Grumpy Gurevitz: Can the Nintendo Switch succeed?

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Let’s be honest; when Nintendo released the Wii, they had no idea it would go on to sell so many units (just over 100 million). Their previous two consoles had achieved 21 million and 32 million units each, which whilst ‘viable’ was hardly in line with their competitors at the time. Hence I do not believe that they thought the Wii was going to kick of the waggle craze prior to release.

Yet it did.

People held those remotes, swung at their TVs (often destroying a piece of furniture or bashing a younger sibling in the head along the way), and squealed in delight. We were all playing the Wii, it was the universal console. The system had many issues, but due to its price and accessibility it rose above them and allowed Nintendo to get away with many obscure policies and tech decisions.

Then came the Wii U, which bombed. There are so many reasons it bombed, such as the average mass-market Wii owner thinking it was just another accessory for the Wii and not a console in its own right. Its high launch price, for what was arguably not a truly next-gen system. Its lack of third party support (the lack of storage out of the box didn’t make support easy), made worse by its seeming lack of first party support for a long time.

The WiiHD or Wii 2 (which would have made it seem like a sequel and not an accessory!) should have come out 1-2 years earlier. In effect Nintendo should have adopted the Apple model of regular hardware updates (now adopted by Sony and Microsoft) to the Wii ‘system’, every three years. They did not. Sales: Just over 10 million!

So now we have the Nintendo Switch. A new console for a possible new Nintendo? Nintendo has changed. A new CEO, albeit surrounded with much of the old management (all very male by the way). Yet it is a new Nintendo. Traditionally the teams who develop handheld hardware and games are kept separate from those working on the home console projects. Not with the Switch. Nintendo brought them together, and whilst officially the Switch is not replacing the 3DS (it cannot at such a high launch price), moving forwards it probably will.

The idea is that there should be no shortage of first party games, as all focus is on the Switch. With a strong first party showing from day one, people will buy the console (at least, enough people to make the system viable), and then third party support will come.

Nintendo have also heard about the Interweb, and in partnership with DNa are working on their first ‘credible’ version of Xbox Box Live, including things such as… well, we are not too sure what it includes, as we actually have no details except that there will be a system, and in the autumn Nintendo will start to charge for it. Oh, and that voice chat will be via an app on your phone, not your console, but more on that later.

One thing hasn’t changed though. Just when you thought Nintendo were going to get it right. When you thought they were going to tick all the boxes and design the system everyone wants, they have demonstrated how to be consistent beyond belief and confuse, bewilder and disappoint their fans once again. I like to think of a Nintendo launch as a leaky bucket. We can see the problems, and surely they can too. All they have to do is plug those holes, but it seems as they do plug them they then intentionally make a few new ones at the same time.

So let’s go through the launch and hence the system. What is the Switch?

The basic premise is great. Imagine being able to have a proper, hardcore console you could take on the move. We know the 3DS isn’t that. The Vita was meant to do that but, whilst being a great device, clearly failed to do so.

There are tons of older gamers who still want to game, but by the time they get home from work, and get their kids to bed (am I just describing myself?), collapse in front of a TV and fall asleep to something on Netflix. These gamers would, potentially, love the idea of playing the real FIFA, or Doom, or a game like Skyrim during their commute, during lunch breaks, or even whilst on vacation.

Tablets don’t do it for them, and despite the fact it’s not hard to, not many go to the pain of getting a tablet stand and Bluetooth controller and trying to make them work. Plus of course, when you DO get home, you can plug the console into a dock which not only charges it, but boosts the power and pumps out 1080p content onto your TV.

It’s a Nintendo console too, so it’s also the only one on the market which can truly appeal to young kids. But I suspect that this window of innocent youth, that Nintendo appeals to traditionally, is shrinking. Many really young kids are happy with mum’s phone or tablet, after that you have the 3DS market (so Nintendo is competing with itself in the short term), and the magic age where kids start wanting to play on a PS4 is now super young. Despite all the work on age ratings and what not, it’s hard to avoid the number of 7+ year olds playing Destiny with their gamer mum and dads.

Yet, my gut feeling is that with a well-priced system, a well specced system (with no strange gimmicks included…) and a decent stream of games, this device could make inroads to the prospective consumers mentioned above. Also, there is no reason why as tech gets cheaper Nintendo can’t release a system with a higher spec screen, or the ability to output at 4K, without dividing the user base; just as Sony and Microsoft are doing with their respective consoles. So the Switch becomes a platform, and not a one-off release.

