On January 12, Nintendo held a big unveiling for the Switch, their new console/handheld hybrid launching in early March. There is a lot to say about the Switch from the renewed focus on motion controls to the pricing of the system, accessories and games. But a factor people keep bringing up as a major problem is the lack of third party support. The crux of this argument is that the Switch is underpowered, won’t get proper third party support, and will fail at market. While I understand where this viewpoint is coming from, I think it is an ultimately short-sighted one. The Nintendo Switch will not have the traditional third party support seen on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but Nintendo doesn’t need traditional third party support to be successful.
Before I talk about Nintendo and third party support, it is important to go back and give a brief history of this long standing issue. The NES and Super Nintendo both got a lot of third party support due to their position on the market, but many publishers were unhappy with the strict rules Nintendo would implement. When the Nintendo 64 came along, many of these publishers started jumping ship. Nintendo continued to use cartridges, which were more expensive to produce than the CDs used by Sony’s new PlayStation. A lot of franchises made popular on Nintendo systems were suddenly PlayStation games, with the most notorious example being Final Fantasy. The GameCube did a little better in this regard, but the use of mini-discs and the success of the PlayStation 2 didn’t make the system a priority. The Wii was severely underpowered, but it sold on the back of its motion control features and got a lot of third party games as a result. However, a lot of these were quick attempts to cash-in, and most of the notable Wii games came from Nintendo.
Which brings us to the Wii U, and by extent the purpose of this piece. The Wii U did not sell well, being outsold by even the GameCube. The system launched in 2012, and just four years later its successor was announced in the form of the Switch. There are a lot of reasons that the Wii U didn’t sell, but one people kept coming back to was the lack of third party support. While that became true during the later years of the console’s life, this idea that the Wii U had no third party support is mostly a myth. Looking at the Wii U’s launch lineup, it had Assassin’s Creed III, Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Darksiders II, FIFA 13, Madden 13, NBA 2K13, and Mass Effect 3 among some others. All of these were ports, and some of them were laughable for reasons I’ll get to. But this was a launch lineup with a fair amount of high quality, AAA, western, third party games. Yet the console didn’t sell well, and neither did these ports. So, why was this the case?
There are a few possible explanations for this. Most of these ports were of games that were already out on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with Batman being an especially egregious example. Games like Call of Duty rely heavily on online services, and Nintendo has never been strong in this area. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were heavily rumored to be coming out in a year, and the obvious power jump was going to leave the Wii U without further support. These are all factors that can’t be ignored, but I think there was a bigger factor at play that comes down to two simple questions: “Who was the market for these games?” and “Who was the market for the Wii U?”
The market for Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty is a large one. Those games sell very well and do well amongst a mainstream audience. But that mainstream audience should not be confused for a casual audience. The people who are interested in these games buy them and play them often. They just don’t buy a ton of games outside of very narrow genres. My point is that the people who wanted to play Black Ops II already owned a system to play it on. The PlayStation 3 launched in 2006 and the Xbox 360 in 2005. Most people weren’t jumping into the generation in 2012. Furthermore, people were already invested in the online ecosystem of those old consoles. The people who weren’t going to buy a Wii U for New Super Mario Bros. U weren’t going to buy it for Mass Effect 3 either.
So what good would having a Titanfall 2 port do for the Switch? Or how about Resident Evil 7? Are there people who haven’t bought a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One (now both three years old) who want to play these games. I mean, there might be a couple, but that market is shrinking every day. Nintendo needs to appeal to two markets with the Switch: people hardcore enough to buy multiple current-gen consoles and people casual enough to have not bought one already.
The way Nintendo should go about appealing to these audiences is by looking at three recent platforms: The Wii U, the 3DS, and the PlayStation Vita. Two of these systems had small, dedicated audiences, and the other had a fairly large audience of both hardcore and casual fans. The best case scenario to the Switch is to attract the audience of all three of these platforms.
Let’s start with the easiest to deal with, and that’s the Wii U. People bought the Wii U to play Nintendo games. They bought it to play Mario, Zelda, Smash Bros, Donkey Kong, Mario Kart, etc. These people will be here day one for the Switch, and Nintendo has given them good reason to buy the console by the holidays at the latest. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild might be a tough sell to people who own a Wii U to play it on, but it is still going to be a system seller at launch. With Splatoon 2 launching in the summer and Super Mario Odyssey releasing this fall, Nintendo has three tent-pole games that will move hardware amongst Nintendo fans. This is also assuming that they don’t announce anything at E3 coming out this year. The diehard Nintendo fan might be a little disappointed at the launch lineup, especially considering they can already play Zelda, but they will come around by the end of the year.
But while the Wii U was servicing a niche of Nintendo fans, the PlayStation Vita was cultivating an equally small but separate niche. The Vita was populated primarily by indie games and Japanese games. Nintendo is already making strides in these areas with the Switch. Plenty of major independent titles have been announced for the system including Shovel Knight, Yooka-Laylee, The Binding of Isaac, Rime, and Stardew Valley. Nintendo has shown an increasing openness to indie games in recent years, and launch event standout SnipperClips is a good example of this. Nintendo actually took the team under their wings and are publishing that game. Sony has been great about doing this in the past, and Nintendo could learn a lot from them. When the third party lineup is sparse, these are the games that can fill and diversify your release schedule.
The Switch has also been successful so far in courting Japanese developers. Square Enix has announced three Dragon Quest games, including Dragon Quest XI which will sell consoles in Japan. They also announced a port of I Am Setsuna and a new JRPG called Project Octopath Traveler from the Bravely Default team. Sega has announced two Sonic games and committed to further development. NIS, a big Vita supporter, announced a Disgaea 5 port and has also committed to more games down the road. Altus announced a new Shin Megami Tensei game, and Suda51 got on stage to announce a new No More Heroes. Some of these projects are early, but they show a level of support that the Wii U never had. These are the games that will get people who are willing to buy multiple consoles but aren’t hardcore Nintendo fans to buy a Wii U.
The 3DS audience overlaps with both of these a bit. It had a lot of Japanese support from companies like Square and Atlus, and it obviously had first party Nintendo games. However, the 3DS also had two franchises whose importance cannot be overstated enough: Pokemon and Monster Hunter. These two franchises move hardware. The 3DS was sold out everywhere this holiday because of demand from people wanting to play Pokemon. These are juggernauts on the same level as Call of Duty. If the Switch has exclusive games in both of these franchises (and there’s no reason to assume it won’t), then the Switch will be successful. It might take time and a price drop, but so did the 3DS and nobody calls that system a failure.
I’m not saying Nintendo should completely give up on third party relationships with western publishers. But they should pick and choose what games they want on the platform and not just go after Call of Duty because it sells a lot. I actually think Skyrim is a great choice. It’s a game people maybe haven’t played in a while, and it’s a game where playing on the go is an appealing feature. Nintendo should go after these games, but they should do so in a targeted fashion and not beg Warner Bros to port a year-old game just for the illusion of third party support.
The Nintendo Switch has a lot of challenges ahead of it. The reveal event had a lot of problems, the accessory prices are ridiculous, and we still know alarmingly little about a console launching in about a month. It’s very possible that the Nintendo Switch ends up being an abysmal failure. But if that happens, third party support problems won’t be the reason.