Switch Thoughts

Last week, Nintendo announced their next-generation console: the Switch.

Nintendo is in an intriguing position in the console wars — technically, the Wii U was the first console of the current generation, which makes the Switch the last console of its generation. By having two consoles out in a single generation, Nintendo now has a clear innovation edge on its competitors. The Switch will have to compete with the PS4 and Xbox One for, most likely, its entire run.

Like the Wii, though, the Switch is something different. Sony and Microsoft consoles are little-changed from the strategy that won them success in the late 1990s and early 2000s: being little more than stripped-down gaming towers. But the Switch is a bipartite system with a console component and a mobile component. This alone makes its competitors look dated, if not outright obsolete.

The core of the system is a thin tablet. Augmenting that are four key peripherals: (1) the dock, which functions as a hybrid charging port/TV data transmitter (probably with 720p-1080p upscaling), (2) left and (3) right “Joy-Con” controllers, and (4) a Joy-Con grip. (A fifth peripheral is a Pro Controller that looks visually identical to the ergonomic Xbox controller layout.)

After the primary tablet unit, the Joy-Cons are the Switch’s second most arresting feature. They can be slotted into the dummy grip for console play, or into either side of the Switch itself to play like a classic mobile gaming system. They can also be used independently, like the Wii’s motion-based control layout, or even be split into two controllers for local multiplayer. This gives the basic system unparalleled versatility, natively supporting every gameplay style any Nintendo game has ever used.

Except for one. The Switch doesn’t seem to currently support DS-like gameplay.

The Switch’s Potential

My goal here, however, is to suggest a potential design philosophy behind the Switch. Obviously, the semi-mobile platform makes traditional console gaming obsolete. It implies that the next video game generation will see the merger of the Xbox and Surface, and between the Playstation and Xperia, as the most effective way to compete with the Switch and its derivatives. That is: the Switch is leading the way in a tablet-console merger.

Here we must ask what the Switch will run on. Initiating the merger is one thing; following through, quite another. Nintendo must be well aware the kind of mergers the Switch will precipitate — PC and Xbox games will merge, and Sony’s Xperia tablet line will by necessity run Playstation games. A video game system that looks like a tablet is different from a tablet system that plays video games, and Nintendo’s competitors will be able to offer the latter. What about Nintendo?

A huge part of this will hinge on the OS. While Android is the dominant smartphone OS, the tablet game is a 3-way race between it, iOS, and Windows. And Nintendo has little brand recognition as a generalized tech company the way Apple does. That is: a custom OS essentially locks the Switch (and its successors) into a video game system that looks like a tablet, but an Android-based OS makes it a tablet that plays video games — a critical competitive edge once the innovation’s worn off.

The reason is: running Android unlocks a lot of doors with relatively limited downside. With it, the Switch automatically comes with full access to Google Play and its wealth of apps. Without it, Nintendo must either develop substitutes in-house or admit that, at the end of the way, the Switch is fundamentally a toy. With it, your Switch becomes the only tablet you ever need carry with you. Without it, it’s sharing space with your favorite Windows/iPad/Droid tablet.

Yes, running Droid raises the specter of easily-ported games. But this can be overcome with a custom peripheral that the games themselves are loaded on to — is this the reason behind the cartridge’s return? But consider this: Porting games is essentially a rewriting job. For the last three generations or so, Nintendo has lagged in the porting game because of its often-inferior specs, a deal-breaker in a market where porting a game is expensive.

Running the Switch on Android makes porting games cheap. Not in this generation, but the next, when the Playstation and Xperia are likely to merge. A third-party title written for the Switch can have its core be built around a generalized Android release, with extra features for the Switch’s unique capabilities. Switch games become, in this environment, Android games with extra features. And, if Playstation games soon follow, this leaves the Xbox at a tremendous disadvantage: while it may be cheap to port releases for Nintendo and Sony (remember, they’re the same core for the same OS in the same languages, just with slightly different specs, storage media, and peripherals in mind), it’ll be tremendously expensive to do so for Xbox (same core on different OSes in different languages for similar specs, storage media, and peripherals).

Needing to spend less on tedious porting overhead, Japanese developers — those most inclined to eschew the Xbox — have a competitive advantage in this environment, while American ones — who usually have to co-develop for Sony and Microsoft to begin with — have a competitive disadvantage. There is a very real risk embedded in the Switch that Microsoft becomes the 2000s Nintendo of the 2020s — dependent on its first- and second-party IP, as few new third-party houses are willing to expend the resources on developing for both it and its Japanese competitors.

A Path Forward for Nintendo

If the Switch is a true tablet, what does that imply for the DS? Nintendo has some twenty-five years of portable device experience embedded in its Game Boy/DS product line, long the most dominant in the market. And recall that the Switch does not seem designed to support DS-style gameplay (where the Wii U was an experiment to bring it to the console).

There are a lot of companies that run phones and tablets. Apple may be the most famous, with its iPhones and iPads, but nearly every major Android smartphone maker also makes tablets. Windows tablets don’t have nearly the market reach Microsoft wanted precisely because most tablet makers develop their tablets from their phones’ core architecture — not from their towers’. (And how many makers even make towers anymore, anyway?)

Recall here that, while the Switch may be a mobile platform, it isn’t as mobile as the pocket-sized Game Boy/DS line. And if tablets are often matched with smartphones … hmm …

Phones and tablets usually have similar architecture bases. So an Android Switch isn’t just a well-positioned gaming tablet — it’s also the same basic architecture that you would need for a smaller platform. The 3DS is an aging system. Could we see a “Nintendo Phone” in the cards?

It really makes sense, if you think about it. A Nintendo Phone gives them presence in the smartphone/tablet market that computer-derivative devices are converging on. It forces Sony to essentially integrate similar functionality into its smart-devices. And it deals Microsoft another setback — the Windows Phone’s failure still stings — as it’s unable to fully migrate to the new video-game-enabled devices that Nintendo is producing.

Moreover, the Nintendo Phone gives full capability for single-screen touchscreen games. And it works as a second-screen peripheral for the Switch. With its own miniaturized Joy-Cons, the Nintendo Phone and Switch can work in concert to produce DS-like gameplay

Two devices able to produce three (console/portable, touchscreen, DS) game types — as well as being go-to devices for your daily life. No doubt, Nintendo sees how Apple has achieved near-total vendor lock-in. How better to market your devices to similar effect when your killer apps are essentially built into your brand?

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