The Nintendo Switch’s lost opportunity

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.

The launch lineup is very weak with only five titles on launch day and 35 through the holiday season. That launch window only has three new titles from Nintendo: Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey.

The Switch’s limitations for mobile gaming are also a concern. Nintendo confirmed a demanding game like Zelda will cap the console’s battery life at three hours, which won’t cut it for long trips. 32GB of onboard storage means gamers will have to juggle physical cartridges or Micro SD cards on the go. That’s a problem when Nintendo touts the Switch’s versatility as a selling point.

Even if the Switch overcomes its higher price, soft launch library, and portability issues, Nintendo did it few favors at its unveiling. The reveal presentation was unfocused, pulling in too many directions at once. There were Zelda and Mario trailers for the core audience. A large segment for motion control gaming in an attempt to recapture the Wii zeitgeist. They trotted out studio heads to (unconvincingly) promise better third party support. And they loved touting the Switch’s technology and gadgetry, like “HD rumble” and the sensors in their Joy-Con controllers.

Who is the Switch for? If Nintendo wants to succeed in the face of strong competition, they need to focus. Build a compelling “hook” for a more limited segment of the market and grow from there.

A budget conscious option

Traditional gaming isn’t cheap. $500 video cards, $400 consoles, and $60 games push many mainstream consumers away. It also dissuades gamers already invested in a gaming ecosystem from buying into another.

If the Switch sold at $199 instead of $299 it would have more of a fighting chance. $199 falls in a tech “sweet spot” where many other popular devices occupy, from the Amazon Echo to Beats headphones and Bluetooth speakers. It’s not cheap enough for an impulse buy, but it’s also not reaching the cost of an iPad or LCD monitor. Many more would take a chance on the platform, even with the weaker launch lineup.

Retro games as a service

All signs point to Nintendo continuing to sell games from past consoles (NES, SNES, N64, Gamecube) à la carte. Yet there’s greater potential in an on demand library for a flat monthly subscription. The Switch could be the exclusive provider for such a Netflix-like service.

As the massive demand for the new retro NES system shows, nostalgia is a powerful selling factor. The Switch is a perfect fit for older titles. The console’s mobile processor and sometimes cramped controls can handle older consoles with ease. And on the go, a classic Nintendo title can go toe to toe with other mobile platforms on gameplay and longevity.

The premier home for small budget indie titles

Nintendo is wasting time chasing after the big AAA studios for support. The brand doesn’t have the sell through numbers to ensure they stick around. The Switch’s underpowered specs also can make porting games to the platform challenging. Granted, as with the Wii U, EA and others will provide a few lukewarm ports during the Switch’s early days, but drop off is inevitable.

Still, with solid Unity and Unreal engine support, it’s a different story for smaller budget indie studios. Popular titles like Shovel Knight and Stardew Valley pair well with the Switch’s control scheme and less powerful hardware. Smaller studios are also less picky about their target platforms.

Nintendo should make overtures to this segment of the game development market. It could highlight small budget titles in a more prominent fashion than what’s presented on Steam, PSN, or Xbox Live. A steady stream of indie titles would fill gaps between Nintendo first party games and broaden the platform’s diversity.

It’s not too late for change

Even with my pessimistic outlook, all signs point to a strong start out of the gate for the Switch. Preorders should sell out given Nintendo’s conservative hardware production. I expect Zelda to get strong reviews and keep fans happy for several months.

I don’t see that goodwill lasting, yet the initial boost gives Nintendo time to turn things around. A price cut, a retro games subscription service, or extra focus on third party indie games could make a dramatic impact on the console long term. Here’s hoping they take action, and fast.