Is Switch what the future of consoles looks like?

Is Nintendo's new platform a one-time gimmick, or an important reinvention of the console for a new market landscape?

It's a fact often stated, but no less true for the repetition, that videogames as a whole owe a great deal to Nintendo.

Time and again over the past 30-odd years, Nintendo has defined and redefined core parts of what a game, or a games console, is meant to be. It hasn't always been the first to invent an idea, but so often it has been the first company to take a rough idea and turn it into something so accessible, so useful and so necessary that, in hindsight, it ends up feeling obvious.

The D-pad, the analogue stick, the handheld console, the 3D platformer, the often copied but never equalled Mario Kart formula... Even when Nintendo's innovations haven't been immediately well-received, as was the case with the Wii's motion controls, they've still had the power to shift the course of the industry. Thus, when Nintendo launches something that appears to have inertia behind it, it's best to pay attention.

It's fairly certain that some of the touches that made Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild so magical will start showing up in other open-world games over the coming years, for example. Of course, we shouldn't ignore the debt that BOTW itself owes to many other open world titles; Nintendo is a very productive part of an ongoing discourse within games, both receiving and creating ideas, not some wizened sage on a hilltop passing down gems of insight to the unwashed masses. Often its greatest innovations have been built upon foundations laid down by others; it's just that Nintendo turns out to be a pretty damned fine architect, given such foundations upon which to work.

"People who have played games on Switch are frequently and vocally adamant that this is now their preferred way to play games"

Few would deny that Breath of the Wild has been a landmark software release; quite a number of you, though, will likely consider it a bit too early to consider Switch to have earned a place in Nintendo's grand hall of hugely influential products. The console is off to a roaring start, with its second month sales (and ongoing stock shortages) demonstrating very high demand. While next month's big title, ARMS, is an unknown quantity - it could be an amazing driver of console sales or a damp squib - July's Splatoon 2, a sequel to the company's biggest new IP in years, is absolutely certain to drive demand for Switch further into the stratosphere.

That's all well and good; but yes, it is still early days. The console is yet to complete its first quarter, let alone its first Christmas; projections are good and anticipation is high, but talking about the influence of Switch at this point feels a bit like counting chickens and planning an extensive chicken dinner menu based on eggs still far from hatching. There is, however, one further factor to take into account - the word of mouth around Switch, which is almost uniformly positive and which has a characteristic I'm not sure I've ever seen with a console launch before.

The unique thing about the way in which people discuss Switch is this; people who have played games on the console are frequently and vocally adamant that this is now their preferred way to play games. There's a bizarre level of clamour for games from other systems to be ported to Switch, because the console offers a preferable way to play for so many people. Nobody is actively dumping on PS4 or Xbox One in these comments; rather they tend to be wistful "oh, how I wish Persona 5 (or whatever) was on Switch, I'd much rather play it on that."

Did Nintendo just completely reinvent the console market?

Did Nintendo just completely reinvent the console market?

There is, no doubt, some degree - however small - of simple excitement with a new shiny thing reflected in these comments. However, combined with the strong market demand for the console, it does make one wonder: is Nintendo on to something quite revolutionary here?

It's clearly struck a chord with a pretty wide audience, and the appeal of the Switch form factor is playing a major role in its early success. It's absolutely true that, as a general rule, games sell consoles, with the hardware itself being of (distant) secondary importance, but with Switch representing such a major overhaul of the whole console paradigm, there's certainly some extent to which the hardware is selling itself.

A couple of months before Switch launched, I argued that one of the reasons for the console's design - and for the much less successful attempt at executing a similar concept with the Wii U - is that the number of young people who have a large TV in their home is declining, most notably in Japan, as people turn to smart devices and laptops for a large portion of their media consumption. This limits the market for consoles, especially for those which are concerned largely with ultra high fidelity graphics on very large, up-to-date TV screens. This trend is less advanced in other territories, but it does exist, and may catch up with Japan.

