It’s official: The Nintendo Switch is real, it’s coming in March 2017 and it looks like it will be a pretty crazy gaming device.
The Switch is a portable console like the current Nintendo 3DS. But it also has a dock that connects to a TV so you can play games on the big screen, like with the Nintendo Wii U.
It’s an unusual approach, especially when you consider previous rumours that Nintendo might be using Google Android as the core of the Switch’s operating system (which we still can’t conclusively confirm or debunk). The finished product will stand out on the shelves, if for no other reason than it will be like nothing else before it.
Nintendo is taking a big risk by putting all its chips on such an unorthodox gaming machine.
But the struggling video game pioneer needs a hit more than ever before.
And there’s one gigantic reason why Nintendo might want to go down this road: To borrow a phrase from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, it can be summed up as “developers, developers, developers.” And it speaks to a trend that’s sweeping the tech industry.
Nintendo is no longer the superpower in video games that it used to be.
The Wii U console is a veritable flop, selling only 13.3 million consoles worldwide in the almost four years since release. The Nintendo 3DS is faring better, with 59.8 million systems sold, but that’s still about a third as much as its predecessor, the Nintendo DS, which was Nintendo’s best-selling device ever with 154.9 million units.
It has meant that Nintendo has entered into kind of a death spiral from which it’s very difficult to recover.
While both the 3DS and the Wii U have been the recipients of some of Nintendo’s finest-made games to date, there isn’t a ton of support on either console for non-Nintendo game developers. It’s one of the biggest complaints people have with both consoles, especially the Wii U.
With Nintendo only able to deliver a meager handful of those top-shelf games itself per year, it needs outside developers to keep a steady stream of new titles coming in to keep existing console-owners happy and attract new ones.
With Nintendo’s console sales so low, though, there’s not much incentive for those developers to put in the effort to bring their games to Nintendo’s camp. And without those games, consumers won’t buy more systems. It’s a vicious cycle with little hope for recovery.
Meanwhile, the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox product lines are happy to pick up Nintendo’s slack in the mainstream market, making themselves the platforms of choice for modern blockbusters from outside studios like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto.”
Playing with power
This is why building one system that’s both portable and for the TV is a really smart move.
Sony and Microsoft might have the TV console market locked up to the point where it would be a serious uphill struggle for Nintendo to regain any lost ground with developers and consumers alike.
But portable gaming has long been Nintendo’s strength, going back to the phenomenal success of the original Game Boy. While it’s true that sales of the 3DS aren’t as strong as the preceding DS, they’re still a lot stronger than Sony’s current PlayStation Vita portable console, which has sold 14.2 million units.
That means there’s far less competition for Nintendo to attract first-tier portable game developers, combined with its much stronger reputation and track record in that market.
The beauty of this plan is that it means Nintendo gets kind of a twofer deal with developers: Hook ’em with the portable gaming aspect, and suddenly it has a robust library of TV-based games, too.
The developer doesn’t have to do much, if any, extra work. Build the game once, and it works both ways. If it turns out that the Switch is based on the Android OS, even better, because developers already know how to work with Android. It’s all about knocking down the barriers to making games for the Switch.
Once those games start attracting customers, it will keep that flywheel spinning. More games appear for the Switch; more people buy it.
Ta-da. Death spiral escaped. And we’re already seeing some early signs that this might work — mega-publisher Bethesda is bringing its blockbuster “The Elder Scrolls: Skryim” to the NX, marking the series debut on a Nintendo console.
The Microsoft-Apple connection
What Nintendo is doing here is actually similar in a lot of ways to what both Microsoft and Google are trying to accomplish, as the lines between phones, PCs, and tablets start to blur.
As people look to use their devices in different ways, they don’t care about the underlying operating system so much as they care that their apps or games are available when and how they want them.
With Windows 10, Microsoft introduced a new Universal Windows Platform app standard — basically a way to sell apps once and have them work on Windows-powered smartphones, tablets, and PCs. By pooling those different devices, Microsoft holds, it can make for a tremendous audience that developers can’t ignore.
“The fundamental truth for developers is they will build if there are users,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in 2015.
Similarly, Google is working to combine its Android and ChromeOS operating systems in an effort to make an uber-operating-system that can work on laptops, tablets, and smartphones — and win over more developers.
The real holdout here is Apple, which still maintains four different operating systems — MacOS, iOS, tvOS, and WatchOS — with no plans to unify.
When the Nintendo Switch launches in 2017, it will be a big indication of which philosophy is right. If Nintendo can turn a unified platform into a position of strength after its current period of lagging, it will go a long way toward proving the concept.