Nintendo Switch launches into a storm of expectations
Nintendo's strategy for its new console is both familiar and brand new; as a result, there are many confused and even conflicting expectations for its first year
Expectation is a tricky thing to manage, especially when your business is a famous name. Companies like Sony, Apple and, yes, Nintendo all struggle with issues of expectation; everyone knows you're meant to under-promise and over-deliver, but that's a glib (albeit true) saying that's far easier to rattle off than it is to practice.
Sometimes, over-promising happens because of internal communication issues - a single department, or even a single spokesperson, runs off at the mouth and commits the company to something it had never intended to deliver, which may even be impossible to deliver. Sometimes, under-delivering is even more unavoidable; nobody who's worked on any complex project can deny some familiarity with the sinking feeling when you realise that the goal you've been striving towards is simply technically unachievable, for example.
"How should we set expectations for a company that has enjoyed so much success and so much failure within such a short span of years?"
What makes the management of expectations even tougher is when they're being set by third parties entirely beyond your control. In the age of Internet hype, expectations can be set by everything from fake leaks to half-baked analyst reports (how could any VR platform, for instance, have lived up to the crazy expectations analysts set for their sales?) to minor misunderstandings blown out of proportion in excitable Reddit threads that spawn a thousand ill-informed YouTube rants. This isn't the same thing as the deliberate and strategic planting of "fake news" (remember when we just used to call that "propaganda"?) that has become such a hot-button topic in mainstream politics, but it's a symptom of the same underlying environment. The diversification and fragmentation of media has given us all access to a much wider range of voices, but has also stripped traditional backstops against falsehood and misinterpretation of their authority.
This is an oddly philosophical point with which to commence an assessment of this week's launch of Nintendo's latest console, but it's an important one. Switch arrives on a field muddied with conflicting expectations, and as a consequence, it will be met with a wide array of conflicting interpretations as to its performance and success. Some of this is simply down to Nintendo's recent history as a company; it has lurched between launching some of the most successful products the games industry has ever known (DS and Wii) and rolling out the lowest-performing home console in the firm's history. Even as the Wii U hardware flared out with all the glory of a firecracker in a tropical downpour, though, the company's software has been going through a golden era, with a new generation of creators emerging from the long shadows cast by the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto to launch huge new titles like Splatoon and Super Mario Maker.
How, then, should we set expectations for a company that has enjoyed so much success and so much failure within such a short span of years? Should we expect Switch simply to outperform Wii U and build a solid, albeit second-string, console business? Should we expect it to soar like the Wii or the DS? Equally importantly, when should we expect to be able to see which path the console is following? As Christopher Dring pointed out last week, the Switch launch is a muted affair and the company's real focus seems to be on getting a substantial line-up and mature supply lines ready for its first Christmas, yet it's inevitable that a great many assessments will have been made and conclusions drawn long before then; will they all be entirely premature?
All of this is compounded by a broad set of confused expectations that have been set by parties beyond Nintendo's control. Some of these are technical in nature; there's been a heavy focus, for instance, on the limited amount of storage (32GB) in the system, which contrasts dramatically with the 500GB or 1TB of storage present in other current-gen consoles, but relatively little acknowledgement of the fact that physical games ship on high-speed cartridges and need no installation, unlike PS4 or Xbox One games that often install the bulk of their data to the hard drive. It's not unreasonable to argue that this is an example of Nintendo undervaluing the digital ecosystem in favour of physical retail; it is, however, not reasonable to present this as a deal-breaker for potential console purchasers or to establish an expectation of an updated Switch appearing relatively quickly which "fixes" this problem.
"Switch really needs a Wii Sports style game that explains and explores the features of the system in an engrossing, entertaining way. Wii U never got one of those"
Other misconceptions are more focused around the business case for Switch; the most common of them being the notion that the console is a merging of Nintendo's home and handheld console lines. While portability is one of the key features of Switch, it's likely that the very versatile controllers are going to be an equal, if not more significant part of the console's marketing and appeal; portability is designed with quite a specific, albeit important, audience in mind.
