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Switch marks the end of Nintendo's mainstream console aspirations (and that's ok)

October 20, 2016 | By Kris Graft

Kris Graft (@krisgraft) is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra

Even though we feel like we already knew everything about the NX months ago, there's still so much to unpack after today's official unveiling of the portable-home console hybrid now officially known as the Nintendo Switch.

Its form factor is both a departure and a return to form for Nintendo, signaling a renewed console strategy – one that focuses on people who already play video games instead of trying to bring new or lapsed players into the fold, as the Wii consoles did (to varying degrees of success).

In other words, the Switch marks the end of Nintendo's mainstream home console aspirations, and not only is that totally ok, but it also makes sense. 

Let’s take a look back at the launch trailer for the Nintendo Wii from a decade ago. You have a couple guys going door to door handing people a Wii Remote saying “We (Wii) would like to play.” Moms, grandads, kids, 20-somethings, and some kind of blue collar rancher-types all made appearances here, swinging and whipping and pointing those Remotes.

It wasn’t about the hardware or even playing video games, but more 'holy cow look how much fun those people [from all different ages and backgrounds] are having!' 

Nintendo’s Wii marketing focused squarely on the experiences, with hardware in the background, whereas Switch's is focused on experiences, with hardware in the forefront, at least according to this initial trailer.

The Switch trailer, if taken absolutely literally, is appealing to people who:

  • Want to play Zelda on their couch
  • Who then want to play Zelda at the dog park
  • Want to play NBA 2K at a basketball court
  • Want to play Mario Kart on the way to a go kart track
  • Want to play Mario at a rooftop party
  • Want to play Skyrim on a plane
  • Are interested in competitive Splatoon-based eSports
  • Game journalists writing hot takes about Switch on (ok that's not from the trailer)

And the demographics represented in the Switch trailer are narrowed down to young trendy millennials – no grandparents, and weirdly for Nintendo, no kids!

If the Wii’s message was an inviting “We would like to play,” the Switch’s is, “We already know you would like to play." And not only does Nintendo know you would like to play, but the impressive versatility of the Switch nods to how the company has thought about how and where you'd like to play.

This theme of a sharpened view of the Nintendo console demographic will be a theme beyond the console's launch. This tack is a direct reaction to the shortcomings of the Wii U, a console that tried to fight on two fronts – mobile and console – while desperately trying (and failing) to cling the Wii’s mainstream audience.

Even though the Switch may have some trappings of mobile platforms, the messaging is "this is a home console that you can take with you." Nintendo won't even confirm yet whether or not the Switch has a touch screen like a mobile device. I bet it does, but I have a sneaking suspicion Nintendo wants to convey the message that this is not a mobile device, in order to avoid any mobile-console confusion among potential buyers.

It took the slow sales of the Wii U combined with the dominance of mobile games among the mainstream for Nintendo to understand that a game console needs to seek out a certain loyal audience this time around – not attempt to please a wide breadth of maybe-customers.

The market has changed drastically since the massive success of the Wii. Smartphones have eaten Nintendo’s mainstream lunch, and a console is not going to get that audience back.

"Nintendo [now understands] that a game console needs to seek out a certain loyal audience this time around – not attempt to please a wide breadth of maybe-customers."

After a bit of kicking and screaming, Nintendo has acknowledged this and made serious moves into mobile, showing signs that the company knows how to talk to the mainstream even when not on its dedicated platforms. It’s not difficult to imagine Nintendo’s mobile business making up (at least) any shortcomings of its console business.

I’m being careful not to damn Nintendo’s console business either. Even though the home console business may become a smaller piece of Nintendo’s overall financial pie, it’s still poised to be a big revenue generator.

Will it be a 100 million-selling console like the Wii or PlayStation 2? Likely not. But a game console doesn’t have to be as mainstream as a smartphone in order to be a meaningful business for a large corporation. Nintendo has what it takes to attain success, it's just that that success will look different than it did in 2008-2009.

While Switch’s focus has drifted more toward the loyal console game consumer in this post-Wii era, the strategy may well backfire. The Switch is a console that is most like a PlayStation or Xbox console since the lackluster GameCube. The unique controllers can detach and are versatile, but their primary configuration is that of standard gamepads.

Aside from the obvious selling point of exclusive first-party Nintendo games, the Switch’s main appeal is form factor. So one important question is how important is it to people to be able to go from couch-to-carry when playing Zelda? (The way I play games these days, that actually is quite important.)

There are still a lot more questions. We’ve seen one three-and-a-half minute commercial for this thing, and it’s got a lot of people (like me) speculating, because new Nintendo hardware just has that effect on us.

What about battery life? Where does this leave the 3DS business? Does it have a touchscreen? What about the kid market? How much does it cost? Oh also, how does one get their hands on a dev kit?

Today was a fascinating introduction to Nintendo’s next console, along with a strategy that’s materializing quickly. It’s true, the Switch's strategy could backfire, but it’s about the best choice that Nintendo has if it wants to stay in the console business.

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