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Switch's challenge is unique software, not PS4 competition

Asking why people would buy a Switch over a PS4 is the wrong question; we should ask why PS4 owners would also want to own a Switch

There was no shortage of hot takes on Nintendo's new Switch console on offer this week, but reading through the coverage gave me a peculiar sense of disconnect. On the one hand, nearly every article I read in the English-language press suggested that Nintendo had messed up again; that in spite of how great some of the games for Switch look, the hardware is underpowered, overpriced, poorly positioned, uncompetitive and generally doomed to failure. On the other hand, glancing at Facebook or going out for a drink with friends exposed me to dozens of variations of "take my money, dammit" - a sentiment especially prevalent among Japanese friends and colleagues.

This could be read in two ways. Firstly, there's the possibility that Switch is going to face a very different climate overseas than it will in its home market. That's not unprecedented; consider that PlayStation Vita (and PSP before it) was vastly more successful in Japan than it was overseas, for example. Wii U has also fared better here than in the West, though it's hardly done gangbusters anywhere. On the other side of the coin, PlayStation 4 has underperformed in Japan compared to how it's done in the US and Europe. Switch seems well-positioned to solve certain problems - such as falling TV ownership among young demographics and the desire to use public spaces rather than private homes for multiplayer gaming - that are key to the Japanese market but don't exist to the same extent overseas. It's plausible, then, that the console will do very well in Japan while struggling in other markets.

The other possibility is that there's a misunderstanding or misevaluation of Nintendo's strategy in much of the coverage of Switch. In that regard, I'd point to the very widespread tendency to evaluate Switch and its (admittedly very sparse) launch window line-up side-by-side with the hardware and software line-up of PS4 and Xbox One. "Why," countless commentators ask, "would anyone choose to buy a Switch over a PS4?"

"It needs to prove to a decent proportion of existing PS4 owners that it's different, and unusual, and interesting enough to justify purchase as a second console"

That's the wrong question. PS4 is a mature console with several years on the market behind it; it's had hardware revisions, price cuts and dozens of major software launches. Around 50 million people have bought one. Xbox One languishes far behind it on most counts, but also has an installed base of tens of millions. Nobody (or at least, not enough people to be remotely significant) has been waiting for Nintendo's new hardware to be revealed before making a decision on whether to buy a PS4 or not. For the first eight months or so of Switch being on the market, almost nobody is going to stand in a GameStop wondering, "hmm, should I get a Switch or a PS4", for the simple reason that they already own a PS4 (or have been planning a PS4 purchase all along). Even after that, as the holiday buying season approaches and parents start making decisions for kids' presents, "PS4 or Switch" isn't going to be competitive choice that many consumers are making.

The right question to ask is slightly different; "would a PS4 owner choose to buy a Switch as well?" Within the early adopter, "gamer" market, the consumers who buy a Switch this year - at launch, or any time afterwards, until the console's sales are well into the tens of millions - are primarily going to be people who already own a PS4 (or an Xbox One). The task of Switch isn't to prove that it's better than those consoles in a straight fight. It's not going to prove that it's the best platform for multiplatform games (which is why EA's decision to test the waters on the platform with a FIFA port rather than a game properly targeted for the likely audience is, bluntly, stupid in the extreme and unquestionably bound for failure). Rather, it needs to prove to a decent proportion of existing PS4 owners that it's different, and unusual, and interesting enough to justify purchase as a second console - one that may not be their main gaming system, but which will, on a regular basis, yield a good, solid exclusive title worth playing.

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This isn't to say that Switch won't appeal to consumers who haven't got a PS4 - in fact, Nintendo will be hoping and praying that it can recapture some of the Wii customer base, and the 3DS customer base for that matter, and disprove the hypothesis that most of those are now satisfied entirely in their gaming appetites by smart devices. However, the point remains that the PS4/XBO comparison isn't going to feature in consumers' minds remotely as much as it's featured in commentary on the console this week. Most early adopters of Switch already own a PS4/XBO; those outside that market whom Nintendo hopes to recapture are people who would probably never consider buying a PS4 anyway.

