The games industry is all about cycles – perhaps more so than any other sector of the tech business. The constant evolution of gaming hardware means that gamers have become accustomed to upgrading their consoles every five-or-so years, putting aside the glorious memories of one generation in exchange for the promise of improved visuals and myriad enhancements that come hand-in-hand with the relentless march of technology.
As one of the longest-serving companies in the world of video games, Nintendo has danced this merry jig on multiple occasions; its fans have therefore witnessed many hardware epochs, with crude 2D visuals giving way to slick 3D graphics and physical cartridges being replaced by optical storage media – before Nintendo's recent systems saw them return to favour. As is to be expected, Nintendo hasn't negotiated each of these generational leaps with the same degree of assurance; while it transitioned between the 8 and 16-bit eras with relative ease, it struggled to bridge the gap between the SNES and the N64 – in purely commercial terms, if not critical – and the less said about the disastrous Wii U, the better.
We now find the company at another of its 'high points', thanks to the incredible success of the Switch. Given how well the system is selling, it might seem premature to even consider what lies beyond its (hopefully elongated) lifespan, but it's also worth keeping in mind that we're almost two years into that lifespan and that Nintendo will almost certainly be thinking about how best to navigate its next hardware transition – especially as the Switch will soon be the company's sole piece of gaming hardware, given that the 3DS is on its last legs. There's a lot resting on the shoulders of this one console.
The company has a few options on the table, and sitting here at the dawn of 2019, it's relatively easy to suggest that it sticks with the winning formula of the Switch and ride the concept over at least the next decade. The Switch has found a sweet spot in the market that no other company appears interested in exploring; by offering both home and portable play – and appealing multiplayer capabilities, thanks to those Joy-Con – Nintendo has done what it does best. It has fashioned a sector of the market all its own, and one which didn't really exist prior to the launch of the console.
Fast forward a few years, however, and could Nintendo potentially find itself at a crossroads – a crossroads it previously reached towards the end of the Wii era? That system would eventually find itself in over 100 million households all over the world, but towards the end of its life the Wii's unique selling point – its accessible motion-based gameplay – became something of a novelty, a fact which Nintendo appeared to anticipate when it began development on its successor, the Wii U. While it retained the Wii's primary controller – the Wii Remote – the selling point was the GamePad, which offered potentially groundbreaking 'asynchronous' gameplay.
It was a bold move and one that on paper made some degree of sense. The Wii had tremendous brand recognition but it was clear that motion control was rapidly losing its appeal; therefore, a console which offered HD visuals and new gameplay possibilities while retaining ties with the original Wii was, it could be argued, the best way to bridge that particular generational gap. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say it was anything but that; the Wii U is perhaps Nintendo's most costly hardware failure, despite playing host to some stunning software (the best of which is thankfully enjoying a new lease of life on Switch). It failed to capture the imagination of the public, was poorly marketed and lacked third-party support.
Could we therefore see a more cautious Nintendo this time around – the same Nintendo which iterated the creaking Game Boy hardware across the best part of a decade? It's certainly possible; Switch itself feels like a culmination of everything the company has learned over the past few years. It has the touchscreen of the DS, the motion controls of the Wii and the (largely unfilled) portability of the Wii U GamePad. The Joy-Con also serve as a vital connection to the days of the NES and SNES, thanks to their 'pass-around' nature and familiar button and pad layout. It's like all of the best bits of Nintendo's past hardware have been thrown into a melting pot to produce the company's most versatile system yet.
Having said that, there's obviously a limit to how far the Switch can be pushed, both in technical terms and as a concept. Given that the Nvidia hardware inside the machine had already been available on the market for some time before Switch even launched, it's obvious that some kind of upgrade is required to ensure that the console can maintain pace with its rivals. While developers like Panic Button have done an amazing job of porting AAA titles like DOOM and Warframe to Switch, once the PS5 and the next Xbox arrive on the scene, that becomes an entirely different challenge. A more powerful Switch will obviously be required to offer some kind of parity with next-gen consoles, but how does Nintendo go about creating and releasing such a platform?
Both Sony and Microsoft produced enhanced, mid-cycle systems this hardware generation, with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X maintaining full compatibility with the older hardware while adding in bells and whistles, the most notable being 4K support. It's an approach that even Nintendo itself has embraced in the past, with the New Nintendo 3DS offering a modest spec bump over older 3DS models. Could it take the same approach again, as has been rumoured? Perhaps we will see a 'Switch Pro' in 2019, a hardware iteration that comes with modest improvements that allow the console to keep up with the competition. One easy win would be a 1080p screen on the console itself, and a performance boost which allows games to run in 'docked' performance mode even when played in portable form.
