Now That’s Strategy: How Nintendo’s Switch Launch Improves on the Wii U’s Failures

It’s finally here! Nintendo has set out on a new console adventure after releasing the Nintendo Switch this past Friday with the critically acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild putting wind in its sales. In fact, the New York Times reports that the Switch gave Nintendo their best first two days in North America of any system in Nintendo’s storied history.  Despite the great start, there are many still wary about similarities between the Switch and Wii U, which also posted strong sales when it first hit the market back in late 2012.

But even at this point, Nintendo would be hard-pressed to repeat the Wii U’s failures. Wii U may have sold well at launch, but it also released during the holiday season, when sales usually peak. More than that, the lineup at the time was also seen as relatively lackluster, despite the breadth of games released, with no single launch title even coming close to the kind of hype and critical acclaim that Zelda has received thus far.

And looking past launch, the Wii U is well known to have had a particularly bad drought of big, system-selling titles immediately following its release– with only Lego City Undercover, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, The Wonderful 101, Pikmin 3, and The Wind Waker HD as notable exclusives trying to fill in the gap between release and the Wii U’s first huge title in Super Mario 3D World a full year later.

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Nintendo’s lineup at E3 2013. Tropical Freeze was later pushed back into 2014.

Even past that, with the exception of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the big releases didn’t really start coming until mid 2014 when Mario Kart 8, Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2, Super Smash Bros., and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker released in mildly quick succession. The biggest reason for this? Nintendo was struggling supporting two consoles, and after having dragged the 3DS from the brink of calamity, they had put the bulk of their development efforts in 2013 into giving the handheld arguably the best string of great titles month after month in recent memory

That’s obviously all different with Switch. Nintendo may still have some titles coming to 3DS, but it’s quite clear that most if not all of their developers are focusing on Switch, which should mean less droughts going forward as Nintendo supports a single console instead of two.

Because of this, comparing the Wii U’s first 12 months with Switch’s isn’t even close. Alongside Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has lined up some of their best IPs to hit the system every month leading up to their big console seller in Super Mario Odyssey this holiday. Mario Kart, a series that has had an absolutely ridiculous attach rate over the years, releases next month. The hot new IP that has grown absolutely huge in Japan, Splatoon 2, hits this summer. And the first mobile-capable version of Skyrim, will be out this fall, alongside Fire Emblem Warriors and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. That isn’t even mentioning a brand new IP in Arms, which has the potential to be a very interesting new fighting game on the scene.

In comparison to most of Wii U’s years, these titles alone would easily rank as one of its best, and the most interesting thing about it is that, in all likelihood, this is not the final lineup. After all, like the rest of the big 3, Nintendo does like to make big game announcements at E3 in June. If rumors are true (and the sources of these rumors have been right about Switch before), among those announcements could end up being enhanced ports of two of the Wii U’s biggest titles in Super Mario Maker and Super Smash Bros., alongside what would be another absolutely enormous system-seller in Pokémon. Those three additions alone would easily make the Nintendo Switch a must-buy for many casual gamers, but there’s a distinct possibility that even more titles could make an appearance at the show.

Other rumors have suggested that Nintendo is funding a sequel/reboot of Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil, and it has been over 3 years since one of Nintendo’s best first party developers, Retro Studios, last released a title. Other Nintendo studios who could be due to release a game within the next year: Nintendo’s Pikmin studio (the 3DS platforming title is being done by the Yoshi’s New Island team), the Animal Crossing team, and Intelligent Systems (who often release 2-3 games in the same year). It’s not likely everything here shows up, and like most years with Nintendo, it’s likely most won’t. But at the very least, I would bet on Nintendo showing off something unexpected when the Electronic Entertainment Expo rolls around.

Games are a huge reason that the Switch likely won’t be nearly as bad as the Wii U has been. The other is Nintendo’s strategy.

Playing Is Power

It’s no secret that the Switch isn’t a perfect system. In trying to bridge the gap between console and hybrid, it doesn’t achieve the kind of horsepower or media functionality that other home consoles on the market possess, and it lacks the lengthy battery life that is expected from a portable console– all while being about the same price or more as most of its competitors.

However, what Nintendo may have missed in functionality, they absolutely nailed in aesthetics and presentation. The Switch’s base concept is simple and easy to understand: a home console you can take with you on the go. And you’d think with the variety of ways to play and with the extensive functionality of the Joy-Cons, the concept would be a little hard to explain to someone.

