With sales of over 40 million units since 2017 and a raft of amazing exclusive and cross-platform titles to its name, the Nintendo Switch is arguably the console of the moment. Pulling together its handheld and domestic interests into a single machine was definitely a gamble for Nintendo, but it's one that has paid off handsomely, and in the world of console gaming, the machine that seems to be on everyone's lips is Switch – for the time being, at least.
While Nintendo has done everything right with Switch so far – not just with the core hardware concept, but also with its production line of high-quality exclusive software – few would contest the fact that the company's timing has been very fortuitous. With the Wii U's lifespan curtailed by its dismal commercial failure, Switch was practically launched 'mid-cycle', and its incredible rise must be set against the fact that Sony and Microsoft's systems are now approaching the end of their active lives.
Towards the end of next year, the gaming landscape will shift dramatically as PlayStation 5 and Project Scarlett hit store shelves, inevitably drawing the attention of the gaming world away from Switch and onto more powerful home hardware. That also means that the power gap – which, lest we forget, is already noticeable between Switch and the ageing PS4 and Xbox One – will become even more pronounced. What will that mean for Nintendo's system, and the stream of cross-platform releases – like Doom, Wolfenstein II and Dark Souls: Remastered – that have unquestionably added to its mainstream appeal?
It goes without saying that it will make cross-platform ports more challenging. "As long as there have been different consoles available to gamers, there have always been discrepancies in the potentially achievable performance metrics," says Elijah Freeman, VP of Games Division at Virtuos, the studio that ported the likes of L.A. Noire, Starlink and Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster to Switch. "As the landscape evolves, it will be increasingly challenging to achieve one-to-one results from platform to platform, SKU to SKU. Variables in the technical factors remain unique to the hardware, engine, game and developer."
Where there's a will, there's a way, and Switch ports will continue to happen
The good news for Switch owners is that Sony isn't likely to simply abandon the massive install base it currently has for the PS4 the moment its next console arrives. "I think there are a number of factors that will extend the Switch's lifespan in terms of multi-platform ports," says Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter. "First of all, by the end of the generation, there will be over 100 million PlayStation 4 consoles out there, plus Xbox One consoles, plus a vast array of older PCs. Factoring in how expensive games are to develop, my guess is that where there's a will, there's a way, and Switch ports will continue to happen. I do expect a much longer cross-gen period this time around than there was in 2013."
While Freeman is realistic about the challenge ahead, he's in agreement with that stance. "Given the number of base installs of the current consoles, including both Playstation and Xbox, it would be reasonable to presume that we will have trailing 'cross-gen' development and/or adaptations for the near future. While the new generation will undoubtedly offer a new frontier for us as a development community, I don’t feel the sun will set on the current generation for quite some time, and we’re looking forward to playing our part to ensure that’s the case." For Switch, that's definitely a positive situation – the longer the current generation can remain relevant for, the better it is for Nintendo and its userbase.
However, there will obviously come a time when even the most dedicated PS4 and Xbox One owners will upgrade, and that will create a headache for developers seeking to port over releases to the Switch. "PS5 and Scarlett will become the new baseline, and that's where things will get interesting," says Leadbetter. "The challenge for developers will be two-fold at that point. First of all, there's the storage angle – Switch's storage is actually relatively slow against a mechanical hard drive, so up against an SSD with low-level access, there's probably a couple of orders of magnitude difference in terms of performance. CPU is also an issue – the Zen 2 cores actually deliver a proper generational leap here. Graphics are a concern too, but this is probably the most easily scalable element.
Switch is a very powerful platform, and with solid optimization skills, the sky is truly the limit with regards to what could be achieved
Andrey Iones, Co-founder and COO of Saber Interactive, the studio which is currently porting over CD Projekt Red's fantasy epic The Witcher 3 to Switch, is of the belief that Nintendo's hybrid platform has more juice in the tank than people perhaps give it credit for. "Switch is a very powerful platform, and with solid optimization skills, the sky is truly the limit with regards to what could be achieved," he says. "It is true that if a game is pushing the hardware limits on PS4 and Xbox One it may be hard to port it onto Switch without making some tradeoffs on the visual side of things. However, based on our experience with Witcher 3, a very technologically complex and demanding game could be brought over to the platform without a substantial reduction in visual quality." When you look at how well Witcher 3 performs on Switch, it's hard to disagree.
Still, should the technological gap prove too hard to bridge – and, given the kind of computational power being promised by Sony and Microsoft, that could well be the case – then there are always other options. Lest we forget, a large disparity in processing muscle has been faced by Nintendo before. When the Wii launched in 2006, it was already a much weaker system than its immediate rivals, the PS3 and Xbox 360; not only that, but it was incapable of displaying HD visuals at a time when the market was shifting towards 720p and 1080p gaming. As we all know, it didn't matter as much as some had expected; the Wii sold 101.63 units worldwide compared to the PS3's 87.4 million and the Xbox 360's 84 million, despite its technical shortcomings. Thanks to that huge install base, we not only saw third-party publishers release exclusive Wii games (many of which were rather poor waggle-heavy efforts, but let's choose to ignore that for now), but there was also a flood of cross-platform releases which, in reality, were in fact retooled from the ground up for the Wii hardware, often by studios which were not involved with the original version. They shared the name and the core concept, but little else – and were often less than impressive (Dead Rising: Chop Till You Drop, anyone?)
