Not long after the Nintendo Switch launched your humble scribe wrote a lighthearted article about taking it on a weekend roadtrip. Its hybrid nature means that it's either a quirky Nintendo home console or, alternatively, a powerful mainstream gaming portable. Ultimately it's both, even if that makes its categorisation tricky - some compare the system's capabilities to the PS4 and Xbox One, others to high-end tablets.
That's not exactly a problem for Nintendo, however, as it arguably thrives when carving out its own area in the market. Satoru Iwata often referred to a 'blue ocean', best typified by the glory years of the DS and Wii. It's easy to be blasé about those systems now, but they were downright strange when they were first revealed. The DS wasn't the first clamshell portable Nintendo had ever released, far from it, but a touch screen, microphone and the resultant range of 'Touch Generation' games helped it stand out, especially in an era before smartphones had taken off. Likewise with the Wii, which shunned HD graphics in favour of motion controls with the Wii Remote, an idea that succeeded to such a degree that within a few years Sony had mimicked it with Move and Microsoft tried a controller-free approach with Kinect.
In the past generation, of course, Nintendo has had to work hard to secure its place in the market. The 3DS is a natural evolution on the DS and, after a rocky start, has established itself as a successful platform - not on the scale of its predecessor or even the Wii, but a strong performer nonetheless. With the Wii U Nintendo kept aspects of the Wii concept but tried to change direction with the GamePad. The idea was interesting - when you think back to Nintendo's pre-E3 2012 presentation the company spoke of bringing living rooms back together. Portraying a scene of a family all glued to their tablets, phones and the TV (which is still the reality!) the GamePad and Wii U were supposed to be unifying. The idea was to take that living style of staring at screens and flip it into shared experiences, such as asynchronous multiplayer and added functionality for gaming at home. You could play together with the Wii U, or it was a 'friendly' option for screen obsession, with marketing showing one half of a couple playing New Super Mario Bros. U while the other watched TV.
The theory was sound, it seemed, but the system ultimately failed. There were multiple reasons for that, but among them we'd suggest the system's design and timing worked against it. The Wii U was quite expensive, but the design of the GamePad was child-friendly to the point that it was somewhat cheap to look at, clunky and lacking in style. The limitations of the GamePad also meant consumers with only a passing interest were likely put off by its short range and look, as products like iPads and smart devices were already gaining incredible popularity while being slick devices. The Wii U was, like the company's success stories, in its own bubble in that it offered different qualities to other gaming devices, but its fundamental hook didn't lure in the public.
We don't yet know how well the Switch will fare in comparison, but if it hits Nintendo's targets - and of course that's a big if - it'll be close to overtaking the Wii U lifetime sales by the end of March 2018. At present there's little doubt it'll do this, too, with plenty of analysts and investors queuing up to say the system has a good chance. General vibes and publicity around the console seem positive right now, too - not only is there noticeable interest from the public, but after some launch week chatter on early issues there's now plenty of optimistic coverage around the system.
Quite right, too. It's often been trendy to target Nintendo for snarky commentary in recent years, some of it deserved but plenty of it not, but the Switch has managed to make an early impact to silence that narrative. Having a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at launch helped - even if the Wii U iteration is sometimes forgotten in the scrum - and now Nintendo is pushing hard with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Tapping up 'last-gen' content old and new is relatively standard in the early days of hardware, but because the Wii U has been so far off the radar of the wider public it hasn't seemed to matter too much. You can still easily find people that still don't really know what a Wii U is, but are more immediately familiar with the Switch. In terms of brand awareness the new system is already well beyond its predecessor, and as we've argued before the hardware looks and feels like a grown-up, modern piece of technology.
So, the Switch has had a terrific start and there's optimism for its future, but Nintendo has raised eyebrows a few times by openly stating that it's targeting Wii-level sales over the lifespan of the Switch. That 100 million+ base is so far away, yet Nintendo has made that point multiple times. Speaking to investors, Tatsumi Kimishima highlighted how this could be achieved, and mentioned one factor of households with multiple Switch owners.
Plus, considering that Nintendo Switch is a home console video game system that you can take with you on the go so you can play anytime, anywhere, with anyone, we think there will be households that feel as though one is not really enough. This is another point that drives us to match the scale of Wii's popularity with Nintendo Switch.
