When assessing the general interest in Nintendo Switch, the various metrics - in firm figures and from surveys and so on - show a system with a decent chance at success. The important work is still to come for Nintendo, but while there was always the uneasy sense that the wider public never truly cared for or knew about Wii U, it's different this time. Nintendo, in creating a new brand (ditching the DS / Wii 'family' approach) and putting some clear, decent marketing behind it has enjoyed a strong launch. While various factors mean the results are to be taken with calm heads, it is good news that the company has been able to boast of breaking its own hardware launch records.
It's what comes next that matters, of course. Nintendo systems often sell well in the first few weeks, as both 3DS and Wii U did, but it's in the wider picture where they've struggled initially and occasionally long term. Yet in creating a home console / portable hybrid Nintendo has set itself up with a big opportunity and also an almighty gamble; its traditional dominance of the handheld market could help, while those with memories of older home consoles also get attracted to the brand. Some say it's a wonderfully diverse system with freedom of functionality that fits the needs of gamers seeking something different from the PS4 / Xbox One market, others say it's a jack-of-all-trades in the worst sense - the reality, as ever, is probably somewhere in the middle.
What is beyond dispute, we think, is that this cycle of hardware really matters for Nintendo. In the past generation it did an excellent job of establishing a successful lifecycle for 3DS, but the Wii U was damaging in its own ways. Retail partners were burned, fans shrank in numbers and got left out of the 'current gen' conversations, and third-parties understandably shied away. The 3DS, such a unique and lovely little beast, existed in a bubble and has performed admirably - the Wii U had no equivalent bubble and fell into the abyss, unfairly becoming a punchline (despite its occasionally outstanding games library) and a retail flop.
As a result Switch was often pushed, pre-launch, as a home console successor - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was marketed as a Switch game and Nintendo succeeded in getting it into the public conscience as just that. A number of Wii U owners not yet upgrading picked it up on its original home, and that's been pleasing to see in a way, but in the wider world it's a Switch game, with a brusque nod at best to its predecessor. In pushing the 'home gaming system' angle Nintendo has also sought to keep the focus on 3DS as a relevant current-day portable. Yet how long can that last? Already we see Mario Kart 8 Deluxe marketing focusing on the portability and flexibility of Switch - at some point the home console conceit will surely be dropped and Nintendo will ditch inaccurate categorisations. Switch, after all, is whatever the consumer wants it to be in terms of home and portable gaming.
That core concept, as some would argue, can be massive for Nintendo. Yet we've been left frustrated by hesitant behaviour and cautious estimates from Nintendo - in an article of New Year's Resolutions for Nintendo we ended it with 'be bold and meet demand', highlighting that Nintendo had lost faith and forgotten how hot its products can be, as a result understocking and failing to sell its products to their potential - we saw this last year with cool New 3DS models, the NES Mini and more besides. Now with Switch it's burned through launch stock in various countries and territories, with restocks a little slow in countries with the highest demand (like the US). There's little can be done about that now - whatever contingencies Nintendo has for March / April restocks was set weeks and months ago. The good news is that solid restocks should be inevitable for the release of MK8 Deluxe.
Of course, the trigger for this article is the Wall Street Journal report that Nintendo is doubling its production for the next financial year, which is 1st April 2017 to 31st March 2018. The report - on which Nintendo declined to comment - states that the production target is a jump from eight million to 16 million; we'll know for certain when Nintendo's financial reports are published on 27th April. So, what does this mean, if that report is accurate?
Well, a production run of eight million would have been the ultra conservative, safe Nintendo we were worried about - even shifting all those units would bring numbers considered poor for 3DS in a low period within its first five years. When the 3DS sold 6.79 million units in 2015 / 2016 that was considered a bad year and a sign of the end times for the handheld. To have originally targeted numbers not much above that in Switch's first full year would have been a worrying state of affairs.
Of course, making 16 million systems wouldn't mean an expectation that every one of them is then sold, but it would certainly show a degree of intent and confidence in demand. With the aforementioned Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 and Super Mario Odyssey among tentpole releases, and others like ARMS and Fire Emblem Warriors also in the mix (the latter also on New 3DS), there are major releases on the way in 2017. We haven't mentioned some of the tempting third-party games and, of course, Nintendo will have more surprises on the way.
One of the more exasperating aspects of some online responses to the January reveal event for the system was an assumption some made that Nintendo showed all of its cards. There'll clearly be more surprises on the way, including some for 2017. What'll be interesting is whether this reported boost in expectations from Nintendo is not only in relation to the system's solid sales start, but renewed focus on development of major projects for the coming financial year. That aforementioned hybrid status of the system is a huge opportunity, as games catered to home consoles and portables are feasibly both on the table. Animal Crossing is one IP that seems to suit portable gaming well, despite its home gaming heritage. A big franchise that could be huge, of course, is Pokémon.
Rumours with some solidity in the past have suggested the next 'main' game in this gen of Pokémon will arrive on Switch, the familiar 'third' entry to follow on from Pokémon Sun and Moon. If Nintendo needs something of a megaton nature for E3 or another event of its choosing, that would surely be it, a full-fat main-series Pokémon game playable on the go but also easily enjoyed in lovely HD on the TV. Spin-off Pokémon games on home consoles don't often get close to the sales success of the portable entries, so a true hybrid main release would be a game changer.
Unless it was a dual release with 3DS - the success of the Switch version would no doubt be affected by that...
Ultimately, we'll see in late April how serious Nintendo is about giving the Switch a successful first year. Big sales would give confidence and attract more third-parties, which in turn could attract more gamers. As we've seen in the contrasting fortunes of 3DS and Wii U, multiple factors come into play, but momentum and the perception of a system being a sales success are vital.
Nintendo may as well bet big, though. It has the money and IPs to take a gamble, and the pay-off could be well worth the effort.