Nintendo’s Switch presentation on Thursday was truly baffling. The missteps of the event have dominated the conversation that followed, but there was a lot to be excited about if you are interested in the Switch. Nintendo gave a glimpse into its first-party lineup, detailed the interesting features of the console and blew us away with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. However, despite my status as an enduring Nintendo fan who is sold on the Switch, I was left with an odd feeling in the pit of my stomach.
While a system that receives both console and handheld support from Nintendo’s internal teams is exciting, there are a myriad of decisions that the company made, and continues to make, that will inevitably hold the system back from its potential. As I pondered these moves, like a proprietary app for online features, a paid service that only allows for limited classic game rentals, absurdly expensive accessories and noncommittal third-party support, I realized that what makes Nintendo great is also slowly killing it; their mindset.
Nintendo believes that it operates in its own sphere of the gaming industry.
The company isn’t wrong. Nintendo has a unique take on video games that is unparalleled. The spirit of pure fun and whimsy that is captured in a Nintendo game is what has brought millions of players into the hobby. It has also pioneered more ways to interact with games, and to interact with others through games, than every other game-maker combined. But while their software has remained some of the best in the industry, this mindset has been killing the hardware side of the business on the vine.
Nintendo’s desire to be different has always led its hardware efforts, and led to the creation of the Switch, a truly novel gaming machine. However, Nintendo is delusional if they believe that releasing a console that is different than the PS4 and Xbox One exempts them from competing with these fantastic systems.
Competition is unarguably good for the market, as it allows consumers to have the power to choose what is best for them, forcing businesses to react and respond. For example, PS3’s monstrous initial price and developmental barriers were found alongside the much cheaper and accessible Xbox 360. We all know how that turned out, but Sony was forced to respond and listen to the consumer, resulting in the fantastic PS4. In Nintendo’s case, the Wii U was an abject failure that was thrown to the wayside by all but the most hardcore almost immediately. But, because of Nintendo’s view that it doesn’t compete with the “big dogs” of the industry, they obviously chalked up this failure to muddy messaging, not to its uncompelling hardware and lack of developer support.
So now we have the Switch, which burst out of the gate with a clearly-messaged video that had gamers salivating for more. But now that we know more, we are coming to the realization that the same Nintendo mistakes have not been remedied. Not only that, but new developments have made the company seem even more out of touch than usual; mistakes that could have been prevented if it had just looked at what its competitors were doing.
Yes, the Wii U failed in part because it was poorly messaged, but that was far from the only factor. A lack of third party support, half-baked online features, strange control schemes forced on players and a confusing assortment of required accessories and hookups were the bane of the system even if its identity was understood. But Nintendo seems fixed on its messaging, with every other problem snowballing because of that one, major flaw. This may have been true at launch, but it was the mass of issues that followed that turned the Wii U into the abomination it is. The Switch isn’t like the Wii U. It is a clearly messaged, simple to understand, well designed and promising piece of tech. But because Nintendo can’t learn from the mistakes both it and its competitors have made, it is in danger of never reaching its great potential.
Sorry Nintendo, online play is important. Not necessarily to me, but to the gaming community as a whole there might not be anything more vital to the gaming experience. Microsoft understood this in 2002 when it launched Xbox Live, and Sony saw their runaway success and vastly improved their own network for the current generation. But because Nintendo refuses to compete and learn, we have been stuck with a minimal experience that can barely support Nintendo’s multiplayer genius. This is unacceptable in 2017. While I understand the ease housing online connection on a smartphone for portable mode, the Switch not having connectivity usable natively is a travesty.
This extends to the new service’s “free game” program, which gives players a NES or SNES game each month, which is awesome, but does not allow users to stack their downloads like PS Plus and Games with Gold. There is no reasonable explanation for this. Microsoft saw the value in PS Plus’ service and implemented it themselves to great success. Nintendo has an advantage that neither Sony or Microsoft have in its extensive back catalog of classic games, but they insist on squeezing every drop of profit from them. I think Nintendo would find that allowing players to experience the joys of A Link to the Past and Super Mario Bros 3 on the Switch would drive sales of Breath of the Wild and Odyssey. And why stop at those consoles? Would it hurt to include N64 or Gameboy Advance? Nintendo can use nostalgia as a tool to drive current sales, but they continue to force players to purchase Super Mario Bros for the 18th time.
