The Nintendo Switch is very clearly a success now- but where does Nintendo go from here?
The Nintendo Switch’s success at this point cannot be questioned. It has sold over 10 million units in its first nine months on the market, keeping pace with the PS4 launch aligned in doing so; it has become the fastest selling system of all time in the United States, faster than even the PS2, PS4, or Wii. It has sold more in Japan in its first nine months than the PS2 managed in its launch year.
Needless to say, the Switch has managed to be a success beyond belief- at this point, it is clear that it will end up outselling the Wii U’s entire lifetime sales within the first year that it spends on the market, and that it will end up selling nearly 17 million units within a year of its launch. It will have achieved all of this without needing any price cuts, any bundles, and without third parties, who are only now coming around to supporting the system.
All of which is to say, the time when we were uncertain about the long term prospects of the Switch is now past- even months after the Switch launched, any proclamations about its success always had to be qualified with, “but it remains to be seen whether Nintendo can sustain this over the long term”. As of right now, it’s clear that they can– but it would require them to do everything right over the course of several years to come.
"Nintendo can definitely make the Switch a slam dunk home run, but that needs for them to be very careful with how they proceed with the system from here on out."
Normally, I would have argued that that is an unreasonable expectation when it comes to Nintendo, who, after all, screw up something or the other routinely- they have made a science out of doing so, in fact. But after looking at just how flawlessly the first year of the Switch was executed, I have some hope, faith, and belief- Nintendo can definitely make the Switch a slam dunk home run, but that needs for them to be very careful with how they proceed with the system from here on out.
The most basic argument is that of games- now, I refuse to make any pronouncement on those here for now, simply because Nintendo has a habit of announcing games all at once very close to release, and then actually releasing them when promised. For the last few years, they have also taken to hosting a Direct or a Media event in January to outline their entire lineup for the rest of the year- so even when we don’t know much about what they have planned for the year early in said year, like right now, with us being totally in the dark about the Switch’s 2018 lineup, or this same time last year, with us being in the dark about everything related to the Switch’s impending launch and lineup- those concerns are unlikely to hold for much longer beyond the first few weeks of any given year.
All of which is to say that on the games front, I expect Nintendo to continue outputting great games to sustain momentum and excitement for the Switch. We already have some idea of what’s being cooked for the device- we know there’s a new Yoshi, Kirby, Bayonetta 3, Fire Emblem, Pokemon, and Metroid Prime 4 confirmed for the Switch. We know that Retro Studios is working on something. We know that Monolith Soft has begun work on a new IP. We know that work on a new Zelda game has already begun.
But even beyond that, there’s so much more- there are entire franchises and developers (first party and partner studios) that have yet to make an appearance on the Switch- and this is without considering the possibility of new IP and new partnerships. No, on the first party front, Nintendo has a lot yet to come. There are many people who argue that by releasing Mario and Zelda in the Switch’s first year, Nintendo have already fired off their biggest guns, and have nothing left- those people are foolish and wrong, because anyone could tell you that 3D Mario and Zelda are at best mid tier in terms of their sales performance among Nintendo franchises. The biggest Nintendo franchises, sales wise, are Smash Bros., Animal Crossing, Pokemon, Mario Kart, and 2D Mario– so far, none of these have made an appearance on the Switch. We did get Mario Kart 8 Deluxe– but that was a Wii U remaster, not an original game.
"All of which is to say that on the games front, I expect Nintendo and third parties to continue outputting great games to sustain momentum and excitement for the Switch."
This is without considering the question of third parties. We’re already seeing more and more third parties, Japanese and western, coming around to supporting the Switch- Capcom, Level-5, Bandai Namco, Sega, Tecmo, NISA, Atlus, Konami, and Square Enix for the Japanese ones, and EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Bethesda, 2K, and Rockstar for the western ones- it’s clear that third parties are on board now, even if not to the same extent as they would be with the PS4. Throw in the superlative support the Switch gets from indie developers, and you have yourself a system with no shortage of games.
