It’s over. Nintendo bought as much time as it could. The entire gaming world had hold its breath for months, but now everybody has shown his hand. The situation is clear, there is no doubt on the current status of the gaming market : Sony has achieved crushing dominance over its rivals. Nintendo Switch is weak, its line-up even more so and its so-called partners are doing nothing but lip-service. How did we get to that, and where are we going?
To find some answers, let’s first have a look to Famitsu’s top 100 chart, published in a recent issue. How can Switch seem so feeble when top ten rankings show Nintendo owning Japan? It’s very trivial : developers and publishers, unlike journalists don’t simply look at top ten. So let’s borrow their point of view and observe the top 50 (49 actually because of the title line) of combined SKUs. As usual, the sources are GAF, Vgchartz’s digital sales thread and Dengeki’s weekly rankings.
The first thing to notice besides the (deserved) domination of the superb Pokemon Sun&Moon, is that Sony now has a majority of games here : 29 PSV/PS3/PS4 games against 20 on 3DS/WiiU. If you look in detail, you’ll also notice that 9 out of 20 games on Nintendo systems are from Nintendo itself, whereas there’s only one first party game (Uncharted 4) in the Playstation best-sellers. Third parties have therefore a lot more business opportunities on PSVita or PS4 (knowing that PS3 is almost phased out). Another parameter of growing importance : the digital purchase rate is quite higher on Playstation platforms, around 10% (22% for The Division!). Digital reduces variable costs and improves the margin. Publishers love that.
Japanese publishers came to be wary of the 3DS/WiiU audience, hungry for kiddy games which is rarely what 3rd party developers want to do. A major part of the 3DS/WiiU best-sellers is aimed at children (but also at adults in the case of Pokemon) so Japanese 3rd parties naturally prefer addressing and older and more core audience, and that audience plays on Playstation. Best proof of that is Level-5 : hugely successful on 3DS with Yôkai Watch, the company didn’t go as far as announcing Ni no Kuni Revenant Kingdom for Nintendo Switch. As a side-note, observe that both Dragon Quest Heroes II and Dragon Quest Builders sold more than Dragon Quest Monster Joker 3 : Nintendo consoles are no longer the home of SquareEnix’s famous series.
So what happened on 1/13? Everyone was hoping/expecting Nintendo to turn the tides with a flurry of powerful exclusives. That failed to happen, and it’s the direct consequence of what we’ve seen above. Big games are still pretty far away : Xenoblade 2 (splendid character design this time around) gets a vague 2017 and Fire Emblem Warriors looks like development has barely started (EDIT : it’s confirmed for fall, so things are looking up slightly). The launch line-up is downright ridiculous : besides Zelda Breath of the Wild and 1 2 Switch, some party game looking like the despicable Wii Sports, all games are ports from PS4. Nintendo has lost the initiative, they’re completely out of the race.
The third party part of the conference is ice cold. Atlus quickly mentions a new Shin Megami Tensei project for Switch, but also confirms a 3DS one, just in case… As a consequence, the exciting Project ReFantasy must be for PS4. Many wondered what Nippon Ichi Software (whose clients have been Playstation players for years of not decades) could do on Switch, and the publisher answered by saying they were providing «serious» support. It so happens that the only thing NIS has in store for Switch is a Disgaea 5 port, that is to say their biggest commercial failure. Switch is not getting NIS’s brand new games The Witch and the 100 Knights 2 (PS4) or Exile Election(‘PS4/PSVita). Far from being serious in its support, NIS actually seriously makes a fool of Nintendo.
SquareEnix has more in the works. Dragon Quest XI for Switch is briefly talked about, and Dragon Quest Heroes I&II are confirmed as launch games. Then comes Octopath Traveler, a 2D JRPG very much like Grand Kingdom and made by the developer of Bravely Default (which confirms the latter as deceased). However, nowhere in the Famitsu article it is mentioned to be exclusive. A PS4 or PSVita port could come quickly. No other JRPG is scheduled for Switch, and that won’t come as a surprise if you look at the chart. In the top 50, major 3DS JRPGs (Shin Megami Tensei IV Final, Etrian Odyssey) are flattened by numerous competitors on Playstation platforms, including the disappointing Star Ocean 5 and the discreet World of Final Fantasy. The big names of JRPGs sell better on Playstation and 2016 showed that again : Persona 5 beats the series’ record and Tales of Berseria is more or less flat compared to Tales of Zestiria.
