Nintendo is Playing with Power

When the Ouya console found massive funding on Kickstarter, I was excited. Not because I wanted to play mobile games on my T.V. Quite the opposite: I wanted to see what kinds of experiences the Tegra 3 chip could provide (Tegra 3 was the top-tier mobile chip from Nvidia at the time) beyond mobile-style games. My mind swirled with the many possibilities. Finally, mobile game developers would have access to powerful hardware and a dedicated controller. Sure, it was no Xbox 360/Playstation 3 in terms of raw performance, but it was a powerful little beast in its’ own right. Alas, things were not meant to be for the Ouya and it wasn’t long before the “little system that could” would fade into obscurity. So what on Earth does this have to do with Nintendo?

The Ouya was a massive Kickstarter success story but failed miserably when it came to original content.
The Ouya was a massive Kickstarter success story but failed miserably when it came to original content.

There are a lot of things one could say about mobile games: they are too simple, pay-to-win, etc. But chief among them are a few things that all mobile games have in common:

  • Touch-centric controls: When the game device in question only has touch and tilt at its disposal, any interactive experiences are bound to be limited. Simpler experiences work fine but it seems like any game with more complex controls (for example shooters, some platformers, and adventure games) suffers tremendously. Then there is the issue of on-screen buttons which, I think we can all agree, really suck.
  • Lack of hardware optimization: There are a ton of mobile devices on the market. Whether the device is Apple or Android there are a ton of variants that developers have to develop their games for. Now I know that Apple devices are much more uniform than Android. But the variation between the first iPhone and the iPhone 7 is still great enough that a game designed to take advantage of the iPhone 7 hardware likely won’t work on the original iPhone. And Android developers have it even worse with such a large range of extremely low-end and extremely high-end devices to consider. This sort of development isn’t anything new – this is how it’s been on PC since the beginning. But highly optimized games, or games developed for one set of hardware, are often the best and this is why consoles thrive. Developers are able to squeeze every last bit of juice out of that specific set of hardware.
  • Pay-to-win and other paywall strategies: Many mobile games, too many even, are plagued with the dreaded pay-to-play or, worse, pay-to-win models. The basic idea is that you can have a free taste of the experience that the game offers and, if you like it, can pay a little bit to play a little bit more. The problem is that this is usually the only way to play these games, meaning that you can’t simply pay a flat fee and have the entire game to play at your leisure. Another problem with this model is that publishers do their best to nickel-and-dime you for every little thing in the game. These “pay now or wait” prompts are game busters for the most part and get in the way of creativity. Do you really think that the developers behind these games are trying to make subpar experiences? No, of course not. But big business interests always prevail.
  • Battery life: One other factor that damns many mobile games is that the graphics and presentation can’t be “too good” or  the user will end up with a dead battery in no time. So even if you have the most powerful phone or tablet on the planet, high-end graphics will simply eat through your battery. And don’t forget: that super pretty game wasn’t optimized to get the most out of your super fancy device anyway.

It is my opinion that these things are the reason why most traditional gamers don’t take mobile games seriously. And this is what, I believe, Nintendo is aiming to fix.

Recently there have been some rumors suggesting that the Nintendo Switch will have 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and 16GB game cards (at launch). Obviously, this has had the gaming community in an uproar. And, I admit, I was a bit puzzled by these rumors. Then I asked the question on everyone’s mind: why would Nintendo go with these specs rather than something more akin to the Xbox One and PS4?

This was difficult to answer. After all, Nintendo’s president, Mr. Kimishima, had recently said that the “NX will be in sync with the times”. But how could it be “…in sync with the times” when it has half the RAM and a fraction of the storage capacity of the other two consoles? Then it hit me; are these hardware specifications in line with top-end tablets rather than top-end consoles?

Google's Pixel C is considered one of the most powerful tablets available today - right alongside the iPad Pro.
Google’s Pixel C is considered one of the most powerful tablets available today – right alongside the iPad Pro.

My search began with a quick Google search for the “most powerful tablets”. The various lists were mostly the same and at the top of them all was the iPad Pro and the Google Pixel C. Since the iPad Pro has its’ own set of hardware (which I am largely unfamiliar with), I checked out the Pixel C and quickly discovered something interesting: The Pixel C has nearly the exact same specifications as those rumored for the Switch:

A Nvidia Tegra X1, 3Gb of RAM, a few storage options, micro SD card support, high-resolution display and surprisingly good battery life. Much of this seems in line with the Switch rumors. More importantly; this would put the Switch “…in sync with the times” but not as a traditional games console but, instead, as a tablet.

Now before you go running to your comments section of choice and rage at Nintendo, consider a few things: This would be the first time that a major game developer builds a high-powered tablet with a focus on gaming. This also means that many of the problems with mobile gaming will not exist on Switch. Every Switch comes with a robust controller, which means that every game could make use of it (rather than strictly using touch and tilt). Every Switch has high-end mobile hardware which means that games for it can squeeze out every possible ounce of performance. Developers won’t have to design their games to work on a variety of smartphones and tablets – just one. It is also safe to assume that the Switch won’t be plagued with pay-to-win games, given Nintendo’s stance on that model and the existence of its’ own “free-to-start” model. The only real concern could be the battery life though the Pixel C has pretty incredible battery life so this may not be a concern either.

Razer's Edge Pro is really little more than a Windows 8 tablet and blue tooth controller.
Razer’s Edge Pro is really little more than a Windows 8 tablet and blue tooth controller.

And yes, I am aware that other companies have attempted the “tablet with a controller” idea (Razer just to name one). But none of these companies have any experience when it comes to a gaming platform, such as a console, nor do these companies have robust game developers of their own to lead the charge on software development for their respective devices. Lastly, at the end of the day, these devices are still spin-offs of other devices. Razer’s own Edge Pro is literally a Windows 8 tablet. And many of its’ competitors are simply Android tablets with blue tooth controllers attached. None of them are dedicated gaming platforms in the vein of Xbox, Playstation, or any of Nintendo’s consoles.

One logical question is how does Nintendo plan to sell the Switch at a reasonable price? Assuming these specifications are accurate. After all, the Pixel C is more than $500 – far more than any console. This is where the screen changes come into play. The Pixel C sports a 2560×1800 display. Current rumors suggest that the Switch will sport a 1280×720 display which would make it cost considerably less all by itself. The Pixel C also sports a 10″ screen whereas the Switch has a 6″ screen (again, according to rumors). This, too, would reduce costs significantly. Factor in any deals that Nintendo has made with its hardware manufacturers and this device could easily retail for $250 or less – and I suspect it will.

This realization/discovery has really opened my eyes to a number of things. While it is clear that Nintendo really isn’t concerned with Xbox or Playstation, it is also clear that they want to carve out their own path. To put it more accurately: Nintendo wants to correct mobile gaming and bring out the best that the platform has to offer. In a way, this is similar to what the company did with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The video game market was dying due to over-saturation of platforms and sub-par games. Nintendo came in, standardized the market, and transformed it into a respectable industry. Perhaps Nintendo is poised to do this once again with the Switch?

Nintendo Switch - coming March 2017
Nintendo Switch – coming March 2017

What do you think of this theory? Personally, I am excited to see what happens with the mobile game market when the developers are freed from the shackles of touch and tilt controls and battery concerns. Perhaps the old marketing line “Now You’re Playing with Power” is apt for the upcoming console? Sound off in the comments below!

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