Opinion: Nintendo Switch - Stumbling Out Of The Gate
It's been a day now since Nintendo's Switch press conference event and while I remain hopeful of Nintendo finally pulling itself together after the mess that was the Wii-U, there's a very palatable sense of disenchantment amongst myself and many of my colleagues about the whole thing.
The presentation itself (Which you can watch here) wasn't bad per-se, but remove the slick transitions and effects and what you end up with is something more akin to an investment pitch rather than a presentation. Any excitement that was drummed up back in October quickly deflated, with the confusing product positioning leaving a lot of people, including myself, with more questions than answers. Additional information from the conference didn't help much in lightening the outlook for the system either.
To be clear, it's not that Nintendo is at risk of going out of business anytime soon, however I see the Switch as an important console for the company, and depending how well this does once it hits market, might signify major changes for Nintendo as a whole.
As far as investors and pundits are concerned, Nintendo is in a weak state and is in desperate need of a big win. The Wii-U, regardless of how good gamers will tell you the system is, was a huge flop for the company, selling roughly 13 million units in it's entire lifespan - a far cry from the 101 million units sold from it's predecessor, the Wii. On top of this, Nintendo's long awaited foray into the world of smartphone gaming has not been the wild success it was predicted to be. While Pokemon Go might have been a global phenomenon, it was not actually made by Nintendo. The games that were made by Nintendo - Miitomo and Super Mario Run, have not been generating the revenue that investors were hoping for at all.
For the most part, Nintendo investors have allowed the company to follow through with it's unique gimmicks because they worked. The DS double screen and stylus, the Wii-mote - both of these ended up being huge wins for the company. But Nintendo is now sitting at the tail end of two major failures. The goodwill of investors will only go so far, and Nintendo will need the Switch to be a win if it hopes to be able to maintain the creative freedom it has had for the past years.
There are some clear signs Nintendo is feeling the pressure, but a lot of the decisions they seem to be making carry risks of their own. For example, Switch accessories are commanding near criminal price tags, at $90 for a spare dock, $80 for a bundled pair of extra Joycon controllers, and $70 for a single Pro controller. It's a hard sell for something already at a premium price for the base unit alone, not counting games. Another sign is that for the first time ever Nintendo is launching a paid subscription online gaming service for the Switch, a better-late-than-never move where Sony and Microsoft have been for years now with success. Yet Nintendo's awful track record with their online infrastructure in the past with both the Wii and the Wii-U risks alienating their effort even more if it fails to meet expectations. Nintendo's head scratching decision to relegate voice chat and party setup to a smartphone app isn't helping in that regard.
The $300 price of the Switch is probably the largest barrier many consumers will face. I have to admire Nintendo for taking the risk of trying to bridge the gap of traditional console gaming with that of mobile gaming. It's certainly a unique market positioning strategy, and thus there really is no precedent to look at. Yet for it to work their marketing communication needs to be absolutely rock solid in terms of their value proposition. The system is priced much as a traditional console, but the gimmicky nature of the system seems to detract more than attract when viewed within this sphere. Meanwhile, the strong and clear value proposition of the PS4 and Xbox One, both with their large library of games and strong hardware make a difficult case for the Switch to even be there. On the other hand, the Switch is also priced far beyond what the traditional portable handheld market would look at as an alternative to handhelds such as Nintendo's own 3DS or the Playstation Vita, nor does it have the breathe and flexibility of a traditional tablet or smartphone beyond it's gaming capability.
There were other, smaller items that also aggravated many people's worries. The rather disappointing 2-6 hour battery life removed any ideas of long play sessions or bringing the system for long flights. The 32 GB of on board space, woefully inadequate in 2017. The extremely weak launch line-up, one smaller than that of the Wii-U and the 3DS. The generally perceived weaker hardware. The unenthusiastic 3rd party support. All these elements come together and generally paint a rather bleak landscape of decisions Nintendo needs to justify to consumers in order to really make the system a win.
And lets face it, we should want the Switch to succeed, because if it doesn't, it means Nintendo won't have the freedom to experiment anymore. It means we'll see more free-to-play mobile games branded with Zelda and Mario with micro transactions. It means a lot more 'safe' decisions on the part of Nintendo. It essentially means a possible end of Nintendo as we know and love them to be.
I personally really want this system to work. I want Nintendo to come up and step up, but given Nintendo's previous failings with the Wii-U, and many of the same signs of that system appearing here, I understand why the reactions so far have been somewhat mixed and downplayed. Nintendo certainly has a lot of work (and convincing) to do within the next few weeks, but if they can foster and show a good environment for 3rd party development support, hammer down their value proposition to consumers and be rock solid in their communication strategy moving forward, they'll be in a great position to capitalize on the Switch. I sincerely believe they have learned from the mistakes of the Wii-U, but so far they have done an awful job of communicating that fact.
Here is hoping the future proves that Nintendo still got it.