But the most embarrassing moment is when Toshihiro Nagoshi comes on stage. The director of Yakuza games faces the public, speaks a couple of gentle words on Switch and, probably too busy counting the hefty profits made from Yakuza 6 in Asia, goes back without any confirmation he’s working on Switch at all. Suda 51, columnist extraordinaire at Dengeki, doesn’t really ease the worries : Let it Die’s creator shows a random artwork of No More Heroes while speaking some strange monologue. All this sets the eerie impression that nothing is ready, that maybe nothing is really decided for Switch. Capcom, Nintendo’s most faithful ally, is a no-show. What happens to Monster Hunter 5 and Great Ace Attorney 2? Will Switch even get them? KoeiTecmo, besides working closely with Nintendo on Fire Emblem Warriors, has Nobunaga’s Ambition Power up kit and Romance of the 3 Kingdoms Power up kit (it weakest software) for Switch. Games like Ni-Ô, Dynasty Warriors 9, Blue Reflection, Musô Stars and Nights of Azure 2 stay as Playstation exclusives. Skittish Japanese publishers are actually avoiding Nintendo as much as possible, and it’s a complete disaster for Switch : as it is now, it wouldn’t even take one customer from Vita.
The West is the biggest question mark and a huge stake for Switch. Bethesda confirms Skyrim Switch, but the game is far from ready despite being out for PS4 and XboxOne. Comes Electronic Arts, whose representative looked like at a burial : FIFA Switch is announced, but we won’t see anything of it. Despite its continuous praise for Switch, Ubisoft is not at the event Still, it has some oldies to port on Switch : Rayman Legends (remember, that WiiU exclusive), Just Dance and Steep. Pathetic is the word, Nintendo’s new system is going to be smashed into pieces on Western markets.
Nintendo mentions more than 80 titles in development for Switch, BandaiNamco promised a Tales of at some point… Sure. Crysis 3, Ghost Recon Online and Alien Colonial Marines were to be released on WiiU too. Such titles had seen their development stopped the second their publishers realized the audience didn’t fit. At least this time, Ubisoft doesn’t go as far as announcing Ghost Recon Wildlands for Switch : history shows that it would have little success on that platform, provided it could run on it. You also have to consider the issue of a new console that is coming right in the middle of a generation, which had never happened before. How should developers react? They’re already working on install bases of dozens of millions systems where the business is flourishing. Why would they make extra effort, let alone exclusives for an underpowered system that has zero install base? From a third party point of view, it’s just money thrown by the window.
Switch’s other problem is itself. The open world (although we’re not sure of that yet) in Super Mario Odyssey is ugly and full of aliasing. It looks terrible compared to Watchdogs, a nearly three-year old PS4 game, and it so happens that precise tech specs have not been made public. Surely are they as bad as the leak published by Digital Foundry. We can now be certain that the most ambitious PS4 games cannot be be ported on Switch : forget Battlefield, Read Dead Redemption or Mass Effect Andromeda. The share button exists, but the official site already tells us that some games will block the feature. Anyone who’s tried to save a screenshot in Pokemon Sun&Moon knows how much you can trust Nintendo on that subject. The manufacturer also indicates that game «generally» won’t be region-locked. I translate that by « some games will be region-locked and you won’t be able to play them on your EU system ». So in fact region free doesn’t really exist and all this looks like a mere PR stunt. The most striking point is the total lack of trophies : why would today’s gamers even want to play their games without a centralized achievement system?
But Nintendo might actually be targeting another audience with Switch. The conference, for most part, was focusing on Switch’s biggest innovation : playing without screen. Switch players will be invited to face each other in party games in which the screen is accessory. Table tennis, Rock/Paper/Scissors game, boxing… Switch aims at local communities rather than at solo players. In the same way, Splatoon players will be able to gather anytime, anywhere to face each other in multiplayer. In other words, Nintendo is asking casual gamers to open their wallets again to avoid facing Sony directly. Future will tell if this audience embraces the concept and if it’s large enough to make a difference. Nintendo still believes in the miraculous game/idea that sells loads of system, but nothing proves that can still happen. Rare exceptions aside, whole librairies of games sell systems, and nothing else.
What about Microsoft then? The American recently made the brilliant decision to cancel its most hyped exclusive. From that, it’s clear that Redmond’s firm lost its will to fight : they timidly recommend Sea of Thieves and Halo Wars 2 in replacement. At best Microsoft can cling to the second place and do business in Sony’s shadow.
Miracles exist, but Nintendo Switch will need a really big one to avoid critical failure after that poor reveal conference. Sony has now more than 50 exclusives and welcomes all the commercially huge multiplatform games that Switch won’t have. Sony succeeded in taking market shares while building a win-win situation with 3rd parties, something that Nintendo is unable to do. The Kyoto-based company hence ends up totally isolated and powerless to compete. The concept of an hybrid system is really attractive, Xenoblade 2 looks awesome but Switch won’t achieve much without a strong library of games. And as a matter of fact, Nintendo has no real ally at the moment. As it is, it can just satisfy Nintendo loyalists and casual gamers not yet addicted to Super Mario Run. What is at stake for the Big N now is whether it can keep its “big” for long or if it become a regular publisher, light years behind a leader even more hegemonic than in the PS2 era.