Nintendo is aiming for a very specific audience with its new console Switch.
Generally, when a company produces a new piece of videogame hardware, it publicly predicts a glorious future in which everyone–gamers, non-gamers, Mom, Dad, Junior, Sis, even Uncle Grandpa–owns one and has content they enjoy playing on it. Since this generally never happens, these companies also tend to have a realistic notion of what sort of person their new gaming hardware is aimed at. The proof is in the launch titles: Those games they lead off with aren’t randomly chosen, but are aimed at what they see as the device’s most likely audience.
Last week, Nintendo gave the media and some lucky fans the first opportunity to go hands-on with the Switch, its new Nvidia-powered tablet console that can play games on the television and also be taken on the go. The company will launch Switch for $299 on March 3. Just prior to the event, Nintendo unveiled the games that we’ll see on the Switch through the end of 2017 and beyond. What most stood out about this big reveal was that it was actually small: Just five games will be released at launch, and only around 30 titles are confirmed for release this year. With a general scarcity of software, and Nintendo’s resources at a premium, the lineup on which Nintendo is narrowing its focus is quite fascinating, perhaps even peculiar.
Here’s my read on this: With Switch, Nintendo is focusing on what, for lack of a better term, one might call “Nintendo gamers”–die-hard aficionados of its franchises who also enjoy games in a similar vein, like Japanese role-playing games, puzzle games, and retro-styled games. From all appearances, so far it’s been a full-court press to scoop up this particular flavor of gamer.
This is less obvious a move than you’d think, considering that “Nintendo gamers” were at best a secondary concern for the company at its last two console launches. Wii launched in 2006 with a focus on the “expanded audience,” with lots of motion-controlled, easy-to-play party games for the whole family. Wii U in 2012 began with a dramatic attempt to win back the Call of Duty gamer, with a significant focus on Mature-rated, bloody action game franchises. The former tack was a huge success for Nintendo; the latter a big swing and a miss.
The Truth: It’s in the Games
Look at the announced list of Switch games, though, and you’ll barely find a single title that would fit into either of those buckets. Instead, it’s packed with Nintendo fan bait: a single-player Mario game that Nintendo bills as the true successor to the “sandbox” style Mario of Super Mario 64, an open-world Zelda, the RPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a sequel to the cutesy J-pop paint shooter Splatoon.
On the third-party front, we’ve got Japanese publishers bringing back some of the hottest franchises of the 1990s (Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter II, and Bomberman) to Switch, all with throwback-styled graphics. Tons of Japanese role-playing games were announced during the event as well, with Square Enix making a particularly big push onto the platform with its Dragon Quest series. Nintendo’s also gone out and signed a few key indie games that share its sensibilities, like the cel-shaded adventure game Rime and a cartoony RPG called Has-Been Heroes.
It’s a weird thing. This is the first Nintendo console launch since the GameCube in 2001 in which the company’s top priority is die-hard fans.
Switch’s Party Game Is an Outlier
Now, it’s generally true that, over the course of the system’s life, Nintendo will probably take whatever third parties want to give them. But prior to the actual launch of the system, Nintendo gets to pick and choose what it wants–which developers it works with, which projects it funds. Randy Pitchford, CEO of Gearbox, said something telling on Twitter in response to a fan asking for the company to put its M-rated shooter Borderlands on Switch: “I do not see that as happening. We were talking to Nintendo, but that stopped for some reason. They have other priorities.”
The one glaring exception to this all-out push for Nintendo gamers is 1, 2, Switch, a motion-controlled, easy-to-play party game reminiscent of what we saw in the early Wii era when Nintendo was trying to appeal to casual players and families. I think the existence of this game, and the extensive time Nintendo spent extolling the virtues of its motion controls during the presentation, have tricked some people into thinking that it represents a renewed focus on this type of entertainment. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that 1, 2, Switch should have been packed into the box along with the system.
That’s not a good idea. To be fair, I think this feeling stems from a fear that the simplistic 1, 2, Switch won’t sell very well on its own for $50. But to pack a game in with a system at launch is to send a more specific message than “here’s a free thing.” It says, “this is the sort of game machine this is.” And 1,2, Switch is emphatically not what Switch is all about. It’s the weird outlier.
Nintendo has announced no other such games, and it doesn’t expect third parties to make them, either: “I’m not asking them to create games that are like the games that we would create,” Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime told Time during the Switch event. “It’s not that EA is suddenly going to try and learn how to make motion control games.” This is an interesting statement given that when the original Wii came out, Electronic Arts actually hired Steven Spielberg to make a motion control game.
Will People Switch to Switch? Dunno
What Fils-Aime is implying here is that the situation on the ground has changed. While Nintendo could expect third parties to attempt to follow its lead with the Wii and at least try to make some games that use the system’s unique features, it simply can’t expect software makers to create unique Switch games these days. The best it can hope for is that said companies will port their previously-existing software to Switch.
And since it’s extremely unlikely that the Call of Duty crowd will give up their Xboxes for Switches, that leaves Nintendo trying to scoop up the die-hard gamers who go in for its own games, Japanese RPGs, puzzle games, retro games. On that last point: While we haven’t heard very much about Nintendo’s plans for its classic game library on Switch, it has said that it will let subscribers to its online service play one classic 8-bit or 16-bit game every month, with online multiplayer mode added in. That last part is not an easy thing to pull off well, and it is indicative of a belief on Nintendo’s part that classic game content will be a big draw for potential Switch buyers.
Certainly the Switch’s hardware configuration makes sense for players of these sorts of games. They don’t need the absolute best hardware to run retro-themed action and puzzle games, and especially in the case of 100-hour RPG behemoths, the fact that you can play Switch anywhere you go is a big draw. But will this plan work? No idea. I think, as with everything regarding the Switch, we’re in best-option-in-an-uncertain-world territory here; Nintendo is zeroing in on a gamer segment it likely finds to be underserved. But will these gamers want to be served by Switch? That is completely unknown.