Screenshot 2019 03 06 At 13.40.23

The Switch, when you really think about it, is a machine stuck between two extremes. On one side, it offers a thriving and healthy consumer base for physical games, with not a week seeming to pass without news of a new (and highly collectable) boxed edition of an existing digital release. However, on the other hand, the console is home to one of the industry's most vibrant and well-stocked digital storefronts, populated with must-have downloads. In that regard, the Switch – and Nintendo itself – currently offers the best of both worlds, and that's a situation that, for the time being at least, suits it just fine.

However, the market is changing. This week, we've heard reports that Microsoft is about to launch an Xbox One console which will be digital-only; codenamed 'Maverick', this new iteration will lack any kind of optical media drive and will be aimed at tempting players to subscribe to the company's Xbox Game Pass service, which gives access to all of the company's first-party games (as well as many third-party ones) for a flat monthly fee. While it's not totally confirmed as yet, it's a move that makes sense for a company like Microsoft, which – in the face of less-than-stellar results this hardware generation – is looking for ways to get its content on as many devices as possible. Part of that strategy will involve its much-hyped xCloud game streaming service, which – as has been hinted – could even make its way to Switch some day.

For now, though, Microsoft is clearly keen to reduce the base price of the Xbox One and get more people signed up to its Game Pass service, and this new machine hits both of those marks – and could build a consumer base for the xCloud platform when it launches in earnest. While Microsoft is in a totally different place to Nintendo right now (a fact that makes gossip about a possible collaboration between the firms all the more plausible), it got us thinking: could Nintendo perform a similar trick with its rumoured Switch Lite and ditch physical media?

The PSP Go removed physical media and flamed out. Would the same thing happen if Nintendo released a digital-only Switch?
The PSP Go removed physical media and flamed out. Would the same thing happen if Nintendo released a digital-only Switch?

On paper, it sounds absurd and is perhaps highly unlikely for a number of reasons. For one, Nintendo tends to lag a little behind the rest of the industry and has an arguably larger dependence on physical sales than its rivals. Switch owners love owning the games they buy in physical form (even if, in many cases, the entire game doesn't exist on the game card, and the perks of physical ownership are now almost entirely limited to a plastic case with an inlay).

Sure, physical retail is on the wane, but Nintendo – which lacks a wide 'Apple-style' retail network – still relies on independent retailers to connect with millions of consumers. Going digital-only – even with a cut-down budget version of the console – would create ill-will; the exact same kind of ill-will that Microsoft generated when it first announced its Game Pass service, in fact. Things are pretty sweet for Nintendo right now, so there's no need to rock the boat with such a risky move; Microsoft, on the other hand, has been playing catch-up for the entire hardware generation, and is, therefore, more likely to throw a curve-ball.

Conversely, there are many reasons why a digital-only Switch actually makes sense. If you're anything like us, then the vast majority of the games you buy on your Switch will be digital. While that's not the norm by any means – as we've just said, plenty of Switch owners love having physical copies – but there are many who use the eShop as their main retail channel. While the prices often aren't as good, there are other upsides – you get the game without having to leave the house, and there's no need to swap game cards when you want to load up a different title (and less chance of losing those tiny game cards, too). Granted, you don't actually own the game you're playing, but have instead purchased the licence to play it (a licence which, in time, will be removed when the Switch's eShop is turned off many years in the future), but given that many physical games require additional content to be downloaded before they can be enjoyed fully, it's not as obvious as saying "always buy physical" – certainly not in the modern games industry anyway, where install data dumps and regular patches are a common occurrence.

Do we really get that much for our money when it comes to physical games these days?
Do we really get that much for our money when it comes to physical games these days?

However, there is a precedent to this situation – the Sony PSP Go. Launched at the tail end of the PSP's lifespan, this digital-only handheld was, in many respects, exactly what we're describing here; it lacked the means to play UMD discs and was wholly reliant on Sony's online store (which, it should be noted, has now closed, rendering the PSP Go pretty much redundant to anyone who doesn't want to hack it). The machine was a dismal failure, with retailers rightly refusing to stock a system which didn't allow them to make money on physical software purchases. Still, it's worth noting that the market back in 2009 was very different to today; consumers are now more comfortable with downloading their games rather than buying them in physical form, and even retailers have embraced the digital future by selling download code vouchers in-store for select titles. There's no reason, therefore, that a Switch Lite which lacks a game card slot couldn't succeed in 2019.

But why would Nintendo want to create a console which effectively freezes out physical game sales? Cost is one major factor here; assuming the Switch Lite rumours are true, the company clearly sees reducing the barrier to entry for its system as a key priority if it wants to keep selling hardware and build that install base. With the 3DS now on its last legs and a legion of younger players ready to step up to Switch, a cheaper price point is essential. And, lest we forget, much of this younger generation will have been weaned on smart devices like phones and tablets which also lack physical media. In fact, many parents might actually find it preferable to buy a console which removes easily-lost and expensive cartridges, especially if they have absent-minded offspring. The smartphone and tablet market has already created this conception in some consumers that buying physical games is old-fashioned, so you could argue that the PSP Go was simply way ahead of its time; the industry, as a whole, should be a lot more receptive to a media-less portable games console today.

Ditching optical media makes sense for a struggling Microsoft, but can the same be said of a resurgent Nintendo?
Ditching optical media makes sense for a struggling Microsoft, but can the same be said of a resurgent Nintendo?

We still don't know exactly what form the next hardware iteration of Switch will take, but if Nintendo is serious about hitting that low end of the market and turning the console into a platform capable of shifting 100 million units during its lifespan, then it needs to reduce that price as quickly as possible. Switch hasn't had an official price cut since launch, which is a remarkable achievement (remember the 3DS and the N64?), but it's something that has to change; consoles traditionally become cheaper as they get older, and that goes hand-in-hand with accelerated sales and market share growth. Indeed, just like Microsoft's disc-less Xbox One is set to tap a hitherto unexploited sector of the market, a low-price, digital-only Switch could potentially convince iPad-owning gamers that it's time to upgrade to a portable platform which offers deeper, more immersive experiences than Candy Crush.

Will a scaled-down model remove the ability to load-up game cards, while perhaps bolstering the onboard memory to accommodate more downloads? Maybe Nintendo will follow Microsoft's lead and use this new hardware push to expand its Nintendo Switch Online offering, giving us access to more retro games and perhaps even a free AAA release every month? Your guess is as good as ours when it comes to what the future holds in terms of hardware, but even with Nintendo, you never know quite what to expect. We still can't believe the Wii Mini exists, for example.

Should Nintendo drop physical media on the Switch Lite? (514 votes)

Yes

15%

No

75%

I'm not sure

10%

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