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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Way I See It: Marketing the Switch as a Handheld

The Way I See It is a category of pieces that represent my personal opinions or reasoning on subjects I enjoy or have a lot to say about. Though at times the write-ups may be built on well-researched and verified information, as a general statement, I do not speak with absolute authority on any given matter covered. Thank you for your time.

Let's get back to the topic of the Nintendo Switch. A common complaint I've seen again and again is that the hardware isn't being presented well to potential consumers. A whole lot of folks have insisted that Nintendo's not being smart about the Switch by marketing it as a console first. "Why sell it as a weaker console that you can take with you when you could advertise it as a really powerful handheld that you can hook up to the tv?" they say.

There are a lot of reasons for why they wouldn't want to do that. In fact, looking at things as a whole, there's little to no value in presenting it in that way at all.

Here are some of my thoughts and an elaboration on my perspective.


Let's start with the money factor.

I'll put it bluntly: At 300 dollars, the Switch is not priced to sell as a handheld.

Looking back at a relevant and recent example, the 3DS entered the market at 250 US Dollars. By the second quarter of the hardware’s availability, it had become apparent that this was not a wise move. Sales so solidly plummeted that they didn't just fail to meet projections, but they also contributed to Nintendo's first quarterly loss in about 8 years. Nintendo quickly turned around on this and heavily dropped the 3DS's price, aiming to encourage sales, regain their market momentum, and build their player-base to convince developers and retail partners that the handheld could achieve a degree of success comparable to its predecessor.

The Switch retails for 50 dollars more than the 3DS did before its price drop with no pack-in game or holdover distractions like AR to speak of.

Advertising the Switch as a handheld first and asking consumers in the same market group as the 3DS - one that has shrunken by about a 3rd if we're being generous - to pay 300 dollars for it is utterly untenable. On top of this, potential buyers from the console market would likely balk at the prospect of putting that much money down for a handheld when the same amount could buy them a PS4 or Xbox One with a game included and the assurance of an already expansive software library instead.

Speaking of software, the pricing there is also a glaring issue that would need to be addressed.

Typically, the roof of handheld game pricing is about 40 US dollars. Full-scale Switch games cost the standard 60 associated with new console games. When posing the Switch as a handheld, every market would find problems with this amount.

Many console gamers looking from the outside would ask why they'd have to pay the same price for a handheld game as they would a standard console release, seeing it as a lower value proposition. On the other side of the spectrum, the financially minded handheld gamer, who already has the price of the device to consider, would only be further detracted by a perceptible cost increase for software. Things get even worse when looking at mobile gamers who do most of their shopping on app stores: through their frame of reference, they'd be apprehensive of paying 10 dollars for a single game, let alone a solid 60.

Where money is concerned, Nintendo needs to set the right context to justify the investments that they and their partners expect consumers to make, and no part of telling the world that the Switch is a 300 dollar handheld with 60 dollar games succeeds in doing that.


On top of pricing concerns, let's consider the functional value of the Switch being a handheld-first device. Sure it'd look like a step forward to the handheld gamer, but what about the other market groups?

To everyone else, its console functionality wouldn't seem all that attractive would it?

3DS games and the like tend to be smaller, bite-sized experiences that are made with the consideration that the hardware has a limited battery life and will be used in unstable settings. A lot of games in various genres designed in terms of those parameters would likely feel shallower, shorter, less engrossing, and less meaningful to those who primarily play games on consoles and personal computers. Implying that Switch games are like this adds unnecessary apprehension of the quality of experience that console gamers would end up finding on the hardware; it goes against the appealing current messaging that you can take your full-featured console game with you anywhere you go.

Calling this a handheld device you can hook up to your tv raises a further, possibly more potential stifling, marketing issue: the mainstream audience doesn't associate the 3DS with handheld games, but the titles they get on their phones. Take a walk in their shoes. Would you at all want to play a majority of those games on a television given the opportunity? Mobile games are almost universally centered around basic mechanics and aren't graphically intensive. Folks playing on a phone have a convenience that isn't found anywhere else in that they can play their games in any environment and usually still have a hand free to do other things. They can play while on the train, waiting in line at the store, running their errands, and even while watching tv. Giving mobile gamers something that seems to take that all away doesn't sound like an alluring kind of novelty, does it?


The long of the short of it is that Nintendo marketing the Switch as a console that you can play on the go is a stronger strategy when compared to the presented alternative. It allows Nintendo to pose the hardware and software in a way that's more palatable to all markets in terms of price as well as easily manage the expectations of the kinds of games it's been built to facilitate. Console and PC gamers will very clearly understand the concept of the hardware and consider the allure of playing upcoming games in the same capacity that they usually do at home wherever they'd like. Handheld gamers will be able to look at the Switch and recognize that it's an even bigger leap in scale and graphics than they might typically expect. The mobile market will very immediately understand that the software and hardware are not directly comparable to things like their phones and app-store games, allowing them to appreciate the device’s merits on its own terms.

As far as I can see, marketing the Switch as a handheld first would only be smart if all that mattered for its success was its perceived power. I'm sure that it's clear to those who really think about it that things aren't that simple, and the overall value of pushing the Switch under those extremely specific terms isn't just low; it's actually potentially very damaging to the success of the hardware.

Nintendo has never released the most powerful handhelds on the market, yet they've always succeeded in the face of their competition. They've done this by pricing their hardware competitively, providing great battery-life, and, more recently, having novelties that turn heads. As a handheld, the Switch offers none of these things. Is it then still worth it for Nintendo to pose their latest flagship device under this marketing context, just to look more powerful?

If you asked me, I'd say no.

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