This is an opinion piece and does not necessarily represent the views of Source Gaming as a whole.
On January 12th, Nintendo held an hour-long presentation that served as the global showcase for their newest console, the Nintendo Switch. And the response was…not unanimous. Some people were ecstatic, some were angry, some exhaled a sigh of relief as Breath of the Wild was finally confirmed as a launch title. The consensus that I felt and saw, however, was confusion.
My point with this article isn’t to lambast the Switch, or to say that Nintendo is doomed. At worst, I can’t foresee any way the Switch performs worse than the Wii U, a console that some still believe is a peripheral accessory to the Wii. It’s not going to be so bad as to send Nintendo careening off into recording three consecutive years of annual operating losses, that’s for certain. There are valid complaints, but not so many or so serious that saying the Switch will be worse than the Wii U is a reasonable conclusion (in my opinion).
Nintendo isn’t “Nintendoomed,” but they do have a problem on their hands, albeit a small, solvable one. And it’s that their PR, promotion, and messaging is, frankly, lackluster. They send mixed signals, their messaging feels scattered, there’s a genuine sense of disconnect between what the modern consumer wants and what Nintendo thinks they want, and even by corporate standards, it feels like they react and respond to developments at a glacial pace. Of course, I want to reiterate: I’m not saying the Switch will fail– the Switch could be a wild success despite the PR problems I think Nintendo has. These problems are also very solvable. At the same time, problems are problems, and I want to detail them and how they are doing damage to the branding of the Switch.
Without further ado, let’s examine how they sold the Switch to us in the October reveal trailer:
From my own opinion, plus what I’ve seen from scouring forums, reddit, Twitter, and my friends, I think there was a general consensus about what Nintendo was trying to offer us: it’s a hybrid home/handheld console that will let us take “core gaming” console-type games on the go or play at home. The trailer showed us awesome Nintendo exclusives, like a new 3D Mario, Breath of the Wild, a new (?) Mario Kart, and Splatoon (2?). It showed us popular third party games like NBA 2K and Skyrim (Remastered?). It showed us how to play on the go, at your house, in every possible configuration. This was going to be Nintendo operating at maximum development capacity, combining their home and handheld studios onto one system. It was a great first look.
Now think about the presentation. While I know a lot of people were rightfully jazzed, a lot of people were also pretty confused and let down. A console reveal presentation is different from a typical E3-type press conference, and there are a lot of details that need to be revealed, so a constantly high-paced, high-energy type conference probably isn’t doable, but Nintendo fumbled the presentation in a number of other ways. We didn’t see a lot of the handheld functionality at all. As many people other than me have noted, pushing the Switch as “the strongest handheld ever” was probably a much more compelling angle than advertising it as a home console, which is what Nintendo did. A large portion of the conference focused on motion control, “HD rumble,” and other capabilities of the JoyCons, like they were chasing the Wii’s success. Nintendo had barely produced any first-party offerings in 2016 (and to be honest, didn’t have a lot in 2015 either), they consolidated their dev teams…and their launch lineup was five games (only three of which were specified during the presentation)? SEGA and Suda51 got on stage just to say they were making games for the Switch, with nothing but an illustration of Travis Touchdown. For all the claims about the different companies supporting the Switch, Nintendo flew in the president of EA to say that FIFA (unnumbered) would be coming to Switch…and nothing else? Online is now a paid service, but almost no details were announced, and we still don’t know anything for certain. Of the other games that were included, many seemed to exist in varying stages of early development, with little in the way of actual dates announced.
This was a presentation that Nintendo undoubtedly had planned months in advance. They had every opportunity to make this presentation as seamless and attention-grabbing as possible. The Switch was planned and known for years in advance (of course, all next-generation console development happens early, but the NX was publicly announced far earlier than any other console). And somehow they botched it not just the content but the execution. The live interpretation and translators dampened the enthusiasm and felt unprofessional (not to harp on the Suda51 interpreter, because Suda51 was far more at fault there than the interpreter). The pacing felt uneven, with the ARMS and 1, 2, Switch reveals taking up a lot more time than they needed to. Again, SEGA and Suda51 barely had anything to say (the most exciting thing from the former being the executive’s absurd suit), and Todd Howard and Patrick Soderlund were brought in for vague, uninspiring, awkward announcements.
I think, more than anything, a lot of people who aren’t the core Nintendo audience– the audience that will buy the Switch almost certainly no matter what– they wanted to be impressed. This was a humbled Nintendo, regrouping after the Wii U, ready to knock everyone’s socks off. And yes, Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Splatoon 2, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will be fantastic games. I’m sure of it. But for a company that felt like it was in hibernation for two years, preparing for this launch…it doesn’t feel that amazing, it’s the Zelda game we were promised with the Wii U, a 3D Mario we saw months ago, and two enhanced ports. Games that seem barely playable, either with no date or nebulous release periods. Then everything after the conference begins to slowly trickle out. The accessories seem exorbitantly priced. Bomberman and USF2 are $50 and $40 respectively? 1, 2 Switch isn’t a pack-in, but is another $50? Voice chat through your smartphone? This is the new Nintendo?
