Nine months ago I wrote the Nintendo Switch off as a lost cause with bad specs, a poor launch lineup, and an unclear audience. Rarely have I been so wrong.
Mid-summer the Switch briefly came into stock, and I bought one. I first wrote the purchase off as a wasteful, impulsive buy fueled by Nintendo nostalgia. However, at this point I’ve been a Switch owner for five months, and pound for pound it’s the most fun console I’ve had in over a decade. What happened?
At a glance, Microsoft had a decent E3. Their presser showcased a huge number of quality games, solid genre diversity, and decent pacing. Xbox head Phil Spencer remains a great ambassador for the brand. And the Xbox One X looks to be an engineering marvel, a cutting edge console in a svelte enclosure.
But Xbox doesn’t exist in isolation. Sony is well ahead in mindshare and sales. Nintendo surprised many (myself included) with the runaway success of the Switch. With E3 over, Microsoft has two chief questions to answer. Why should anyone buy an Xbox One X? And why invest in Xbox over the PS4?
Sadly, Microsoft stumbled on both questions. Like I wrote earlier, by leaning so heavily on 4K, Microsoft has put themselves into a weak position for the holidays.
Microsoft has bet big on Project Scorpio to generate Xbox sales and hype. Their PR cycle projects confidence: Scorpio is a large focus of their E3’s presser less than a month away. They also provided an extensive walkthrough of the hardware specs to Eurogamer weeks ago.
Yet Microsoft is kidding itself if it thinks the market for Scorpio is anything larger than a small niche. Raw horsepower won’t win a console war. In fact it’s the opposite: software, not hardware, would be transformative for Microsoft in the long run.
Scorpio, like the PS4 Pro, is a non-starter for the price sensitive casual market. A Project Scorpio will cost likely $500 or more, double the cost of a baseline PS4 or Xbox One. That’s too expensive, especially given both low and high end consoles share the same game library.
Nintendo has seen better days. The Wii U was a sales disappointment. Competition is fierce with the PS4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile platforms enjoying record sales and attention. Early details suggest the Nintendo Switch won’t pull the venerable gaming company out of its slump.
On the positive front, Nintendo hasn’t lost their knack at hardware innovation. Almost every hands on report praises the Switch’s hardware and build quality. The device easily transitions between home (docked, playing on a TV) and portable modes.
Yet many other specs and stats are worrisome. A $299 base price for the console isn’t crazy in isolation. However, it’s the same price range as the Xbox One and PS4, both bestsellers with an extensive game library. Other costs add up: an extra controller costs $80, $20 more than the competition. Also, there’s now a monthly fee for multiplayer and it’s questionable if Nintendo can provide the same level of service provided on PSN or Xbox Live. Furthermore, several game prices feel unjustified. Nintendo wants $50 for a mini game collection (1-2-Switch) that should have been a pack-in title. Ultra Street Fighter 2, a repackaged fighting game from 2008, costs a rumored $40.
Early signs suggest 2017 will be a conservative year for gaming. The PS4 and Xbox One have little to prove, with an already robust library and huge user base. VR will be fascinating to watch, but mainstream adoption isn’t happening anytime soon. And the disappointing sales of several AAA sequels (Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Watch Dogs 2) will make major studios cautious with their output.
Despite all this, several factors may shake up the industry. PC and console gaming have been inching closer together for years; strong PS4 Pro and Scorpio sales should speed up this trend. And Nintendo continues to play a wildcard role. They could transform iOS and Android gaming and revitalize dedicated portable gaming devices.
Never count Nintendo out. Few others can rival their first party games; Mario Kart 8, Splatoon, and others made big impressions well beyond Wii U’s user base. And as the Switch reveal suggests, Nintendo can still deliver innovative hardware.
I’m intrigued that the Switch combines a home and portable console into a single device. It’s practical and catering to a wide range of gameplay. Game output should increase with developers no longer having to pick between two Nintendo platforms. And it’s less gimmicky than the Wii or Wii U.
The Switch’s convertibility may also be its greatest liability. Combining home and portable forces the Switch to make compromises. Likely we’ll see reduced horsepower, input control options, and battery life. All this makes competing against well entrenched rivals, both at home and on the road, that much harder.
The PS4 Pro has serious potential. It has decent internal specs, a reasonable price point, and follows the popular base PS4. But we’re a less than a month away from the release date, and Sony’s marketing and PR wing feels asleep at the wheel. Performance claims, especially for those without 4K displays, are vague. And there’s few titles or publishers with Pro enhanced games ready for 2016. As someone bullish on a more iterative console cycle (for both Sony and Microsoft), that’s worrisome.
Granted, tech and home theater enthusiasts in the market for a PS4 won’t hesitate for the Pro. They already own 4K set or PS VR, or plan an investment in either over the next year or two. But this is a niche minority of potential buyers. For everyone else, Sony needs to step up its game and provide more information.
The Pro isn’t a routine tech release. This is the first time two consoles both labeled “PS4”, with the same game library and similar feature set, are on sale side by side. Yet one has $100 price tag for premium performance. That’s commonplace in consumer tech, but a first for game consoles. And consoles historically are very sensitive to price differences. Unless the marketing situation changes, I see few outside the enthusiast market paying extra for the Pro.
Microsoft’s E3 announcement of Project Scorpio is big news. It’s the first official sign of consoles moving toward a faster, more iterative release cycle. But the announcement is also a big strategic mistake.
Not because of the Scorpio concept itself. Consoles have advantages with a faster release cadence. There’s more wiggle room for innovation and breakthrough gaming experiences. Game compatibility expands; older platforms aren’t immediately left behind.
Yet I see two big errors on Microsoft’s part. They announced Scorpio too early and are targeting a high end, costly specification.
An earlier than usual PS4 successor has its benefits. But why is the PlayStation NEO coming now?
Early console releases are usually for companies with lagging hardware and low sales. The news grabs attention, can drive sales, and establish a clean break from the past. Nintendo’s upcoming NX console is a textbook example.
Sony’s the opposite of underperforming. They’ve exceeded expectations: 40 million PS4s sold, over double the Xbox One, and sales are accelerating year over year. And consoles thrive on momentum. Sony’s lead allows them to coast on the PS4’s success for a while; don’t rock the boat and watch profits grow. Yet success also buys the chance to take some costly bets. That’s Sony plan, an investment on the NEO today for the chance to solidify PlayStation over the long run.
Giant Bomb confirmed an upgraded PS4, codenamed NEO, is real and coming soon. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but based on the leaked developer guidelines, I’m cautiously optimistic about this news. However, a shift to a more iterative console isn’t won through hardware or development studio relations. It’s with marketing to gamers and the larger public. And it’s on that angle Sony can turn this into a mess.