In that regard, the timing of Switch is probably far more appropriate than the timing of Wii U was. Wii U had some interesting ideas going for it and even ended up with some good software (though big hits like Splatoon came far too late to save the console), but at heart, it was veering far too close to the notion of a console as Sony and Microsoft understand it. It launched close to the PS4 and Xbox One, and with the GamePad being almost entirely underutilised by even first-party games, the reality is that there wasn't much conceptual difference between a Wii U and one of the other more powerful, better-supported consoles. The Wii U, ultimately, was killed precisely because people made the comparison between it and Sony's offering, and chose a PS4.

"The dark horse is 1-2-Switch, which is an unusual game that the company no doubt hopes will help to define Switch in the way that Wii Sports defined the Wii. In that case, though, it should really be packed in with the console"

This is history repeating itself. Nintendo has never, ever been able to overcome Sony in a direct head-to-head battle between consoles based on similar concepts. The PlayStation hammered the N64, the GameCube couldn't even muster a fifth of the sales of the PS2, and the PS4 has outsold the Wii U by a similarly embarrassing margin. Nintendo's victories, on the other hand, have been with hardware that was "underpowered", but radically different from Sony's offering in terms of its controls, its concepts and the software it enabled. The DS surprised pretty much everyone by demolishing the PSP's sales figures, and the 3DS did the same to the PS Vita. The Wii vastly outsold the PS3, and its software sales were also well ahead of Sony's for that generation (contrary to the common "gathering dust" narrative).

In other words, what Nintendo needs to do in order to be successful this time around - not necessarily to "win", or to beat Sony's installed base, but simply to build a sustainable, profitable platform that's appealing both for itself and for some third-parties - is to avoid challenging the PS4 directly. It needs a different concept, something that defies direct comparison; something that many PS4 owners will want to buy as a second console (even if it does gather dust for several months of the year in between major releases), and that might even appeal to people who don't usually buy consoles at all. In this regard, many of the metrics being used so far to see if the Switch "measures up" simply aren't all that important.

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What is important is software. There's no doubt that Switch is light on the launch line-up, though I wonder if this reflects uncertainty about the company's ability to manufacture the hardware in volume early on. It is at least launching with a big Zelda game; there's no doubt that the Wii playbook is in full swing here, and that game alone will sell a lot of units. The dark horse is 1-2-Switch, which is an unusual game that the company no doubt hopes will help to define Switch in the way that Wii Sports defined the Wii. In that case, though, it should really be packed in with the console; the lack of a pack-in game with mainstream appeal that demonstrates the console's features effectively feels like a major strategic error if Nintendo really wants to recapture the Wii audience.

By Christmas, Switch will have a lot of big titles under its belt; new Zelda, new Mario, new Splatoon, sort-of new Mario Kart. That's a solid line-up for a first Christmas, and will hopefully be supplemented by a few decent third-party titles. Christmas should give the company some cards to play, with pack-in bundles and hardware deals that could appeal to a market that's somewhat fatigued with the existing consoles on offer. On the other hand, Christmas will also presumably see Scorpio on the market (if Microsoft hits its dates), and there's a big danger that Switch loses momentum after E3 as the specialist market starts thinking about the next new thing. Once again, the risk is that Nintendo's greatest strength, its great software, turns out to be its greatest weakness, due to the long timespans between big launches. But if that does come to pass and the Switch can't compete effectively, it won't be because of tough comparisons with the PS4; freed by timing and design from the need to measure up to Sony's device, as its predecessor was forced to, Nintendo's newest console will succeed or fail on its own merits alone.

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Latest comments (19)

James Prendergast Research Chemist 3 months ago
I would love to buy a switch on day one but the announced lack of streaming app support is dragging my hands back into my pockets. I do want to play zelda but that's one game that has to cover six months or so of console. A streaming app ecosystem (Netflix, youtube and amazon) would have slotted the device nicely into my home entertainment choices and convinced me of its utility outside of the dearth of titles announced and seeking lack of third party support during those initial months.

