Last Friday Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima revealed details of the Nintendo Switch, the Japanese gaming giant’s second attempt at an eighth-generation games console. Or is it the first console of the ninth generation? 8.5G anyone? Nobody seems quite sure.
The Switch claims to inherit its predecessors’ best bits and combine them into a hybrid home/handheld console that plays to Nintendo’s strengths – novelty and portability – while distinguishing itself from not one but two increasingly competitive markets.
Of parallel importance to the console itself, Nintendo paraded the games that will accompany the Switch both at launch and later in the year. Nintendo’s first party titles are the enduring jewels in its crown, arguably subject to more brand loyalty than the hardware.
Crucially, Kimishima committed to a go-live date across most markets – and a price: £280 in the UK, $300 in the US and JPY29,980 at home in Japan.
Much of the buzz that I caught online during the livestreamed launch and at the London hands-on press event that followed can be summarised as follows: ‘What about that Zelda trailer? Take my money now’ and ‘Wow, Nintendo balls-ed up its pricing. Again’.
Let’s put this into some context.
Wii U Snafu
The veteran gaming firm has built its foundation on family-friendly gaming but put itself under significant pressure following the poor performance of its last attempt at a home console.
Launched just over four years ago, the ill-fated Wii U failed to capture gamers’ hearts and wallets, due in no small measure to the confused marketing around its launch: was the U an accessory for the Wii? A gaming tablet or somehow an entirely new console? Again, nobody seemed quite sure.
Sales figures were, however, far clearer – the Wii U was a flop with Nintendo cutting its first-year sales forecasts by a third.
The Wii U’s reliability was also found to be poor, its timing – a year before the much-anticipated and far more powerful Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – was disastrous, and once again Nintendo’s pricing strategy was much-criticised.
If Nintendo has learnt anything, its messaging for this latest launch is far clearer. The Switch announcement saw the console’s three core use cases – TV console, handheld portable and table-top – front and centre.
So, it’s fair to say that a lot rides on the success of the Nintendo Switch. Analysts glumly predict this may be Nintendo’s last shot at the home games console market.
Pick up and Play
The unique proposition – or big kahunas gamble, depending on your degree of optimism – with the Switch is the switch between traditional and portable gaming.
On the one hand the Switch is a living room games console that you plug into your TV and play with controllers – the same as it ever was, albeit with Nintendo’s signature motion-controller twist.
But – and this is the use case that defines the Nintendo Switch USP – if you need to leave the living room to jump on a bus and you want to take your game with you and pick up instantly and seamlessly where you left off then the Switch reveals itself to be a gaming tablet too; you just undock the tablet from the TV and walk off while still playing the game.
It’s a departure from the static Xbox and PlayStation console offerings, and while Sony has tried to embrace portability it never quite achieved the continuum sold here with the Switch. The Wii U too made portability promises with its confused controller, er, tablet thing but ultimately failed to spark the behavioural change necessary among gamers for it to sell on that alone.
To its credit, the new device is far clearer in its intent: at its core the Switch is actually a versatile gaming tablet which, when docked with a TV, masquerades as a standard games console. But foremost it is mobile first.
Playing to its Strengths
The fundamental question remains whether Switch’s pick up and play portability will be a compelling enough proposition for gamers who already play smartphone and tablet games on the go.
That said, Nintendo has a long and enviable heritage in portable gaming. From its early LCD-screened Game & Watch and Gameboy handhelds to its current DS line, Nintendo has crafted devices that have sold hundreds of millions of units – it knows and owns this market.
Which is why persisting with a hybrid console is a natural move for Nintendo. But is it the right move? Faced with stiff competition from Microsoft and Sony on one side, and the entire smartphone/tablet market on the other, differentiating itself by combining its portable gaming expertise with console quirkiness could be a masterstroke or its last roll of the dice.
The aces that Nintendo has up its sleeve are its video gaming royalty, with a deck featuring Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart and Pokémon. These franchises have endured generations, and many of them are present either at launch or later this year – another lesson learnt from the Wii U shambles.
Importantly, partnerships with third-party developers mean that games like FIFA and Skyrim will also make an appearance on the platform. Nintendo says there are a healthy 80 games currently in development.
The pricing of the console isn’t without controversy. Industry predictions of a £200 price point were little more than wishful thinking, but when set against comparable smartphones and tablets costing substantially more the base price begins to feel fair. Once again, however, Nintendo needs to take a hard look at the pricing of its accessories.
At first look Nintendo has dealt itself a strong hand with the Switch: carefully-positioned hardware, a robust software line-up and a well-conceived marketing campaign. But is it enough to fight off the mobile gaming rampage (a market it has actually recently enjoyed success in thanks to Super Mario Run), re-engage with its core console audience and still win over new fans?
Once again, nobody seems quite sure.
If I were to chance a prediction, I’d say the Switch will be a slow burner to begin with, with many waiting to see if the promised online services deliver and the third party titles arrive. However, given a price-drop for the holiday season and to coincide with the launch of blockbuster titles Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, then 2017 could close on a high for Nintendo.
– David McClelland, Technology Journalist and Television Presenter
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.