Nintendo Switch: The company itself on portability

IGN posted excerpts from an interview with some Nintendo execs about the portability of the Nintendo Switch — arguably one of 2017’s most notable pieces of tech — in an environment where smartphones dominate the mobile gaming experience.

The interview points to an acknowledgement of the product’s differentiators, but it seems they missed a few important points.

Nintendo did acknowledge:

  • Hybrid play. This is the central value prop of the Switch to start with of course — being able to play any of the games sitting in front of a television or on-the-go.
  • Shared experiences. Primarily by detaching the Joy-Cons and sharing one of them with someone else, you can have a multi-person play experience that’s not possible with a smartphone.

What Nintendo seems to have missed, however, are other aspects of the experience:

  • Dedicated control. The touch interface and accelerometers of a smartphone are actually quite nicely tuned to a number of gaming experiences. (Or rather, the gaming experience can be nicely tuned to those input methods.) But it’s not an idyllic control system, and it has very clear limitations that prevent smartphones from being an optimal way of playing a broad array of games. The fact that the Switch has real joysticks and real buttons gives it an edge.
  • Software depth. There are certainly very engaging games on smartphones, and there are some with remarkably big storage footprints as well. But even today’s most capacious smartphones are no match for games that come on (in the case of the Switch) game carts that are currently as large as 32 Gig, or (in the case of other consoles) on DVD- or Blu-ray-ROM discs. That difference alone places some bookends on what smartphone gaming can realistically deliver.
  • Business model. Let’s be honest, the app stores have become a wasteland of crap that’s forced the emergence of a business model where ostensibly “free” apps are the expectation of users. There are exceptions, but it’s hard to find success with paid apps, leaving developers to lean heavily on in-app purchases as a way to make money. Loading-up smartphone games with myriad microtransaction-based in-app purchases is annoying, unpredictable, and a poor user experience. Obviously, DLC packs and things like Nintendo’s amiibo are the same idea brought to consoles, but the point, the nature, and the benefits are more well-defined. Regardless, buying a game once vs. what feels like dozens of times over is an area the Switch has over smartphones. (And if you don’t like the game, or you’ve burned through it, you can take a physical Switch purchase to a GameStop and trade it in. Try that with a smartphone.)

Of course, it’s not all peaches (bad pun) and cream. Carrying around your Switch also means:

  • Having another device to carry around.
  • Having another thing to keep secure from theft. (In all seriousness, add-up the cost of the Switch itself and all the game carts you carry around; does your homeowner’s insurance cover that if it goes missing?)
  • If you’re wandering too far from home, or for too long, having another device to keep powered-up and charged-up — with the adapters and wires and everything else needed to do that. Or, with the Switch’s crap battery life, it probably means having a USB battery pack as well — yet another thing to carry around.

Each to their own, of course, but my Switch has its own mini-case, and that mini-case has its place in my messenger bag, and it generally goes where I go, despite all these limitations. In my mind, anyway, a smartphone has a range of purposes. It’s my camera. It’s my GPS. It’s my e-mail interface. It’s my pager. It’s my calendar. It’s my Rolodex. It’s a lot of things — but it’s not my gaming platform.