Does Nintendo have a cunning plan or is it just clueless? Nick D. weighs in.
Nintendo’s latest big foray into the world of gaming is nearly upon us, and many people have a similar question: where are the launch games? While the Nintendo Switch will be launching with Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a clear heavy-hitter, the rest of the lineup has many people scratching their heads. Older indie games such as World of Goo and mini game compilations such as 1,2 Switch aren’t exactly going to turn many heads. This has led some to criticize Nintendo as being completely out of touch, with a system launch that can’t pass muster in today’s climate, especially against Sony’s runaway PS4, which is receiving more big games in March than the Switch. From another angle, however, Nintendo is playing it very smart, learning after having been seriously burned by the Wii U’s launch. So, is Nintendo’s strategy brilliant or a blunder that could cost them the generation?
The Soft Launch Theory
Before even looking at the launch lineup and reasons behind it, one must examine the launch date itself, as understanding this date is necessary to being able to suss out exactly what Nintendo might be thinking. The Switch will be out in March, surprising many who expected a holiday season release for what could easily be the hottest new gadget of the season. From a marketing perspective, it makes little sense to release in March, except for the fact that Nintendo has had a major problem recently and can’t afford to repeat the mistake. I’m talking about supply shortages. From Amiibos to the NES Classic Edition, Nintendo has dramatically underestimated demand, leading to shortages and unhappy customers.
As such, it appears to be fair to say that the March release is something of a ‘soft’ launch, a way of getting the machine out there for the faithful, without running the risk of having no supply come Christmas. Had Nintendo released later, it would be a real possibility that they would run into the same supply problem and lose sales over a much more integral period. The soft launch theory fills in many of the whys for Nintendo’s launch lineup. It explains why Nintendo would forgo the profitable and enthused holiday season for the still-competitive spring launch. It also does a lot to explain how they intend on releasing their games.
Lessons Learned from the Wii U
To say the Wii U was a failure for Nintendo is an understatement. The console dramatically underperformed when pitted against Nintendo’s own overly generous projections, and never really found success in the wider market, despite having a small, yet dedicated base. The Wii U’s failings are many, but there’s one that needs to be highlighted as part of understanding what Nintendo is doing with the Switch – the launch woes. The Wii U launched with New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo World as the two big games. Neither really brought anything new to the table, with the former being in a series known for being somewhat stale and the latter being a mini game collection. The launch didn’t hurt too badly, however. What hurt was that Nintendo was bereft of any other major releases until Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World released many months later (over a year for the latter).
This massive hole in releases was supposed to be filled with some 3rd party support such as Rayman Legends, a once-exclusive game that jumped away when the Wii U’s numbers failed to inspire developer Ubisoft. Delays and lack of immediate support like what Nintendo enjoyed with the Wii, led to the Wii U owners having very, very little to play during its first year. Thus, word of mouth was bad, and it was hard to get anyone excited about a machine that largely collected dust for an entire year before good games began trickling out.
Nintendo isn’t throwing everything out at once for the March launch. Though not sparse by launch standards, the lineup feels weak considering that both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have huge libraries of games now, with many heavy-hitters coming out in the Spring including Mass Effect: Andromeda, Persona 5, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that can certainly stand toe-to-toe with the biggest toys on the shelf, but nothing else in the launch lineup can really compare. In fact, most of the console’s big games aren’t coming until the following months all the way until 2017’s holiday season. Even Zelda, though a system seller for sure, will be available on the Wii U for the dedicated that bought the system.
There is very little new coming to the Switch on release. This could be considered a monumental mistake, but, perhaps, Nintendo is banking on the Switch itself being the new item that’s going to entice people. It’s important to remember that the Switch, as the first hybrid console, can provide gaming experiences that are unlike anything people have been able to experience before. It’s all about framing. For example, Skyrim being released on another console is a boring announcement. However, framed differently, being able to play Skyrim on the go is actually rather compelling.
Thus it’s possible that Nintendo is relying on the novel nature of its tech to get it past some of the weaknesses of its lineup. This reliance can completely backfire, however. Gamers can skip the system at launch and wait until more games are released or until there is a bundle that appeals to them. Ordinarily, this would be a scary proposition, but let’s take a look at the soft launch theory again.
Trickling to a Win
The Switch doesn’t need to hit the ground running. A weak start won’t cut the same way it did with the Wii U. Why? Because Nintendo has adopted a trickling model of content that will keep major releases, such as Splatoon 2, coming all the way until Mario Odyssey hits over the holiday season. This not only provides early adopters something to play, but it builds to an impressive lineup at the most crucial time. Compare the launch lineup in March to what will be available in December. The Wii U launched in November and had to wait an entire year to capitalize on a full holiday season with real heavy-hitters. The Switch is going to be able to build momentum all the way until it can tout Zelda and a 3D Mario over Christmas. That is a compelling argument for shoppers.
By soft launching, Nintendo has the ability to work out kinks until the holiday season where the real sales are going to happen. Distribution and supply lines can be fixed; online services can be improved; and, most importantly, the available library of games can be drastically enhanced. A launch is important for any console, but it’s trite to say that the holiday season is the most important time in any console’s life. This is why so many consoles launch in the early winter months instead of back in March like the Switch.
If done properly, Nintendo can get some early adopters from the Nintendo faithful, while garnering far more support when their library and services are in much better shape in December.
Is This Enough?
That’s the idea, at least, following the soft launch theory. There are several hitches that could make the Switch fall flat on its face. For one, early adopters could find themselves jaded. Though Nintendo has ensured a more robust schedule during its early months, the fact is that gamers are looking at about one major game a month compared to multiple major releases for other platforms. And not every one of these games is going to appeal to all gamers. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will hardly inspire Mario Kart 8 owners to double dip, necessarily. While the online multiplayer focus of Splatoon 2 is similarly going to be met with shrugs from single player gamers.
It, of course, builds to Zelda and Mario. Both are coming within the first year. Few gamers would say that either franchise isn’t worth investing in. Nintendo was smart to bookend their launch window with an example from both franchises. Still, for gamers wanting innovation, Nintendo’s reliance on such obvious staples so early on could be a sign of a direction that people aren’t particularly comfortable with.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Nintendo’s Switch will look good come December, but the risk of once again alienating early adopters is a very real one. If Nintendo can’t keep them happy, and word of mouth is bad, they could end up having a bad holiday season even with a major Mario game. This is the greatest risk they are running, and it’s one that is difficult to predict.
Whether the Switch will be a runaway success or a failure on the level of the Wii U is impossible to predict. The innovative nature of pairing Nintendo’s console and handheld libraries raises too many unanswered questions currently to make any real predictions. For the launch, however, Nintendo has clearly chosen a slow burn. Zelda is going to be their crutch and other major games will trickle all the way to December. While it’s not the fireworks many would prefer, this practice is miles ahead of the Wii U’s complete famine during its whole first year. This soft launch may bite Nintendo, and crash holiday sales, but it could also let them stabilize so they are able to deliver a crushing blow to the competition come December. It’s too early to tell, but it appears that Nintendo is learning from past mistakes, particularly from the Wii U, which makes me more hopeful than not.