Switched off: out-of-touch Nintendo’s going at it arse-backwards again

By Brenna Hillier, Friday, 21 October 2016 07:55 GMT

Nintendo has announced new hardware, and to nobody’s surprise the Switch is gimmicky, likely under-powered and can’t seem to front a decent release slate. Here we go again.

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Nintendo is still trying to shape the way you play instead of looking at how you play now and evolving from there. It’s going at everything arse-backwards; it’s tapping right into Field of Dreams and working on If You Build It, They Will Come.

They Don’t Come, Nintendo; that’s another of those lies hammered into our brains by 1980’s and 1990’s media, along with “true love is your birthright” and “everything will be generally all right, no worries”.

There’s no longer any room in people’s lives for a new device: all slots are fully occupied. Do we really want to lug around a second $500 device in addition to the ones we all carry already? Do you really need to play Skyrim on the subway when Candy Crush will do?

Sony has dominated the generation so far by doing the least interesting thing it could have done: looking at how gamers were using their consoles, and then building a machine that enables them. Is the PS4 revolutionary? Not in any way (soz Sony). Its most exciting feature is the Share button. But is it a box that does everything you want fairly well and provides a great development environment allowing for rapid, high quality releases? Yes.

Conversely, and despite the recent three month return to top spot in the US, Microsoft is well behind Sony because it didn’t look at how gamers wanted to engage with their consoles. Instead, it envisioned a grand (and terrifying) future of always-on online DRM and constantly-connected Kinects, resulting in a disastrous revolt from the core audience which the Xbox brand is only just beginning to recover from thanks to some serious hard yards from Redmond.

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There’s a tendency among games media to go into raptures over Nintendo’s courage and vision in refusing to just shit out a more powerful box and make some money. On good days, I agree: it’s fantastic to have a breath of fresh air every now and then, to see and try new things.

The rest of the time, I just can’t be bothered with it. The things Nintendo does differently – motion controls, stereoscopic 3D, second screens and now built-in cross-save portability – are things I can already experience on my other devices, and which haven’t been taken up to any notable degree on those platforms because they’re kind of, well – gimmicky.

There’s a tendency among games media to go into raptures over Nintendo’s courage and vision in refusing to just shit out a more powerful box and make some money.

How’s 3D doing? When did you last use a second-screen app? These trends don’t have staying power; they come, we enjoy them for a bit, but they don’t add anything meaningful, and so we forget about them. Nintendo building whole platforms around specific trends doesn’t change that. In fact, if the Switch had been a VR console I probably would have downgraded that technology’s chances of succeeding from “possible” to “sell all your stock like right now“.

So why does Nintendo keep doing this? Two reasons: to change the way you play games, and to differentiate itself in a crowded market.

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Nintendo keeps making unusual hardware because it wants to change the way you engage with games. It’s made no secret of its ambitions in this regard. People like Shigeru Miyamoto and the late great Satoru Iwata weren’t interested in making billions with violent blockbusters; they wanted games to be a source of joy, to bring people together and to make life better. This attitude is most obvious in the Wii, in DS titles like Brain Training, and in Nintendo’s nascent Quality of Life endeavours, but it’s a thread that runs through most of its modern products.

The less obvious consequence of this strategy is to get you to make Nintendo hardware a part of your every day life, to make Nintendo a platform you turn to instinctively, by habit, every day. Why do you think Nintendo’s embracing apps and persistent online identities at last?

Nintendo’s platform ambitions aren’t so different from Microsoft’s abandoned push to position the Xbox One at the centre of the living room. The wrapping of health and self-improvement make Nintendo’s efforts look positively benign in comparison. In that regard, I give it credit; Nintendo knows how to spin.

Nintendo’s platform ambitions aren’t so different from Microsoft’s abandoned push to position the Xbox One at the centre of the living room: console as full entertainment hub, controlling your TV, movies and music, itself controlled by your Windows smartphone, Cortana leaping to your assistance at a word thanks to the Kinect’s ever listening, ever watchful presence. Tracking your every move. Recording it. Shaping what you see and, eventually, buy. Big data. Amazon, we know what Alexa’s about. Sony, we know why you’re trying to make the Sony Entertainment Network happen. Everyone else, we know why you’re making smart kettles and refrigerators and what not. The wrapping of health and self-improvement make Nintendo’s efforts look positively benign in comparison. In that regard, I give it credit; Nintendo knows how to spin.

It’s probably not going to work. How many Wiis brought about life-changing exercise habits – and how many were a holiday novelty, relegated almost instantly to the back of the closet? The Wii U, scuppered right from launch by confused messaging and no clear vision, has not liberated the living room TV and turned it back into a shared space for Quality Family Time™.

Part of the problem is that there’s no longer any room in people’s lives for a new device: all slots are fully occupied. Even putting aside questions of battery life, durability and whether the portable form of the Switch really is capable of what the concept video suggested, do we really want to lug around a second $500 (or whatever) device in addition to the ones we all carry already? Do you really need to play Skyrim on the subway when Candy Crush will do, and was deliberately designed for portable play?