Nintendo though don’t like to keep things simple. For example, the Switch has a really cool idea, with the system’s detachable controllers. This means the screen can be placed, for example, on a table and the user can sit back, detach the controllers, and hold them in their hands. Or, and this is sweet, you can load up Mario Kart, and give the left controller to user 1 and the right controller to user 2. So actually for some games, 1 controller actually = 2 controllers and you have multiplayer gaming on the go. Great for friends of all ages, but especially families with more than one kid, especially when on vacation. So far so good.

However, Nintendo then takes things further by putting in a really clever (and not cheap) rumble pack, which is so precise the user can ‘feel’ individual ice cubes dropping into a glass. Not only that, but these controllers have got an even more advanced set of motion sensors in them than the Wii MotionPlus controller ever had. More cost for Nintendo. Ah, but it doesn’t stop there! One of the controllers has an infra-red camera, which can be used to scan a user’s hand for a short game of rock, paper, scissors. The controllers have an NFC reader in them too. Not in the base system, but the controller, which is a dumb place to put it as it makes the controller even more expensive to produce.

The end result of all of this? Cost. High cost. A pair of additional controllers (called Joycons)…. £70-80 give or take. This cost though doesn’t just effect the cost of peripherals; it is clearly affecting the cost of the system itself. It’s £280 in the UK, and similar amounts in the USA. Sure, compared to an ipad or launch price of a traditional console it is not bad. But it clearly could have been less. And Nintendo need it to be less. It doesn’t carry the brand cache of an ipad, and whilst it is a different proposition to a PS4 (it’s portable), it is still a game console and will be compared to it. The PS4 is way more powerful and is now selling for less. You see what I mean about Nintendo plugging the holes in the leaking bucket, but then making new ones at the same time?

A launch price of £225-£250 or maybe £280 with a decent pack-in game would have been much more appealing. To hit the audience, I described earlier, I’m sure Nintendo could have dropped the IR camera, and probably the motion stuff. No one says, whilst playing their Xbox One, “I wish this controller did motion”, and in case no one has noticed, they stopped selling Kinect with the Xbox One to, oh wait for it….. reduce the price and sell more units. Did Nintendo miss that?

Memory. Remember? (geddit?!) So earlier in this long article I mentioned how the Wii U’s lack of storage made it really hard for it to get third party support. Why is that? DLC of course. We live in a world of patches, seasons passes, skins and all sorts of content. Where is the user meant to store them? The Switch comes with 32 gig of internal storage, but as with phones/tablets a big block of that will be for system use. So less is available for games. The latest Zelda game takes up around 14gig by itself if you want to go digital…. So Nintendo have not solved this issue out of the box.

Now, it’s not a complete disaster. The system will take SD cards, and you can get 60-200 gig cards quite cheaply, and in the future there will be larger cards. Plus Nintendo is exploring (and I think it will happen) hard drive support. No need to rush hard drive support as at launch there are not many titles on day one. Let’s remember that with the PS4 and Xbox One, whilst the systems do come with decent sized hard drives, they really are too small as well, and people spend their lives deleting and re-downloading/installing games.

Nintendo will let users download games, but the system will also support a propriety game cartridge format. Clearly this adds cost to the system and to the games, but does mean that if you can’t afford the additional storage you can quickly swap games, with none of the installation time required that you see on the Xbox One and PS4 (to be fair their installation time is fast, but still not instant).

I suspect that the propriety game cartridge is there as a way of winning support from traditional retailers. These companies, whilst seeing big PS4 and Xbox communities, are not seeing the traditional levels of software sales as more purchases migrate to PSN or Xbox Live. Retailers traditionally make very little on sales of the consoles, and their profit is from sales of software and accessories. They even have to compete with services such as Ubisoft’s own software sales along with PSN. Perhaps Nintendo, who know the future will have to be digital, feel they can take advantage in the short term by offering physical sales by steering early adopters to game cartridges, thereby winning shelf space and consumer awareness in game stores and Supermarkets around the world.

So on the issue of memory, clearly there are swings and roundabouts; but because the system doesn’t ship with a memory card, or acceptable level of base internal memory, third party developers might choose to never bring some titles to the system as they cannot be sure if the average Switch consumer will have the ability to access the content.

