Nintendo should unswitch the Switch to avoid a Kinect-astrophe

Sam Machkovech
Ars' Kyle Orland tries out the Nintendo Switch in its portable mode.
Jennifer Hahn
After multiple hands-on events around the world on Friday, press and fans alike now have an idea of how the Nintendo Switch plays and feels. It has games (though not many new ones). It has a nice screen and a slim portable form factor. It has an interesting controller proposition.
Underlying all of those, however, is a problem. The Nintendo Switch has an identity crisis. Worse, Nintendo is actively pumping fuel and fire into this problem. The company's confusing—and apparently stubborn—system launch strategy revolves around a packed-in peripheral that adds cost, bulk, and use-case confusion, and it goes so far as to point out the system's technical limitations.
This is the kind of problem that should seem incredibly familiar to fans of the gaming industry. That's right: Nintendo is on the verge of its own Kinect-like moment.

The full monty of portable gaming...

As a handheld system, the Switch is undeniably impressive. Remember, Nintendo's last stab at this form factor was the 3DS, a 2011 system with one small, analog nub. The smaller, second nub was only added on the "new" 3DS years later. The bigger screen on that second system sported a total pixel resolution of just 400x240 (technically 800x240 if you enable its charming-but-underutilized 3D effect) and a size measuring less than 5" diagonally, and that's on the larger XL edition. The other screen was generally used for extraneous features, even in landmark series like Pokémon and Monster Hunter.
With the Switch, we're getting the full monty of portable gaming. Legitimate buttons and twin joysticks. A multitouch panel. A system-on-chip primed to fuel legitimate 3D games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon 2 at a full 720p and up to 60 frames per second on a bright, 6.2" screen. Heck, we're even getting the funky perk of removable controllers and a flip-stand "table" mode, just in case you want to turn your portable system into an on-the-go two-player system. Using a single Joy-Con with two hands may not be comfortable, but it does let Nintendo include this as a default party-trick option.
But Nintendo gets to set the tone for this system, and so far, the game maker has crowed very, very loudly about the Nintendo Switch's worst use-case scenario: as a home console.
The biggest way they're doing so is by filling the Nintendo Switch's retail box with everything needed for "switching" from mobile to home use. The bulkiest piece of hardware in this use case is the USB Type-C dock, which launches the system into "TV mode" once the tablet is slid inside. The dock also comes with an AC adapter, an HDMI cord, and a "Joy-Con Grip," which you can use to slide your separate Joy-Con paddles into so that it feels like you're holding a traditional controller on the couch.
Nintendo is selling most of these combined accessories separately in a $90 bundle, in case you have multiple TVs that you'd like to plug the Switch into. The one piece missing from that bundle, the Joy-Con Grip, isn't sold separately, but Nintendo is selling a nicer one (with a battery) for $30, so let's estimate that part as a $10 retail item.
That's $100 of extra parts in the system box to guarantee that you'll see Nintendo Switch at its least compelling. Even assuming some retail markup in those accessories, a dock-less system could easily sell for $249 instead of the current $299 asking price.
Switch games can perform slightly better when plugged into the dock, thanks to some wall-outlet-enabled overclocking. The system's "barely better than Wii U" performance isn't nearly as impressive on a full 1080p display, however. Some Nintendo Switch games, including Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Splatoon 2, reportedly don't reach 1080p resolution when a Nintendo Switch is plugged into the TV dock. Even if you're not a devoted pixel-counter, the Nintendo Switch's first revealed games appear to have the same visual weaknesses as most Wii U games, including no anti-aliasing or solid texture filtering. (These games, we should clarify, are still in active development).
In short, the Switch dock adds noticeable cost without adding a lot of benefit. Unless you're really eager to play underpowered console games on a TV, the Switch would probably be more attractive as a low-cost, well-designed portable instead of a more expensive hybrid.