"If Switch is as big a success as many people seem to expect, it's likely to precipitate a major internal change of direction in its competitors' plans for the future"

That may explain part of the appeal of Switch, but I don't think that market is the one getting excited about the console right now; early adopters are largely going to be people who own a high-end console (or consoles) and a high-end TV, with those who don't own a TV being a market Nintendo may tap later as its success grows. What I think we're seeing instead is a slightly different, albeit related trend; people are used to their media being mobile, and that makes the existing console paradigm a little frustrating.

Many of us rolled our eyes slightly at Nintendo's painfully lifestyle-marketing-agency videos of people turning up to parties with Switch consoles, but in truth we have all become accustomed to bringing our media experiences with us, sharing them easily (often by simply handing over a phone or tablet to someone) and never feeling tethered by them. That applies within the home as much as outside; watching an episode of something on Netflix on your TV until you feel a bit tired and decide to finish out the episode on your smartphone, curled up in bed, is pretty much how a whole generation finishes its weeknights right now.

In tapping into that, Nintendo may have created something that's going to change our expectations about how we interact with games. That capacity to treat games as being just as untethered and portable as other media is a bigger change than many give it credit for, as is the capacity to link the undocked consoles together easily for local multiplayer - an absolutely enormous part of the appeal and success of the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable consoles in Japan, where school and college kids getting together to play Pokemon or Monster Hunter in public social spaces was a pretty huge thing for many years.

The question is, if Nintendo is really on to something massive here - and if it is, then those slightly eyebrow-raising projections showing the Switch selling in volumes comparable to the Wii might not actually be so crazy after all - what is the impact on the wider market going to be? How do Microsoft and Sony react to this?

If Switch is as big a success as many people seem to expect, it's quite likely that it'll precipitate a major internal change of direction in its competitors' plans for the future - just as previous successful innovations by Nintendo have done. There are various models a future Xbox or PlayStation could pursue in order to give a comparable experience to Switch without sacrificing their cutting edge performance; a tablet-style console with a dock housing a much more powerful GPU is perhaps the most obvious example.

The crucial thing is to deliver a console that has a portable experience on a par with its tethered-to-the-TV experience; a lower pixel count and perhaps some toned down graphic effects, but essentially the same game, just as playable and fully featured, available to pick up and play anywhere you want, whenever you want to be away from the TV.

It's a model that's likely to make sense to more and more consumers as behaviours shift away from the monolithic television-centric media experiences of previous decades, and if Switch is a breakout hit (and perhaps even if it's only a moderate success), it's a model to which both Sony and Microsoft will need to think very carefully about their response.

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Latest comments (19)

Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee2 years ago
I think every Nintendo console is the future in some shape or form, until it become the present which it is now. I'm not sure if anyone will emulate this in the dedicated console space, as there are still compromises to be made - but it looks set to be the long term console form factor for Nintendo now.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 2 years ago
So what's the difference between the switch and the vita? A blockbuster game franchise? Lack of expensive proprietary storage format? The ability to output to an external screen? More comfortable and versatile controller? Local multiplayer?

I'm wondering now if the vita wasn't just another dreamcast... too before its time

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 19th May 2017 4:05pm

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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 2 years ago
@James Prendergast: the Church of Nintendo mostly

Two years from now will be the scores of "what happened?" articles.

Short answer: fanboys all got one, too expensive, kids want an iPad, not portable by the mainstream definition of "pocketable", grossly underpowered compared to the competition making development cost prohibitive.

As I've said, it's not the first ten million, it's the second that's hard.
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Show all comments (19)
Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University2 years ago
Switch has all those advantages over the Vita. Plus a bigger screen. And Nintendo putting its full attention behind it.

I don't think the Vita was before its time. It was still a just a handheld. I think the Switch is the first device to really bridge the gap/blur the line between handheld and console.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext2 years ago
I think that there are some very good points in the article... but a slight lack of understanding of the issue. There are really 3 types of switch customers:

1. People who only use the switch while docked.
2. People who only use the switch while mobile.
3. People who use the switch in both configurations.

