The rumour mill has once again begun on the Nintendo Switch and Pokémon Stars.
I shouldn’t be surprised, of course, because when you face the facts and figures head-on, it is clear as crystal that Pokémon is, right now, Nintendo’s biggest franchise – it dwarfs everything else. Sure, Mario Kart 8 was a runaway hit and yes, Smash Bros. Switch would be another major cultural event for Reaction Channels, but Pokémon is in a different league. The numbers are impressive – Pokémon Sun and Moon have combined sold 15,440,000 units – in little over four months, with first weekend sales not far off the likes of Grand Theft Auto V (which, like Pokémon, seems to be a perennial seller). And whilst Pokémon Go didn’t have much of Nintendo’s hand in it, through licensing and investment in the companies producing the app, reports in October of 2016 noted that the app had earned Nintendo a cool ¥12 billion ($115 million) – which is a damn impressive figure when you consider how little input Nintendo had in it.
And yes, Pokémon Switch would sell. Of course it would. It would sell the Nintendo Switch. It’s a proven system seller – Sun and Moon helped shift another seven million 2DS/3DS units. No-one is disputing that Pokémon Switch would be a bone-fide market behemoth and one which could and would cement the Switch as a machine no-one could ignore.
I have two main problems with a Pokémon Switch game in 2017, however.
The first is more as a long-time Pokémon breeder over the years – I like the series, and Sun and Moon were fantastic and it is impossible to overstate just how good they are (and how many irritants within the series they actually fixed). But Pokémon Stars, as a variant offshoot of Gen-7 Pokémon, makes no sense to me. Particularly when you consider just how much of a step forward a game on the Nintendo Switch could be graphically, mechanically and technically. Keeping the series bogged down in the same generational line when there are still things which could and should be improved (particularly on the breeding side of things) feels something of a step back, rather than a step forward. You have near as makes no difference the power of an XBox One at your disposal (admittedly with slightly less RAM but still), why on earth keep it locked into a branch which we all know was pushing the 3DS to its limits?
A new Pokémon on Switch has the kind of potential to be a radical departure from what we knew – in the same way Sun and Moon were, but we’re talking limitless potential here. You have space and power enough for randomised events, for more online interaction, for a larger and more detailed world and a far deeper and visually more pleasing combat system. A Pokémon Switch shouldn’t be limited to the Sun and Moon line when there is so much more they can do with it; we’re talking the potential for a Gen-8 Pokémon line here, a more open-world and freeform Pokémon game even more similar in pacing and style of the huge cartoon series.
If we’re to get a Pokémon game on Switch, for me it has to be a step forward – not a sidestep. It has to be all new, all singing and all dancing. The Stars rumours seem to miss that; why would we want more of the same? Why shouldn’t we want, nay demand, better?
The second is perhaps the better reason.
Let us take that 15,440,000 units of Sun and Moon as a baseline for what a Switch version could pull in at the same time. Nintendo is ramping up Switch production, to be sure, to meet demand; a pretty healthy demand right now as well with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe hitting the top of the UK Games Charts and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild getting another insane sales spurt this week too thanks to DLC details. Officially, Nintendo expects to sell 10 million Switch units in the next Fiscal Year – though some analysts believe Nintendo is being deliberately conservative there and could shift as much as 15 million (and even then, analysts think that is being conservative – though it depends on the production line).
Fine, so you’d end up during the Fall 2017 period and now people all want a Nintendo Switch to play the new, shiny Pokémon game. Except, they can’t.
Nintendo doesn’t have enough stock yet – production is ramping up, but it’s still clearly not churning out millions at a time. You have a potential audience of 15.44 million fans, and only say, ten million consoles to date. Nintendo would have to make more product – and whilst that’s clearly what would make them money, turning out a product faster often leads to mechanical and technical problems in the long term (as Nintendo already knows, with the JoyCon issue). In short – Nintendo isn’t going to compromise quality for quantity, and you’ll have a huge market and not nearly enough physical product to actually meet demand.
This… this is not an ideal situation for a first-year console. Ask Sony and Microsoft how they feel about the whole #GamerGate thing. Undoubtedly you’ll find they’d partly agree that terrible press and widespread media scandal negatively impacted on their consoles, slowing sales in a period they desperately needed their months-old hardware to gain some traction on the market (yeah, it was 2014, man it feels like a lifetime ago…). Nintendo is trying to work hard to keep the press good and sweet, hence expensive shipping via aircraft rather than by sea, and replacing JoyCon quickly and sending many free gifts as an extra apology. Nintendo does not want nor need bad press – the Wii U got hammered hard after three months on the market by the likes of EA and it never really recovered.
