Impressions of the Nintendo Switch are flooding the internet. While the hardware itself has garnered positive reviews, the thought that it is launching bereft of features has become pervasive. Entertainment apps, a web browser, a robust online experience and a strong launch lineup are but a few of the items missing from the Switch’s March 3rd menu. Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier summed up these feelings in a recent tweet, saying “Switch right now in a word: undercooked.” Many devout followers of the industry are wondering why Nintendo would release a seemingly unfinished console for what amounts to an early-adopter beta test. With the system’s heavy hitters not landing until later this year along with the full version of a new online system, why didn’t Nintendo wait until November and launch with a stacked lineup and a full sampling of features? The answer to this question is simple; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
It is a safe assumption that Breath of the Wild is the biggest game that Nintendo has ever created. Developed over the course of four years by a team of 300 developers across Nintendo EAD and Monolith Soft, the game was a staggering undertaking in the vein of similar open world behemoths that have been saturating the gaming space. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma has repeatedly stressed the difficulty of development and the labor of love that was infused into every nook and cranny of Hyrule.
Nintendo is famous for its uncompromising vision and polish, and the thought of meticulously spit-shining each acre of the massive world it has created dumbs the brain. With size and attention to detail come time and cost, which is why the Zelda series is famous for long delays in addition to consistent quality. From the recently published previews, Breath of the Wild may even go beyond the standard of Zelda mastery, but that does not exclude the game from incurring massive costs.
Open world games have come to define AAA gaming, thus they can be expected to come served with a generous helping of hype that helps to drive interest. Paired with franchise names like Fallout and Grand Theft Auto and large install bases ravenous for large experiences, the games typically go on to have great success. If this weren’t true, the glut of open world elements penetrating the DNA of other franchises and games would not exist. The Legend of Zelda is a natural fit for an open world, as the series helped to pioneer the genre in its original incarnation on the NES. But while Breath of the Wild has the name and the hype, the Wii U install base does not give hope the game would ever find its largest potential audience. If Mario Kart 8, which sits at a 50% attach rate on about 14 million Wii U consoles sold, is the ceiling for how a title can perform on the platform, it does not bode well for Breath of the Wild’s financial prospects mainly due to the game’s lack of Mario Kart’s wide appeal.
Nintendo was in a bind. They had a huge, supposedly brilliant game that they could have stranded on a dead console or launched with a brand new one. Once the Wii U’s fate was sealed, it was obvious that Nintendo would choose the latter, smarter option. But the decision was not that simple. In no reality do I think that Breath of the Wild doesn’t launch with the Switch, but the choice ultimately boiled down to whether to release the game first on the Wii U and later on Switch, or to release them simultaneously for a potential Switch launch. I honestly believe that Zelda could have been ready for a November launch on Wii U, but would that have been saavy business? Nintendo again chose the latter, smarter option, but that presented another salvo of problems.
The wrench that I haven’t thrown into this equation yet has been the fiscal year. For those not familiar with business terms, the fiscal year is essentially the business year, and differs from company to company; industry to industry. It is used as the timeframe for budgetary and year-over-year profit concerns. Nintendo, like most across the industry, sees the fiscal year end on March 31. And if you hadn’t noticed, Nintendo’s 2016 was light. For reference, Pokemon Sun and Moon and Paper Mario: Color Splash headlined the year, and that was about it for 2016 releases. That doesn’t bode well for a company that makes money on Video Games. Nintendo needed Breath of the Wild to hit in the fiscal year in order to improve profits and point to a successful investment.
That gave Nintendo a potential release timeframe for the game, but would the Switch be ready to release at the end of the fiscal year? After the system has found its way into the wild, the answer seems to be; kinda? From a hardware standpoint the Switch is ready, as evidenced by the great previews of the hardware and full realization of its concept. From a software standpoint? That’s a different story. The March 3 launch gives both Switch and Breath of the Wild a month on the market in the fiscal year, but other than Zelda, there isn’t much coming until the Mario Kart port releasing at the end of April, and little in the way of other features to help flesh out the experience.
Like all great companies are wont to do, Nintendo seized an opportunity. The time they were willing to wait to release Breath of the Wild and the beginning of when it was possible to release the Switch intersected beautifully, so it jumped at the chance to attach the two. Twilight Princess became one of the best-selling Zelda’s after launching with the Wii, a console with a much more casual focus than that of the Switch, so why wouldn’t the Switch launch catapult Breath of the Wild to similar heights? The game’s alleged magnificence would only serve to help the Switch gain essential early traction. Fill in a launch roster that covers the necessary bases (casual, multiplayer, racing, puzzle) and we have ourselves the Switch launch.
I believe that part of the golden opportunity that Nintendo seized ended up being the lack of additional features. Their absence allows for fewer distractions. Want a Switch? Great! You can play Breath of the Wild. Netflix? Not yet, but you can play Breath of the Wild. Virtual Console? Not yet, but you can play Breath of the Wild. The Switch will be a Breath of the Wild machine, and that’s just how Nintendo likes it. And if the previews hold true? There won’t be a better association to have made.
The final aspect of the Switch launch opportunity is that it allows Nintendo to start strong and continue momentum into the always-crowded holiday season. Breath of the Wild gets fans in the door, its success helps to make the Switch a must-have, and a steady trickle of first-party games and console features keep players invested for the entirety of the year. Super Mario is capable of standing out alongside Call of Duty and Battlefront, so a strong catalog of games and features come holiday will be like a fastball that Odyssey can knock out of the park. This strategy is possible because of Breath of the Wild.
Yes, the Nintendo Switch feels rushed, but it feels to be in service of the biggest game that Nintendo has ever made. The focus will be on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and if it is capable of owning the spotlight, it will be essential to turning Switch into a hit. There were a lot of moving parts in regards to this launch, but Nintendo seems to have been able to craft a smart strategy for the innovate machine’s first year. A great launch does not a successful console make (see Wii U, Vita), so a bare-bones Switch on March 3 does not spell immediate doom. Most will be too busy playing Breath of the Wild to care.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG whose productivity at work will be at an all-time low in anticipation of the Switch and Zelda. If you are interested in his nonexistent ramblings, follow him on twitter.