One of the common questions on The Internet is – why?
Why do I have a hairy wart on my hand? Why do birds keep screaming outside my window at four in the morning? Why have the Kardashians had a top-rated TV show for ten consecutive years and why does that make me hate the modern world? Whilst I can’t answer all said questions – or others – another common question being asked right now is “Why is the Nintendo Switch a success?” And on that, I feel slightly more confident in giving an answer.
It’s a good question too, when you consider everything that has happened to Nintendo in the last few years. Not only was the Wii U a disaster, but the 3DS suffered sales collapse as well – though it was still comfortably the dominant force in handheld consoles. Third parties fled the home console, and Nintendo lost its beloved President, Mr. Satoru Iwata. Couple this with moving to a new headquarters and other minor problems, you could say that Nintendo has had a very challenging few years and somehow, the Switch has emerged on the other side – and is shocking everyone by succeeding where the Wii U failed. More than that, third parties are flocking to the Switch. Everything in the mid-term outlook for this year and most of 2018 is surprisingly positive.
So the question is certainly worth entertaining – why is the Switch different?
For me, the reasons are based primarily in what we call “Generation 8” – one which kicked off in November of 2012 with the launch of the ill-fated Wii U. 2012 was perhaps a clarion call of intent going forward; after years of primarily high-end, high-brow entertainment in the medium, 2012 brought with it a slew of low-brow, low-end trash with titles like Aliens: Colonial Marines and Ride to Hell: Retribution standing tall and proud as some of the worst games of this decade, and perhaps in the base of the latter, of all time. Neither were exactly different during this period either; developers were rushing to get their games out before the book closed on Gen-7, and damned be the consequences.
Where Nintendo and Microsoft fell – and fell very quickly and very early on, with the XBox One tripping over before the thing had even deigned to arrive on the market to begin with – Sony picked up the slack. I’ve said before and I’m firmly convinced that the success of the PlayStation 4 is not down to anything Sony has done right – one glance at the regular PSN outages, games going offline for extended periods of time and Sony’s antiquated approach to security and refunds, banning people for exercising their consumer right to question charges and broker refunds with PayPal or their credit card company will tell you that Sony is a deeply old-fashioned and irritating force in the industry. This might explain why, with almost four years of market dominance, even I struggle to find much to herald in such a situation. Sony had opportunities by the bucket-load to improve the market for the better… but instead seemed more than eager to ream every last penny out of its position, rightly and wrongly.
This has meant that Gen-8 has really struggled. In terms of hardware sales, it’s so far short of Gen-7 that it’s not even funny at this point – and for all Sony’s proclamations of the PS4 being “the fastest selling console ever”, repeated by the press as if they were trained seals without the capacity to look at publicly available sales data that would have demonstrably proved otherwise, it’s telling that even if the PS4 does hit 100 million sales – which is still possible – it certainly will do so much slower than the Nintendo Wii, the PlayStation 2 and even the original PlayStation – all of which were capable of achieving this feat in under five years.
Which explains why VR was seen as such an important thing. VR Headsets were meant to help encourage hardware sales by being “the hot new thing”. Whatever your views on VR, positive or negative, there’s one thing I think we can all agree on as a unit – it took too damned long. VR debuted in crowdfunding with the Oculus Rift back in October of 2012, and only became a viable consumer product – and I use the term ‘viable’ in the loosest sense – during the latter half of 2016, a full four years later. Banking the farm, or huge chunks of a company and software budgets, on VR despite the fact it took an age to reach the market was a pretty dangerous move which clearly didn’t pay off for the most part, and consumers reacted to the technology finally hitting the market not with eager anticipation, but with cavernous yawns. Oh, it’s out? Cool, I guess. What’s for dinner?
So now you can slide the Switch into this situation.
In the midst of a second mid-gen refresh – pushing premium 4K variants of current consoles – Nintendo got its timing bang-on. At a point Sony and Microsoft are shamelessly pimping out more powerful variants of machines many already have, Nintendo dropped something which looked entirely new and different and stole the show somewhat. No-one seems to care that it is part of the Second Gen-8 Refresh, an advancement on the Wii U – perhaps even the console the Wii U should have been – only that in a market where you have two premium variants being pushed, being slightly different can be refreshing if nothing else.