The reality is that up to this point, #1 and #2 were considered different devices, and games were sold separately for them. Content was generally not shared across the devices, and even when it was, it was not a seamless experience. Because of this change in how content is seamlessly shared across multiple platforms, the demand for the content is now doubled... and then some more for the new category (#3).

I do think that a more targeted approach to device sales might actually increase the amount sold (but this is a mute point when supplies do not meet demand). If they sold a standalone dock that could play the content without the mobile portion (but could function as a dock if desired) for a lower price (due to the lack of screen, etc) they would appeal to many people that just want the new console. If they sold the mobile portion (minus the dock) then those who are only interested in the mobile portion could buy just that (for less).

I believe that once they meet the demand for the current version, that adding these specialized purchase options (at lower prices) could allow them to grow the userbase more than either a handheld or console.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.2 years ago
Brian, no. I really hope they do not do that. Why confuse the market after doing something right?

While it may appeal to all 3 market segments you mentioned, actually targeting them individually damages the merits of the console as a whole. It is popular and in demand because it can do both....even if you don't need it to do both.

It is further problematic for developers given that they would then have to decide what spec they develop for? Docked or portable? Dock only gamers would not get the benefit of increases resolutions and frame rates and portable only gamers may deal with horrible frame rates, poor battery optimization and even completely missed games (requires dock spec to run).
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
The Vita outsold the WiiU, particularly in Japan and Europe. But that does not mean the future is handheld. Both Sony and Nintendo will have to face the fact that smartphones killed the sales of specialized handheld consoles. 3DS and Vita sales never recovered. Every kid wants its phone first, then everything else. The Switch in its current form is a novelty niche enthusiast gaming device for followers of the Church of Nintendo. If this thing ran Android and packed a 3G/4G module, you would pity the next iPhone. But not like this.

On a related note, it might not be the best of signs, when an emulated version of Zelda rendered in 4k is a thing on Youtube. The Switch does 1/9th of that resolution on screen and ~1/6th in docked mode. Granted, for a mobile device, this is commendable, but be honest to yourself when you see those Youtube videos. Zelda is not a mobile game.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.2 years ago
Klaus, it's both. A home console and portable game. And try taking that 4K system on the go and you'll see why that doesn't matter.
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Mike Becker Translation Project Coordinator, Pole To Win Europe2 years ago

Simply because most console gamers want a console to play games on. That's it.

The Switch might appeal to some, true. But the price is too steep, the proper extra controller is way too expensive, and without FIFA or GTA (amd let's see how CoD turns out), there is not much of a third party presence on it in the first place.

The Switch is a hybrid that will be successful because it hits a nerve. But I don't see how the concept will reach the heights of the PS2 or the PS4 - not just in hardware, where even the Wii was successful, but in software. There needs to be far more than one breathtaking and successful game, and not much on the console but Zelda will appeal to non-Nintendo gamers I'm afraid.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 2 years ago
@Jeff Kleist: I totally agree about the sales. I think that the hype built up enough pre-launch that it is sustaining them through a very dry period, software-wise (at least to my gaming tastes). The real test will be from January onward.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
The Wii found its success because there was a market of people who prefer approximated imitation over hardcore controller mastery. A market neither Sony nor MIcrosoft could tap into at their higher price points, in addition to getting ridiculed by their consumer base.

In the same way that controller mastery was not the core desire of all the non-traditional gamers buying the Wii, gaming is not the core desire of people buying a mobile device. This is the communication age, so communication is the one and only core functionality. I have a dumb test for that, the choice of punishment. One week without games, or one week without communication tools (WiFi & 3G disabled). In my experience, for 95% of the people I asked, one week without games is a minor inconvenience and one week without communication amounts to inhumane torture.

