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Nintendo Switch's path ahead is still unclear

From unwarranted gloom to wild optimism; Nintendo inspires strangely strong emotions in the industry, but we could all do with a dose of balance

After a few years of writing articles cautioning people not to write Nintendo off just yet, it feels most peculiar to type these words, but here we go: could we all just calm down a little bit about Nintendo? Yes, the Switch is off to a very solid start; and yes, Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a damned near perfect video game - but the swing of the pendulum away from the doom and gloom of the Wii U's final months is now threatening to bring us into breathless, giddy over-optimism that the company and its new platform may find it very hard to live up to.

There are plenty of examples out there - perhaps the most egregious is the pronouncement by GameStop's senior director of merchandising, Eric Bright, that the launch numbers for Switch suggest that its sales could "eclipse the Wii", but he's far from alone in this general sentiment. Nintendo itself has lifted its 2017 shipments estimates markedly, which gives something of an official seal of approval to this change in tone, but it's other commentators who are really talking up Switch to an extent that throws caution to the wind.

A little less than a month ago, before the launch, articles on this site by both myself and Christopher Dring concluded, fairly uncontroversially, that the real test for Switch would not come until the end of the year and that any solid assessment of the console's performance could not be made until we reach that point. That view would have held true had Switch underperformed at launch; it ought to hold equally true in the wake of the great launch the console has actually enjoyed. Nintendo has come around the first corner in style, but this is a very, very long race.

"The reality is that Switch could be a significant commercial success without troubling the track record of the Wii, and establishing a narrative which invites constant comparisons from this early stage is not in anyone's best interest"

When you come down to brass tacks, the reality is that we haven't learned a lot from the launch of Switch. The console sold strongly around the world, but was supply-constrained, so all we can actually take away from its launch sales is that it's appealed well to the core market of Nintendo fans. Zelda: Breath of the Wild has received rave reviews and has one of the strongest attach rates ever seen for a non-bundled title. What we learn from this is that core Nintendo fans are hugely enthused about new Zelda games (hold the front page) and that Nintendo's game development talent is firing on all cylinders at the moment. This latter fact is important, but shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following the company in recent years; Nintendo's software has arguably been going through a golden age that was tragically underserved by the Wii U's hardware and marketing.

In actual data terms, then, there's not a lot we can take away from the launch of Switch. It didn't underperform, which is good news of course, but supply constraints mean we don't know exactly how much demand existed and what proportion of it was satisfied. It's important to note that one thing we didn't see is a repeat of the Wii's launch pattern; Switch has sold extremely well to core game fans who bought it to play Zelda, and as yet there's nothing to suggest that it's succeeded in enticing the kind of casual audiences who drove the Wii's sales.

Ultimately, all of that information - data on demand, on demographics and so on - is data we won't see until several months down the line; launches like Mario Kart 8.5 and Splatoon 2 will be big tests for the system, but it's Christmas and the arrival of Mario Odyssey that'll allow us to finally start to talk with real confidence about the performance and future prospects for Switch. The setting up of elevated expectations for the console at this early stage only creates potential disappointment down the line; while Nintendo would no doubt love to recreate the success of its most successful home console to date, the reality is that Switch could be a significant commercial success without troubling the track record of the Wii, and establishing a narrative which invites constant comparisons from this early stage is not in anyone's best interest.

None of this, it should be added, detracts from the achievement the Switch launch represents. While the data the launch has provided us with is simply insufficient to underpin any serious or worthwhile forecasts for the system, the intangible aspects of the launch are unquestionably positive. Word of mouth for Switch is almost universally great, some minor hardware-related teething problems aside; the universal acclaim for Zelda, meanwhile, feels almost unprecedented. Consumer sentiment is hard to quantify, and it's harder yet to guess at which groups or demographics have been touched by this positivity, but it's fair to say that Nintendo has already placed itself on the path to recovery from the hugely disappointing and ultimately doomed Wii U.

"There's an oft-repeated fallacy that Nintendo deliberately manipulates supply figures to create artificial demand... the rather less moustache-twirling truth being that the company has often simply not been very good at predicting demand"

If you're keen to keep an eye on the data points that will really be meaningful for Switch in the coming months, though, here's what to watch out for. Firstly, Nintendo's ability to stick to its launch schedule and keep a consistent flow of software coming for the new system is vital; if major titles start to slip (Splatoon and Mario Odyssey being the really big ones) then it's a big concern. Alongside that, the movements of major publishers with regard to Switch support are also worth watching. One interesting sentiment that I've seen from a lot of new Switch owners is that they love the form factor of the machine, and conversations over which other games they'd like to play on it have been commonplace; if that idea is making its way into conversations at third-party publishers, then combined with the confidence resulting from a solid launch, it should cause an uptick in third-party support for the system in the coming months.

The other thing to watch, of course, is demand for hardware shipments. Nintendo's intention in launching the Switch so early in the year was undoubtedly twofold; firstly, to allow it to build a solid software library ahead of its first Christmas (and, again assuming no delays, the system should have its biggest brands - Zelda, Mario, Splatoon and Mario Kart - all on the shelves by that point), and secondly, to allow it to spread out launch demand over a six to nine month period, so supply will be able to keep pace over Christmas. There's an oft-repeated fallacy that Nintendo deliberately manipulates supply figures to create artificial demand and buzz around its hardware; there's simply no evidence of that, with the rather less moustache-twirling truth being that the company has often simply not been very good at predicting demand or at being flexible with its manufacturing volumes. With Switch, it's trying to avoid both the excess demand for the Wii and the excess supply of the Wii U by launching earlier in the year.

That means we've got nine months of shipments to watch and evaluate - to see what audiences Nintendo is appealing to, whether demand remains high, and whether the launch of titles like Mario Kart and Splatoon 2 can really drive the console forward. Though there'll no doubt be crazy speculation around each set of numbers, it's the overall picture that's important, and it's only months of data that'll really give us a sense of where this console is going. Switch is off to a good start - perhaps even a great start - and like many people, I truly believe that the games industry is better off with a healthy, successful Nintendo competing strongly at its heart. Getting engaged in wildly optimistic speculation off the back of such meagre data, though, is no better than being a Nintendo doom-merchant; it's merely an error at the other end of the spectrum.

Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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