Such a dramatic disparity between demand and supply is going to anger people, and it’s not a situation Nintendo could easily remedy without spending huge quantities of money on temporary production pipelines. And whilst most of us would go, “So? They should!”, Nintendo is at the end of the day a business and they’re looking at their bottom line. A temporary pipeline of that kind would cut deep into their projected profits at the end of the year, so you get a little good press but take a hammering on the profits, potentially spooking shareholders in the process. A win for us, but not necessarily a win for Nintendo there.
Simply put – this is not the ideal year for the Switch to drop a mainline Pokémon game. That said, I wouldn’t put it past Nintendo to start building up for a 2018 Pokémon Switch game.
Holiday 2018, in all ways, seems like the better deal. By this point, if all goes well and the Switch holds up sales wise, Nintendo could have anything between 20 to 30 million Switch consoles in the wild. It will have a stronger production pipeline too, as production costs get cheaper and the process becomes more intuitive and streamlined and more capable of temporary spikes in production. Games costs may have come down, the Switch cost may or may not have come down, and there’ll be more of them. By this point too, Nintendo will probably need a really big heavy-hitter for the Holiday 2018 season; something guaranteed to almost bring the house down, as it were, as this is usually the point that a console needs an extra hot chilli pepper rammed betwixt its butt-cheeks.
Pokémon makes more sense to drop at that kind of point; better supply to meet demand, an audience already largely invested in Switch, strong sales and a strong game to go with it. It also gives Game Freak more time to actually make a Pokémon Switch game a real step forward, rather than a sidestep. To invest themselves into crafting and building the kind of Pokémon game that would and should start pushing the series out of its old format and into a newer, brighter area. We’ll end up getting a really deep and meaty new Pokémon game, rather than a recycled Sun/Moon landscape in a higher resolution (and whilst this might appeal to many, if Nintendo wanted that, Sun and Moon would have launched on the Switch).
Nintendo already has stuff lined up for this year for us Switch owners – and it’s a hefty line-up to boot. Breath of the Wild getting additional content, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe out now, ARMS looking pretty sweet, Splatoon 2 for the summer fun, Super Mario Odyssey for the Holiday 2017 period, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for us RPG nerds, Skyrim that you can take anywhere, potentially a new Story of Seasons (Still waiting on Trio of Towns… oh so patiently…), Fire Emblem Warriors – if Hyrule Warriors is any indication, Fire Emblem Warriors is going to be pretty damned special. And I wouldn’t put it past Nintendo to drop a Smash Bros. Switch at E3. And those are just the big-hitters we know of. 2017, up to probably March 2018, the Switch has an enviable line-up that makes even the first year of the PlayStation 4 look small and inferior.
The 2018 line-up is going to be far more critical for Nintendo. It’s an unknown, intangible, and they don’t know if big third-parties will stick around (if they don’t, that’s a real shame). In this uncertain period, Nintendo needs at least to have a plan for if the worst should happen and EA decide to be massive douche-nozzles again, or UbiSoft stops caring about making games again or Bethesda gets snappy once more. Nintendo needs to have a back-up just in case they need a massive boost to their sales figures and positive press coverage – perhaps as well as keeping it in the wings waiting for a ‘This Is What You Could Have Won’ Bully Bullseye moment. Pokémon Switch would be that game and then some.
Any way you cut it, this isn’t the time for a Pokémon game. And it shouldn’t be. It won’t hurt the series to have a years break – it’s never done it any harm, and the games continue to shift units in the long-term as well. The Switch can continue to build up pace and install base, preparing for that inevitable moment that Pokémon lands and people go insane over it. Nintendo more than most knows the perils of under-stocking; the Wii is not so distant as to be so easily forgotten. Odds are the current shortages are simply because Nintendo left production to the last few months to ensure the best possible hardware under the hood – a risky move, but a good one when you consider what the Switch is and what it does.
Give the Switch time, and give Pokémon and Game Freak some time too. Yes, we all want the Switch to do well. Yes, we all want big fun games on the Switch and yes, E3 2017 can’t come soon enough because Helya In A Leopard-Print Thong is that going to be a tense and scary E3 for Nintendo. But let’s also all want the “stars” to align and make it the best possible debut; it’s too soon for a proper Switch Pokémon to escape the shackles of Sun and Moon and it’s too soon for such a massive selling series to debut on a console which simply may not have the kind of supply this year to meet the demand.
2018 is by all logic the better time for a Pokémon Switch. And I suspect that Nintendo knows that too.