In fact, I didn't get a wii or wiiu for different reasons (I never really liked motion controls or the wiiu pad) but I feel that this time, having a secondary role for the switch to fit into a consumers' home setup would boost sales and give the opportunity for support to emerge from both Nintendo and third parties.
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve3 months ago
I'm also trying, but failing, to find good excuses to buy one. Zelda and 1-2-Switch are the only games that are interesting to me until the new Mario at the end of the year. It's hard to justify the purchase when it looks like it will gather dust for most of the year right out of the gate. A really disappointing launch line up, I hope they address it quickly. Perhaps I'll be a late adopter.
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Christopher Dring Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.biz3 months ago
I do prefer the strategy of spreading the games out throughout the year. Wii U had a lot of games day one, most of them ok, and then practically nothing for the next 12 months.

Switch has a few games at launch, one of them very strong, but then Mario Kart, Arms, Splatoon 2, Mario Odyssey, Skyrim, FIFA and a few others over the remaining 8 months. It's actually quite a strong line-up over the course of the year, albeit one that lacks depth. Hopefully subsequent Directs and E3 will address that.

Of course, in an ideal world, we'd have loads day one and then loads spread throughout the year as well.
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Show all comments (19)
Daniel Hughes PhD Researcher, Bangor University3 months ago
This feels a lot like a soft launch to me. 2 million units globally for the entire month of March, few (if any) details on how the online aspects of the system work (though the news it uses a unified account system and multiple accounts per system was welcome), lack of streaming applications, relatively high prices, and line up prioritising big-name Nintendo IP suggests to me Nintendo are being cautious after over-shooting their launch estimations for both 3DS and Wii U.

A March launch, if successful, leaves Nintendo time to build up momentum by following Zelda with other big brands like Kart and Splatoon, before the bigger third party brands (FIFA, Skyrim) start launching in September. If the Switch struggles post-launch, which right now I think is the more likely scenario, Nintendo have a few valuable months to make course corrections such as a price drop, revamped advertising campaign and if necessary, bring forward internal software releases (as they did with 3DS). Finally, if Eurogamer's Pokemon Stars rumour turns out to be true, Switch in 2017 is a very, very different ballgame.

That being said, I think this is by far the most interesting and versatile concept from Nintendo for a while. I'm not on board yet, but given the probable quality of the Nintendo line up, I should be by Christmas. ARMS, Splatoon 2, Mario Odyssey, Xenoblade 2 and Fire Emblem Warriors are on my watch list, because I've got the Wii U version of Zelda pre-ordered.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Daniel Hughes on 20th January 2017 3:15pm

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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University3 months ago
It could beat the 3ds if its their 1 platform to rule them all. Otherwise it lands somewhere in between the Wii U and the GAmecube because it's mainly a 1st party machine in the US and Europe.

The wild cards are the games. Big, must have hits can change everything.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 20th January 2017 4:33pm

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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University3 months ago
It could sell 5-10 million better (even if it isn't NIntendo's 1 platform) just by cannibalizing Nintendo's next-gen handheld market. HOw many buy a Switch because it is a Nintendo portable and then when a next-gen handheld comes out, they balk because they already have a Nintendo device that is portable?

I think we saw this sort of thing last gen. There wasn't a lot on the Wii U that wasn't also on the 3ds. Literally you had versions of MK, SMB, Super Mario, DK, KIrby, etc on the 3ds that weren't much different than the ones on the Wii U. 3ds also had new Zelda games while Wii U had none at least not yet. Even Mario Maker was eventually on the 3ds. Nintendoland probably could have been done on the 3ds and that was the pack in game for the Wii U. And thus many customers were fine with just sticking with a 3ds. Really all they needed was a tv out port on the hardware.

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 20th January 2017 4:50pm

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Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio3 months ago
its simple, without great third party software it is doomed like any other piece of hardware. Competition if fierce these days for entertainment dollars.

Personally I wouldnt bet on this selling very well.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 3 months ago
One way to look at it, is from a investor's perspective. Point out just how big the Nintendo IPs are and expect Nintendo to monetize them as aggressively as Disney monetizes its major IPs at $1 billion a pop. A billion for a Marvel movie, a billion for an animated movie, billion for a Star Wars movie, repeat ad nauseam.

But we know better, we know that for each NES, there is a Powerglove, for each SNES a VirtualBoy. For each thing coming out of Nintendo that makes sense, there are at least two things not making sense. A handheld which succeeded despite its two screens, not necessarily because it was the first to establish a new gold standard. A woefully underpowered console somehow managing to strike a home run with its gimmick. A home console which did its best to split your attention between two screens. Creating two version of Mario Maker, one being a contender for game of the year, the other possibly the worst game of the year.

