Back in early 2015 Nintendo was in dire straits, at least in so far as their traditional business model is concerned. The Wii U was a certifiable disaster in the market, the Nintendo 3DS was long past its peak and the Japanese giant had begun an internal renewal initiative that seemed to have trouble getting off the ground. Many in the media and gaming community were once again opining that Nintendo’s days as a hardware manufacturer were behind them. This line of thinking isn’t new, in fact it’s ancient and perennial, one can find the company’s critics predicting doom as far back as the early 90s with the launch of the SEGA Genesis, then again with the launch of PlayStation, once more with the entrance of Microsoft in the market and again on the eve of the Wii era. While the declarations of death have always been premature, this time there was true reason to be concerned about the company’s future. The casual gaming “blue ocean” Nintendo had found with the Wii and DS ran blood red with competition from iOS and Android devices and old rivals had cemented their place in the traditional console market with PlayStation and Xbox. There seemed very little room for Nintendo to grow as a company and the room they did occupy looked to only get smaller.
In March of 2015 Nintendo’s CEO Satoru Iwata announced to investors and media a strategy that they believed would leverage the firm’s strengths and return it to “printing money” status in the coming years. One of these tactics was a new mobile initiative that would see Nintendo’s properties strategically utilized on iOS and Android. We’ve begun seeing the fruit of that labour recently with Miitomo, the mega popular Pokemon GO and Super Mario Run which was introduced by Apple alongside the iPhone 7. Nintendo also announced a partnership with Universal Studios to bring Nintendo characters and franchises to their theme parks. Factor in the rumblings, that later turned out to be true, of Nintendo reaching out to studios to create films and the stage is set for the 120 year old business to go from toy company to multimedia conglomerate.
All that is fine and wonderful but Nintendo’s die hard fans were worried that they would be forgotten in this restructuring. Was Nintendo’s “old business model” of hardware manufacturer to be forgotten? Iwata calmed these worries by announcing Nintendo was hard at work on a new dedicated gaming device code named “NX.” That was the public birth of what is now the Nintendo Switch. Much has changed since then, Satoru Iwata passed away less than six months later, the Wii U limped to twelve million units sold with the spectre of the NX hanging over it and the complete and utter silence on NX until late October 2016 seeded doubt and facilitated an out of control rumour mill. But now with the reveal of the basic details and name of the new console, Nintendo is officially closing the door not only on the Wii U but the entire Wii and DS era and ethos that has driven them for the last twelve years. A console/handheld hybrid, the Nintendo Switch not only replaces the Wii U but may very well render the 3DS and it’s possible successor irrelevant and unnecessary. If the Switch is extremely successful it may be very difficult for Nintendo to justify a second portable device with its own library of software. More likely than not, a successor for the 3DS may just be a portable-only budget priced version of the Switch sharing the same library of titles. Dual-Screen gaming, a staple of the Wii-DS era is no more. Nintendo has confirmed that the Switch is a “single screen experience.” This may seem like a small loss but for those who played games that made good use of a second display, such as the DS and Wii U Zelda titles, it will be missed. It also means that software from these platforms is now stranded on them, never capable of being re-released on Switch. We do not yet know whether the Switch will be capable of motion gaming in the same way as the Wii but if it isn’t then motion heavy titles from that platform will also be stranded.
What I’m trying to convey here is that this is real uncharted territory for Nintendo. This is a company that has always built on its own legacy, its hardware and software has always had a clear lineage but this will end with the launch of the Switch. The Switch represents a near blank slate for Nintendo to build off and to address many long standing issues with its hardware, its relations with developers and its basic model of business which has, since the NES/Gameboy days, always meant a two-platform strategy.
The Switch may also be an answer to Nintendo’s problem courting third party support. The company has had problems keeping up with its competitors on this front since the 1996 release of the Nintendo 64 which alienated many game publishers by sticking with the then outdated and expensive ROM cartridge medium while the rest of the industry had moved on to the CD-ROM format. Every subsequent Nintendo console has had some kind of disqualifying issue with third parties. For the GameCube it was the smaller 1.5GB mini-disc format and lack of online infrastructure, for the Wii it was the anemic tech specs and non-standard control interface, and for the Wii U it was the abysmal marketshare along with the same issues its predecessor had. The Switch doesn’t seem worried at all about courting third parties. While Nintendo proudly boasted that big companies like Ubisoft and Bethesda are interested in developing titles, the most glaring issue from the Wii and Wii U seems to remain. The Switch’s physical size and portability imply that it will be technically less capable than its already three year old competition, making porting to the console a challenge. However unlike the Wii U and its three predecessors, the Switch may not need the support of third parties at all. Nintendo is consistently one of the largest game publishers in the world. Few companies in the industry come close to the sheer number of software titles Nintendo releases and supports any given year. The issue for the longest time is that this mammoth amount of games had to be split among two platforms. With the Switch, this is no longer the case. All of Nintendo’s titles, whether it’s the newest Animal Crossing, Metroid or Pokemon will be on Switch and the company’s marketing money and energy will be spent on one single platform. Not only that, I believe this strategy will open up new space for experimentation and creativity not seen by Nintendo since the eighties. The two platform strategy has forced Nintendo to stick to a “rule of two” every generation. By “rule of two” I mean one game from one franchise on each system every generation. For example, there would always be two Mario Kart games, one for the console, another for the handheld. With the Nintendo Switch this is no longer the case. We will only need one Mario Kart, one Animal Crossing, one Mario Tennis, etc. This will leave more time and energy for Nintendo’s first and second party studios to do two things, support already released titles with DLC and to experiment with new IP or neglected Nintendo franchises. Expect to see a lot more fresh and inventive titles like Splatoon, Tokyo Mirage Sessions and Codename: S.T.E.A.M. on the Switch.
All of this may not make the Switch the console with the most marketshare or the “winner” of the console wars, such as it is, but it would definitely carve a large and healthy marketshare for the company to rely on. As for third party support, it will come primarily from Japanese publishers who currently make their bread and butter on the Nintendo 3DS and Vita. These Japanese publishers will almost be forced to migrate to Switch as the mobile space does not provide an adequate player base willing to spend the time and money on their more involved and costly software and consoles are moribund in Japan. Your Professor Layton, Ace Attorney and Monster Hunter titles will still find a home on the platform and, if the Switch sells well enough, western third party titles may receive a port just so fans can have a portable version of whatever Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed the Xbox One and PS4 are getting. In addition to all this, the Switch itself has received much more hype than the Wii U ever did. Nintendo’s reveal video has over 21 million views on YouTube and a recent appearance on The Tonight Show garnered still more positive buzz. When one contrasts this to the confusion and apathy surrounding the first showing of the Wii U, the differing climate could not be more stark. The Switch has a genuine chance to ushering in a new era of success for Nintendo and the months leading up to its March 2017 launch will be Nintendo’s moment to seize upon that chance.