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Christmas will be the true test for Nintendo Switch

Next week's launch is surprisingly understated for a new Nintendo console

This article was first printed in the GamesIndustry.biz UK Retail and Publishing briefing. To receive these special emails, sign up here.

In under a week, Nintendo Switch will be in people's homes.

It doesn't feel right. It all seems so muted. Sure, there are those that can't decide if Nintendo has made the ultimate games machine or the most pointless, but even so, it doesn't feel like a new console from the most iconic name in video games is a little over a week away.

Up until yesterday's onslaught of unboxing videos, there has been a distinct lack of significant mainstream press coverage. Where's the massive media campaign? Where's the release countdowns? Where's the surprise last minute announcements?

"You know something is up when Horizon: Zero Dawn is comfortably winning the PR battle against Switch."

You know something is up when Sony's big new IP launch, Horizon: Zero Dawn (which is also out next week) is winning the PR battle (so far).

And there's so much we still don't know about it. Where are all the games that have been promised? What about the Virtual Console? How does the online infrastructure work?

If I was a cynical man, I'd almost suggest that Nintendo is sending its next console out to fail and are preparing a more complete 'switch' to smartphones in the near future.

Media momentum since the Nintendo Switch reveal has slowed significantly

Media momentum since the Nintendo Switch reveal has slowed significantly

The reality is perhaps something a little more simple - the launch of Nintendo Switch just isn't that important. Christmas is the true test.

By the end of March, there will be 2m units in the channel worldwide, which is a relatively cautious figure (Nintendo sold 3m Wii Us in that time, albeit over Christmas). There should be more than enough Nintendo fans or Zelda obsessives to pick up most of those - the sort of people who have already dropped £150 on the new Zelda collector's edition and its assorted Amiibo (which are all gone). Switch has sold out at major US retailers, although there's still some stock available in the UK.

In fact, you can easily see who Nintendo is targeting with Switch by the level of PR and marketing focus being spent on the new Zelda, as opposed to the actual console.

If you think back to the last time Nintendo released a console at this time in the year, it was the 3DS in 2011. Nintendo got the fundamentals of that launch wrong, both in terms of software line-up, price and PR positioning. In the months that followed the company took drastic action. It dropped the price significantly, ramped up its development resources and launched two big games at Christmas (Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7). The move meant the 3DS had a strong first Christmas, and the console went from there to 65m units globally in five years.

That first Christmas is crucial and is often more important than the console launch itself.

Nintendo now has the same window of correction. Based on its current schedule, by Christmas there will be four significant first-party Switch games available (Zelda, Mario Kart, Splatoon 2 and Mario Odyssey). It will have a better idea of what parts of the machine are resonating and which aspects are not. It will also know for certain if that price is too prohibitive for anyone that isn't a hardcore Nintendo fan.

We will have also passed E3. We will know whether GameCube games are coming to Switch and we'll have a better idea of what the software pipeline looks like.

"The problem with soft launches is that consumers and third-parties can quickly perceive a cautious approach as a failed one."

If you look at the rather understated marketing campaign, the continued announcement of new 3DS titles, the fact that Nintendo revealed the release date so late (including to many of its own employees), and the absence of rather salient information about the machine's digital functionality, and you get the feeling that the arrival of Switch next week is almost a soft launch.

There's a risk here. Next week Nintendo has a brand job to do in establishing the Switch, irrespective of how many units it has in the channel. And the problem with soft launches is that consumers and third-parties can quickly perceive a cautious approach as a failed one - it's something Sony has been wrestling with a little bit with its approach to PlayStation VR.

But you can appreciate the strategy. By the close of March, Nintendo should have 2m Switch consoles in people's homes worldwide. The machine will be doing the rounds with friends and families, word will spread, there are a smattering of big releases during Spring and Summer to keep the conversation going. And then by November, as Sony's PS4 Pro and Microsoft's Project Scorpio duke it out over the high end sector, Nintendo have their £250 hybrid complete with a new Mario to tempt you.

It almost sounds deliberate.

Almost.

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Latest comments (9)

Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes4 years ago
Nintendo's only goal here is to get the Switch out in the fiscal year and then keep it sold out through to Mario then push a whole load of units onto the market to make it the must have Christmas toys. Nintendo are past masters of the scarcity trick and they'll have no issues with achieving it. If you want a Switch for your kids Christmas present I'd make sure you get it in the summer.
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Christopher Dring Publisher, GamesIndustry.biz4 years ago
@Richard Browne: That would be the plan and it would make sense. Although there's still stock in the UK at the moment.
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Andre Santos Product Manager, Bee Engineering4 years ago
This console is having high levels of anticipation similar to what Wii had in its days. I accept that this hype is only in the gaming community, but this is what will create the momentum to the rest of the market for the end of the year. In many ways this is one of the best launches that Nintendo is doing in ages!
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Show all comments (9)
Nick Ferguson Executive Producer, Stadia, Google4 years ago
Is this the first simultaneous worldwide launch of a Nintendo home console? I think so. I imagine every unit they can manufacture will sell to ageing 40-something Ninty boys (like me) for the next several months.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
"...and you get the feeling that the arrival of Switch next week is almost a soft launch."