Compare that to the uniformness of numbered sequels in video games and movies. If you are accustomed to that, Nintendo truly is the most frustrating company of all time. For that demographic the Switch might be little more than the "new Zelda game console" come March. But what is the alternative? Fail by only sticking to the path the Vita took?
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Jordan Lund Columnist 3 months ago
For me the killer app would be 8 player Bomberman in the office conference room.

But @James - you say your prime reason for not buying is the lack of a streaming app?

Do we really need another device that does streaming? I can't speak for you, but my Television streams, so does my PS4 and Xbox One. I don't know that I need another device that does streaming.

The thing that bugged me in the article though:

"Nintendo has never, ever been able to overcome Sony in a direct head-to-head battle between consoles based on similar concepts. The PlayStation hammered the N64, the GameCube couldn't even muster a fifth of the sales of the PS2, and the PS4 has outsold the Wii U by a similarly embarrassing margin. "

If you're going to argue that the PS4 and Wii U are "similar concepts", then you can't ignore the PS3 vs. Wii battle in which the PS3 was absolutely destroyed. Nintendo approached a market of people who did not play games, weren't particularly interested in games, and bought the Wii by the bucket-full.

It wasn't sustainable of course and those non gamers got bored and went back to Angry Birds or whatever, but still... You can't discount Wii sales.
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 3 months ago
But the problem with the switch is, it's not unique, and it doesn't add anything new to the devices that already exist. There already is even a Chinese Android version on the market for more than a year, long before Nintendo showed it. It also got detachable controllers, also is able to connect to a tv screen, and it runs Android, so the library is very large.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 3 months ago
Nintendo's software for the Switch is really key to its success. There may not ever be a third-party Switch game that drives hardware sales, but Zelda will, and likely Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey will. I'm just not sure millions of people will go for a $300 mobile console (and it gets more expensive with additional controllers). Nintendo could help things by cutting the price some, which they might do if sales are very slow.

But the biggest concern is how fast Nintendo can put out new titles based on their most iconic characters, and how good those games will be. (Star Fox on the Wii U was a disappointment, and it was late as well. Not a good sign.) Super Mario Odyssey looks like it could be a winner on the scale of Zelda, but Nintendo could really use a game of that caliber every three months or so to really get the Switch moving.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 3 months ago
"Even after that, as the holiday buying season approaches and parents start making decisions for kids' presents, "PS4 or Switch" isn't going to be competitive choice that many consumers are making."

That's because they'll probably be deciding rather to get an Xbox One or a Switch. Kids want the latest and greatest and this holiday season that will be either the somewhat-new Switch that launched earlier in the year or the new-new Xbox One Scorpio that will be launching right around the holidays. Many people may think that the Switch will hold a price advantage here(and it should) but Phil Spencer has hinted that the Scorpio will launch in different hard drive flavors, similar to whats going on now with the regular and S versions of XBO. So different price points are likely to be a reality. So, for an example, a $300 Switch sitting next to a $350 500gb XBO Scorpio may not look as attractive as it once would have looked.

But of course my prices are based on pure speculation. We won't know more until either E3 or when/if Microsoft decides to throw a special announcement event. But I doubt they are going to make the same mistake they did at launch and try to send the Scorpio out at $500. If they want to stay competitive they need to be really aggressive with the Scorpio's price point(s).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 21st January 2017 3:10am

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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions3 months ago
Good article, it's pretty evident from the hardware that Nintendo has not built this in any way to compete with Sony or Microsoft, as Rob points out they lost that fight years ago (though I'm a bit shocked at his "surprise" that DS beat PSP - wasn't a surprise to anyone developing for them, the VITA even less so!). Switch is a second console for Nintendo fans and then targeting an ever shrinking kids and family market. The core demographic is 7-12 and it's being hit on both ends.