Nintendo didn’t control the flow of information well, leading to poorly worded statements causing more confusion, dissent, and confusion within the audience. The Switch launches in a bit more than a month, we don’t have a clear outline of the online, the Virtual Console, the hardware specs, release dates for games that come out in March aren’t even nailed down yet. Moreover, they don’t even seem to understand how to pace announcements outside of their press conference. Fire Emblem Warriors was shown in the Switch direct, but with no date announced, and shown a week later at their Fire Emblem direct with only seconds of actual footage, where the trailer said it was due for Fall 2017, but the description says Holiday 2017. Meanwhile the game isn’t on Nintendo of America’s release schedule. Japanese footage from the event revealed the number of tracks and the character select screen of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Polish footage revealed Mii Costumes and the number of battle modes. All of this information ended up traveling through the grapevine to English-speaking audiences. All of these missteps make it seem like the internal branches of Nintendo aren’t working together in a coordinated, concerted effort, but are disorganized. The entire Switch information rollout shows that as the largest example by far in years.
Now I want to talk about a console reveal and launch that was done pretty well– the PS4. I do think that IGN’s video title slightly hyperbolic, but the PS4 launch actually was fantastic (one million units sold on the first day in North America alone). The day one launch lineup was a good, solid lineup, with games of many genres that would have large cross-market appeal (new Assassin’s Creed, new Battlefield, new Call of Duty, new Madden, and new FIFA might not seem sexy, but that’s actually a great lineup). But no one really remembers the PS4 launch games. It was that Sony (largely due to Microsoft and Nintendo’s missteps, you could argue) absolutely nailed the core message and promise of the PS4, and repeatedly insured to gamers that they would deliver. Sony capitalized on the disdain towards Microsoft’s obstructive DRM and always-online policies, and came out with a clear message: we care about gamers, and we’re here to bring you the games. And obviously, it worked. Let’s not forget that Sony has consistently maintained their lead and momentum by hosting absolutely killer conferences, making sure that consumers feel confident and reassured by their choice of console. And that’s a whole different topic, really– can you imagine Sony, nowadays, walking out two Japanese developers two awkwardly talk to a crowd on stage with nothing else to show? This is the company that has Kojima descend from the heavens like he’s the messiah, just as a show of goodwill. Sony isn’t perfect, either– they have a tendency to show things before they’re really ready (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Final Fantasy VII Remake, Kingdom Hearts 3, and Death Stranding to all release 2019 or later), but at least they have something cool to show for every game they have at a show. Meanwhile, Nintendo treats Fire Emblem like it’s a core franchise of theirs now, which is why…they announced the next Fire Emblem game for the Switch on a Direct that had ⅓ of the viewers the Switch conference did, without even a unique logo, not even a single original piece of concept art or footage– literally just the Fire Emblem logo. At that point, wouldn’t it have been better to just save that announcement for E3? I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of CGI-only no-gameplay trailers, but that would be a much better option over only having the logo to show.
Now, it probably feels like I’ve really been ragging on Nintendo for quite a bit. I want to reiterate that I don’t hate the Switch, and that I don’t think it will or want it to fail. I personally will probably get one, and enjoy the hell out of it, just like I did with the Wii U (if nothing else, it will likely follow the standards of that console’s fairly excellent lineup). But I honestly feel like Nintendo is shooting themselves in the foot, and I feel like they could be doing better, and I love Nintendo, which is why I care so much. It’s entirely possible that even with this mismanaged promotional event, the Switch will do great. I’d love it if that was the case. Maybe they can bounce back at E3 and show off “Pokémon Stars” and Smash and Metroid Prime 4 and Mario Souls for the Switch or whatever. But I just can’t be that optimistic after what Nintendo has done recently. They could be communicating so much better, showing off the legitimate, genuine appeal of the Switch in a much better way, but they aren’t.
You might think that the problems I’ve been talking about aren’t a big deal. You might be right, maybe they aren’t. But I think of these as small, unforced errors that Nintendo is consistently making, errors that confuse and obfuscate information, damaging consumer confidence and interest in small ways that add up. The good thing is that none of this is an irreversible problem. Better organization is all that it takes, unifying their message across their many affiliates, promoting the core idea of the Switch better. And even if the Switch does worse than we would like, Nintendo is no stranger to reversing the poor fortunes of a console launch– it wasn’t that long ago that the 3DS was derided for its poor launch lineup (even worse than the Switch’s) and now it’s a success story. Its predecessor, the DS, faced similar woes; for the first few months of sluggish sales and a lack of “big” games, analysts predicted it would be crushed by the PlayStation Portable, only for it to become one of the biggest hardware successes in the history of the industry.
But in the end, at least for me, the Switch (and Nintendo as a whole) honestly doesn’t feel ready for an early March release. But maybe Nintendo’s hand was forced to squeeze the release into a fiscal quarter. Maybe E3 really is going to be amazing. Maybe they’ll give us an 18-month roadmap of everything they’ve been working on. I wanted them to amaze me on January 12th, and I wasn’t– but they still can.