As we await full publication of Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima's annual financial results presentation, early snippets from journalists on the ground in Japan suggest it won't pull up any trees. There's confirmation of unannounced games still to be revealed for Switch this year (of course there are!) and some numbers around mobile revenues, but there are evidently few blockbuster reveals. Perhaps that should be the expected approach of Kimishima-san, who evidently prefers leaving announcements and surprises to the company's marketing teams. That's a fair approach and there's nothing wrong with it, albeit it lacks the theatrics and potential for surprises that used to grace the equivalent presentations from his predecessor, the never-to-be-forgotten Satoru Iwata.
So while we're yet to see any surprise release dates or product teases this week, the financial reports have nevertheless given us some interesting facts and figures to chew over. In some respects analysts were often wrong in their recent predictions, underestimating how many Switch systems were shipped / sold to retail in March but also over-estimating how many the company thinks it'll ship in this financial year. What we have now is clarity, and also an insight into Nintendo's priorities and the systems it believes will deliver profits and a good year for the company.
And it's not just about the Switch, let's get that out there right away. Unfortunately the Wii U is well and truly finished, discontinued and with no more units to ship, though Nintendo still reckons it'll shift three million games, likely in the form of existing stock and a handful of licensed games. It's a system that can feel hard done by, having served up a game catalogue with some truly wonderful titles - existing owners will undoubtedly seek out bargains or titles that will finish off their collections.
Yet it's the 3DS that is very much alive for another year. As a reminder, Nintendo expects to ship six million units of the hardware, which would be low by past standards but entirely acceptable considering the age of the system. On top of that the company estimates 40 million 3DS games to be sold in this financial year, which is eye-opening for the fact that it's five million higher than the Switch number of 35 million. Of course the portable has a sizeable userbase - over 66 million systems sold - while the Nintendo Switch is just starting, but it's an intriguing statistic nevertheless.
As we've seen in the million sellers from last year evergreen games on 3DS can play a big part, but even with that in mind the current line-up doesn't look like it's full of huge success stories at retail. We have Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, Hey! Pikmin, Ever Oasis and a new Kirby game on the list, while there are localisations of games like Monster Hunter Stories and Miitopia confirmed for the West. It reads like a list of potential solid releases without an obvious game to blow the charts wide open.
In a year with record breaking sales of Pokémon Sun and Moon the 3DS passed 55 million games sold, so in theory if you take Sun and Moon's 15.4 million sales out of the equation you have that 40 million number. Yet with 3DS momentum surely slowing we still wonder how Nintendo will hit that target. A theory we've had is that the rumours of Pokémon Stars - or a similar 'third' entry in the current generation - could be cross-platform. Those rumours referred to the game for Switch, but the suggestion was the world would be like that in Sun and Moon but with a new HD engine. Yet what if it follows Fire Emblem Warriors as a dual release, albeit that FE game will only be on New 3DS? Frankly, if a new Pokémon game came out on both Switch and 3DS, it'd likely sell more copies on the older handheld courtesy of the 'mon fanbase that owns those systems.
Another theory is that Nintendo has some more unannounced mid-tier titles on the way, which could align with new Nintendo Selects additions to deliver that 40 million target through a broad group effort, a number of titles and discount editions all chipping into the end goal. That's also a valid theory.
The summary point is simple, though, the 3DS isn't dead yet - Nintendo has repeated the target of expanding the 3DS audience among women and children in particular, and its sales estimates show that it believes the portable has life in it. We'd also expect bundles and perhaps even a New 3DS price cut to be considered as ways to drive further interest.
As for Nintendo Switch, there is a positive outlook that would see the system keep pace with previous success stories, albeit Nintendo's own estimates aren't as bold as those thrown around by analysts in recent weeks. Nintendo's target of shipping ten million Switch units may be a conservative number to manage expectations, but it's certainly not the pedal-to-the-metal 14 million+ number some had predicted. Of course, projections and estimates from Nintendo can be adjusted every three months, but as it stands the company is expecting a relative success-story through 2017.