But if you hand someone a Nintendo Switch, the understanding is almost immediate. Its sleek, muted design comes off as high tech, yet familiar– and arguably more attractive than any Nintendo hardware that has come before it. Detaching and reattaching the Joy-cons is intuitive and satisfying, games look great on the handheld screen, and, surprisingly, for as much of a serious consumer electronic as it looks, it is also surprisingly durable, as shown by a recent video by GizmoSlip where they dropped the console from several feet onto solid concrete 11 times before it finally stopped working.  (In retrospect, we really shouldn’t be surprised considering this is the same  company that made a handheld that could survive a war and another that, coincidentally, was tested for durability by dropping it from an established height onto concrete.

Nintendo understands how much easier it is to sell the Switch in person and has used that to its advantage prior to launch by holding events across the country to try to get it into people’s hands. When not in person, they’re also pushing a very different marketing proposition than what the Wii U presented. The initial reveal trailer was notable for not including a single child playing the console, and this past February, Nintendo made a bold move in buying their first ever Super Bowl commercial– putting the focus of their sparse 15 seconds with the nation’s largest audience on the console’s central concept and its biggest game, Breath of the Wild.

But what Nintendo has done the best at so far is neither its hardware nor even its games. The key for Nintendo sales right now may actually be Nintendo’s current approach to the console’s rollout.

Switch’s Unusual Rollout

Companies do not launch home consoles in March. It just doesn’t happen. Instead, this time of year is normally when Nintendo releases their handheld consoles– including the GBA, DS, 3DS, and new 3DS. So it was an interesting choice to see Nintendo launch their hybrid home console in March instead of over the holidays.

Several analysts saw this as a compromise, proposing that perhaps Breath of the Wild was delayed from its planned launch for holidays, 2016, but that the game lineup for the console wouldn’t be ready until the holidays of 2017, so they settled for a March release, with the original fall releases spread thinly over the remainder of the year instead.

It should be fairly obvious that I disagree completely with this line of thinking, and would like to propose one that I’ve seen others point towards instead.

A March release does one very important, and very obvious thing: it removes the console’s release from the usual holiday sales surge. While this could at first be seen as a mistake by not giving the console the kinds of sales it would otherwise have, it actually does itself a service. Consider that at a console’s launch, there will always be hardcore fans of the console that buy it immediately regardless of when it releases.

Conversely, during the holidays, the reason there is usually a surge in sales is because there will always be consumers who will often only make big purchases during the holidays– whether to take advantage of sales or bundles, holiday shopping, or simply to get into the retail-friendly spirit that comes with it.

When a console releases during the holidays, supplies are often limited as companies are still attempting to find out how many consoles need to be made to meet demand. Because of this, often those hardcore fans who buy in day one end up competing for sales with those who will only buy the console during the holiday season– and could, theoretically, not buy it at all the following year.

By moving the Switch out of the holiday season, Nintendo avoids that issue. The hardcore fans who will buy the Switch anyway will (and based on the NYT interview, already have) come out and buy the Switch now, when they’re the ones most likely to spend the money on it, and therefore won’t compete for supply with those who may only buy it during the holidays.

More than that, Nintendo has also given itself ample time to develop and modify the Switch. Currently there are many features that are missing from the Switch, from entertainment apps, to a web browser, and, of course, the Switch Virtual Console. Nintendo has promised that they’ll be adding these features throughout the year, alongside planning and implementing their first paid online service. Additionally, as mentioned, they appear to be implementing the big-game-a-month strategy that worked extremely well for the 3DS in 2013 through at least E3, where we will likely get more game announcements and this continued approach leading up to the big holiday title in Super Mario Odyssey– all of which will very likely keep happy, those superfans who have already bought the console.

Once the holidays arrive, Nintendo’s marketing strategy will be in full force, they’ll have made the necessary tweaks to their console’s features, have put together a compelling lineup of software, and will likely have a few bundles set up with their most enticing titles. If they can maintain this kind of hype– from big release after big release each month, to the usual E3 spectacle, to the run-up to the holidays, Nintendo should have a very real shot of selling the Switch to a much wider audience, and exactly the type of people that may only buy the console that time of year.

And if they succeed in this, then there’s no chance that the Switch flops as badly as its predecessor, even if the next few years end up being rocky.

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