A few thoughts on the Nintendo Switch

So the introduction video for the Nintendo Switch (formerly known as “NX”) has been released, and for the past 24 hours everyone has been pondering, analyzing and overthinking it all. I figured I’d give it a try too. 🙂


Most of you probably already know the main bits of information we have, so I’ll go over them super quickly:

  • It’s a tablet-like machine with two “half controllers” that attach on the sides
  • The two half controllers can be used as one set, or as two controllers by two players
  • It can be docked to a base station, which immediately switches the display to the TV
  • It is supported by many third party developers, but we don’t know with which titles
  • It sports an Nvidia all in one “Tegra” chip, but we don’t know how powerful it is

That’s about it for the “solid” information we have. The rest is speculation for now. But that’s the fun part, right? Here are the questions that I believe are important (and some attempt at guessing answers):

The big one: what’s the price?

Of course this is highly speculative, but I believe it’ll be USD 299 (or the equivalent in your country).

My reasoning is very simple: higher is suicidal, lower is leaving money on the table.

Higher makes it more expensive than a PlayStation 4 or XBox One system, and these have impressive software libraries available already. The Switch can’t afford to be more expensive, or it’ll tank on that alone. Memories of the disastrous launch of the 3DS system, which was too expensive and received a very fast price cut, must still be fresh at Nintendo. I don’t believe they’ll do the same mistake here.

On the other hand, lower than $299 leaves money on the table, because I believe many people would be willing to pay that price… And as always in these conversations, I stand by my point that you can lower the price later, but you can’t raise it. If it’s a bit too expensive, they can do promotions and such. Pricing it too low is a permanent issue.

Why go with this weird hybrid design?

Nintendo is insisting that the Switch is first and foremost a home console. I don’t believe that is genuine. Maybe they’re doing it to make sure you expect a $300 price, maybe it’s so you don’t expect incredible battery life. But I don’t believe it is primarily a home console. That would put it in direct competition with the PS4 and XBox One, which would be a ludicrous idea (unless it is way cheaper, which it won’t be).

The 3DS is now ancient, especially from a technology standpoint. It will begin to be phased out soon (although with 60M consoles sold, it’ll take time to disappear). And the WiiU is already a distant (and painful) memory for the few of us who got one. They are also under assault from smartphones on the portable market (which is even bigger in Japan than in the West), and from the immensely successful PS4 (and XBox One to a lesser extent, especially in Japan) on the home market.

They’re taking two products that are in danger of under performing, and merging it into one, which should be a solid success. That’s the idea at least.

That being said, portable consoles are the one domain were Nintendo has remained uncontested. I do believe this will primarily be a portable console, aimed to reproduce the success of the Gameboy, the DS and 3DS. In the portable gaming market, they are the only “real” gamer alternative (for all their success, smartphones don’t appeal to core gamers for core games). And my opinion is that they plan on using this position to leverage a favorable one in the home market too. I’m not saying it’s not a home console, I’m saying I don’t believe it’s “first and foremost” a home console.

Who is it for?

Many people have noted that the trailer doesn’t feature children, which breaks tradition with Nintendo’s usual imagery. I don’t think that means they’re changing their target though, they’re just getting a little bit more modern and realizing that you don’t need to show children playing your games to make it appealing to them, while also admitting that featuring kids might make it less appealing to adults. But that doesn’t change the fact that, just like the 3DS and the DS before it, I believe the Switch will be most popular among kids and teens.

It’s easy to loose track of this as gamers and adult Nintendo fans, but we are not their core audience, just like we are not Disney’s core audience. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy their products (we do!), but it does mean we’re not who they are aiming it at.

A word should also be said of families in general: many Nintendo fans are now parents themselves, and anyone with children knows the value of a tablet you can give your kids to occupy them for a bit, as well as that of a Nintendo console or game that you can safely give them without fear that they’ll see something they shouldn’t.

