Nintendo Switch is off to a hot start. Since its release in March, it’s been almost impossible to find one on store shelves. At the moment, it’s outpacing even Nintendo Wii sales, which is incredible. A bonafide Game-of-the-Year contender in Breath of the Wild has definitely helped that out, but for anyone that owns one, the real attraction is in the central idea of the system: the ability to take console quality games on the go.
What’s important to remember, though, is that this isn’t the first time a console manufacturer has attempted this idea. Six years ago, Sony announced the PlayStation Vita, marketed with the same promise. It’s no small wonder that a notable amount of comments about the Nintendo Switch have called it “the Vita killer”. It’s easily in a position to steal the entirety of the Vita’s small marketshare, developers who found success on Vita are very likely to switch over to Nintendo’s console, and the Switch even has a similar form factor while in handheld mode.
But the term “Vita killer” isn’t a neutral phrase– the Vita was in no way successful, and when the phrase was first being used, it was as a joke referring both to the failures of the Vita, as well as the failures of Nintendo’s last console, the Wii U. The joke being the idea that Nintendo was trying to take the place of a failing console, instead of something they feel would sell better. The comparisons are based in legitimate similarities, but it’s the key differences in approach to the idea of “console quality games on the go” that have, and are very likely to continue, setting the two consoles apart.
Developing Games for Two Separate Systems
The first big difference in approach is focus. The biggest comparisons between Sony and Nintendo as console manufacturers is that they both own a large number of development studios to produce content for home and handheld devices. The problem that both companies have faced is in stretching their resources thin trying to support both devices.
Sony’s response, in simplest terms, was just to stop supporting the Vita. From the PSP and PS3 generation to Vita and PS4, Sony’s first party output had drastically decreased– whether due to increased developing time or fewer internal studios. For PSP and PS3, they had averaged 13.25 and 9.25 retail games published per year in their first four years, respectively. For Vita and PS4, their output in the first four years fell to half of that, with the Vita averaging 6.5 retail games per year, and the PS4 surprisingly averaging a measly 5.5 retail games per year. Comparatively, Nintendo kept their average above 10 retail games per year in the first four years on both DS and 3DS, and their average output on Wii U actually increased from 8.25 to 8.75 retail games per year, compared to Wii.
Essentially, for one reason or another, Sony quickly found themselves incapable of supporting both a handheld and home console, even if they wanted to, and seeing as the Vita wasn’t selling and the PS4 was a wild success, opted to divert development efforts away from the failing handheld– within the Vita’s second year in the market, no less.
Nintendo saw this issue plague the Wii U, whose early library suffered greatly without third party support to fill the gaps while Nintendo tried shoring up the 3DS library after a similar slow start. But instead of just dropping their home consoles in a similar fashion to what Sony has done with their handhelds, Nintendo’s response, alongside developing more appealing hardware than the Wii U, was to create a hybrid handheld and home console device that could become a singular focus for all their development teams– giving it double the support they could ever offer the two separate devices, without outright abandoning the functionality that made either form attractive.
Putting in the Support
As I said before, the output in games dropped drastically from the PSP to Vita. Outside of 2011, when Sony was winding down PSP support, the lowest number of games they published for the device in a single year was 8 in 2008, the PSP’s 4th year on the market. Comparatively, the only year that Vita had support higher than that number was 13 in its first. It’s fairly obvious to say this, but the success of any gaming hardware depends on the number of quality games that are on it, and that’s especially true for first party titles that usually release exclusively for the device, as they separate the platform from the competition.
If you look at a list of Vita’s exclusive titles, it’s very easy to see why it wouldn’t gain mass-market appeal. The vast majority of exclusives have been niche Japanese games– even “hits” on the platform like Persona 4: Golden fall into this category. The rest seemed to take Sony’s goal of making console quality content as “handheld versions of the titles people liked on PS3 and PS4″– Assassin’s Creed Liberations, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified, Killzone: Mercenary, and ModNation Racers: Roadtrip all falling under this category. The problem therein is that handheld versions of console titles have gained a stigma overtime for missing out on content or being worse versions of those games– often garnering backlash like you can see from Fifa 18 for Nintendo Switch this year.
Nintendo often avoids this by either making sure both home and handheld iterations of a franchise have the same type of content (Super Mario 3D Land), is specifically built for the type of device it’s on (Pokémon), or is a different type of game than the console counterparts (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds)– although the lines between all of these have blurred over the years as Nintendo’s handheld hardware has become powerful enough to run the types of games that used to be relegated to console exclusivity.
But exclusive, original, first party IP for Vita was minimal. The most notable titles being Gravity Rush, Soul Sacrifice, Freedom Wars, and Tearaway– three of which were Japanese titles not likely to be anything but niche, and none of which sold more than 700,000 units, globally.