However, as we found with the New 3DS, such an approach doesn't always yield satisfactory results. A tiny selection of games made use of the increased power offered by that console, presumably in fear of fracturing the market and alienating those millions who owned the older 3DS and 2DS systems. Were Nintendo to release a more powerful Switch – one which packs the newer Tegra X2 chipset, perhaps – how would it, and third-party developers, make the most of that increased power without cutting off those who already own the existing unit?
One option is to follow the lead of Apple, which releases more powerful phones and tablets each year but maintains an impressive degree of compatibility between them; an iPhone from four or five years ago is still capable of running pretty much any app or game that 2019's iPhone XS can, although it obviously won't run them as quickly or smoothly. Games could be optimised to take advantage of a new Switch model's increased power, but they'd still work on the original machine, albeit with a lower resolution, frame rate and other graphical cutbacks. Adopting this strategy would allow Nintendo to turn the Switch into a product like the iPhone or iPad; it could be updated almost indefinitely, with new models introducing fresh features as the years roll by, and thereby maintaining a consistent stream of revenue as people upgrade every few years. However, this does mean committing to the Switch concept in the long run, and as we know, Nintendo isn't a company that likes to be in the same place for too long; it loves to innovate when it comes to hardware. It also loves to confound expectation and do the exact opposite of what is anticipated.
With that in mind, if Nintendo were to take a different route and ditch Switch after five or so years, what would potentially come next? Could we see the firm move into the realm of VR, a sector which has enjoyed modest growth but is arguably waiting for a firm like Nintendo to take it – as it did with touch and motion control – and sell it to the masses? Nintendo has consistently stated that it is looking into VR but will only enter that area of the market when it is confident it can make it 'fun', but with PSVR showing the way with titles like Beat Saber and Astro Bot Rescue Mission – the latter of which looks, feels and plays like it came right out of Nintendo's Kyoto development labs – surely that time is approaching?
Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa has already voiced the opinion that Nintendo could, in the future, move away from home hardware development and potentially become a software-only company; in a recent interview, he said that Nintendo will "continue to think flexibly" about how to deliver its games to players "as time goes on," and that "in the long-term, perhaps our focus as a business could shift away from home consoles – flexibility is just as important as ingenuity". While we can't imagine that is on the table quite yet, it goes without saying that Nintendo (and its rivals) would have no option but to embrace multi-device streaming platforms if the industry really does move in that direction, as Guillemot and others predict. After all, a world where every person who owns a smart device – be that a phone, tablet or TV – is a potential player and source of revenue is the dream for every entertainment company, Nintendo included.
Whatever Nintendo has up its sleeves, it's always sobering to look back at the company's history and see how much things can change – and how quickly. The firm began making playing cards before moving to children's toys and electronic gadgets – it even dabbled in the world of seedy 'love hotels', snacks and taxis, lest we forget. Given Nintendo's advanced age, its foray into the realm of video games is comparatively recent, and since the 1970s it has enjoyed amazing successes and a few dismal failures. This time 10 years ago, it was seemingly unstoppable thanks to the amazing performance of the Wii; fast forward half a decade and it had fallen from that position thanks to the noble misstep that was the Wii U. A single hardware generation can turn the tables and it's vital to remember that even though Switch is selling in handsome numbers, Nintendo's highest point saw it selling 154 million DS consoles and 101 million Wii consoles in the same generation; it's unlikely that we'll ever see a video game hardware manufacturer hit those numbers again in the same hardware cycle.
Nintendo, for its part, seems to be comfortable with that; it arguably sacrificed potential revenue by consolidating its home and portable interests in a single console this time around, but the risk has paid off because the hybrid nature of Switch makes it totally unique when compared to other consoles and even smart devices. The question that Nintendo has to answer next is how unique that approach will be when moving into the next hardware cycle; can Switch possibly sustain the company for the next decade, and if not, what comes after?
As ever, we'd love to know what you think so feel free to post a comment and vote in the poll below.
What would you like to see Nintendo do? (408 votes)
Keep the Switch going for years to come with new SKUs and regular upgrades
Create an entirely new console after Switch has run its course
Create an entirely new console after Switch has run its course, but with a typical Nintendo-style gimmick (VR, perhaps?)
Move into becoming a software-driven company that supports the supposed 'streaming' future of gaming
I honestly don't care, I'll follow Nintendo whatever it does
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