One success story doesn’t guarantee another. The executives at Nintendo know that better than most.
This week, the video game publisher and hardware maker will present the details of its latest console, the Nintendo Switch. An early trailer shrewdly emphasized Nintendo’s history of excellence, both in building iconic franchises, and dominating the world of portable games. You can play Zelda on the go, it promised, then finish the game on your living room TV. A decade ago, that pitch may have been enough.
But 2017 is a tricky time for Nintendo. The Nintendo Switch’s console-portable hybrid design may be its selling point, but it’s also a declaration of Nintendo’s place in the world.
The company was once peerless in the portable market, but now the space is crowded with smartphones and a relentless flood of low-priced distractions. For years, Nintendo bemoaned the devaluing of mobile games, despite constant a push from investors. Only in the last year has it dipped its toes into the smartphone waters.
As for the console side of the Switch, the hardware is the follow-up to the Nintendo Wii U. A commercial airball, Nintendo shipped just over 13 million units, and plans to sunset production in the near future. By comparison, Nintendo shipped over 100 million units of the Nintendo Wii, which leveraged novel motion controls, inclusive game design, and the company’s roster of recognizable characters to spectacular effect.
In 2017, the Switch isn’t a guaranteed hit
And so Nintendo is fighting a war on two fronts, with unstable footing in the portable and at-home video game markets. Whatever Nintendo says about the future of standalone consoles and portables, it’s hard not to see the Switch as an act of consolidation, Nintendo aligning all of its soldiers for a big, climactic push.
How does Nintendo win this fight? We’ll learn the company’s strategy tonight and — depending on the announcements — get a general idea of how serious of a competitor Nintendo and the Switch will be in the coming years.
For the Wii U, the problems were obvious from the beginning. It wasn’t as powerful as its competitors, it lacked third-party support, its innovative twist wasn’t innovative enough, and Nintendo still hadn’t resolved its history of flawed online design. On the eve of the Nintendo Switch reveal, these same bad habits may serve as canaries in the coal mine or signals the company has learned from its errors.
Meet consumer demand
Nintendo has made of habit of struggling to meet consumer demand. The company had a “gimmie this” past holiday season with the NES Classic, a tiny Nintendo NES replica that played classic games and plugged into modern HDTVs. But supplies were diminutive, with individual Targets and GameStops getting a small handful in each shipment.
Some analysts and critics have speculated that Nintendo relies on artificial scarcity, encouraging lines and high prices on secondary markets that get lots of press. Or perhaps Nintendo is consistently bad at estimating interest in its own wares. Whatever the case, the best way for Nintendo to return to living rooms across America is to sell the hardware in stores at retail price, not through eBay accounts at an exorbitant upcharge.
Solve the inevitable power problem
The Wii U centered around a tablet controller that looked like an iPad, but could only be controlled within a short radius of the console. The Nintendo Switch frees its tablet from the living room. In theory, this is Nintendo’s response to criticism, delivering what fans have requested for years. In practice, it’s rather complicated.
The Nintendo Switch includes two key parts: a portable tablet and a docking station. Initially, Nintendo suggested the portable device itself contained the bulk of the system's hardware. As for the the docking station, in an interview with IGN in October 2016, a Nintendo rep said, its main function “is to provide an output to [a] TV, as well as charging and providing power to the system."
What compromises will developers make for portable gaming?
But a December report from Eurogamer on the rumored components of the Switch hardware painted a console that relied on the docking station for additional computing power. The report goes into great detail about the differences between mobile and docked mode, but this is the big one: “In portable mode, Switch runs at exactly 40 percent of the clock-speed of the fully docked device. And yes, the table below does indeed confirm that developers can choose to hobble Switch performance when plugged into match the handheld profile should they so choose.”
These limitations aren’t inherently bad. The issues will stem from how Nintendo and developers choose to work within them. Will games sacrifice visual fidelity in favor of consistency? Will they run poorly on mobile? Or will developers limit which section of their games can be played on the go, and which demand a docked experience?
Nintendo famously lifted the game industry from the glut of shovelware in the 1980s by creating the Nintendo Seal of Approval, a signal to consumers that games met a basic level of competency and reliability. For the Switch, Nintendo would be smart to establish clear standards for how games do or don’t take advantage of the docking station boost.
Build an internet platform that works
When it comes to internet services, Nintendo has always put internet safety above usability, emphasizing its status as a family friendly service. The company has made some strides since the Nintendo Wii, but finding and playing with friends online is still a headache. Social gaming is more popular than ever, and Nintendo has an opportunity to produce the first mobile hardware that’s powerful enough and complex enough to detach competitive multiplayer gaming from living rooms and computer desks. But this will only work if playing online isn’t a chore.
Don't assume core franchises will be enough
The Wii U got a bad rap for not having good games. That isn’t the case. Nintendo published excellent additions to many of its franchises, including Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros., and Pikmin 3. And it launched three new series, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Splatoon, and Super Mario Maker. However the Wii U had minimal support from third-party publishers like Activision, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft.
Plenty of people enjoy Nintendo games, but each year millions of fans buy Madden, Call of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed. Without the core franchises, Nintendo’s hardware becomes the secondary gaming console. The Wii had a similar problem, but the Wii’s emphasis on motion controls intentionally separated it from the competition. If the Switch can’t muster third-party support, it needs to find a gimmick that makes its uniqueness a boon and not a blemish.
Stop being so cheap
Nintendo is shameless about selling beloved retro games to fans over and over and over. I have bought Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES, the SNES, the Nintendo Wii, the 3DS, and the Wii U. Microsoft has boasted that players who buy games on the Xbox service will have them indefinitely on any future Xbox hardware — and potentially Windows devices. And they’ve already begun to deliver on that. It’s Nintendo’s turn to solve backwards compatibility.
Maybe digital purchases on old hardware transfer to the Switch. Or maybe Nintendo just gives away a healthy collection of legacy games as it did to build interest in the Nintendo 3DS. Or maybe it creates a Netflix-like service in which a small subscription fee provides access to the classic Nintendo catalogue. Or maybe the company just sells retro games at mobile game prices.
There are so many ways for Nintendo to reward dedicated customers, and yet this seems like the least likely tweak for Nintendo to make. The company is currently unloading its catalog onto the Wii U digital store, a last-minute effort to squeeze another round of purchases from the console before it considers selling the same games all over again.