The Switch has so far been a huge success story for Nintendo. It is reported to have sold more than 9 million units over the recent holiday quarter alone and is on track to sell around 17 million units over the financial year as a whole. That’s more than the Wii U sold in its entire lifetime. Furthermore, it seems to be outselling both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. Several Switch-only games have also been smash-hit successes.
This success has surprised many people, given the failure of the Wii U. And perhaps it has surprised Nintendo almost as much as it has surprised the rest of us. I suggest that Nintendo has actually stumbled upon this success largely by accident, rather than by design, with circumstances and fortunate timing playing spectacularly in their favour.
Nintendo’s thinking behind the evolution of their latest console seems fairly straightforward and not exactly very imaginative.
The Wii was an enormous success for them — and its success was built upon its revolutionary motion-based controllers. It was a joyful experience to be able to play a tennis game simply by swinging your controller as if it was a tennis racket. Consequently, the Wii sold in huge numbers and expanded the gaming market to many people who would not previously have been considered as potential gamers at all.
Nintendo’s problem at this stage was: What do we do next? The Wii had demonstrated that an innovative control mechanism could enable them to compete with Xbox and PlayStation, despite those competing platforms using considerably more powerful hardware. The Wii’s control mechanism was no longer new and enthralling, however, so Nintendo looked around to see what other control innovations might reignite people’s enthusiasm for the Wii platform.
And the plan Nintendo came up with at that stage was to have a controller with an in-built screen. And so the Wii U was born. And it was an unholy mess!
The Wii’s success was built on family-orientated, collaborative gameplay, with key games allowing up to four players to play at once, on the same screen. It would be expensive, however, to include a large in-built screen on everyone’s controller, so Nintendo tried to sell the idea that innovative gameplay could be built on just one person having their own screen, with everyone else sharing the TV. But the idea was a dud!
The Wii U ended up being basically just a Wii with the slightly useful additional benefit that you could play games without using the TV — which might be handy when you’re in the middle of a game and someone else in the family wants to watch their favourite TV show. The Wii U was not properly portable, however, since the console itself needed to stay plugged into the mains.
After the failure of the Wii U, Nintendo desperately needed their next console to be a success. This could have been their last throw of the dice. If this one failed, Nintendo may have had to consider pulling out of the console market altogether and perhaps being reduced to making Mario games for other people’s consoles. Humiliating!
But all Nintendo then did was to basically just double down on the idea behind the Wii U. Perhaps having a screen in the controller was a good idea, they reasoned — it’s just that they hadn’t gone far enough. Perhaps if they just went the whole way and made the system properly portable, it would be a success.
In some ways, this sounds like a silly idea and a likely commercial flop, because what you’re talking about is making a console that isn’t as powerful as rival consoles, but isn’t as portable or convenient as a mobile phone. Surely, if people want to play on a TV, they’ll choose a more powerful console? And to play on the go, they’ll just use their mobile phone? Won’t they?
Without any fresh ideas, however, this was all Nintendo had to go with. And so they made the Switch — a decision which looked more like an act of desperation than part of any confident, sure-footed marketing strategy. Yet the Switch has been a huge success — and we’re left wondering why.
It seems, however, that circumstances have been conspiring in Nintendo’s favour.
Portable gaming today is still dominated by the smartphone, but it’s not the innovative environment it once was. In the early days of the iPhone, smartphone gaming was buoyed by an initial period of frenzied innovation prompted by the new dynamic of gyro-assisted, touchscreen gaming. Many games utilised swipes, tilting and the custom interfaces enabled by touchscreen technology to produce innovative and satisfying gameplay. Sometimes innovations even resulted from the limitations that a touchscreen device imposes.
That initial period of innovation, however, seems to have fizzled out. Genuinely innovative new games are now much more difficult to find.
Furthermore the smartphone gaming experience has been suffering from the frequently very negative effects of our societies’ obsession with advertising.
Whereas there used to be a good choice of quality smartphone games at very reasonable prices, the commercial viability of such games is not perhaps what it once was.
Why? Well, the trouble is that whenever a paid-for game becomes even reasonably successful, rival games creators will now create suspiciously similar games, but with in-game advertising, enabling them to be free. And given a choice between a good, low-priced game and a free one with advertising, most people accept the inconvenience of the advertising. This undermines the commercial viability of the original paid-for game and leaves the mobile gaming scene to be dominated by games that are marred by in-game ads.
And then there are all the ‘free’ games that repeatedly hassle you to upgrade your experience with in-app purchases — with the worst culprits offering what is essentially a pay-to-win environment.
In short, smartphone gaming is frequently an ad-strewn, upgrade-pushing, frustrating and even depressing experience — and certainly not the sort of thing parents want for their children.
And what about the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4? Well, they both seem to be successful consoles, but a lot of their major titles revolve around realism and violence; a diet that makes many parents somewhat uncomfortable.
But into this situation, right on cue, comes Nintendo with their new console, the Switch. And what is Nintendo offering? They’re offering nothing particularly innovative; just the premium, fun, honest, wholesome, family-friendly, ad-free experience they’ve always offered, but with added portability.
And this happens to be precisely what the market desires at this particular time, when many people are craving for an escape from the ad-heavy, copycatting, upgrade-pushing, data-mining, data-eating gaming experience they get on their smartphones.
In particular, the Switch is precisely what parents want: guaranteed fun for the kids and a worry-free experience. And it must be a big bonus for parents that when they want to kick the kids off the TV, the kids just pick up their Switch and walk away without a word of complaint, to continue their game in another room, out of the way. And parents can save money because the portability of the Switch means they’ll no longer have to shell out on a separate, portable gaming system.
At the same time, however, even a lot of ‘serious gamers’ still have a soft spot for Mario and Zelda — and will happily buy a Switch to own alongside their ‘main’ console.
Ultimately, you have a recipe for success — and the Switch has indeed been a huge success. But that success wasn’t really the result of great market insight or a brilliant marketing strategy. The Switch, after all, is based on the same fundamental ideas behind the Wii U. But whilst the Wii U failed, the Switch has spectacularly succeeded.
Perhaps the Switch just happened to arrive at a time when the market was particularly craving the fun, friendly, high-quality, ad-free, worry-free gaming experience that Nintendo has always specialised in.
So well done Nintendo. You weren’t being particularly innovative or clever, but you stuck to your honest, family-friendly values. And the market seems to have decided those values ought to be rewarded.