Remaking the Switch

This post was originally a series of tweets on 9/24/2016. I’m repackaging and expanding on them for posterity.

The Nintendo Switch looks like it does a lot of things right, but I’m worried that Nintendo missed the mark. Here’s why. (Disclaimer: I haven’t played it yet, and most hardware releases are rough.)

The Switch is the most recent iteration in a surprisingly long line of Nintendo combining consoles with portable screens. It started on the GameCube, where you could connect up to four Game Boy Advances using link cables. Doing so allowed multiplayer games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles to offload player-specific information and interactions (like inventory management) to the player’s personal screen. Most recently, the Wii U tablet controller had a screen that let you play some games solely on the handheld and augment others with a second screen (as long as you were within range of the console).

The Switch cuts an interesting path between these two styles that is more similar to the Wii U. The console is fused to the screen, with a charging/video out dock to connect to TVs. The dock increases resolution (to 900p, from 720p when undocked), but actually decreases the framerate. Because the Joy Cons detach, you no longer get a screen on your controller for second-screen gaming.

What I would have liked to see is a refinement of the GameCube’s system, rather than the Wii U’s. First, I’ll point out that Nintendo sells a ton of handhelds (over 200 million of the DS and 3DS lines). Nintendo hasn’t commented on whether the Switch will be replacing the 3DS line, but that is unlikely. So, you’re going to have a $300 portable console and a ~$200 handheld? With different games and everything? That’s no bueno. So, we fix it by having a single, portable, screen-having device. This is the replacement for the 3DS line. It loses the 3D (because that was a gimmick), the dual screens, and probably the hinge. It gains some processing power, storage space, and ergonomics. I’m thinking it would be like a Nintendo Vita or a detuned version of the Switch. Ideally, we’d get better battery life than the Switch (which gets ~2.5 hours if playing something intensive like Zelda). I’m not sure whether we’d keep the Joy Con idea, probably not.

Now that the handheld is sorted, we need a home console. We’re going to correct one of the Switch’s flaws and make sure it has at least as much power as an Xbox One. That is the current low-water mark for developers, so we need to meet it in order to encourage third party adoption. I honestly can’t believe Nintendo screwed this up for the Switch after screwing it up for the Wii U. Ideally, the console would be backwards compatible with Wii U games, but I understand if we can’t work that in. If we’re doing the Joy Con thing, the packaged controllers are left and right Joy Cons with a charging grip (none of this nickel-and-diming accessory crap). If we’re ditching the Joy Cons, throw the Pro controller in the bundle.

The key is that we have the handheld and the console work together seamlessly, at all levels. The handheld acts as a wireless controller for the console. So, if you own both Nintendo products, you have a cool second-screen controller. And if your friends have a handheld, they have a cool second-screen controller when they come to your house, just like the GameCube + Game Boy Advance system (minus the link cables). I think this may mean that second-screen stuff has to be optional, or at least not a required part of full-scale games. You could release some smaller downloadable titles that depend on it.

Additionally, we’re going to put together a software ecosystem that works across handheld and console. This means having a proper account, marketplace, and online services. Buy a game, it is tied to your account and can be accessed anywhere you log in. Saves stored in the cloud. Online matchmaking, communication, and friend lists. Buy all games digitally. This is the bar that Microsoft and Sony have set, Nintendo needs to put on its big boy pants and clear it. I’d also make it so any past Wii, Wii U, or portable virtual console purchases are automatically added to your digital library, to keep people who spent money in the past happy.

So, yeah, that’s what I would have done with the Switch. Or maybe that’s what I would have done with the Wii U and then refined for the Switch. It is too bad, because the basic premise is cool. Console-quality gaming on the go that can be plugged into a TV is a great idea, but they are failing in the margins. The way game purchases and saves work, the lack of a digital store, the battery life, the framerate, early production issues, etc. It is clear that the product Nintendo released is in beta, and I wonder what the final version would have been.

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