Regardless of the quality Nintendo will deliver and regardless of how willing a minority is to carry around two devices, the limiting factor of all mobile games consoles these days, is their lack of communication tools. The Switch might not have the exact same limitations the WiiU had, but neither does it have breakout potential.

and besides, if the next non-gaming teenage hype thing in Japan will require them to all have 40 inch TVs on their walls, the Japanese will have those up and running in no time.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 2 years ago
@Klaus Preisinger: Fun fact, the Switch was originally going to basically be a Kindle Fire knockoff in many ways. The tablet is hugely popular among their target demo because they're cheap, and Nintendo figured that using Android not only saved them lots of time, but made porting of apps a snap. its one of the reasons nothing is ready, and there's no Netflix etc. Drm and other subsystems aren't implemented yet. But they couldn't get the performance they wanted using Android, and so they dumped it for a cousin that let them get to the metal
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games2 years ago
@Jeff Kleist: There is another group that is buying the Switch: the non-gaming parent who just want something to keep their kid occupied. I noticed this the other day while in a grocery store. A lady was shopping with her 7-8 year old son. The kid didn't lift his eyes from the screen the whole time they were in the store. The parent went about shopping without having to worry about her kid wandering off. She probably didn't care how much the Switch cost. She just wanted something to keep her kid busy while she went about her day: an electronic baby-sitter if you will.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Gary LaRochelle on 23rd May 2017 2:09pm

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Bryan Langley Secondary English teacher/freelance writer 2 years ago
Sony should move into the same space by making a new PSP that offers similar functionality: playing PS4 games on the move via streaming - perhaps by expanding PS Now - and synchronization of PS4/PSP accounts. It could build its own library by offering backwards compatibility with Vita titles, and perhaps UMDs too.

Let's not forget that the original PSP sold a healthy 80 million in the wake of the Nintendo DS's 154 million. Why shouldn't they do the same with Switch?
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 years ago
back when Sony and Nintendo sold 230 million handhelds, mobile gaming was the top dog, only contested by mobile music. Nowadays, mobile information and social interaction are at the top of the hierarchy. Gaming is but one functionality among many and far from being the most important one to people.

What did the recent study say? 145 minutes of phone interaction time per day on average, spread out over 76 sessions? That is not something Dr. Kawashima and his psychological push for daily training can ever hope to compete with. At the rate,social and information based media is farming people for one minute attention items, mobile games are pushed out opportunistic time slots and back into dedicated time slots.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University2 years ago
The streaming of games especially big AAA games doesn't work well let alone streaming them on the move. And imagine the data costs with that. Won't happen.

And the Switch sort of took the spot that the PSP/Vita sat in. The higher end handheld spot. Nevermind the Vita only sold 15 million units.

I could see Sony making another handheld if it also did VR in conjunction with the PS4 but not holding my breath.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 22nd May 2017 2:24pm

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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext2 years ago
@Jim Webb:

Lets start with developers... they would make the same games that they make now... as there would be no benefit of trying to code for just one of the three options.

Then we can look at the hardware. Having cheaper, less universal options would not change the performance of the current three option setup. It would just add a cheaper, less flexible option.

Lastly, we can look at the users. I do agree that multiple options might be confusing for the customer (this applies to any product). However, offering the specialized options after the market demand for the current hybrid device is met, would be a way to grow the market, and to increase overall sales of the device. It would not make sense to offer this until you have maximized the return for the current device/price point, but doing it as part of a refresh option could greatly increase the platform without having to improve/change the hardware specs (potentially createing a split in the user base) like we are seeing with the current PS4/XBONE platforms.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University2 years ago
The problem with doing other versions of the Switch is it would lose some of the magic. A console-only version would be an expensive streaming box or an underpowered PS4. But sure, down the road, if making a console-only version of the Switch lets them get the price down to $100 whereas otherwise they would be stuck at $150 or something then it could happen. In the end it's all about trying to reach more customers so they can sell them their games (whose costs) have long been paid for. And certainly, on the handheld side, they have done different versions at different pricepoints. Maybe nothing as dramatic as this would be but they do have a 2ds vs a 3ds.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 22nd May 2017 10:09pm

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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 2 years ago
@Gary LaRochelle: they mostly give the kid a $50 kindle fire. I'll bet if you asked it was their Switch. I know my kid wouldn't be touching my $500 breakable console 4 feet over cement and tile floors
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