It certainly helps that the Switch is a very different beast to the Wii U. A slick, sleek handheld hybrid with a very good screen and a selection of solid game releases – Breath of the Wild is likely to still take this years crown unless Mario beats it to the punch at the last minute (yeah, two brand new open-world Nintendo games are vying for the best game of 2017. Ye gods of old, we truly are through the looking glass!). It looks modern and stylish. You wouldn’t be ashamed to pull it out in a crowded place. This keeps the distance between the Wii U and the Switch – whilst I like the Wii U, let’s be honest and call it as it is. The Wii U was an ugly beast. It just was.
And with all of the winds pointing the way of Nintendo, with it avoiding most of the egregious business errors of the last four years, and with Sony single-handedly failing to grasp the bull by the horns for almost four years – preferring to coast rather than actually deign to do and fix things – and not to mention the slow launch of VR, the Switch stands out as a product. Good games? A solid well-designed system? Portability for all games? It’s hardly a wonder why this was an easy sell. Nintendo nailed it, amongst plenty of other more subtle back-end things like partnering up with nVidia, who needed an entry back into the console market after the low-cost shift from manufacturers towards AMD products.
If the industry was nervous – and at this point, they had every right to be at best cautious of lascivious promises from Nintendo – the initial doubt has been well and truly dispelled. Now more and more are piling onto the Switch bandwagon in a manner not even Sony could muster with the PS4 despite the fact it really was the only game in town for consoles. Square-Enix working on bringing Final Fantasy XV across? The brand-new Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus? A custom-made FIFA, and RockStar Games on Switch? All of this is amazing news, and chances are this will keep the hype up somewhat – enough so that it gives other publishers and developers time to get their projects more in line with the Switch. And the primary reasoning here is not just that the Nintendo audience has proven to spend money – certainly more than many claim PlayStation owners spend overall – but because the popularity is critical.
Being seen to support a popular thing is key here. After plenty of missteps, mistakes and a bit of fundamental mismanagement, the industry needs the Switch to succeed. More than that, they need to be seen supporting the Switch, because at a time when lots of people are buying into the Switch lifestyle, they’re going to make judgements on who supports the thing and who doesn’t and… well, would you turn down money?
Of course, Nintendo played a blinder with Breath of the Wild as a launch game. But a lot of what has conspired to elevate the Switch isn’t really down to forces Nintendo could control; the market has conspired, unusually, to bolster the launch of the Switch where once it conspired to bury the Wii U. You can call that irony all you want, I just find it amusing.
Had Sony or Microsoft pushed 4K hardware as a new Gen-9, the Switch wouldn’t have had quite as much press or industry support. Had Sony been better at handling the PS4 the last few years, no-one would really be looking at the Switch as a viable alternative. Had VR been a success, chances are with the heavy investment before the stuff launched most developers would have continued to pour money into that, and ignored the Switch entirely. Had third-parties not tried to kill the Wii U, the Switch wouldn’t even exist as it does. There’s so many little details which Nintendo had literally no control over; and yet, every one has conveniently ended up failing just enough to give a reinvigorated Nintendo an edge it hasn’t had in years – and some might argue, decades.
That’s why the Switch is succeeding. The right console, with the right gimmick, with the right games at the right time and from the right company. That’s one hell of a string of lucky breaks to nail – but I do think, at least for now, Nintendo has done it. I continue to joke about that whole “leave luck to heaven” line, but really, Nintendo must have a guardian angel watching over them (Hail Iwata-San!) because this is an outrageous confluence of good fortune.
Can they keep it up? Well, that’s always been Nintendo’s challenge; hopefully they can, because it’ll be fun to see if the Switch can dramatically outperform 4K consoles in terms of sales figures, but with Pokémon Switch rumoured to be in line for a Holiday 2018 launch – chances are Nintendo can take a breather once the new year hits and rely on third-party support to keep the mill rolling along until it drops the big guns later in the year. 2019 onwards? That’ll be the test, because I suspect Sony and Microsoft will be itching at this point to push a Gen-9. That’s when the Switch will truly be tested.
For now though, they have a largely open goal for this holiday season (another lucky break!). Third parties want to be seen on the Switch. And even deep down, I think Sony and Microsoft want it to succeed – if only because a tail-end gust of inexplicable excitement for Gen-8 might be just the thing they need when they do invariably drop Gen-9 hardware.
I’d wish Nintendo luck for the coming few years… but considering how much luck has been involved in this success, I’m not entirely sure they need any more…