Even more than the online service, the prices of Switch accessories drew ire in the hours following the event, and for good reason. The prices are monstrously overpriced, with joycon costing $50 for a single and $80 for a pair. The impressive-looking pro controller will set players back $70 ($10 more than a controller for either other console), while an additional Switch dock runs $90. When added together, the prices of the individual components would leave the Switch itself costing $100, which illustrates how overpriced they are. With such a rich history of multiplayer, it is baffling how high the barriers are for players to play with friends. And if they had been paying attention to the other “console games on the go device”, the PlayStation Vita, they would have learned that expensive accessories, in this case memory cards, helped to sink its chances. Nintendo made a smart, pro-consumer memory choice with MicroSD, but that is not representative of their philosophy thus far.
Third-parties are a spot that Nintendo should have figured out by now, considering their previous failings, but competitors have plenty to teach the company. The PS4 has ridden its third-party support to the generational crown, as Sony’s diehards will tell you that the publisher’s first-party efforts have been lacking in comparison to previous consoles. The same lesson could be taken from Xbox 360 in the previous cycle. Yet Nintendo continues to alienate the major publishers, as evidenced by their minimal support consisting of old ports and begrudged sports games. I love Rayman Legends, Skyrim and FIFA, but it is going to take more than those titles to create a thriving ecosystem.
It takes time to establish relations with anybody, so Nintendo should have concentrated the 3-year twilight of the Wii U on working with publishers big and small with the goal of cultivating strong Switch support. Sony did similar things with the PSP. The Switch has just enough power to compete, supports the versatile Unreal Engine 4 and Unity and a traditional control style, so there is no reason that they couldn’t attract some partners. Even if it takes some of that famous war chest to sway them, it would be worthwhile if it is the difference between the console succeeding or failing. If the big boys won’t bite, create a thriving indie scene akin to the Vita, which is supported almost entirely by the independent community. There is so much to learn from every competitor’s successes and failures, but because Nintendo refuses to compete with the rest of the industry, they essentially skip class every week. It’s no wonder why they have barely learned anything.
Even though the Switch is a different machine than the PS4 and the Xbox One, it is foolishness to insist that it isn’t competing with these juggernauts. Hell, it will be on a shelf literally sandwiched between the two. Nintendo should not, and will not, make a system that is identical to the others, but the features that it brings need to be comparable to attract a sustainable playerbase. That means online must be a focus, it must attract third-parties and it should be sold at an attractive price. So far, the Switch has not demonstrated that it can do any of these things, regardless of its status as a compelling piece of tech, a rarity from Nintendo.
While the price is, in my opinion, completely reasonable, it is so in a vacuum. The reality is that consumers can purchase a PS4 or Xbox One at the same price, with deals frequently bringing them into the $250 range with bundles. That will be hard to sell to consumer new to gaming. Why would this person buy a Switch over a PS4? The answer is, unfortunately, they wouldn’t. If someone is having to make that choice, I’m sorry Nintendo, that means you are competing, whether you want to or not. And Switch, so far, has not proven that it can be attractive enough in its own light to save Nintendo’s hardware business.
This noncompetitive mindset needs to change, and fast. The system will most likely have the first-party support to attract Nintendo fans due to the combination of handheld and console efforts, but the Wii U proved that this number is neither growing or sustainable. And while the Switch is leagues ahead of its predecessor in terms of marketability, but players have already been burned once. The games industry is much better with a successful Nintendo making noise, and the Switch is a console that has the ability to make the classic publisher relevant again. But if Nintendo cannot learn from both its own mistakes, like they did with the 3DS, or the mistakes and moves of its competitors, they will have no other choice than to create games for those competitors.
I’m excited about the Switch and believe it holds incredible potential, but for it to fulfill that potential Nintendo must finally throw some punches, and not at the consumer.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG that cringes at the thought of Nintendo releasing games for Sony and Xbox consoles. If you’d like to hear his nonexistent ramblings, follow him on twitter.