There’s no debating it, the Switch is a tremendous success. Introduced in 2017, there were some who questioned if the Switch would be the turn around Nintendo needed after the dismal sales of the Wii U, or if it would simply fall flat and leave Nintendo in disarray. That question has now been answered definitively. In just over two years, the Switch has sold over 35 million units (more than double the lifetime sales of the Wii U and already more than the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube), and propelled Nintendo to decade long highs in both annual revenue and share value. And with the recent announcement of the Switch Lite and a stacked lineup through early 2020 that includes new Zelda, Luigi, Pokemon, and Animal Crossing titles, the success will likely only increase.
The Switch’s success can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost, is the “Switch” capability itself. Being the first console that is truly both a home and portable console has been a boon for both hardware and software sales. Highly reviewed titles from Nintendo’s largest IPs in Mario, Zelda, and Smash Brothers took the industry by storm as well, resulting in attach rates that console makers can typically only dream of. The Switch also released at time when tens of millions of players already owned a PS4 or Xbox One and represented the perfect compliment as a “secondary” console. And what can sometimes be most important, is that the Switch has been a cultural success and capitalized on the Nintendo name and a heavy sense of nostalgia for the brand.
Nintendo has accomplished much with the Switch but while we should, and do, applaud those successes we should also be able to have an honest discussion about the console’s deficiencies. In several areas, the Switch continues to be antiquated for no discernible reason other than what seems like complacency on Nintendo’s part. Given the popularity of the Switch, and the success (thus revenue) Nintendo is seeing from it, should we not expect more in 2019?
Nintendo’s online infrastructure has been lackluster if not completely absent for years. While Sony and particularly Microsoft have led the way in online console gaming (building upon the foundation that Sega built which I feel the need to call out), Nintendo has generally taken a backseat and focused on single player and/or local co-op. With the Switch, a console launch that sought to erase memories of the company’s prior generation, Nintendo had a perfect opportunity to start anew and incorporate an online component that brought the Switch up to modern standards. Instead what we received was initial messaging that lacked clear direction and a wholly substandard offering.
Prior to the Switch’s launch, Nintendo announced that there would be a paid online service for the console. At the time it was said to have online play for titles, a free NES title per month, and a companion app for voice chat. It was scheduled to launch in late 2017 after the Switch’s launch in spring, and until it was fully operational, online play for titles would be free. The plan seemed poorly thought out and the requirement of a phone app to chat with friends seemed counter intuitive. Sadly, that was just the beginning.
In June of 2017, post-launch, Nintendo announced that the service was being delayed until 2018. According to Nintendo, this was to expand the feature set of the service while Reggie Fils-Aime said it was to “…ensure the Switch Online service was world class” when it launched. It was at this time that the service was announced to be $20 annually which in and of itself was cause for concern purely from a feature-set perspective.
The service didn’t launch until September the following year, 17 months after the launch of the console. And while Nintendo promised additional features that would “be worth the wait“, the service essentially offers what they originally discussed at the start of 2017; which is dismal. In 2019, playing titles online with your friends should not be a challenge. And yet with the Switch, it is. While it is technically possible (to varying degrees) to play the Switch’s most popular titles with friends online, it’s cumbersome at best and completely non-functional at worst.
There is simply no excuse for Nintendo to not have a unified online infrastructure at this point in time. Nintendo has previously expressed concerns around families and player safety when confronted with questions on their online support. But those concerns have generally felt insincere. There are many ways to mitigate those concerns in today’s online environments such as parental controls, online visibility, blocking, muting, two-factor authentication, and more.
UI and Functional Capabilities
The Switch doesn’t just fall short in supported online infrastructure however. The overall functional capabilities of the console are simply not up to the standards of other platforms. While a robust online network for players has become a standard on the Xbox and PlayStation, there are many other features their operating systems offer that the Switch simply doesn’t. One of the most important features, cloud saves for your titles (standard for years on the Xbox One and PS4), is locked behind Switch Online (and also doesn’t work universally). This has led to cases of Switch consoles being lost or broken and their owners losing hundreds of hours of progress in major titles.
Examining the UI, from the core menus to the eShop, you find an operating system that has clearly not evolved over the past few years. Again in fairness, the Switch is a rather unique case in that the Nintendo UI designers have to factor both a home and portable design into a single UI. However, simple features such as sorting or organizing your games are not options. Again, why I’m having to talk about being unable to organize your digital content in 2019 seems absurd, particularly when it’s the primary way Switch players consume their content. Content research through the Nintendo eShop is also primitive. The entire eShop layout feels more at home on a DS from 2010 than they do on a home console nearly a decade later. Basic search filters were only recently added in November and do little to help navigate the now thousands of titles that appear on the Switch due to the wealth of indies and ports. And of course, a feature that has been requested for years is some sort of achievement or trophy system which Nintendo has generally refused to address.
Application support is yet another area that has been a standard on consoles for years now yet deficient on the Switch. Since the Xbox 360 introduced Netflix to consoles in 2008, app support has grown into a console standard with a substantial amount of worldwide web traffic being used for movies, music, videos, and streaming on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The lack of app support at launch was questionable to begin with, but now nearly 2.5 years later, the Switch continues to only support a handful of apps and is missing notable ones such as Netflix, Prime Video, and many others.
With regard to streaming, a hugely popular (and growing) avenue for gaming viewers in 2019, it’s sadly the same story. Twitch and Mixer are non-existent. To stream Switch games you must run a separate capture and broadcast through a PC whereas you can stream natively from an Xbox One (Twitch and Mixer) or PlayStation 4 (Twitch). Again, with titles such as Super Smash Brothers Ultimate and the recently released Super Mario Maker 2, there seems to be a huge missed opportunity here. I can say without a doubt that fans would consume the content were it there and easy to access.