Could history repeat itself? As the power gap widens, could we see Switch get its own 'unique' versions of major AAA third-party titles? "The Wii idea certainly has a lot going for it, simply because Switch has a large userbase," says Leadbetter. Indeed, Freeman reveals that the wheels are already in motion on this score. "Many of our partners are already approaching us to help them create bespoke Switch titles for some of the most beloved IPs in our industry," he explains. However, he adds that the unique nature of the Switch hardware is just as significant in this situation. "I believe that we could and will see unique versions of franchises developed specifically to harness elements of the Switch that make it so special. I would credit this to the unique portability of the console and the quality of gameplay experiences that it offers players, not a result of technical constraints."
I would expect Nintendo to be rolling out more powerful Switch hardware at the point where PS5/Scarlett have made their predecessors completely obsolete
Of course, all of this conjecture is based on the assumption that Nintendo will keep the Switch hardware in stasis, which would not only contradict the current trend seen in the industry for mid-cycle 'Pro' upgrades, but also Nintendo's own track record when it comes to iterating its hardware. Game Boy Color, DSi, New Nintendo 3DS… all of these legacy systems (as well as plenty of rumours) point to the company enhancing the Switch at some point in the next few years, and that could give it a fighting chance of keeping within technological touching distance of its rivals. "Game ports will definitely lessen at some point, but I would expect Nintendo to be rolling out more powerful Switch hardware at the point where PS5/Scarlett have made their predecessors completely obsolete," says Leadbetter. How Nintendo carries out this upgrade is anyone's guess, but we could see a more powerful console or an improved dock which contains its own tech, augmenting the power of the base platform.
"I really like the Switch 'power dock' idea," Leadbetter adds. "Not so much for the longevity of the system overall, but rather because while I love the console, I do think it works a lot better as a portable, where the cutbacks in ports are less noticeable, and where the system truly is unique in what it offers. So I'd see a dock with an extra Tegra X1 in it as almost like a PC SLI-style solution – but I can imagine it being very difficult to produce games for. I do think it's more likely that we'll see an evolving platform, especially as Nvidia made clear in its initial announcement about the Nintendo partnership that it sees this being a very long collaboration stretching across many years."
Freeman agrees that a more robust hardware offering would change the game as far as Switch is concerned. "A more powerful Switch would definitely broaden the canvas for certain aspects, and as a fan myself I admit I would love to see this happen. That said, as developers, we have a responsibility to push the technical boundaries regardless of what they might be, which is when excitingly creative solutions start to surface and the real magic happens. Additionally, as we start to see a variety of technical alliances forming in the game industry, it will be interesting to see if Nintendo aligns with one of the emerging content streaming ventures." Streaming is already a reality on Switch, with Resident Evil 7 and Assassin's Creed Odyssey available in Japan in this format. While it seems far-fetched – especially given the portable nature of the console – we certainly wouldn't rule out Nintendo leveraging streaming tech in the future to give the Switch graphical parity with its next-gen rivals.
Ultimately, none of these may even matter. Nintendo hasn't been interested in being part of a technological arms race for quite some time now, and it could be argued that as long as it keeps producing games as good as Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, then the console's future is assured, irrespective of what happens elsewhere in the industry. After all, the 3DS has enjoyed a long lifespan despite its humble hardware, so why shouldn't Switch? "I think the big takeaway to keep in mind is that Nintendo hasn't really cared that much about cutting-edge tech since the GameCube days, and fundamentally, what makes Switch a success isn't multi-platform games," concludes Leadbetter. "A new Switch has to remain a hybrid, fundamentally based on a mobile chipset, and capable of portable play."
It would seem that four potential futures lie ahead for Nintendo's popular console. One would be the hope that the current trend for cross-platform titles continues despite the gulf in power between Switch and the next-gen systems coming in 2020. Another is that Nintendo boosts the base power of its machine to bring it closer to PS5 and Project Scarlett. A third option is that, as is hinted by Freeman, studios begin to release bespoke versions of big, cross-platform franchises on Switch – an outcome that could potentially see a drop-off in quality if the Wii era is anything to go by. Then, there's a fourth choice – Nintendo could harness the evolving cloud streaming tech to effectively turn the Switch into a next-gen system without having to touch its internal components. We may well see a combination of these futures, but it's well worth remembering that no matter what happens in the impending next-gen war, Switch's UPS is its hybrid nature and portability – and that could count for a lot, irrespective of what Sony and Microsoft have up their respective sleeves.