The past few months has brought a steady stream of good news for Nintendo Switch owners. For fans of the eShop it's been a terrific period, with lots of varied and talented developers confirming their games for the hardware. We've also - gradually - seen an increase in third-party support from the big players in the retail scene, and that's what we're addressing today.
After the Wii U was dropped by most major publishers after around 18 months of its life, it's satisfying to be back in a position where Nintendo's latest hardware is gaining support. The powerful portable / home console hybrid has achieved its most important goal in its first half year - a stong start in terms of sales. In fact all that's held it back, particularly in territories like Japan and North America, has been logistics and manufacturing. The big N has struggled to meet demand, though has been making encouraging noises about ramping up manufacturing; restocks have been improving, too. The Switch is hot right now, getting favourable coverage in the broader media (and not just dedicated gaming sites) and also on social media. It's a cool little device, and plenty of people are interested in it.
Nintendo, undoubtedly, will try to capitalise as much as possible, which will mean trying to get as many units as it can onto store shelves. Yet in some ways the well-earned buzz clashes with the stark reality; right now - as of 30th June - Nintendo's official figure for hardware sales is 4.7 million units, now it may be somewhere between 6 and 8 million, depending on restocks. Forget the fact it'll hit the Wii U lifetime sales as quickly as Nintendo can manufacture the systems - we're in the early days and have a small-ish userbase. Nintendo's financial year estimate was still 10 million as of 30th June; that'll likely climb if manufacturing picks up, but it's a reminder that we're in the early days and any developer bringing games to the system is gambling on two things - a high adoption rate from early buyers, and 'evergreen' potential.
That's how it is for all systems in their first year, of course, but coming back to retail third-parties the situation is more complicated for Switch. Outside of unique titles on the 3DS, a lot of these publishers haven't even attempted to sell to a Nintendo audience in a big way for 3-4 years, maybe even longer. People online like to criticise these publishers for not 'backing' Switch, but a bit of realism helps - these companies are gambling on a new system when its predecessor (in some cases) burned them quite badly. Add to that the fact Nintendo produces concept-based hardware that makes ports quite challenging to produce, and it's not so simple as 'lazy third-party publishers are naughty'. Some of them are, no doubt, but let's not tar the whole lot with the same brush.
Yet some big companies are stepping up with Switch, which is the encouraging thing. Plenty hold a grudge against Ubisoft, but it's delivered the excellent Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, while Rayman Legends: Definitive Edition is a pleasant option. Let's not forget, either, that the company put Switch up first in its big E3 reveal of Starlink: Battle for Atlas, a game that looks like an enticing fit for the Nintendo audience. Then there are the tasty recent announcements. L.A. Noire raised eyebrows and will have Switch-exclusive controls, and Bethesda turned heads recently with DOOM and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The latter two from Bethesda are bonafide current-gen big hitters, and they'll be playable on a portable. DOOM on a portable, what a delicious phrase.
It's a really good time, then, with others like Rocket League also on the way. Yet we're also seeing occasional retail releases of the risk averse and sloppy kind - let's peg NBA 2K18 with that label. On the one hand it's impressive to get that on the Switch, but it's not there yet; we had a good debate in our team on how to score it, or not as the case was. We've set a timed deadline (albeit loosely) for an update fix before we slap a score on, but our review certainly didn't recommend a purchase - far from it, as we were rather damning of what it has to offer at launch.
It's a minefield then, which is unsurprising. Yet with recent reveals we've seen borderline over-confidence from some Switch fans about third-party prospects; on social media, YouTube and comments sections we've seen language like "third-parties have no excuses now" and "I want all the games", and we think a bit of context and sanity is needed. The Switch could have some enticing multi-platform games in the future, and if sales momentum remains high for the hardware publishers may even consider some left-field exclusives. But don't start placing your bets on all the biggest triple-A multiplatform games of 2018 and beyond rushing to Switch.
Some will throw Wolfenstein II at us now, but let's throw a phrase back - id Software. This team and their id Tech 6 engine are sensational, and DOOM is an example. It is gorgeous and mostly 60fps on PS4 and Xbox One, when many major games on those systems struggle to hit a solid 30; when playing DOOM on PC the scalability to support humble rigs is seriously impressive. It's that fantastic technology that is helping bring the likes of DOOM and Wolfenstein II to the Switch, along with the seemingly talented Switch specialists at Panic Button.
Digital Foundry addressed this and did an intriguing video where they built a PC to mimic a Switch, a slightly inelegant but interesting idea. It demonstrated the sort of compromise required, and also showed how games using other engines toil terribly. As DF admitted the testing wasn't perfect - for one thing console development allows talented teams to get 'close to the metal' and extract every ounce of performance, whereas a PC gets distracted more by background tasks. In other words, you can conceivably do more with a Switch than a PC build clocking similar numbers.
Yet still, there's another factor. Every Switch release has to support its portable mode, even if an Indie game like VOEZ is portable only. When docked the Switch works harder because it has a solid power supply, but undocked the clock speeds are reduced in the interest of efficiency. In theory it helps that the handheld only goes up to 720p because of the screen, but the discrepancy between docked and portable resources is a factor. Sometimes the docked performance is only a little better - games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle are 900p docked, and other times there's a bigger difference. At launch LEGO City: Undercover ran pretty well docked but was rather messy on the portable. Conversely, some games don't quite nail the extra speed available docked and mess up the balance in boosting resolution, making games run better in portable mode. Mostly developers make it work, but any Switch game review needs to test a game in both configurations in case there's a difference.
The overall picture seems to result in the Switch, even docked, not quite supporting all modern engines to make porting seamless, and then developers need to cater to the portable performance and perhaps prioritise that area. That may explain why the likes of Bethesda and EA continually focus on their upcoming games as ultimate portable experiences; EA focused on that angle with its FIFA marketing, and Bethesda showcased DOOM that way to the press, focused on tabletop / handheld demonstrations.
Take all of this together, and it's over-optimistic to simply expect a golden future of major games making their way to Switch without hiccups - E3 should have taught us that. What we can hope for, provided the Switch maintains its excellent momentum, is cleverly targeted ports with some exclusive features, and in the longer term maybe more unique releases as publishers take more of a financial punt on Switch projects. Yet the Switch hardware has its limits, and with developers chasing the gravy train on PS4 / PS4 Pro / Xbox One / Xbox One S that drifts towards optional 4K and visual splendour, not all games will work on Nintendo's hardware. Not all engines are as adaptable as id Tech 6, and no matter how talented the Switch porting houses are - that are making some of these third-party games possible - there will always be steps that are too far.
And you know what? That has to be ok. Besides, the Switch has a lot more going for it than this specific space. It has Nintendo games, first and foremost, and then particular development partners eager to work with Nintendo on specific types of Switch-exclusive games. It has a thriving eShop scene, and the potential for lots of unique and fascinating titles to download. Plus it has the system's fundamental positives - intuitive multiplayer, the ability to share games with friends and family wherever you go, portable and TV play; you know, that Switch Life.
Add a select range of tasty current-gen multiplatform games to that mix, and we have a system that could be a huge success in the coming years for Nintendo.