the console experience to the handheld -- and not as many people wanted that. “The Switch proposition is interesting but fairly complex and not entirely original,” says Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS. “Historically, there has been very limited success in the device category which offers a powerful gaming tablet which can be used as a home console -- Nvidia’s Shield Tablet for example. Nintendo has a bucketful of IP and a more unique form factor to sway consumers to invest in the platform but I think the offer has to displace existing tablet and home console use, which is quite a challenge.”
Switch then, is a fascinating piece of hardware, which is utterly typical of Nintendo. But while the Wii effectively created its own niche of motion-controlled gaming, Switch is designed to sit in between other markets. The question is whether anyone wants that space to be filled. With the rapidly diversifying home console and smartphone sectors, the former appealing to “hardcore” gamers, the latter to the casual market, the industry is beginning to stratify along clear lines. Switch adds a kink in the line, but will it trip Nintendo up?