After a major misstep with the Wii U, Nintendo had to excite and win back core gamers. Nothing was immediately forthcoming. The fanbase was greeted with 19 months of silence before the whispers of the Nintendo Switch appeared. What was the mysterious “NX” console? Nintendo was keeping the concept close to their chest. Nintendo appeared to adapt an Apple-style approach to reveals. Keeping their ideas in our collective minds right before launching the product.
This idea needed to be a promise to a mostly disillusioned fanbase. Could Nintendo make that promise stick?
Nintendo Switch: Targeting the Millennials
The first whiff of this “promise” came in the form of Nintendo’s October 2016 “First Look” trailer (see below), which presented several interesting use cases. This video began by following a young man playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in his living room. We see him seamlessly “switching” play modes by picking up his Switch console and taking it with him outdoors while still continuing to play. Less than a minute into the video, it’s evident that this is Nintendo’s most high-concept console, only rivalled by the Wii.
The distilled pitch is “A home console you can play on the go.” Nintendo was making an argument for intimate local multiplayer experiences in today’s online gaming-dominated culture. Play Mario Kart in the car on the way to kart racing, unwind with Skyrim on an aeroplane, take a break from real basketball with virtual basketball. One notable scenario had a young woman (affectionately named “Karen” by the mere lords of the web) bringing her silly video game to a hip, urban rooftop party filled with eager Solo cup-wielding youngsters. It is apparent that millennials are the Switch’s target audience, as opposed to the Wii’s broader audience of young children and non-gamer adults.
The scene breaks of the reveal video were represented by the Nintendo Switch logo and name, with a satisfying and distinct “click noise,” Nintendo’s way of jamming the brand into the viewers’ subconscious like an ice pick. This approach for the Switch represented a course correction for the bungled marketing of the Wii U, which failed to make clear its concept, audience, and even its name.
But for some months, Nintendo would go silent again.
Spread the Joy with Motion Control, Again
Nintendo made the final case for their new product in a live presentation in January of 2017 – and it was here where the promise was slightly muddled. Core gamers had war flashbacks of the Wii-era when they heard of the Switch’s motion controls. Those friendly photos of elders and children waving magic wands and laughing in the living room. By beginning the show with titles like 1-2 Switch and ARMS, it appeared as though Nintendo attempted to widen that millennial target audience.
And several more questions arose from an event specifically designed to dispel any more queries. With blockbuster titles such as Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey far on the horizon, what were gamers supposed to play besides Zelda at launch? Why are controllers and accessories so expensive compared to those of the competition? Was a Virtual Console imminent? And what did this new paid online experience entail other than access to online multiplayer?
Two months before the Switch’s launch and it was appearing to be more of a “soft launch,” showcasing the console’s concept to a mass audience before turning their efforts to 11 for the holiday season. Early adopters of the Switch are Nintendo’s guinea pigs in their larger experiment, and they would have to take a $300+ leap of faith, in the company’s hopes that they would spread the word on this magical sort-of-home, sort-of-portable machine.
How the Switch Fares Out in the Wild
To this day, Switch supply remains scarce. I finally obtained a Switch of my own in mid-March. I use both the home console and portable modes roughly equally. Breath of the Wild looks crisp and colourful either way. The console’s features fit in with my daily routine. Other Switch owners will attest to bringing their console around the house. From the kitchen while cooking to the comfort of their bed before turning in for the night.
My attempts to use the console as a multiplayer machine have been mostly successful. About a month into my ownership of a Switch, I had an idea. I gathered six college-aged friends to sit on the floor and huddle around a tiny tablet situated on a stepladder. It somehow still successfully acted as a hub for multiplayer goodness. Weeks later after obtaining two more Joy Con controllers, I invited them around again. This time for a few home sessions of Mario Kart and Puyo Puyo Tetris. We resembled the happy millennials from the trailer. A pack of twenty-somethings spilt over comfy sofas playing Mario Kart. It looked as though Nintendo was keeping its promise, at least for now.
Trouble In Paradise
But what about the Wii Sports crowd that Nintendo failed to win back with the Wii U? Nintendo had successfully built an entirely new audience of gamers from non-gamers. Software like 1-2 Switch is seemingly the equivalent entry-level game. But according to a Nielsen report from early May, awareness of the Switch by non-gamers is at a low, with 7% of non-gamers above the age of 13 recognising the Switch. Nintendo has taken a couple of different avenues for mainstream exposure, including pre-release segments on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (below) and a Super Bowl commercial (following video), but despite our initial fun with the Switch, it is hard to not feel like merely an ambassador for Nintendo’s soft launch of their newfangled toy.
What Nintendo Needs for the Future
As of now, Nintendo’s strategy is to release roughly one first-party title a month, with Breath of the Wild in March, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe in April, and ARMS, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey in the months after. In their minds, this is a way to guarantee that there is always something to play on the device in the long term. Additionally, it will give the company appropriate time to create buzz for each title. But for hardcore gamers, a title a month simply isn’t enough.
Supporting Indie Developers
Nintendo may find value in their continued courtship of indie developers. Mere days before launch, Nintendo streamed a Direct exclusively devoted to independent games, with ports of popular titles such as Stardew Valley revealed to be in the works. Multiplayer games such as Overcooked, Towerfall: Ascension, and Duck Game are coming to the console. Nintendo is finding games that perfectly take advantage of the Switch’s local multiplayer abilities. However, despite the vast number of games shown (many revealed silently by means of a tiny logo on a large screen), it is unclear how many will come out. Nintendo still suffers from a major messaging issue. Even though it is available to the public, much about the Nintendo Switch is a mystery.
Will the Switch have streaming video capabilities? When can we expect to have easier ways of “friending” people online? Will Nintendo implement cloud saves? How much will the online service be, when will it be in effect, and what else will come with it? And once again, will there be some sort of Virtual Console?
This E3, Nintendo must take the time to answer all of these questions. The beauty and complexity of Breath of the Wild has made a fine distraction. Yet, Nintendo has ways to go before they have completely earned back the goodwill of their fanbase.