Game Marketing Tips, Analysis, and News

Friday, January 13, 2017

Nintendo's Switch: Will it Succeed or Fail?

Nintendo revealed more details about the Switch recently, and it's an interesting risk for Nintendo. The launch of a new console these days is anything but a guarantee of success (just look at the Wii U, the worst-selling console in Nintendo's history). There are some strong points to the Switch, but there are far more weaknesses or question marks. Will the Switch succeed for Nintendo, or become another failure like the Wii U? Let's look at the situation.

First, the hardware. It's $299 to get the console, the dock (for connecting to your TV), two controllers (called "Joy-Cons", tiny controllers with an analog joystick and four buttons the size of the original NES controller that slide onto the sides of the console, or can be used separately, or used by two people, or slotted into a Grip to make it like an Xbox or PlayStation controller), two straps for the controllers, a charger (using USB-C), and an HDMI cable. There is no game included.

Basically, the Switch is a 6.2 inch tablet with a 1280x720 (720p) multi-touch screen, running off an Nvidia Tegra chip (which means it's probably a modified version of Android OS underneath Nintendo's interface), where you can attach small controllers to the sides. You can also dock it and connect it to a TV, where it boosts the resolution to 1080p (though Zelda: Breath of the Wind runs at 900p). Or you can set in on a table, propped up with its built-in kickstand, and share the controllers to play a multiplayer game. As a handheld device, the battery life is about 2.5 hours to 6 hours depending on the game (the joycons last for about 20 hours); with Zelda, you get about 3 hours of play.

Software: There are only two launch titles from Nintendo: Zelda: Breath of the Wind (a Zelda open-world game) and 1-2 Switch, a very simple set of minigames using the joycons (like milking a cow or a quickdraw game, for instance). Other launch titles are Just Dance from Ubisoft (of course) and a Skylanders game from Activision. Some 80+ titles are in development according to Nintendo, but major ones like Splatoon 2 won't hit until summer, and Super Mario Odyssey won't be out until the holidays (a grand Mario game in the tradition of Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64, from the brief video that was shown). Most software will be $60, though some like 1-2 Switch may be only $50.

One other important note: Nintendo will have an online service that you will need to use in order to play games with other people online. It will be free until the fall (as a trial run), when it will become a paid service (no price point announced). The service will give you access to some old Nintendo games every month, but you will only be able to play them for that month – then they go away. Unless, presumably, you want to buy them (just like you've repurchased other Nintendo games over time).

Interestingly, Nintendo's videos are centered on adults in their 20s and 30s... and some that look even older. Kids are almost nowhere to be found. (Probably because the kids were all too busy playing Minecraft or iPhone games.)

Here's what Nintendo hasn't talked about: Graphics power. No doubt because the Switch is probably somewhat less powerful than an Xbox One or a PS4, probably more like an Xbox 360 or a PS3. Certainly it doesn't compare to the latest iPhones or Android devices in terms of screen resolutions or graphics power, either. So Nintendo is wisely choosing to avoid talking about all that.

The graphics power does matter, though, when it comes to getting third-party publishers to create games for the device. The third-party lineup Nintendo announced was really quite lame – ports of old games like Skyrim or FIFA or Skylanders, or bringing back old icons like Sonic or Bomberman. What you will not see on the Switch are the big AAA titles that are the latest from the top publishers – because that would require a whole lot of work and expense for an unknown payback. No Battlefield or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, or any of the upcoming games from top publishers. Maybe someday, if the Switch were to sell 100 million units, but even then those top titles would arrive on the Switch a year after launch on other consoles, simply because of the massive effort required to port them.

So in the end, as a Switch buyer you will be left with Nintendo's titles and a number of second-string titles, mostly from small Japanese publishers. And it already seems clear that Nintendo will not be able to push out its very best titles very quickly – probably one a quarter if we're lucky. And unlike previous Nintendo handheld consoles, games will not be cheap. $60 this time, noth the $40 from the 3DS days.

Can the Switch succeed? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. Sure, Nintendo will sell several million in the first month or two (if they can make that many) to all of the diehard Nintendo fans out there. Beyond those people, it's going to be an uphill fight to sell this console. If you look at the Switch as primarily a home console, it will be more expensive than its competition (Xbox One S and PS4 Slim can be found for $250, with a game or two included) and far less powerful... and with a far smaller library of software, not just now but forever.

If you consider the Switch as a portable gaming device, it's not a very good deal compared to your smartphone or tablet. Poor battery life and screen, nice controllers, middling graphics power, and insanely expensive games compared to what you can find on tablets or smartphones. As a tabletop gaming device... it may get used that way occasionally, but likely no one will buy a Switch with the primary intent of playing it on a table.

While the Switch may beat the Wii U in sales, I don't think it will be an enormous success – nowhere near the 100 million units of the Wii. In the end, I don't think people want to carry around another portable device, especially one that cannot fit in your pocket. Everyone will always take their phone along, but the Switch will be a distant second choice. The $299 price point is going to be a difficult sell against the Xbox One S and PlayStation 4, especially once you start to look at the software libraries and other entertainment features.

The Switch will be a second console purchase for some, particularly Nintendo fans who will line up to buy it. After the first 5 million units are sold, it's going to be tough for Nintendo. Could the Switch succeed? Yes, especially if you define success as "selling 20 million units in two or three years." Beyond that, the Switch will have a difficult time, and it's not going to be the kind of profit engine Nintendo really needs to return to its gloriously profitable days of the Wii.

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