Right now I agree with others this looks like a soft launch in March for fiscal year purposes with a heavy push to from scarce to complete launch and complete scarcity over Christmas to try and drive the hype train. Nintendo has completely cleared the decks of all Wii U, 3DS XL and Nintendo Classic hardware - if you want Nintendo product over the next six months it'll be Switch and Switch alone. That should drive them toward that Christmas goal. The question is where they go thereafter...by restricting hardware they kept the Wii going to a second Christmas where it was in massive demand - that would be quite a feat with Switch I think, but clearly is the target.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 3 months ago
I'm getting one... but not at launch. It'll be Zelda Wii U, the Switch version at some point, Skyrim, Xenoblade, Fire Emblem and DQ Warriors, maybe Disgaea, Sonic Mania and a few others. I really want a decent racer with licensed cars, though. Mario Kart doesn't do a thing for me and while Fast RMX is gorgeous, I'm wiped out on the WipeOut-likes. I wonder if Slightly Mad can revive the canned Project CARS for Wii ant get that 30fps they tried for or more on Switch? I'd buy that if it packed in all the DLC.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions3 months ago
Strangely Greg at this point in the lifecycle of consoles STILL the only console to get great racing games on seems to be the XBox One. Forza Forza and all that! Can't see one ever going on the Switch.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 3 months ago
@Jordan Lund: The thing is Jordan, I have a ps4 and ps3 to stream to a TV and monitor that are set up next to each other. I don't have sole control of the TV but the TV is a relatively cheap 32" 720p set that doesn't down-scale well from all devices and the HDMI switches/splitters are universally a pain to manage especially when you also want to record game output separately from the console.

My ps3 also does not play that nicely with the streaming apps anymore and often crashes or loses connection to psn (stopping the stream) so my SO prefers to watch those things via the ps4 which requires me to fiddle with cables and HDCP settings and to stop playing whatever I am playing.

The upshot is that I'm looking for a device that can replace the ps3 that's small and unobtrusive but has more function than a cheap streaming box which may not receive updates etc. Sure an XBO and ps4 are cheaper than a switch but I also want to be able to play Nintendo's games again. It doesn't make sense to purchase a similar thing to something I already have plus a casting device isn't ideal for our setup.

Ideally we could output from a phone or other tablet device that we already own but it seems companies don't see this as a use case of these things.

Maybe I'm a minority but I see the streaming applications as a great feature to ship with a device that will output to a tv/monitor and have a portable screen as well as 'remote' controls. Plus, it makes picking up a movie from the couch to go watch in bed even more convenient.
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Adam Campbell Producer, Hopster3 months ago
@Andrew Jakobs: Library of mobile games right? Not directly comparable with Switch from a performance or software target perspective. That being said, some mobile games would make mighty fine Switch titles in the future, and could probably run at 4K on the TV...
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Azlin Kassim Old Time Gamer, Bio Quality and Audit3 months ago
Wonderful article. I for one wish that Nintendo would allow some form of backward compatibility where you could download games from previous Nintendo consoles. Being able to play 3DS, Gamecube, SNES, NES, N64, Wii and WiiU games would be awesome. There are a great number of games that have been released in Japan (or the East) but has never been seen in the West. For instance Earthbound, Disaster series (which I loved on my Wii), or even Secret of Mana 2. One example is the Super Robot Taisen series which Bandai Namco have begun to translate not only into English, but Chinese and Korean as well broadening their market appeal.

As for software its nice to see Square Enix bring in a new game. I'm hoping for old school RPGs to fill in that slot as the Switch can definitely run such games wink wink cough cough Atlus (Persona / Shin Megami Tensei Spin off). Finally, as a father of three young children, the Switch could become a family console just like the Wii was for me and my nephews and nieces playing Wii sports together. Here's hoping Nintendo doesn't falter in the coming year as a lack of games would further weaken Nintendo's position as Sony and Microsoft could easily lower prices of current consoles to compete. Not to mention the upcoming games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War, Persona 5 and a host of FPS.
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Christopher Dring Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.biz3 months ago
@Todd Weidner: One of my favourite stats, Todd, is if you look at the Top Ten selling games on every single Nintendo platform, there's just one third-party release - Street Fighter II on SNES.

Nintendo need third parties to offer depth of content, to satisfy its userbase and to ensure a steady stream of attention. But it can, and has, survived without much third party support - look at 3DS.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Dring on 23rd January 2017 8:22am

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