Now, of course, there are households with a couple of conventional home consoles, perhaps one PS4 / Xbox One / Wii U in a 'family room' and another in a bedroom. But when we think of the most realistic scenarios where there could be multiple systems in one house we think of portables - to take 3DS as an example, we suspect many reading this have bought 2-4 models over the years due to new iterations and limited editions, and then there are families where kids might have a 2DS and parents may have a New 3DS. Nintendo has often done this with portable ranges, catering to different desires and often fulfilling multiple needs within one house - the New Nintendo 2DS XL is coming out to try and fill another gap.
With that business model you can boost sales beyond your actual userbase. The 3DS 'family' has passed 66 million sales, but how many individuals is that? Nintendo doesn't specify, because it doesn't really care beyond a desire to have a sizeable audience to buy games. As long as hardware sells it doesn't entirely matter whether it's someone new on board or a dedicated fan buying their fourth 3DS. Consider this - at the Switch launch (the month of March) 2.76 million copies of Breath of the Wild were sold against 2.74 million system sales. That's a particularly bonkers example so let's be more realistic - check out top selling games on DS, Wii, 3DS and Wii U below.
DS systems sold - 154.02 million
Top selling DS game - 30.8 million (New Super Mario Bros.)
Wii systems sold - 101.63 million
Top selling Wii game (apart from the bundled Wii Sports) - 36.95 million (Mario Kart Wii)
3DS systems sold - 66.12 million
Top selling 3DS game - 16.11 million (Pokémon X & Y)
Wii U systems sold - 13.56 million
Top selling Wii U game - 8.31 million (Mario Kart 8)
Even accepting that MK8 is a bit of an outlier within a small Wii U userbase, consider the other examples.
More than a third of Wii owners bought its most popular game aside from Wii Sports, but you're down to 20-25% with top-sellers on portables. That's a limited analysis we admit, but the point is that there weren't 154 million individuals that bought a DS, nor are there 66 million individual 3DS owners. Some may have bought multiple Wii consoles, of course, but we don't think it's inaccurate to state that buying habits with portable 'families' of systems is notably different. Many of the most eager fans scoop up XLs and 'New' systems, but maybe only replace a home console if one breaks or a particularly tasty special edition rolls along. There are less tempting alternatives, ultimately, with home consoles - short of malfunctions plenty stick to their original hardware.
The Switch, of course, is a hybrid, and Nintendo will undoubtedly leverage its portability in years to come, especially once 3DS eventually retires (unless it is 'replaced' by another dedicated handheld, of course). It's not hard to see a scenario where a more rugged, kid-friendly Switch that sacrifices a couple of features for a lower cost arrives in 2019, and we see young gamers playing these while their parents carefully hide away their pricier core unit. A target like 100 million seems so high and almost fanciful, and there is positively no way to predict whether Switch will hit this year's targets never mind those set for the coming years, but as a portable it has a chance. Iterations, extra units for different family units - it's the portable aspect that can drive so much of that. Even a slight redesign without a dock in the box - like those 3DS models that don't include an AC adapter - could be pitched as an extra household unit, one to ensure parents, kids and family members need not squabble over playtime.
We recently posted a few polls to gauge how our community views and plays the Nintendo Switch. The split in how it's played - primarily as a docked console, primarily as a portable, a relatively equal mix of both - was remarkably close, about a third of the vote for each. Yet a question about how the Switch will evolve as a product in the coming years brought a thumping majority for the system being "a true hybrid of home and portable gaming". That, right there, helps to explain why the Switch has a great chance.
Its core form is that of a tablet, so there's scope for multiple units per household for different family members, like we see with handheld devices. Yet those Joy-Con controllers transform it not only into a handy portable, but make it a multiplayer machine out of the box. Its form factor is familiar and reassuring to those interested in gaming as a hobby, but it offers convenience through its smart design. It looks like a tablet yet has Nintendo games like Legend of Zelda and Mario Kart, and also has controllers to play like a dedicated portable. Then it just drops into a dock and right away you play on the TV, or you can take it with you and prop it up to play on a tabletop. It can't compete in gigaflops etc or 4K gaming, but the prospective audience that populates that 'blue ocean' drawn in by DS, Wii and to an extent 3DS don't often prioritise those qualities with Nintendo hardware.
The flexibility of the hybrid concept, that Nintendo sprinkle of magic, and a form familiar to consumers with tablets and smartphones in their lives. It's easy to see why early interest in the system is so high.
If Nintendo successfully harnesses the positive momentum and ensures the Switch has a strong games library (and eventually a range of apps for TV streaming and social media), its very form could help it defy modern challenges and push for those 'Wii-like' sales.