It’s a similar story wherever you go. It’s been the No.1 games machine in the US for more than two years. In Japan, Switch sold nearly 6m units, which was 87% of every console sold in the market last year. Even in the UK, one of the softer markets for Nintendo, the Switch absolutely dominated, with a fifth of all boxed game sales belonging to Nintendo in 2020.
To put this into context, by this point in the Wii U and GameCube’s lifecycles, both machines were on the brink of being replaced. Go back even further, and the N64 and SNES were winding down. Even the mighty Wii was beginning to see serious declines (down 20%) with the Wii U reveal just a year away. The DS and Gameboy lived for longer, boosted by updated iterations and a more regular stream of software, but generally speaking Nintendo’s consoles tend to fade away quickly.
The Switch will enter its fifth year at the peak of its popularity, on the back of a record year where Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe were amongst the world’s most bought video games.
Nintendo set itself an ambitious target for Switch in 2017 of matching the sales of Wii, which did over 100 million consoles globally. With almost 80 million shipped in four years, that goal now looks inevitable. But there’s another target it first set itself in 2018, and has reiterated in financial calls ever since, and that is for the console to stick around for seven or eight years.
This is a very different challenge. A long console lifespan is not decided by how many units are sold, but by how engaged the players are with the product. Xbox keeps talking about the importance of engagement over sales, and it’s completely right. This is why a console like the PlayStation Vita, which in pure commercial terms was an abject failure with roughly 15 million users, survived 7 years before being discontinued. Thanks to a continual stream of indie games, it managed to sustain an active user base for years.
Nintendo’s primary objective now is to ensure its huge Switch install base keeps playing, keeps buying new games and keeps subscribing to its online service. The key metric here is time. It’s not about competing with Microsoft and Sony over gamers’ money, it’s about fighting with everything and everyone for people’s time. Switch’s biggest rival in 2021 isn’t PS5, it’s Disney Plus, it’s Netflix, it’s the pubs (when they reopen) and the next big superhero film.
Engagement is tricky for anyone, but it’s particularly hard for Nintendo. If you look through the history of the best-selling games on Nintendo platforms, they have one thing in common: they’re made by Nintendo. Street Fighter II on the SNES is the only third-party game to ever become a top 10 seller on a Nintendo console. Most other entertainment services, whether it’s Netflix or Xbox, have plenty of big third-party releases to keep people watching and playing. Nintendo is heavily reliant on itself.
On one hand, modern games development makes this situation even harder. Games today take far longer to develop and with much bigger teams. N64 classic Ocarina of Time took fewer than 100 employees three years to create, and that was seen as unusually large at the time. Breath of the Wild required more than three times as many staff and took almost twice as long. Nintendo can no-longer whisk up a new Zelda or Mario in a couple of years.
“Most other entertainment services, whether it’s Netflix or Xbox, have plenty of big third-party releases to keep people watching and playing. Nintendo is heavily reliant on itself.”
Yet on the other hand, the connected nature of games means that these titles can live for longer through DLC, in-game events and continual updates. Super Smash Bros, Animal Crossing, Splatoon and Tetris 99 still have teams of people actively working on them months and years afterwards. 40% of Switch owners have the new Animal Crossing, and if Nintendo can keep those players happy, that will go a long way to extending the life of Switch. Nintendo doesn’t need to release entirely new products to keep people turning the console on.
Indeed, fans should also expect more ports. Nintendo forums may be awash with Wii U owners bemoaning the Switch’s apparent over-reliance on re-releases, but these have been crucial to keeping users engaged. Wii U was a failed device that boasted a number of excellent games, and some, like the Mario games, have since become Switch blockbusters.
Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is on-track to be the biggest Mario Kart of all time, and New Super Mario Bros U has shifted almost 10 million copies. That’s why next month’s Super Mario 3D World port is set to be a major launch. The original did just shy of 6m units on Wii U, which was a decent result, but compare that to the 20m sales of Super Mario Odyssey and the opportunity is clear.
Nintendo has been peppering Wii and Wii U ports during quiet points in its release schedule, and that will continue. But there are only so many ports to call upon, and so the pressure is understandably mounting to see some big new releases from its top studios. It’s been four years since Nintendo wrapped up development on Breath of the Wild, over three since Odyssey went gold, and that’s not to mention the talent behind Mario Kart and Splatoon.
Fans are impatient to see what they’re working on. It’s unclear how far along these projects are (not to mention smaller AAA games like Metroid Prime 4 and Bayonetta 3), and what the overall impact COVID-19 is having on development. But you would hope one of these teams has something ready for this year.
But if there’s one thing certain to engage Switch’s most faithful customers, it is a new, enhanced model. Anyone who lived through the persistent Wii HD rumours will know that constant speculation around Switch Pro doesn’t mean there will be one. Nevertheless, upgraded hardware does very well with existing customers.
In the UK, 60% of PS4 Pro customers already owned a PS4 and that was seen as a good result. If you look at the Nintendo consoles that survived for a long time, the ds and Game Boy, both were given multiple hardware revisions. People like shiny new things, and if you can make your four year-old console shiny again, then that’s a good way to keep them interested.
Predicting what Nintendo will do can be fruitless. This is a business that likes to announce big products just weeks before it releases them, and spend as much time talking about LEGO and theme parks as it does video games. Yet now that the Switch is unquestionably a huge sales triumph, the job for Nintendo is to keep its millions of customers playing, in whatever way it can.