Well, the Nintendo Switch is a month away, which is exciting news for those with pre-orders down or perhaps are considering the possibility of grabbing one on launch day. The arrival of new gaming hardware, from Nintendo or rivals such as Sony and Microsoft, is typically enough to get hearts fluttering and send buzz into overdrive. I always feel there's something special about getting a new system of any type; for me, the very thought of an all-new console setup at home and good to go makes me feel child-like and, frankly, rather giddy.
The odds are decent that Nintendo will enjoy a sell-out launch for the Switch, too, but that's arguably because at present only around two million units are confirmed to be shipping in March. I've suggested before that this is terribly cautious of Nintendo, which is disappointing - the hope is that Tatsumi Kimishima's comments regarding ramping up production are accurate, and that store shelves get topped up promptly.
In any case, I'm excited about the arrival of the Switch, which isn't exactly surprising coming from someone who claims that writing about Nintendo is a job. I was asked in a Games Industry.biz podcast at the London preview event a couple of weeks ago whether I was getting it at launch, and I reminded them that if I didn't there'd be serious questions asked. But that aside, since I picked up a DSi out of curiosity many years ago (my first Ninty system since the N64) and then a Wii, I've been a keen supporter of the company. The big N may do strange things and irritate me sometimes, but if I wasn't writing about the company I can honestly say I'd still be there on day one with Switch, despite the fact it's an irrational dent in my savings.
I know I'm not the only gamer that's excited, but of course there are plenty of people that are getting one at launch but feeling pensive, or aren't getting the system just yet. Wherever individuals sit they can chat about it online, and since mid-January and the Nintendo Switch Presentation there have been plenty of earnest discussions about the console.
One angle that's popped up (particularly recently) is whether the Nintendo Switch is having a 'soft launch', and I'll admit my initial reaction was to rant at colleagues and tear some of my luscious brown locks out of my head (not literally, that would actually hurt). Perhaps it's due to my working background - when I was younger and bright eyed - in IT and corporate project work. I was involved in 'soft launches' back in those heady and dull days, and so I'm familiar with what the term actually means. In one sentence, a soft launch is a low profile, limited release (in some senses a 'preview') that isn't available or readily accessible to the general public; it's used to test something out and gather data to inform a full launch.
A soft launch doesn't have a live presentation by the company President in Tokyo, nor does it have a range of events that weekend and then in the weeks that follow. You don't spend millions of dollars on ad space for the Super Bowl for a soft launch, nor do you undertake all of the marketing and promotion that Nintendo is undergoing. The Nintendo Switch is, fundamentally and factually, not having a soft launch - by the broadly accepted definition of the term, in any case.
Of course, the definition of the term does get twisted and manipulated in conversations, so my interpretation of how many are treating 'soft launch' is as follows - "the launch is disappointing and doesn't have the games / features / pricing / stuff that I want". That's a reasonable argument to make, even if describing it as a soft launch isn't.
Nintendo is aware of the debate, at least to the point that it's been defending the launch line-up and its strategy of ensuring a steady stream of major titles throughout the year. We don't know, for example, whether something like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is actually 100% complete and being held back to ensure there's a major April release for 'wave 2' purchases. It's certainly understandable that Nintendo doesn't fling out excessive games on day one and then leave the Spring / Summer completely barren.
As it is, the first party offering at launch is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and 1-2-Switch, with the latter naturally being much debated in terms of its worth. Beyond that, though, the launch day and broader 'March' line-up has fleshed out a little since the January Presentation aired, which did a poor job of easing day one concerns - by my count there are ten games confirmed for launch day, with a few down for March and the potential for some 'Spring' games to also drop into the launch month; there are some gems in there, too. On top of that we don't know whether the Virtual Console will be there on day one, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if there's a Nintendo Direct or simpler info dump in mid-February on key things like the eShop and the retro service.
The fact Nintendo's kept things like the VC out of the limelight up to now doesn't help when people assess the upcoming launch, but it's not time to declare the 3rd March picture as final. A little while ago I wrote about key features that are still rather mysterious and unknown, and some may get clarified in the next month.
If more small-ish surprises are coming this month, that may help tackle the perception of a soft launch; if they don't come, then naturally it'll only be fair to raise questions. That said, I don't think people should pretend that console launches are always stacked with multiple must-haves - it's time to take off those rose-tinted spectacles. I've had some reminders that the Nintendo 64 launched with two games(!) in some places, and typically there are a number of titles that are ignored and flop at launch. An example is with Wii U - it had over 30 games at launch, many of them retail (six download-only on the eShop) but I'd bet most day-one buyers only bought a couple of games. It's likely that ZombiU was in the top five sellers at launch, but it made a loss. When you splash out a lot of money for a console the reality for most, I suspect, is that you pick one or two games to go with it, maybe a few if you're feeling a bit flush.
The 3DS was another interesting case - it had a number of relatively high profile launch titles, but it's debatable whether any were killer apps; the steep drop in hardware sales suggests that they weren't, with the system's price also being a factor. In fact, the 3DS launched without the eShop even being live, which was annoying at that time and seems crazy now. At least with developers like Tomorrow Corporation announcing three games for launch, along with the download-only in the West I Am Setsuna, we know the digital store will be ready to go.
If Nintendo does have anything else coming on day one, though, it'd be wise to get the message out. With social media and the power of public opinion, trying to influence the 'narrative' is important. For example, in the build-up and after the immediate launch of PS4 and Xbox One there was endless debate about system power. The PS4 had - and often still does - an edge in that some games, for example, run at 1080p on its system but 900p on Xbox One. Most members of the general public won't know about distinctions like those, but I did overhear a young boy in a GAME store say to his dad, in late 2013, "the PS4 games look better, let's get that one". He didn't say "but we might not notice on my bedroom's 20-inch TV". When lots of people talk about something, those opinions naturally influence and inform others.
Though Nintendo has ripped up the launch playbook in fully revealing the system less than two months before its launch (with the preview trailer a little before that), unanswered questions can harm the perspective people have of the console. Social media and online forums aren't places where patience is common, so teasing and tantalising in terms of what the Switch will do on day one doesn't help. So, show us the eShop, tell us if / when the Virtual Console is coming, pin down the full March line-up with release dates.
If Nintendo doesn't do this, it becomes a topic in the wrong way. You get people talking about a soft launch in the same week a Super Bowl commercial is unveiled. We ran straw polls on social media today, and about a third of voters would describe the Switch as having a soft launch. It's something that's being discussed.
That's a viewpoint Nintendo needs to tackle head-on, and as quickly as possible.