So the Switch is doing fine on that front, and is likely to continue to do so. That’s not what we should worry about. Instead, we should look at three other key areas- marketing, stock, and online. Of these, marketing is crucial- it was, perhaps, the primary reason the Wii U failed, and is an instrumental reason as to why the Switch has taken off the way it has. Nintendo’s marketing with the Switch so far has been nothing short of astounding, with everything from the branding, the messaging, to the actual ads, being perfect, spot on, concise, and easily identifiable. Nintendo has also expanded the marketing for their system beyond their usual targeted advertising for kids on kids’ channels, with their ads featuring young adults, and airing on prime time TV, sports spots, and so on.
So, for marketing, Nintendo needs to stay the course- just don’t mess with a winning formula. What they do need to look into, though, is their stock situation. Switch has spent the majority of its first year on the market being severely supply constrained- while selling more than you can produce might sound like a good problem to have, continued stock shortages can lead to consumer frustration and resentment, leading to apathy and loss of interest. If someone wants to buy a Switch, they shouldn’t have to rethink their entire life around getting one when it is in stock- they should be able to walk into a store and pick one up. To Nintendo’s credit, the Switch’s supply situation has greatly improved over the last few months. As supply stabilizes, I would also look into either a $50 price drop, or a bundle with maybe Mario Kart, or both- just to keep the price competitive for when the system isn’t the newest and hottest gadget on the market (which, after a year, it won’t be).
"The state of the online functionality on the Switch is the only blemish on an otherwise nearly perfect games machine. Right now, it’s easier to swallow since it’s free- but as more people buy the Switch, many expecting basic 21st century online features, and as Nintendo moves towards charging for online play, something like this will definitely not fly."
The final thing is the trickiest one on the manifest- the online. Online services have traditionally been Nintendo’s Achilles’ heel, and so far that has definitely held true with the Switch as well. Online functionality is barebones, lacking even the most basic of functions, something like voice chat is needlessly contrived and require obnoxious solutions via external smartphone apps, and after the Wii U moved to usernames, the Switch has even regressed to using Friend Codes again. Great. So far, the only reason there hasn’t been more uproar regarding the state of online functionality on the Switch is because it’s all free, so fine, people will put up with it. But Nintendo wants the Switch’s online functionality to be taken seriously- they want gams like ARMS and Splatoon to be eSports, and they even plan on charging for online starting later this year.
If the state of their online remains as it is right now, this would be absolutely unacceptable. And this is one area where they need to dramatically improve. Either they severely overhaul their online services, including adding basic functionality like cloud saves, voice chat, messaging, party chat, and invites, or they don’t charge for their online- and even in the latter case, I would prefer it if they added the missing features. There is some hope that Nintendo may be looking into rethinking its approach to online, because the launch of the paid service has already been delayed, and it is now looking to launch some time in Fall of this year, judging by reports- over a year and a half after the Switch’s launch on the market. I maintain that this is because they might actually be taking user feedback from Splatoon 2‘s online app, and from the response to their reveal of their initial plans for the service.
If that is so, then the delays would be worth it in the end- and I hope that’s what they are doing, because the state of the online functionality on the Switch is the only blemish on an otherwise nearly perfect games machine. Right now, it’s easier to swallow since it’s free- but as more people buy the Switch, many expecting basic 21st century online features, and as Nintendo moves towards charging for online play, something like this will definitely not fly.
So, there we are, then- going forward, Nintendo’s job seems to be, largely, to stay the course. They need to keep doing what they have been with the games, with the marketing, and even with the supply situation (inasmuch as we take the last few months as a base there). The one thing they need to work extra hard on is their online offering.
"Whether or not Nintendo stays the course, or whether they end up imploding due to a series of ill conceived moves, remains to be seen- but for now, as they find themselves in a more comfortable position than they have been in for decades, the ball is, very squarely, in their court."
On face value, then, this might seem easy- keep doing what’s bringing you success, right? However, the video game industry is testament to the fact that companies doing well often find it hardest to do just that. Whether or not Nintendo stays the course, or whether they end up imploding due to a series of ill conceived moves, remains to be seen- but for now, as they find themselves in a more comfortable position than they have been in for decades, the ball is, very squarely, in their court.