So, regardless of the imagery, I believe Nintendo is still aiming for the core audience of Nintendo, not that of the PS4. Which is a good thing, because the PS4 has a pretty big lead on them anyway. And let me clarify here; just for the sake of argument: if they *are* all of sudden deciding to target this as adults, who are already busy with smartphones and PS4s and XBoxes and PCs, they’ll fall flat on their faces. They’re not dumb, that’s not what they’re doing.

How powerful is it?

Again, speculation here, and we’ll know soon enough, but… I can’t imagine it’ll be very powerful. I could see it being somewhere between the WiiU and the PS4/XBox One, but that’s it. I’ve seem people claim it could approach the level of graphical prowess of the latter two, but that is just not going to happen.

The main issue is the form factor: it’s a portable console, that needs to last you more than an hour on the go (ideally at least 5 hours I’d say). That is simply not compatible with a power hungry graphical unit, period. It also doesn’t matter how great the Tegra SoC is, it’s not THAT great.
Which is fine (and even impressive) for the “portable” aspect. But isn’t so fine when you use it on your TV. We’ve confirmed that the dock will not provide computing power, so although it could allow for the GPU to run faster (power consumption isn’t a concern when plugged in), it won’t transform that Tegra into a GeForce 1080, or even 1060. Or even 1050.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think graphical power is everything, and I do believe developers and artists can do wonders with style and design. I actually thought the underpowered WiiU made for marvelously pleasing visuals, thanks to Nintendo’s artistry. But that doesn’t change the fact that this “primarily home console” is going to start a notch below the aging existing consoles, which are already well below PC standards, AND are both getting upgrades in the next 12 months, AND that the Switch will face yearly updates of smartphone systems (which get better graphics every time) on the portable side.

I’m rooting for Nintendo, and I love Nintendo, and I do believe they can do great, and I am convinced they will. But if you’re not seeing  that poor-ish graphics will likely be an issue for that console relatively quickly, I’d say you’re letting your love of Nintendo get the better of you.

What’s its best feature?

Besides the obvious, I actually believe the weird half controllers might be its best asset. The way I see it, here’s the ideal scenario:

  • Parents (especially if they’re gamers themselves) buy one for their teen
  • Who proceeds to go to school with it, and instead of being the geeky loner in a corner, they play with their friends around the console with one controller each
  • Kid n°2 gets the bug, wants one too
  • And by the time you can say Christmas 2017, it’s the thing everyone gets
  • Just in time for fantastically priced deals

That “‘real’ social aspect” is something smartphones can’t do easily. And while you can always play the same game and talk about it, it is not the same as having two controllers and one screen, and screaming at your friend that you missed your special move because the thing is bugged, while you’re both laughing your head off. That is something special that only this system can do (or at least can do easily). And if you have two, that’s four players. Tournaments during recess in the courtyard, here we go.

What’s its biggest challenge?

Nintendo has never been good at online network and management. It’s always been overly complicated, and frankly unwieldy. They’ve had a few good ideas, such as StreetPass, which remains in my opinion one of the best portable gaming feature anyone has ever designed, but by and large their systems weren’t great on that front. And I hope they’ve learned and taken a page from Sony and Microsoft on this, but I also fear the venerable and way too traditional Kyoto company might not have, even with the help of their partner DeNA. Hopefully my fears are unfounded, and it’ll all be super well designed and easy to use.

One additional note on challenges: the UI and game design can’t be the same for a 6″ screen in front of your eyes and a 50″ TV across the room. Switching from one to the other might bring challenges developers didn’t expect. Hopefully they’ll overcome them and it won’t be a problem, but…

There are more questions…

Touchscreen? Backwards compatible? Changing batteries? Region locking? We don’t know, but hopefully we’ll know soon.

Does any of this matter?

Honestly… not really. The only thing that really matters in the end is whether or not it gets great games. And knowing Nintendo, and knowing how deep in trouble they are if they don’t get this right, and knowing that they’ve basically abandoned the WiiU two years ago to start working on this thing, I believe they will have great games.

I for one already know I’ll be getting my on day one. Call me a fanboy, you might not be wrong.

October 21st, 2016