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The second reason Nintendo takes an unusual approach to hardware is it just wants to be different, which is a powerful marketing force; it’s why Apple’s pushing wireless headphones and Corona is served with a wedge of lime.

The docking controllers and so-on are cutely weird, but the real message of the trailer isn’t the funky hardware so much as the experiences it enables. Nintendo’s vision for the Switch is perfectly clear: it’s doubling down on local multiplayer, differentiating itself from all those boxes designed for use alone in your bedroom, or to get you on the Internet where you can play with other people. The Switch is encouraging you to get up and be active and meat space social (as if turning up among the non-gaming muggles with a weird new console weren’t potential social suicide).

Social local multiplayer with home console-like games sounds good in theory, but hasn’t proved sticky in practice. I mean, there’s already a platform for playing pretty high-def games on the go: it’s called the Vita, and it’s a bit embarrassing for all of us, because as nice as it is it just didn’t do the numbers.

The real message of the trailer isn’t the funky hardware so much as the experiences it enables. Nintendo’s vision for the Switch is perfectly clear: it’s doubling down on local multiplayer. The Switch is encouraging you to get up and be active and meat space social.

Like the 3DS, the Vita is most successful in Japan where population density and mainstream gaming acceptance means there’s a good chance you can get a Monster Hunter match going on your commute. In the west, we tend to stick to online gaming – and you need the west to be successful in this ridiculously expensive industry, which is why Japanese publishers have been suffering mid life-crises for two generations now.

It’s not like Nintendo doesn’t know all this; its own excellent Street Pass system provided plenty of evidence. So is the fact that it snuggled up to Capcom and nabbed 3DS exclusivity for multiple Monster Hunter titles, Monster Hunter being the real flagship for portable local multiplayer. Shall we talk about why Capcom is slow to bring Monster Hunter games west? Shall we? Or would that just be unkindly labouring the point?

As an aside, it’s interesting that Nintendo showed a (possibly totally imaginary) new build of Splatoon in the context of an eSports scene, because if you want an eSports scene, you need the damned Internet. The days of local competition is over: eSports is a big business, a professional competitive business, and players need to practice against real humans. They need to do it all the time, and the arcade and fight club meet scenes are too diminished to cater to that. The modern eSports scene cannot be separated from the Internet, and LAN parties are not going to reverse that.

I don’t understand who the Switch is for: there are two major potential consumer bases for consoles, and it doesn’t seem to cater to either of them.

Is Nintendo targeting core gamers as those imaginary Skyrim and NBA 2K16s suggest?

I do not understand who the Switch is for.

I can not believe the Switch’s portable form will provide home console quality gaming on a par with PS4 and Xbox One; I think it’ll be a last-gen experience at absolute best, which is why The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will sim-ship on Wii U. There’s nothing wrong with last-gen experiences, except the market has already proven that core gamers aren’t interested in last-gen experiences any more, portable or otherwise. Hell, Sony and Microsoft are already stepping up to a half-generational upgrade, because the western appetite for high-def experiences is endless. I also don’t have faith Nintendo will manage to keep up a decent release schedule and third-party support, and I doubt the core does, either.

Is Nintendo hoping to gain mainstream approval among the muggles?

Muggles assume, correctly, that their existing tablets and smartphones – devices that are used every day as part of their lives – can provide the entertainment experiences they want. If they don’t need a $500 box to play Call of Duty or GTA, they definitely don’t need a $500 tablet-hybrid to play last-gen games on – especially not one which can’t do any of the things their existing $500 mobile devices can, like call for pizza. Even if Muggles could be trusted to convert to core gamers and keep buying consoles and video games once the novelty value wears off, the rise of mobile devices means Nintendo’s consoles no longer have novelty value to the average consumer.

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It’s the same old story, isn’t it? Rather than work out how to fit into your lifestyle and entertainment needs, Nintendo has envisioned a beautiful future with itself at the centre and asked you to fall into line with it. Of course it has: the Wii and DS both introduced bold new concepts and attempted to change the way you engage with gaming platforms, and they’re among the best-selling consoles of all time.

But that was years ago. Since then, the 3DS and the Wii U have both struggled, and the Vita has stymied. These should have been lesson enough, and yet Nintendo’s trying so hard – again! – to recapture that brief glory when its consoles were the hottest holiday gifts among muggles, who after all vastly outnumber the gaming core, because they did something nothing else did.

That’s a mistake, because the world has moved on. The ubiquity of smartphones and tablets mean we no longer need consoles and portables to improve our lives and connect us to each other, at home and on the go. There’s an app for that now. That niche has been filled.

Ideally gaming hardware should answer a question: now that even people without computers carry an entertainment device around with them at all times, what do we need dedicated gaming platforms for?

This generation, Sony and eventually Microsoft answered: to provide the high-def, quality experiences portable devices don’t. Sandwiched awkwardly between these two worlds, the Switch is going to have to prove it needs to exist. Maybe it’ll pull an iPad and surprise us, or maybe it’ll pull a Vita.

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