Compounding all of these concerns is the limited device support as well. From headsets to Bluetooth and everything in between, the Switch’s support for modern devices has been lacking. This naturally leads to limited accessibility and many searching for workarounds just to try to get basic options to work that are typically plug and play on other consoles.
Attempting to point out any mishandling by Nintendo of their core IPs is the equivalent of attempting to siege a castle wall with nothing but baskets of fruit (you can pretty much use any absurd analogy you want here). I, along with I’m sure a majority reading this, have incredibly fond memories of growing up with Nintendo titles. They were formative in my youth and I have even written a little about those experiences specifically in prior articles. But while our sense of nostalgia is high, and many of the titles that continue to be released are excellent in their own right, we should still be able to take a critical eye to Nintendo’s approach.
Nintendo’s management of their classic games has been convoluted and has left fans scratching their heads at times. Introduced in 2006 on the Wii (and later on the 3DS), the Virtual Console was beloved with fans and granted access to a wealth of classic Nintendo titles along with select titles from other platforms such as the Sega Genesis, Neo Geo AES, and more. While many of the first party titles had been released in various forms through the years, it was the first time they were consolidated into an official platform supported by Nintendo themselves. Yet with the launch of the Wii U, Virtual Console’s offerings were reduced and now with the Switch, it has been removed completely. The mere fact that Nintendo didn’t bring the functionality forward to the Switch is baffling. Instead, the only way to access a handful of NES titles is through the paid Switch Online service referenced earlier. Meanwhile titles from other Nintendo consoles, previously playable on the Wii and Wii U, are no longer accessible on the Switch while other titles such as Neo Geo AES games, can be bought again on the eShop. Some argue that this was primarily done so that Nintendo could sell the NES and SNES Classics as a separate products which Reggie even referenced last year. Whether or not that’s the case is irrelevant. The point still stands that the Virtual Console could have moved forward with the Switch. In fact, when you compare the functionality of the Wii U to the Switch, you realize Nintendo went backwards in a few areas.
With regard to modern first party titles, I feel it’s only right to call out the pricing as well. Regardless of the popularity, overall sales, or longevity on the market, Nintendo does not traditionally lower the cost of many of their major first party titles. This is counter to the rest of the industry and demonstrates a lack of consumer focus. Using some of the largest hits on the PlayStation 4 as an example such as God of War and Spider-Man, these titles have generated very impressive sales and revenue figures, and thus have been discounted heavily at times. This of course allows new players to play titles they may otherwise be unable to afford while also showing goodwill to fans of the console and specific IPs. The fact that Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, a title that originally released in 2014 and has sold through over 25 million total copies, is still $59.99 (as of this writing) is ludicrous.
Re-Investment to the Platform
In fiscal year 2019, Nintendo reported strong earnings and year over year growth due to the success of the Switch, particularly as it relates to digital content. Here are the notable figures reported by Nintendo Investor Relations on April 26, 2019.
⦁ Net Sales of $10.8 billion (13.7% YoY)
⦁ Operating profit of $2.25 billion (40.6% YoY)
⦁ Total profit of $1.74 billion (39% YoY)
⦁ Digital software sales of $118.5 million (86% YoY)
The impressive figures have resulted in Nintendo’s shares hitting highs in the past 18 months that haven’t been seen since the peak of the Wii nearly a decade ago. And as I noted at the start, the Switch’s popularity certainly shows no sign of slowing down. Rather, many believe the successes will only further increase into 2020 which in-turn will drive higher earnings and could push the Switch, and Nintendo as a company, back up to highs seen during the Wii era.
With all of this success in mind, it seems bizarre to me that we are not seeing more significant investments from Nintendo into the weak points of the Switch platform. While Nintendo is forecasting a 7.7% increase in R&D expenses for fiscal year 2020, that is likely driven by the Switch Lite and potential third Switch variant that’s rumored.
Now in all fairness, from a corporate financial perspective, Nintendo doesn’t have the resources of Sony nor Microsoft. And the success of the Switch is still in its infancy. It can take time to steer the ship towards more progressive policies and enhancements for consumers. And maybe the rumor that spread back in May of Nintendo partnering with Microsoft on Azure is a sign they are starting down that path. But to date we’re not seeing any signs of major updates and given what we’ve seen out of Nintendo for generations now, particularly after the financial successes of the Wii, it’s difficult to have confidence that any large scale changes are going to be made.
Of course, it’s easy to simply answer many of my comments with “Why would Nintendo bother doing any of these things when they are generating record revenue anyway?“. However, I’d argue that response feels disingenuous at best and irresponsible at worst. Providing a corporation excuses to cover for their complacency is not only bad for consumers, but it can further embolden a company’s obstinate views.
We as fans of Nintendo should hold them to a higher standard. Many of us adore Nintendo and have supported them for decades through thick and thin (Wii U and Virtual Boy included…). We champion them. We buy the same titles multiple times, generations over, and often without question. As I said, certainly don’t let this article lead you to thinking I don’t have a deep fondness and nostalgia for Nintendo.
When reflecting on this generation, there are many examples of fans holding Microsoft and Sony accountable (despite both generating record revenue independently as well). From the Kinect, to crossplay, to Live Gold/PSN Plus changes, to digital sharing, and much more, fans have used their unified voice to drive positive change from the two companies and a more consumer focused approach. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be jointly focused on the same for Nintendo.