The Success of the Nintendo Switch is No Accident

It’s the result of some surprisingly savvy, calculated moves.

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Photo by Corey Motta on Unsplash

The wild success of the Nintendo Switch seems like it came out of nowhere. Its predecessor, the Wii U, was a clear stumble, suggesting that Nintendo was on a decline, and that the success of the Nintendo Wii had been a fluke. The Wii U looked to be the last gasp of a company that had lost touch with the modern audience — a desperate attempt to throw gas on the fire with another controller gimmick.

When the Switch was announced, it seemed like another Wii U-style flop waiting to happen. Once again Nintendo was releasing a console with motion controls and some fancy sensors. Once again the console had its own screen, and could be played without a TV. Taking the long view of Nintendo’s ups and downs, the simple conclusion was that the company was merely piling on fun quirks to try and spark some fresh attention, and that it would again fall flat with that strategy.

Instead, the Switch roared past the Wii U’s sales, and then the sales of its competitors. Its software has plenty of hits, including well-reviewed and commercially successful first party titles and a host of great indie games. All of this unexpected strength has led many people to conclude that Nintendo has gotten lucky, and released just the right product at just the right time — another flash in the pan success. But if we look a little deeper at what the Nintendo Switch represents, and how the company has positioned it, we see the exact opposite. The Switch is an incredibly savvy move that shows Nintendo is paying attention to the market, and learning from its mistakes.

They Nailed the Branding and Marketing

The biggest problem with the Wii U wasn’t the tech, or the design, or the software — it was the branding. The concept of “a console with a controller that has a screen, and you can play just on the controller screen, but you have to still be close to the console” is a complex, counter-intuitive pitch, especially for a consumer product. The Nintendo Wii reached a more casual audience by simplifying; the controllers were simple, fun, and less daunting to casual players than gamepads packed with buttons and joysticks. Yet with the Wii U, Nintendo was trying to explain a metaphor that was more baffling than ever.

Nintendo only added to the confusion with the name they chose. “Wii U” was a clear attempt to build off of the Wii’s success, but it quickly became a running joke; consumers naturally assumed the screen-equipped controller was an accessory for the Wii they already owned. The company had to clarify that they were selling a new platform, even before they could begin explaining how it worked.

In the Switch, Nintendo clearly knew they had to simplify the message. It started with the functionality; the Switch has its own screen, but it’s not tied to a box connected to your TV — exactly the way tablets and phones have trained us to expect. Telling someone about the Nintendo Switch doesn’t require a paragraph. “It’s like a portable tablet, but it comes with a dock so you can play it on your TV, too,” is enough to give anyone the gist of the product.

Then there’s the name: Switch. It’s not piggybacking on the “Wii” brand, creating confusion about how it fits in. It evokes the simplicity of a light switch, while also suggesting the key feature of “switching” between TV/handheld, between one controller setup and another. The branding and marketing of the Switch was clear, elegant, and easy to understand — all the things the Wii U message wasn’t.

They Made the Experience Flexible

After the Switch’s announcement, one common argument against it was that no one wanted a portable game system anymore, because the market was trained on cheap phone games. It was a solid bit of reasoning — most people in the Switch’s main markets also carried smartphones, and games for them were numerous and cheap.

But Nintendo wasn’t actually selling the Switch on portability, it was selling it on flexibility. You could take it with you on the plane, then get home, drop it into the dock, and pick up right where you left off, without needing to turn off the device or even close the game. In the same way that streaming video services like Netflix work across lots of devices, and remember exactly where you left off, the Switch had the flexibility to meet you exactly where you were.

The Switch’s Joycon controllers were also an important part of its flexibility. Playing by yourself? Use them attached to the screen, one in each hand, or attached to a grip — whatever you prefer. Playing with someone else? Each Joycon becomes a controller — not a great one, but good enough for many purposes — and that mode works both docked and portable.

All of this flexibility is a nice for young adults who are moving between home, work, and social life, but for a family it’s a killer feature. A traditional console needs a TV to work, which means there’s a debate anytime someone wants it for anything else. But the Switch gets around that by letting a kid (or in my house, a parent) easily move their game off of the TV and into another room.

By making the Switch flexible, Nintendo demonstrated that it had a value beyond the vast array of phone games. Sure, everyone has a smartphone to play games on, but do those games move easily onto your TV? Do they quickly scale if you want to play with other people on the same screen? No. The Switch does, though, and that was its real selling point. Nintendo looked at what was happening in the market, and created a console that could harness it.

They Released a String of Great Games from Day One

Over the past few console generations, Nintendo has released many excellent games, yet they often felt like more polished versions of the same old formulas. By the time the Switch launced, we’d come to expect that the company was too stuck in its ways to keep up with modern tastes and design trends. But then they released Zelda: Breath of the Wild alongside the Switch, and caught everyone off guard.

BotW is remarkable in a few ways, but the most notable thing is the statement it makes about Nintendo’s shift in thinking. It’s a proper “open world” game, one that’s built for a sense of freedom, exploration, and the wonder of discovery. It’s a style that works perfectly with the Zelda franchise, but one that I never thought Nintendo would leverage. Gone was the relatively constrained, dungeon-focused format of the previous few Zelda games, and by reinventing the series Nintendo recaptured the feel of the classic NES and SNES Zelda titles. Somehow, the company that had been simply going through the motions (pun intended) appeared to be newly awoken.

From there Nintendo had a runof hits in the Switch games it published. Within a year, they released Mario Odyssey, which was similarly praised as simultaneously a fresh take and a return to form. But the lineup also included new franchises like Snipperclips and Arms: weird, playful ideas executed with polish. Nintendo smartly gave a new life to notable Wii U titles, like Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors, by publishing updated ports on the Switch, with all previous downloadable content included. But nowhere has Nintendo signaled that they’re on a new road than with Labo, the cardboard-based build/play/make sets. While some hardcore gamers scoffed at the idea of paying for cardboard, any parent of a young child could recognize the brilliance of Labo. In one incredibly well executed release, Nintendo played to the building instinct of young children and the excitement around the “maker” movement, all packaged with one the most incredible set of instructional software I’ve ever seen. This software lineup doesn’t say “luck” to me, it says that Nintendo is ready to do more than rehash.

But Can They Keep Going?

Nintendo’s success has been more than luck, but they still have work to do, and room to mess it all up. Their online services still lag well beyond their competitors in many ways, and their premium online service didn’t land for more than a year after launch. Meanwhile they have new versions of their classic titles on the horizon that are in desperate need of a BotW-style rethinking. Animal Crossing, in particular, has shuffled forward for decades with fresh coats of paint and a few new features, but no real iteration on the concept. Clearly Nintendo is capable of making the old feel new again, and of thoughtfully considering the modern market. If they can maintain that, they’ll reach success that no one will be able to pass off as pure luck.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like my previous post about Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Former writer for Tested.com and Geek.com, currently a technology professional, teacher, and father. I write about whatever is on my mind.

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