Nintendo’s Switch is defying expectations. Can it go the distance?
Public opinion on Switch has flip-flopped since its trailer teaser back in October 2016. Having wobbled after the initial excitement of its hybrid promise following an awkward on-stage reveal in Tokyo, it is firmly on the up once again. User reviews are overwhelmingly positive, buoyed by Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart’s universal critical acclaim, and there’s a buzz about Switch that’s not only plain to see, but categorically proven by record commercial success. Observing its obvious market traction, then, isn’t hard, though actually explaining it is a different matter altogether.
After all, there’s not really anything unique to play on Switch. Both its two aforementioned biggest games – one (technically) heavily delayed and the other a repackaged Wii U game – are available on its predecessor. Beyond that, the library is mostly ported indie titles, and even Sony’s own handheld, Vita, has those, as does every other major platform. Most notably, though, we still haven’t seen any third-party publishers pledge anything of consequence to bolster this paltry offering.
Based on these shallow, virtually nonexistent third party relations evident at Switch’s reveal, I’ll admit I was a skeptic of its potential. In a gaming industry dominated by AAA blockbuster franchises, such as Call of Duty and Battlefield, and the current popular trend of large scale open world RPGs – most of which can’t run on Switch – Switch’s success should have hinged on Nintendo’s ability to attract exclusively developed third party games. That has not happened, though, nor has Nintendo declared a solid road map of first party content to make Switch a must-own. So what gives?
None of this seems to have had any impact on the Switch’s nascent success. 2.4 million worldwide sales in less than four weeks – a record for the company – surely cannot be satisfactorily explained away by Nintendo’s hardcore early adopters. The console is on a roll, supported by an audience that doesn’t care a bit about all of the things critics thought would hinder its performance. I’m now confident that I understand why, though, and it bodes both good and bad news for Switch moving forward.
It seems that the merit of the console’s hybrid functionality and its grown-up form factor might have been a bigger draw than I could have possibly imagined. There’s a magic to playing a game on the TV and then slipping the Switch out of its dock for portable play, but its resonance with such a massive audience was drastically underestimated by a large body of gaming critics. A rare breed; Switch is a console enjoying commercial success based largely on the features of its hardware, rather than the software it runs.
You could argue the original Wii did the same thing; its uniqueness was singular to the system at the time of launch. While there are certainly parallels, however, the Wii needed purpose made content to take advantage of its motion controls, whereas Switch’s hybrid functionality adds a new, portable dimension to conventional games. The value of this architecture is that its audience seems content with the novelty of playing ports and remasters portably, for the time being, assured by Nintendo’s obligation to make AAA games moving forward.
Beyond just the desirability of its hybrid function, though, I believe there is an unlocked potential that Switch is yet to tap into, which could be key in its long-term viability. If the Switch can exist in a separate market space, as per the Blue Ocean strategy that Nintendo’s late president, Satoru Iwata had envisioned, then there is every chance it can succeed without major third party titles. I maintain that to do so, however, it must lure across its sizeable DS fanbase, rather than rely solely on being a secondary console for current PS4 and Xbox One owners.
While I wouldn’t necessarily accuse Nintendo of deceit, I am of the belief that there is far too much potential in luring DS’s sizeable audience to ignore. It is, therefore, only a matter of time before the company slowly waves goodbye to 3DS support and pushes the Switch as an attractive alternative.
There is no getting around the fact that Switch will never play CoD, Battlefield, or Final Fantasy XV, but I don’t even think it even necessarily needs these or even newly developed exclusive IPs with major third parties to succeed, anyway. What it might need, though, is a Pokemon or Monster Hunter title to entice its 3DS audience — technically third party studios but still closely allied with Nintendo. Perhaps, even the addition of smartphone titles such as Hearthstone would do well to sit alongside Minecraft, casting Switch’s net wider and appealing to an alternative market space from other home consoles.
History would suggest turning a blind-eye to significant third party support would be a risky strategy, indeed. Yet Switch’s hybrid functionality is vibing with an audience spread across two different markets and, as a result is an entirely different beast to anything we’ve seen before.
Switch’s long-term success might not hinge on all-new exclusive IPs and new partnerships with publishers of mainstream AAA blockbusters, as with consoles gone-by. Rather, it depends on consolidating a steady flow of first party content, seeking to merge the home and portable console markets, and ensuring the development of a smash-hit title like Pokemon or the addition of popular games like Hearthstone that would resonate with a wider audience. Incidentally, that sort of cohesion all rather suitably matches the Switch’s hybrid, streamlined design ethos.
Following the Wii U’s dismal commercial performance, Nintendo’s definition of “success” might be a little more measured this time around. Switch is already on track to eclipse its predecessor’s lifetime sales even as early as mid next year, with one recent projection predicting the Switch could sell 40 million units by 2020. That seems a little optimistic in my opinion, and I’d wager that figure is likely just shy of its total lifetime sales. That would put it at over four times the sales of the Wii U and ahead of previous efforts such as Gamecube and N64, though well short of Wii’s 100 million unit haul. But regardless of whether Switch inhabits a different market space or not from other major industry players, given the already well-established presence of Sony and Microsoft, that sum shouldn’t be taken lightly and would represent a win for Nintendo.