With Nintendo's Switch now on the market - albeit not necessarily easy to get hold of, as its opening week has been unsurprisingly supply-constrained in most places - it's natural for attention to turn towards the question of where this interesting and unusual console goes from here. Some (relatively minor) gripes about the launch hardware aside, the system has been well-received, but how will it perform for the rest of 2017? What are the big games, the big events, that are going to encourage people to buy a Switch once the launch hype dies down?
Nintendo's first-party release schedule for the console is impressive for the company, which has never supported a home console with as many of its big franchises quite as quickly as it plans to support Switch - but that in itself qualifies as damning with faint praise. By the standards of other consoles which have launched with more comprehensive third-party support, Switch's release schedule for major AAA games in 2017 is pretty thin. Its next big release, post-launch, is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on April 28th; ARMS (which may or may not be a big deal) will also appear some time this spring. Then we wait until summer for Splatoon 2, followed by Fire Emblem Warriors in autumn and Super Mario Odyssey in time for Christmas. Getting Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart and Splatoon onto the system in time for its first Christmas is a solid achievement; it's also only four truly tentpole games in the first nine months.
One might quite reasonably question the use of the word "only" in the above sentence. What, after all, were the tentpole games in the PS4's early line-up? Or, indeed, the line-up of almost any other major console? The first nine months of a console's life is traditionally full of games rushed out the door to make the launch window, ambitious but flawed, or half-hearted updates of games from earlier hardware, with only the occasional system sporting a gem (the classic examples being Halo on the original Xbox and Wii Sports on the Wii) that goes on to define the hardware for the rest of its lifespan. By the standards of most console launches, the Switch is doing remarkably well in its early months.
"The company clearly views the vibrant indie scene as a crucial way to keep its console fresh and relevant between major first-party tentpole releases"
Most console launches, though, happen broadly in line with the launch of rival platforms. Switch, by contrast, arrives on a market dominated by the PS4, whose enviable library of acclaimed AAA titles swells by the month. I don't think Switch is being directly compared to the PS4 in these terms by many buyers; in fact, most potential Switch buyers either already own a PS4, or are well outside the PS4's potential market (for now). However, it still exists within the same climate, and must justify its value proposition in those terms; particularly for those considering a Switch as a second system to sit alongside the PS4, there's a necessity to convince consumers used to a big software launch at least every month that a Switch won't simply "gather dust", as the Wii was often accused of doing.
Gaps in the Switch release schedule are inevitable. It doesn't have the third-party support of the well-established PS4, which is sucking up the lion's share of AAA development resources around the world, and even Nintendo firing on all cylinders can't hope to make up for that. If Switch really was meant to replace 3DS as well as Wii U, things might be a little different, but the company isn't prepared to make that leap yet (and perhaps not ever). There's hope down the line, especially if Switch establishes itself well in 2017; Square Enix, Namco and Atlus have all committed major titles to the platform, and other publishers will test the waters if those work out well. (No, EA's FIFA, a title which seems almost designed to fail so that the company can shrug its shoulders and stop bothering, does not count in this category.)
There is one way, however, in which the Switch release schedule is far more impressive than any previous Nintendo console - and that's if you add in the console's huge forthcoming slate of indie titles. From relatively well-known games through to fascinating obscurities, there's a vast selection of dozens of indie games coming to Switch this year, with their release dates being staggered across the year to ensure there's something fresh on the system's store at all times (and to avoid burying indies in an avalanche of poorly distinguished content, as happened with the Wii U's indie support). James Brightman reported earlier this week on the remarkable outreach work Nintendo has done with indie developers; the company clearly views the vibrant indie scene as a crucial way to keep its console fresh and relevant between major first-party tentpole releases.
The question is, can this work? Do indie titles really sell consoles, or satisfy consumers who have jumped on board new hardware? There's no really good answer to that question yet, but there are some interesting points to consider. The first is that the dissenting voices are the loudest, but may not be representative; the people who complained bitterly when PS Plus subscriptions rewarded nothing but PS4 indie titles in the early months of the service make a lot of noise, but the PS4's sales (and PS Plus subscriptions) kept growing at a massive clip, implying that lots of users were actually pretty happy.
"The apt comparison, if this works out - and it's a big if - is perhaps not PS Vita at all, but another Sony console; the all-conquering PS2"
Related to that, there's a question over whether a lot of consumers even draw quite as hard a distinction between indie and AAA titles as core gamers or industry insiders are wont to do. Anecdotally, my sense is that a lot of consumers don't differentiate in quite this way; they see a game that looks interesting (on YouTube, through introduction from a friend, or whatever), and mentally file it as something they want to play, and, perhaps, as a point in favour of picking up the console platform that can play it. This isn't to say that any indie title (except, perhaps, Minecraft) has the kind of system-selling punch of a Mario, Halo or Uncharted title; but taken collectively, a large and well-curated indie library can be a more powerful part of a console's arsenal than we may give it credit for.
The counterpoint to this is that this is essentially what the PS Vita aimed at, and achieved to a great extent; and Vita was still a commercial failure everywhere except Japan (where it was also supported by a large range of hyper-local software titles that never made it beyond these shores). The Vita, however, almost entirely lacked for AAA support after its first year or two on the market; if anything, its indie catalogue helped to propel it onwards for a very long time after its AAA drought ought to have killed it off entirely. What Nintendo promises with Switch is an interesting combo that's more balanced than Vita's line-up; big Nintendo first-party games every few months, supported by a much more regular release rhythm of well-curated, high quality indie titles.
The apt comparison, if this works out - and it's a big if - is perhaps not PS Vita at all, but another Sony console; the all-conquering PS2. The dominance of PS2 in the market, which has never quite been matched by any other console since, was down to a combination that's very similar to the one Nintendo hopes to achieve. The console had a large number of major tentpole releases, of course, but in between - and especially in the back half of its existence - it filled out the schedule with an enormous variety of mid-tier games, designed to appeal to specific niches and tastes across a very broad spectrum of consumers. These were the indie games of their time, in a sense; not everyone's cup of tea, but made on budgets which meant they didn't need to be, and taken as a whole, their appeal was broader than any AAA title could hope to manage.
Whether Nintendo is consciously pursuing that, or simply aware of its own limitations as a first-party publisher and hoping to use indie games to fill in the scheduling gaps, the outcome is that it's set its sights on a kind of market strategy that has worked exceptionally well in the past, and could set the Switch on a secure footing for the future.