I am a Playstation gamer. Friends have called me a Playstation fanboy. Every console I have ever owned has been a Sony machine. I even chose to buy a Playstation Vita over a Nintendo 3DS. A decision I, mostly, haven’t regretted. Not for its own library but as a portable PS2 emulator. I’m telling you this only so it carries weight when I say the Nintendo Switch was the first non-Playstation console I ever considered buying. Last October I tuned into the Switch reveal expecting a good derisive laugh at Nintendo’s latest failure. Instead I came away thinking: “I want that.” Yes, Skyrim’s a five year old game, but I’ve never played it on a train before! I could see myself taking this to a party. Maybe not the cool rooftop parties like they have in the trailer. The sort of parties I go to. Indoors.
But the more I’ve learned about the Switch in the months since the more my interest has dwindled. The lacklustre battery life of just under three hours hurts its potential as a portable console I can take to super rad rooftop parties. The launch price of £279.99 for just the Switch by itself puts it beyond the range of what I’d be willing to pay for a portable supplementary console. Launching at almost £300 instead puts the Switch in direct competition with home consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One, both of which are currently cheaper with a game. Nintendo’s entitled attitude to pricing further comes across in its decision to charge £74.99 for an additional controller and charging the price of a full game for 1-2 Switch, a collection of motion based mini-games reminiscent of Sportsfriends on Playstation and PC. I played Sportsfriends at a friend’s house once. I think it held our attention for about an hour.
The price is, if anything, more unjustifiable when looked at in the context of the Switch’s specs. Unsurprisingly the Switch is significantly less powerful than both the Playstation 4 and Xbox One and some third party developers are actually laughing at the idea that their games will run on the Switch. This would not be a problem if the Switch were available at a lower price, more in line with handhelds where we’re used to trading power for cost and portability. But, while it has some portable capabilities, the price and lack of any indication Nintendo will also be discontinuing the 3DS in favour of the Switch demonstrate that Nintendo sees this as a full home console. The Switch is directly going up against the PS4 and Xbox One despite being more expensive, less powerful and less likely to attract third party support.
The more I learn about the Switch and think about its starting position, coming after the underperforming Wii-U, the more I’m reminded of the fall of another great console manufacturer: Sega. I now wonder if history may repeat itself and the Switch will end up playing Dreamcast to the Wii-U’s Saturn.
A History Lesson
Some background would probably be helpful. So here we go, storytime! Once upon a time there was a console manufacturer called Sega. They’d achieved reasonable success with their 16 bit console, the Mega Drive. Called the Genesis in the USA because apparently, like Presidents, Americans will only buy something if it sounds religious. But time was marching on and the 32 bit age was dawning. Sega needed a new console. What they came out with was the Sega Saturn.
It failed. Spectacularly. Dropping Sega from a respectable second place in the console wars to a distant third behind Playstation and Nintendo. The reasons for its failure were many. Firstly Sega were worried about the debut of the new boy in the console game, Sony’s Playstation, and wanted to get out ahead of the competition. Instead of going ahead with the planned Autumn 1995 launch date they’d given to retailers and developers Sega announced at a press conference in May ’95 that the Saturn was out that day, in stores. Thus began possibly the worst launch in console history. Due to the sudden pushing up of the release date not enough consoles had been manufactured to meet any kind of demand and some retailers were even refusing to stock it due to the bad faith engendered by the shock launch. On top of that there weren’t many games available as developers believed they had until November to finish their titles for the launch. The Saturn being notoriously difficult to programme for and not suited to 3D graphics only compounded this problem of few games. Not even Sega themselves seemed to be developing for the thing as the Saturn was the only Sega console not to have a main series game from the company’s mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. An infamously bad marketing campaign was the final nail in the Saturn’s coffin. What was Sega to do?
They panicked. The Saturn was discontinued after just four years and replaced by a new console: the Dreamcast. This time things would be different. They would attract third party game developers by making the Dreamcast easy to develop for. They’d have a Sonic game ready for launch, the well received Sonic Adventure. Unlike the technologically backward Saturn the Dreamcast was innovative, being the first console to support online play. But, despite all this, it wasn’t enough. The damage had been done by the Saturn. The Dreamcast initially sold well, but not as well as it should have with consumers having lost confidence in Sega thanks to the short lived Saturn. Instead there was a sense the market was waiting for the Playstation 2, which was not only more powerful but had a built in DVD player – a big deal in 2000. With the Dreamcast’s low sales it quickly stopped being economically wise to develop games for it, third party developers deserted in droves to the PS2, even fewer games were developed for Dreamcast and sales were driven down further. The Dreamcast was discontinued in 2001, less than two years after its Western release. Stabbed in the back by its predecessor before it was even born.
Those Who Don’t Learn From…etc
It’s not hard to look at the Wii-U and see the Saturn come again. Firstly the Wii-U had a woeful marketing campaign that failed to even communicate the Wii-U was a new console. Nintendo had to resort to sending an e-mail to all existing Wii owners telling them the Wii-U wasn’t just an add on for their previous console. Bad marketing, however, cannot alone kill a console. The Playstation 3 had a woeful initial marketing campaign. Don’t believe me, watch this advert where a floating PS3 makes a baby cry. That screams fun. Or maybe it just screams.
The more troubling similarity between the Saturn and the Wii-U is its early demise. Last November Nintendo announced that it was discontinuing production of the Wii-U, almost four years to the day since its launch. For those of you who read the seventh paragraph of this article that should sound like a very familiar number. Just like Sega in the 90s Nintendo saw themselves falling into a poor third place and panicked by announcing a new console outside of the typical console cycle.