We feel the numbers give two interesting sets of context, so let's break them down. First of all, if Nintendo's projection is right on the money this is where the system will stand after 13 months on the market in comparison to the final Wii U figure.
- Estimated Switch lifetime sales up to 31st March 2018 - 12.74 million
- Final Wii U sales, system now discontinued (released November 2012) - 13.56 million
After 13 months on the market, in other words, the Switch could be close to overtaking the Wii U's lifetime sales across its four years+ on sale.
Let's go back, though, to the 3DS launch. It arrived in Japan in late February 2011, but only hit territories like North America and Europe in late March that year, as Nintendo was eager to get a weekend of global launch sales 'on the books', much like with the early March arrival of Switch.
- Nintendo Switch launch sales (global release on 3rd March) - 2.74 million
- 3DS launch sales (February 2011 Japan, March 2011 WW) - 3.61 million
Now let's look at the first full year on the market - remember the 3DS slumped so much after launch that its price was cut by around a third in Autumn / Fall 2011, a tactic that worked rather nicely alongside some key software releases.
- Nintendo Switch estimated total sales by 31st March 2018 - 12.74 million
- 3DS total sales by 31st March 2012 - 17.13 million
It's worth also noting that in 2012 / 2013 the 3DS shifted nearly 14 million more systems, which missed Nintendo's target for 18 million in that period. It was red hot even though it wasn't hitting its estimates.
None of this is to downplay where the Switch is right now, but it's useful context, especially considering the fact Nintendo is keeping the 3DS in the game for this financial year.
It's an interesting comparison for Switch - so far it's thankfully on the road to far greater success than the Wii U, yet the hybrid is tracking well below the 3DS. Is that 'good'? Nintendo likely won't say in public whether it considers that a reasonable state of affairs. If the Switch matches previous home console numbers maybe that's enough, but it perhaps depends on whether the 3DS eventually gets a true successor, or whether Switch and future iterations of it are supposed to fill both the home and portable sides of the market for Nintendo.
Ultimately, the key point for those following the company is that, Switch / 3DS comparisons aside, the company seems on track for a return to strong net sales and profits; if the targets are hit the company's net sales will be reminiscent of late Wii era figures, which is better than the annual declines of the past 5-6 years. Nintendo has been broadening its business to achieve this, of course, with more licensing of brands including future theme park attractions, and the current day efforts on mobile. The Wall Street Journal (paywall) quotes Kimishima-san as saying that the company brought in ¥24.3 billion from its own mobile apps, which should convert to over USD$200 million. Super Mario Run is the download success while the micro-transaction driven Fire Emblem Heroes has made more money; the positive for Nintendo is that these numbers can be improved on a lot in the mobile market.
Areas where last year was weak and can be improved were download revenues (unsurprising with the Wii U eShop in particular being relatively quiet) and amiibo; in the latter case Nintendo only shifted 9.1 million figures and 9.3 million cards, well down on the giddy heights when each branch of that business would sell 20 million units+ in less than a year. Nintendo didn't mention amiibo directly in its outlook for the coming year, so though the range will no doubt continue (new figures were only just recently announced) there isn't much to suggest Nintendo's got major plans to boost the product. We'll see whether the published briefing and/or investor Q&A address this further.
Overall, though, Nintendo is in a good spot. It has multiple successful areas of business that are either living longer than some would have expected (3DS) or have ample room for growth (Switch and Mobile); that's not even touching upon potential additional products like the rumoured SNES Mini. Even if it only hits its minimum targets the company's sales revenues will be the highest they've been in a generation of hardware, and the Nintendo brand is expanding and gaining exposure in new areas. There's still work ahead, and it's not time to get out the party balloons yet, but the company is at least moving in the right direction.
Ahead of an important 2017, that positive momentum is pleasing to see.