Catch-up on an eff-up

The whole thing reeks of a company stuck so firmly to its business plan that it is unwilling to concede a weakness and move on accordingly. Microsoft found itself in a similar boat with its Xbox One launch in 2013. Rather than take a lead with more powerful hardware, Microsoft shipped a system that was slightly weaker than its biggest rival and packed it in with a "Kinect 2.0" peripheral that added significantly to the cost. People in the Xbox camp bet big on the fallacy that families wanted a motion-tracked, mic-powered device in the living room—and that they'd pay an extra $100 over the competition for the privilege.
Today, Microsoft is continuing to play catch-up on its eff-up. Even after scrapping every bad Kinect-related issue—the $100 of extra cost, the extra processor overhead—the system is behind in both raw unit sales and public perception. The Xbox division has corrected course somewhat since then with bold additions like Xbox 360 backward compatibility and a shift to a "play anywhere" promise that will make "Xbox" games work on most Windows 10 and Xbox devices going forward.
Nintendo doesn't have another enormous software division to shift a Switch failure onto. Instead, Nintendo has the opposite problem: an old platform's success getting in the way. The aging 3DS line can still move software to the tune of millions, as Pokémon Sun and Moon proved late last year. This is probably why Nintendo told Wired over the weekend that Switch and 3DS will "live side-by-side" for the foreseeable future. That muddies the waters as far as the Switch's most promising use case—its excellent portable design.
Nintendo has struggled financially for some time now, which means it might not be able to afford to ignore those latest Pokémon 3DS sales figures. Any hopes that Nintendo would divert its development resources 100 percent to the Switch, instead of splitting them between home and portable development camps, are halted for now.

It's already time for a Switch switch

I do like the idea of plugging a Nintendo Switch into a TV, especially for Nintendo's best multiplayer games. I just wish Nintendo would let me project the Switch's native 720p signal to a TV in a pinch, using nothing more than one of the half-dozen spare HDMI cables laying around the house (or even a USB Type-C-to-HDMI dongle). I'd wager the slight difference in convenience would be well worth the reduced price for plenty of players.
Selling the Switch as a pure portable would also let Nintendo pitch the Switch to third-party publishers as a way to revitalize sales of recent catalog games with portable HD ports. I can't tell you how many people have whispered to me, "I really want to play portable Skyrim," and they'll get their chance when the game comes to Switch next year. What I haven't heard—and probably never will—is "I can't wait to buy a Switch so I can play Skyrim on my TV... again."
A Switch that was sold first and foremost as Nintendo's best portable console would also avoid unhelpful comparisons to the much more powerful (but similarly priced) home console competition in the Xbox One and PS4. Take, for instance, Randy Pitchford's weekend tweets to a fan asking about new Borderlands games on the Switch. Pitchford, the head at Gearbox Software, replied that older titles in the series could come to the system, but a Switch version of Borderlands 3 is probably out of the question. He hinted that the issue was not the game, but Nintendo: "They had other priorities."
It might be easier to court modern game makers by saying the Switch is a portable system first and foremost, thus hiding visual downgrades behind a 720p resolution. With its home use case in the lead, on the other hand, newer games like Borderlands 3 probably can't look nearly as good in that form as they can on the older XB1 or PS4 systems. Which would you rather sell: a low-cost portable console that offers the best way to play recent Borderlands games on the go, or a competitively priced home console that isn't powerful enough to play the newest Borderlands game at launch?
Nintendo is clearly committed to the hybrid, TV-or-portable nature of the Switch as a major selling point. It's embedded in the name, after all. But a cheaper system that combined full controls and a solid mobile chip to nearly replicate modern console games would be a much more compelling value proposition—and it would actually offer a significantly different way to play third-party games, compared to most games running nearly identically on XB1 and PS4.
Nintendo, unswitch the Switch in price, in packed-in content, and in marketing. That may be your best chance with an increasingly skeptical market.
Nintendo should unswitch the Switch to avoid a Kinect-astrophe Reviewed by Bizpodia on 21:00 Rating: 5

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