Nintendo will surely have to release a version of the Switch with more internal memory, a large memory card packed in (maybe with game pre-installed to justify cost – something they did with the 3DS/2DS) or, why not just add a hard drive to an upgraded docking station?

Most users would accept they cannot take their entire library of games with them on the move, and might limit themselves to the internal memory plus a 125gig card for when on the move. But when home, the Docking station could give the user a 500 – 1 TB hard drive, with USB ports allowing the user to add more with an external drive. If Nintendo had swapped the motion controls and camera IR for a hard drive in the docking station that would have been a WIN.

So moving on to their online offering..? Well we don’t know much about it. We are being promised, in vague terms, something robust and much more in tune with PSN and Xbox Live. Perhaps Nintendo will be offering something revolutionary, but one suspects they are simply playing catch-up here. Yet with their recent foray into mobile gaming (they are ahead here for a change, when compared to Sony and Microsoft), perhaps their app will act as a really cool bridge between their mobile content and experiences on the Switch.

It seems that the system itself will not have voice chat out of the box, but instead via an app on your phone. Unsure how that helps younger players who do not have a phone, plus it seems unwieldy and I can imagine that in the future voice chat will come to the system. The lack of details is once again an own goal by Nintendo. They have had years to get this right and the launch should have been a walk through all the promised functionality. The fact they showed nothing creates only worry and concern.

Lastly let’s look at the launch titles. Now, launch titles themselves are never as important as commentators make out, as long as soon after the launch titles turn up. The problem with the Wii U (and 3DS initially) was that the post-launch titles took an eternity to turn up. The Switch itself seems to only have five launch titles, but whether this is only the confirmed boxed titles or all titles is unclear.

99% of people getting the console in the first month will buy the system and Zelda. Nothing else matters. However, if there are another 5-10 digital titles within a few weeks via the eShop, it will help greatly until the next wave of boxed titles are ready (assuming they come within 2-3 months of release maximum). One of the launch titles is Bomberman, which I think is being dismissed due to the generic, low-key Bomberman titles of recent years, but this actually looks like a great game.

The Wii launched with Zelda, and initially that sold the system, alongside the very famous Wii Sports pack-in. As mentioned earlier, it is a shame there’s no pack-in game, similar to Wii Sports in its universality. One feels that Nintendo perhaps should have bit the bullet and made Mario Kart 8 Deluxe that pack-in, and written off the cost (as a lot of the game is based on the already existing Mario Kart 8), as it’s a great game for showing off the versatility of the Joy Cons and system. The average adult buying this system for themselves or young family knows how to play Mario Kart, so it would have been pick and up play in the same way Wii Sports was, back in the day. The return would have been an improved launch window for the system itself.

So, let me start to summarise. The core proposition of the Switch is great. I have ordered one. I think it has the potential to really make hardcore gaming on the move work for the first time. However, it is over-engineered which is affecting the cost of the base unit (or resulting in features like a hard drive in the docking station not being there) and the cost of peripherals. The online service could either be really exciting, or a failed muddle of a solution. The games (the ones we have seen) look great; and Nintendo will support the system way more than the Wii U, and launch window of the 3DS. Third party support though is being questioned and the hardware (again), seems to be a barrier to their support in its current configuration.

It’s not all bad news. Let me remind you that only a while back Microsoft had a disaster of a launch for the Xbox One. A total disaster. Whilst they won’t get back their lost sales (especially outside of the USA) anytime time soon, they have recovered by updating the business model and the hardware. Fix your mistakes quick enough, and the market and consumer will forgive you. Maybe the New Nintendo can show that it won’t need a whole generation to fix the Switch’s issues and a year and half from now, the Nintendo Switch launch will be a long-distant memory.

Get the price down, get the content out, and enough families and commuters might go “Wow I can literally play FIFA 17/18 on the move”. Maybe it won’t get all the next gen titles (GTA5 or Read Dead 2 that need top end hardware), but if it gets enough of the core titles this system might become the companion hardware for gamers everywhere.

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Written by Steven G

Steven Gurevitz is the CEO of 2002 Studios Media LTD and a founder of gaming accessory company Asiiya. 2002 Studios started off as a music production company, but produces a range of content from videos to videogames. The company specialises in localizing content for global brands. He also owns the Urban Sound Label, a small niche e-label. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor and co-owner CriticalGamer.co.uk. He enjoys FPS, Third person 'free world', narrative driven and portable gaming. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor to CriticalGamer.co.uk.

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