It seems like they are rolling this out the same way they rolled out the NES Classic last year. Granted that wasn't an entirely "new" system but the marketing push behind both seems pretty similar. I also expect Nintendo will have very little issue selling through the initial launch units in ALL territories. But they better not play any games with restocking the channel as they have been known to do since the Wii launched.

As for X-Mas , they are going to be in direct comparison with another new console: The Xbox Scorpio. This comparison may not be completely fair based on price, but if Microsoft is smart they will market the hell out of the Scorpio and, more importantly, offer pricing variations based on hard drive size as they have been hinting toward, similar to what is already happening with the regular and "S" versions of the Xbox One. It's going to be quite an interesting battle this holiday season.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
Given the extreme state of features missing and other problems, it's quite obvious that prior to the Scorpio announcement they planned on launching in the fall

They were always going to short the supply, as they've done for thirty years. And anyone who believes Nintendo isn't going to do that is a fool, as they have a thirty year track record of doing so. Personally I look forward to the day when they realize they're not a toy company, but an electronics company that benefits far more from people being able to buy their products than liking the idea of doing so. They're hoping to get people's money before they're spending it on Scorpio or a discounted PSPro, because they know they can't compete in the big picture.

I disagree with Paul, by the time you add in a game and another set of joycons, the price is exactly the dame as Scorpio is likely to be, and that system will almost definitely come packed in with Gears, Forza (my money is even on both), or a Christmas title.

So the question is simple. Do people want a portable WiiU with a handful of Nintendo games their kids don't care about, at the same price as the iPad they do care about, or the hottest rod on the planet for the same money? The Switch is just as breakable as an iPad, comes with $80 controllers to lose,

The Nintendo faithful will buy Switch. But the price is a turnoff even to a large segment of those, and those who just have a casual interest in Mario and Zelda are likewise going to wait.

Frankly, I'm at the verge of believing the Switch has been intentionally set up to fail, by letting people inside Nintendo have let those with bad and outdated ideas run with the ball right into a wall. The Switch has very low traction outside the Nintendo faithful, and I don't think Christmas is going to help that very much. Hopefully in the quite possible event this one bombs out, they'll finally give up on hardware, and quit the foolishness. Nintendo games, despite their party line, do not need Nintendo hardware, but they do need people to play them, many of whom would be very excited to play Mario Kart on Live or PSN.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
The WiiU performed the way one would expect a Nintendo console with Nintendo games to perform. Strong with its fanbase, but we have seen how third parties reacted. Third parties did not serve their fanbase on the WiiU, they assumed their fanbase to be someplace else.

The Wii, on the other hand, performed exceptionally well as the novelty driven hardware it was. There is no arguing about one fact, the Wii was the right gimmick at the right time, aimed at the right people. Meanwhile, the train with the Sony and Microsoft customers was heading another way. The Switch is not going to change that. Whether 1,2, Switch can tap into the novelty crowd the way Wii Sports did, remains to be seen. Knockoff concepts by Sony and Microsoft failed years ago, begging the question why there should be a resurgence now.

I expect the Switch to perform the way the WiiU did. Admirably, but hardly exciting. I also expect any mobile game by Nintendo to have a significantly higher number of users than the Switch.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
Klaus I agree with you.

One thing that must be remembered is that the WiiU came out as the Xbox 360 was dying down, and it's design and tools were centered around making porting from that console easy.

The Switch now has the same problem the original Wii did. It's going to require custom, very expensive to develop versions of third party software.

Nintendo continues to ship underpowered hardware to a customer base who by and large all own a PlayStation or Xbox as well. Why they would want to play inferior versions of the games on a asystrm that doesn't have their circle of online friends is a question Nintendo never seems to ask. The third party games will bomb again, they'll withdraw potentially even faster than the WiiU, and the ever shrinking Nintendo base will continue to buy the marquee franchises as they always have.

The biggest problem is that systems are exponentially more expensive to support and develop than they were twenty years ago. You can't support a modern console on first party alone. If they release Zelda on Xbox and PlayStation, they'd easily sell 10 million copies. But lock it behind that $400 paywall and most of those lose interest.
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Andy Samson QA Supervisor, Digital Media Exchange4 years ago
"You know something is up when Horizon: Zero Dawn is comfortably winning the PR battle against Switch."
You should be aware that Nintendo hasn't lifted up the review embargo. Didn't you get any media kit for that? Nintendo's even pulled off a John Cena and I guess "you didn't see that".
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