That being said, the Vita was still able to tread water in part because of those Japanese titles– niche in the West, but providing adequate sales in Japan– as well as their approach to independent titles. Sony lowered the cost of entry for independent developers on Vita, reaching out to PC and mobile developers and making accommodations so they could turn a profit on their device. This direction offered enough to keep consumer attention and market it towards a specific crowd– though without those big exclusives to drive sales, the system was never going to take off.
In many ways, the Nintendo Switch is taking that same page out of Sony’s Vita playbook. Every week, you can find a new independent title, some exclusive to Switch, releasing on the platform. Fast RMX, Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, Blaster Master Zero, Voez, Snake Pass, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, Graceful Explosion Machine, Kamiko, Tumbleseed, Thumper, GoNNER, and Minecraft have all released this year, already, with many others like Stardew Valley, Shakedown Hawaii, Axiom Verge, Azure Striker Gunvolt, Runner3, SteamWorld Dig 2, Rocket League, Hollow Knight, Wargroove, BloodStained: Ritual of the Night, Owlboy and many more still to come.
Not to mention, the Japanese support that is very likely to increase, moving forward, as the Switch continues to sell– Dragon Quest X, XI, Seiken Densetsu Collection, a new Shin Megami Tensei title, I am Setsuna, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Disgaea 5 Complete, Lost Sphere, No More Heroes, BlazBlue, Project Octopath Traveler, Tales, Taiko Drum Master, and especially Monster Hunter XX– a franchise whose appearance on the PSP heavily boosted the handheld’s sales and whose entries on the 3DS arguably buried the Vita.
But most importantly, despite this approach being very similar to Sony’s with the Vita, Nintendo’s use of the independent and Japanese titles aren’t to be the console’s entire library, they’re only meant to fill it out in between Nintendo’s first party offerings– the production of which has quickly lead to a new AAA Nintendo title releasing on the Switch almost every month.
And unlike Sony, these releases aren’t the “handheld version” of their biggest console titles– since Nintendo sees the Switch as a home console first, they are Nintendo’s biggest titles. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, and Super Mario Odyssey are four huge, bonafide system sellers, both in the west and Japan, and all releasing in the very first year.
Cost of Entry
$300 is a high price of a handheld. Hell, $250 is even a hard sell for consumers. The 3DS struggled heavily in its first year at that price-point before quickly dropping $80 to combat the Vita and taking off at $170. When Vita finally showed up at $250– and $300 for the 3G version, it found itself competing with both mobile devices, and a much cheaper handheld that Nintendo had already supported by that point with a handful of exclusive titles like Mario Kart 7, Ocarina of Time 3D, Super Mario 3D Land, Resident Evil: Revelations, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D, and a month later, Kid Icarus: Uprising (not to mention, Monster Hunter Tri: Ultimate in Japan).
Despite also selling for a high price point of $300, the Switch’s position in the market is markedly different than the Vita was five years ago– in part due, again, to Nintendo’s approach. While both push the idea of “console gaming on the go,” the Vita was still, primarily, a handheld, while Nintendo has been adamant in pushing the Switch as a console, first. To consumers, the $300 price point seems much more reasonable for a home console than a handheld, and because of the Switch’s functionality as both a console and handheld, it has found itself in a position where it can sell despite the ever growing mobile market, and the increasingly cheap $250 competition in the home console space.
On price, its own big problem may be the accessories, in that virtually everything is pretty steep. The Pro Controller comes in $10 more than controllers on other home consoles, and no one can quite figure out why an extra dock costs $90. It’s comparable to how the Vita used proprietary Memory Cards that cost around $100 for 32 GB. As far as cost is concerned, this is the biggest issue with the Switch, right now.
So is the Nintendo Switch a Vita-killer? Well it would be hard to kill something already dead, but it will undoubtedly usurp the marketshare it has held, and it is certainly only the Switch’s sales floor. As it continues to top sales charts every month and is flying off store shelves at a speed outpacing the original Wii, it’s very unlikely that the console will flounder, now, like the Vita or its own predecessor, the Wii U, did.
And it’s Nintendo’s approach that is the root cause of that. They’ve created a console with an attractive central concept, marketed in a way to justify its price, positioned it in a way that it can sell without competition, and are consistently supporting it with quality, first-party content to draw new consumers in.
It’s been said that the Nintendo Switch is the result of the lessons learned by Nintendo through its past failings and successes of the Wii and Wii U, but it’s more than that. This is a console created by the lessons Nintendo’s learned by not only their own expenditures, but in viewing the successes and failures of every other competitor in the market.
And if they keep improving on their approach, the Switch will undoubtedly continue with its runaway success.