Crucially, that audience is not the 3DS audience, although there will doubtless be some overlap. Nintendo has been careful to avoid suggesting that Switch will replace 3DS, either now or in the future; the company is almost certainly still mulling over a 'real' handheld device that would be the ultimate successor of 3DS. Why? Because 3DS addresses a key market Switch is unlikely to fit very well: children and tweens being bought a handheld console (for Pokemon, Yokai Watch, Animal Crossing or whatever else) by family members who respect Nintendo's carefully-managed reputation, and aren't comfortable entrusting an ordinary smart device (with all the unfettered access to content that that entails) to a youngster. That remains a big market; as long as it's there, Nintendo will provide for it, which makes an eventual 3DS replacement that isn't Switch pretty much inevitable. (As a corollary, this also means that the oft-repeated claim that Nintendo's development efforts will now be focused on a single console is not the case.)
What, then, is actually reasonable to expect? It's informative, I think, to look at Nintendo's actual launch strategy and work out what the company's own internal expectations might be. Switch is the firm's first global launch, and it's going out in what is traditionally a quiet quarter for the industry. That tells you that the firm is feeling relatively confident about its supply chain (otherwise it would have staggered its release dates worldwide), but is also willing to be supply-constrained in the early months if the console is more popular than anticipated. Given the strong response of reviewers to both the system and its tentpole Zelda title, the chances of stock shortages for a while after launch are high; that's okay, in the firm's mind, because the people buying Switch in the first quarter will be quite dedicated to their purchase and will wait for new stock, unlike more casual purchasers who will likely spend their money elsewhere if Switch isn't available.
The decision to launch with Zelda is clearly aimed at that core market, and has the significant benefit that a lot of Nintendo's most devoted consumers will have a chance to get their hands on Switch before the rush at the end of the year - which is when, if the gameplan works out, casual consumers will hop on board in large numbers. By then, supply should be well-established, and core consumers won't find themselves competing with casual consumers in the case of shortages, which should ease stock issues (and frayed tempers) on all sides.
"Herein lies the heart of the matter; much of what happens with Switch from here on in really is uncharted territory"
This assumes, of course, that Switch can repeat some aspects of Wii's huge first Christmas in seven months' time or so, but the console is arguably well positioned for that; assuming software quality remains high, the system will have an established base of core consumers to drive word of mouth, a pretty impressive line-up including Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart and Splatoon titles (most Nintendo consoles have to wait years to complete that line-up), and with powder being kept dry on marketing right now, we can only assume there'll be a big budget at year-end.
One fly in the ointment, however, is 1-2-Switch - which looked very promising but has received fairly negative feedback from reviewers so far. The decision not to bundle 1-2-Switch with the console was one of the major departures from the Wii's strategic playbook; it now seems possible that it was taken specifically to avoid console purchasers ending up with an underwhelming mini-game collection and nothing else. This is a problem, because the console really needs a Wii Sports style game that explains and explores the features of the system in an engrossing, entertaining way. Wii U never got one of those; the DS got an embarrassment of them, with the Wii falling somewhere in the middle (Wii Sports was an amazing demonstration, most other games rather less so). It bears recalling how much of the early consumer interest in the Wii was entirely down to Wii Sports, and wondering how realistic expectations of similar performance can be if Switch lacks a similar title to hook in that audience.
Of course, it also bears recalling that much of the response to Wii Sports from "core" media wasn't exactly hugely impressed; it remains possible that 1-2-Switch will pick up a lot of interest from consumers regardless of the critical response. Certainly, Nintendo is pushing it hard in its marketing, at least in Japan; it's just extremely odd, in that case, that it's not bundled with the hardware. That too may change; one possibility is that Switch isn't being bundled with 1-2-Switch now because the core market buying the console for Zelda won't care about it, but that by Christmas a 1-2-Switch bundle will be standard. It's also plausible that Nintendo has decided it's not so concerned with that aspect of the Wii strategy, and views having a strong overall line-up by Christmas to be more than enough to pull in the consumers needed for a successful first year. This could prove true; a Nintendo console with such a strong line-up in its first Christmas on the market is uncharted territory.
Herein lies the heart of the matter; much of what happens with Switch from here on in really is uncharted territory. It's a totally new kind of console with a new set of features and a very different software launch approach, coming from a new Nintendo under new leadership and highlighting new creative talent. We can compare it to the playbook of the Wii and see parallels, but there are differences too; we can adjust our expectations to fit the facts, and not the speculation, as best we possibly can, but that still gives us a very broad range of possibilities for the first year of this intriguing new machine.
The only thing that's certain is that Switch is going to disappoint some expectations it never intended to create, and exceed some expectations it would rather have avoided - and vice versa. As with any risky new venture, keeping an open mind until the picture is clearer is going to serve any observer of the industry well.