Why is this a problem? Well a video game console is a big investment. Buying a new console at launch can run you anywhere between £300 and £450. We’re willing to pay that much because of an unspoken agreement with the console manufacturer that for the rest of that generation we’ll be able to play games. While the PC gamer may have to fiddle around upgrading a component here or there to play the latest release I know that for 6-10 years I can buy any disc labelled “Playstation 4” and know for certain it will work. If a company discontinues its console earlier than expected I’m suddenly left without the ability to play new games and have to shell out that money again for another new console. That trust that allowed me to spend that money is lost and when this company comes out with its next machine, promising this one will last, I’m naturally sceptical. The Saturn’s short four year lifespan was enough to turn people away from the Dreamcast and the Wii-U’s four year life may do the same for the Switch.
Compare this to the lifespan of the Playstation 3 (as recommended by terrified babies). Launched in 2006 the PS3 wasn’t supplanted by the Playstation 4 until 2013, seven years later. On top of that, as of writing in February 2017, the Playstation 3 has still not yet been discontinued by Sony outside of New Zealand! Although, for the sake of honesty, I will say I tried to find a new PS3 for sale in the UK and failed so heaven knows where all those new PS3s are going.
Like the Saturn and its lack of an appearance by the blue hedgehog with a serious ‘tude (Sonic) the Wii-U was the first Nintendo console to feature neither a main series 3D Mario or Zelda game. Yes the Wii-U will get Zelda: Breath of the Wild on March 3rd, months after the console was discontinued and the same day as the game is launched on its successor console. This feels like Nintendo following through on the letter rather than spirit of their promise. Like paying back your mate for pizza by waiting sixty years for them to die then, at the funeral, slipping a fiver in the coffin.
It’s no secret the Wii-U lacked third party support. Like the Saturn the Wii-U was difficult to develop for with developers citing the lack of online support, lack of power that in some areas was even behind the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 and the confusing decision by Nintendo to release multiple different development kits for it.
Nintendo claims they’ve learned their lesson and the Switch has strong third party support. However Nintendo made similar claims before the launch of the Wii-U and many of the same companies who signed up to develop for the Wii-U, before quickly abandoning the poorly selling console, are listed by Nintendo as Switch developers.
The problem for Nintendo is that the same economic logic that stopped third party games coming to the Wii-U applies to the Switch. Game development is a very expensive process and to have any hope of accruing the potentially millions of sales needed to make that cost viable the developer needs to make their game available to as wide an audience as possible. The power of the Switch being a “generation behind” may not matter to all gamers but you bet it matters to third party developers. Because the Playstation 4, Xbox One and most gaming PCs have relatively similar capabilities it doesn’t take much for a game built for one to run on the other two. The Nintendo Switch, however, will not be powerful enough to run those big multi-platform releases. Instead the Switch will have to rely on games made exclusively for it. But will third parties be willing to take the risk of developing exclusively for Switch?
Let’s try a thought experiment. We’ll be generous to Nintendo and for the sake of simplicity say the Nintendo Switch achieves roughly equal market share with the PS4, Xbox One and Gaming PCs. Therefore if a third party develops a game for the Nintendo Switch it has the ability to sell that game to 25% of the gaming market and make its money back. Not bad. But if that developer makes a game for the other platforms it has the chance to sell that game to 75% of the gaming market. In most cases the third party is going to pick that second option, it just makes more business sense. The Nintendo Switch is not competing for games with the PS4/XB1 or PC but all those platforms combined.
Nintendo is used to attracting people to its consoles with great exclusive games developed in house and then having third parties jump on board when the console is successful. That may have worked once, and there’s no question that Nintendo makes great games, but the Wii-U had great exclusives and in the gaming market of 2017 that’s not enough any more. Exclusives are the cherry on top but they only matter if your console already has the same capabilities as your competitors to run the big multi-platform releases.
Without those multi-platform third party releases the lack of games will start to hurt Switch sales. This will turn off more third party developers leading to even fewer games and further tumbling Switch sales. Pretty soon Nintendo’s Switch will have lost that generous 25% market share we gave them and enter the same death spiral that claimed the Saturn, Dreamcast and Wii-U.
Where We Are Now
So here Nintendo sit. Starting again mid-generation with a new console that is underpowered compared to the competition and with the company suffering from a lack of trust due to the early death of the Wii-U. They’ve made some good moves. Unlike the Wii-U the Switch will have both Mario and Zelda before the end of the year. There’s still some potential in the idea of having a home console that’s portable. But, as we’ve explored, the Dreamcast launched with a well received game from its top franchise and was innovative for its time. Those factors weren’t enough to save it or Sega.
The Sega Saturn was quickly forgotten by gaming history, only brought up now as an obscure punchline. The Dreamcast, however, was mourned. This is partly due to its early adoption of online play, which has made it one of the great ‘what ifs’ of gaming history. But, also, as Sega’s last console it came to represent everything that was great about them to the gamers who grew up with Sega.
Likewise the Wii-U, a punchline in its own time, will be quickly forgotten. The answer to an unfair trivia question about which console Nintendo made between the Wii and Switch. What was it? Come on, you know this! Wii-U? Or was that an add on for the Wii? The Switch though, if it does go on to be Nintendo’s last home console, will be mourned. It’s ideas like home console portability may be taken up by later generations of competitors. But more importantly it will come, like the Dreamcast, to represent everything that was great about Nintendo systems.
As with Sega, if this is the end for Nintendo as a console manufacturer, it won’t be the Switch’s fault. Twas the Wii-U what sank her.