Sony, the total supremacy

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Nintendo Switch, the impossible trade-off

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Let’s say it again, Nintendo is going through a key period in its history. WiiU has died as the biggest failure of the company and 3DS is welcoming less and less games. 3rd parties abandon ship and those still aboard are slowly drowning in vast quantities of unsold 3DS games, the public being increasingly less dedicated. Eyes are thus now focused on Nintendo Switch, the Big N’s new and revolutionary concept. Having a home console and a handheld in the same piece of hardware indeed seems to be a major trump card. The whole world is holding its breath as January 13th approaches.

In this rather tense atmosphere, people jump even at the slightest piece of rumor. So when Eurogamer quotes the hardware specialists of Digital Foundry, internet forums begin to shake. Eurogamer’s article is not at the rumor level : figures are extremely precise and the analysis quite relevant, Digital Foundry’s video as guarantee. Those people are ultra-famous among hardware circles and they can’t afford to provide information out of thin air. The bad news for Nintendo loyalists is that the first tidbits aren’t exactly delightful.

Switch’s CPU lets people down. When the rumor of a Tegra chip surfaced some months ago, many were hoping that Tegra X2, well above the now mediocre X1, would be the objective given the 2017 launch. Nothing of the sort, Eurogamer confirming that the architecture is inspired by Tegra X1, the CPU being a ARM Cortex A57 running at 1GHz, whereas PS4 is around 1,6GHz and XboxOne 1,75GHz. A bit below then, but not a major flow.

It’s the GPU that will be the bottleneck factor, because of the hybrid stance of the machine. Switch’s GPU runs at 768MHz, quite lower than Nvidia Shield TV which runs PS3 games with mixed success, when docked. The GPU is thus a nerved version of the X1, which doesn’t make us optimistic about how the games will look like. And with only 256 shaders compared to 1152 in the case of PS4, overall graphical performance fails to reach 400 Gflops, while PS4 pulls out 1,8 Tflops. Definitely not in the same league as PS4, let alone PS4 Pro. But the big problem occurs when you leave home, Nintendo being driven to painful trade-off in order to keep decent battery life and prevent heating. The Switch undocked, GPU clock speed is halved to 307MHz, that is to say a mere 157 Gflops. The very concept of hybrid is risky and here’s the snag : how will developers deal with a GPU that runs at different speed depending on the situation? Will they embrace the full capabilities, even at the risk of seeing framerate collapse when the tablet leaves the dock, or will they just play it safe and lower their ambitions? This looks like to be a much more serious problem than the use of the Gamepad. Even assuming it can work like a PS4 Pro patch like Eurogamer seems to suggest, how can that work out? The game would have to un-patch itself every time the console leaves the dock…

Raw memory bandwith definitely won’t help : with 25GB/s to read 4GB of RAM, Nintendo Switch is light years behind PS4 which reads is 8GB of GDDR5 (the finest RAM available) at 176GB/s. Safe to say at this stage that you’re probably not going to see high-end games like Battlefield 1 on Switch. EA’s blockbuster wouldn’t even fit in any of the standard game cartridges for Switch… As for PS4 first party masterpieces like Uncharted 4 or The Last of Us Part Two, such level of quality is unthinkable on Switch as it is now. The open world of Zelda Breath of the Wild look dumb next to Final Fantasy XV, which doesn’t even have its PS4 Pro patch yet. When we talk about a home console experience to bring everywhere with you, it’s certainly not the quality and ambition we know on PS4, to which players around the world have become used to. On GAF and pretty much everywhere else, gamers are crestfallen.

Actually, it’s the philosophy behind the architecture of the Switch that should interrogate us. If Sony has made the PS4 Pro and if Microsoft is so keen on building an even more capable Scorpio, it’s because developers are eager for more power, not less. Developers want to push back the limits, to go even deeper in their art so as to leave a trace in the history of gaming. Do you imagine them wasting their time downscaling their formidable 3D engines for the small bunch of folks who will actually bother quiting his beloved Zelda or Mario?

People might be raising eyebrows at the tiny 32GB hard disk, disk space is heavy and costly. Larger space would hurt the handheld side of the device and its launch price. It’s probably not even important, since most of the data will be on cartridges with no need to install internally. Let’s not forget that you’ll likely be able to add cheap and hefty SD cards if you need more space. Nothing to fuss about, then.

Given the weak specs, many observers are now calling for a 199€ pricepoint. Let’s stop right here. New3DS XL currently retails for 179€, so there is absolutely zero chance that Switch, being a whole new concept and better tech, would cost only 20€ more! 299€ is definitely what you can expect on shelves next March, or maybe 249€ if you’re really lucky and if 3DS family gets a cut at the same time. Still, the problem remains that PS4 now trades for 259€.

Switch therefore takes the risk of being an awkward compromise meeting no sufficient demand : it’s not powerful enough for core gamers who might not find the AAA games they like (or not at the same quality level) and it might be too expensive for the mainstream public now fed by Super Mario Run and lured by much cheaper 3DS which still gets support. The only thing that could make the difference is handheld capability, because it’s surely gonna be a very good one. But here again, the potential market is unsure. PSVita failed to achieve market penetration in the West for a reason : people there don’t feel the need to play during travel, and there’s no reason that this would magically change when Switch hits stores.

Nintendo’s next system would then only have one kind of audience left : veteran gamers still seduced by handheld gaming, that is to say PSVita owners and Nintendo’s core audience. To few clients to drive Switch to success, all the more troublesome that it has to sell twice more since it’s one system for two types of offer. The alarm raised by Digital Foundry means serious worries for Switch’s future. We’ll see on 1/13 if the actual situation is better, or if it’s red alert status in Kyoto.