Well, the Switch is now a few days away so I’m going to talk about it.
Or rather, I’m going to talk about its advertising. Some are perhaps rightly amazed that Nintendo has grasped the nettle, so to speak, when it comes to promoting their new hardware this time around. The Switch Reveal, back in October of 2016, was a thing of beauty; despite Nintendo making a hash trying to explain the thing in their January Live Presentation, it took three and a half minutes in a video to show the Switch in all its glorious… er… glory. This was followed up by a slot during the Superbowl Commercial Break, which again was solid and explained the Switch in a manner words could not.
So why on earth is this something Nintendo is doing now? Whilst some can argue – perhaps correctly – that Nintendo means business this time around, having weathered the disastrous sales curve of the Wii U, I happen to consider the reason to be far simpler than simple business principles. That is, that they can actually advertise the Switch this time around.
Let me elucidate you for a moment.
For all the great games on the 3DS and Wii U – and there are many – one of the more critical problems of these devices was their… ahem… ‘unique’ presentation methods. The Wii U had a big tablet-style controller, meaning that you could show footage of the main game on a big screen but not of its second screen, which arguably may have been why so many were confused by it as a “Wii Addon”. It’s very difficult to show both screens on an actual TV or Monitor without, you know, compromising on the visual quality that the games have. The 3DS had an arguably more interesting hurdle to overcome; stereoscopic glasses-free 3D. This is impossible to convey through the medium of a typical screen or monitor, and even less simple to demonstrate through the box blurbs.
Both devices meant you had to ‘experience’ the hardware first-hand, and for many that was only possible by finding a big franchise store with a demo unit, or by actually purchasing one yourself. It’s the same issue VR faces right now. For all the novelty and intrigue of the hardware involved, it’s incredibly difficult to actually promote the thing using the traditional means and methods available. Advertising cannot showcase glasses-free 3D, or showcase the complex relationship between a main screen and its offscreen counterpart (and it can’t really showcase VR either, if we’re being honest about it).
This meant a lot of the time, you couldn’t actually see any real perks to the games themselves – and it’s also debatably the reason why you haven’t seen much, if any, serious Nintendo promotional material for a few years. Nintendo was relying on the novelty of the actual hardware gimmicks to be enough of a draw to get people to at least try the damn thing; in reality, by not being able to do much actual promotion just created a vicious feedback loop where less people kept it in mind, and therefore didn’t really know – or indeed, care – about the hardware to go and try it.
That’s actually pretty sad. The Wii U has its problems, but most of all it had promise and potential. The Wii U Gamepad was strange, at times cumbersome, but there was something to it. Same goes for the 3DS – enough of an issue Nintendo eventually had to double-down on the 2DS as a variant, but even then struggling to showcase the importance and indeed, interesting functions of the dual-screen setup. With no media presence, the Wii U effectively dissipated. The 3DS has, arguably, been kept alive long after its natural shelf-life with a diet of Pokémon and other cult-status games, but in many instances again you didn’t see the off-screen stuff involved (which in Pokémon Sun and Moon is frankly criminal as it is the last best hurrah of a dying display format).
For me, there’s no mystery here or even malice. Just stupidity. Nintendo -couldn’t- market effectively, because their fascination with the dual-screens (and glasses-free 3D) made it challenging if not extremely difficult to market these things at all. The Switch, for all its current foibles, is a far simpler beast.
It’s one screen – so you can see its docked and/or undocked output in one image. That’s it. No mystery, no “you have to experience this first”… just a solid, single image with which to sell the games and, by proxy, the hardware. So you can now see TV Adverts for the Switch. You can see billboard ads for it. You can see it working on YouTube without the multi-box imaging (and the need to modify the hardware thereby voiding the warranty!). There’s no mystery there. You see Skyrim footage and you get that this is Skyrim running on the Switch. You see Zelda: Breath of the Wild and know this is actual footage. The camera can pan out, and you can see one image running on one device in a persons hands.
That’s the win for Nintendo here. For years the company has made a rod for its own back in terms of advertising and promotion. It’s fine to say people “should” experience the thing for themselves, but come on, people are lazy (what?). Asking for them to find a demo station, travel to it and then only get ten or so minutes to try it out with a single game in the unit is a lot of effort and also rather unreasonable when you strip it all down to its barest form. You’re making a lot of demands and having a lot of expectations of your audience to just go and give themselves a promotional look at a device.
Are we really shocked that over the years people just couldn’t be arsed?
What’s a win for Nintendo seems to be a win for third party support too. With talk that the device is very easy to port things to (heck, it changed Bethesda’s tune didn’t it?), the stripping back to a single screen appears to have streamlined a lot. So it’s easier to develop for, and by token, easier to market the games they do invariably make on the Switch. That’s a big step forward for a company that has struggled to effectively market its ‘unique’ hardware the last six years, and yes, I do think it will be enough for some more solid third-party support this time around.
Most of all, however, it means the Switch can finally be pitched back at a more general mass audience. It can be seen on TV. On social media. In papers and magazines. It doesn’t need to ask consumers to go try it – though many have (more than ever bothered with the Wii U, it feels like). It can just show people. Here’s the Switch. Here’s how the games look. Here’s how much it costs. With a good marketing campaign for the first year, Nintendo could find itself wondering why it ever stuck to the two-screen format for so damned long. A single screen is cheaper and easier to make things for and to showcase in marketing footage? Who knew? (You know, apart from everyone…)
So don’t be shocked by far greater Switch advertising. It’s not that Nintendo suddenly remembered to advertise. It’s that it suddenly can advertise the unique points of the hardware through more traditional means.
Hopefully, that will make it a far easier sell than any Nintendo hardware in the last half-decade…