Yesterday, Nintendo announced their hardware revision for the Switch Lite. As I already have a Switch, I’m not likely to buy one, and if I didn’t have a Switch, but wanted to buy one, I’m not sure whether I would opt for the original or this new version.
The new version is cheaper, by about $100, but it gets to that price point by dropping features. The controllers are not detachable from the unit, which has a number of repercussions, both good and bad:
- The controllers don’t get lost.
- The connector/locking mechanism is a weak point that is prone to wear and breakage.
- The controllers don’t need to have separate batteries so they can be used wirelessly, independent of the battery in the main body of the Switch.
- This makes it considerably less expensive.
- The left side incorporates a D-pad rather than the 4 separate buttons, which many gamers agree feels better and is better.
- They dropped the HD rumble feature, which means that pretty much kills any future game development that might have made use of this feature.
- The motion-tracking capabilities (accelerometer, gyroscopes, IR camera) of the controllers and their ability to be used in various configurations are gone, too. Even if they were kept, being attached to the console would prevent the controllers from being used freely in the way that detachable controllers could be. This marks a move away from the novel motion controls that Nintendo were lauded for innovating with the Wii.
- It doesn’t connect to a TV, so is portable only. While the smaller size will appeal to gamers who want a more truly portable Switch, this likely means that the end is near for Nintendo’s venerable 3DS line of handhelds. (Of course, that writing was already on the wall the moment Nintendo revealed the Switch.)
To me, the bad outweighs the good, here. Dropping these features means that gaming consoles are reducing the scope of their capabilities, which means that game developers will have to work within a more limited set of constraints for how they can deliver experiences to gamers.
The reality is that most games are developed for multiple platforms, ported to any system that they can. The result of this is that game developers are already constrained to designing within the set of feature constraints represented by the least common denominator across all systems. As such, unique features that differentiate a console tend to go unused, and thus aren’t worth investing in. This means that innovations can only make headway if they’re adopted industry wide by all competitors.
That is, if everyone decides to do HD rumble and motion control, then game designers can create designs that target these capabilities, and by making use of them, will justify their existence and the large R&D and manufacturing costs associated with providing them. In other words, it’s use it or lose it.
This isn’t really anything new. In the NES era, there were very few games produced that supported the light gun. The Zapper was an optional accessory that didn’t come standard with every NES, and as a result the install base was too small, so a game developer who wanted to maximize sales would want to target the widest possible audience, which meant constraining themselves to develop games that could be played on any and all NES consoles, and this meant ignoring the people who spent the extra money to invest in the Zapper.
When Taito ported the arcade light gun rail shooter Operation: Wolf to the NES, they implemented an on-screen target reticle controlled by the D-pad, rather than support the light gun. I bought that game, assuming that of course they would provide a means to play the game for people who didn’t own a Zapper, but would surely have supported the Zapper as well, to provide the best translation of the arcade experience to the home console. But they didn’t. Instead, you had to deal with a slow, awkward control mechanism which made the game horrible to play. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. The game was a hit in the arcade, and a bomb on the NES.
In like fashion, we can now expect game developers to ignore the dropped features of the Switch that differentiated it from the market and made it special, but now are “non-standard” and not part of the full feature set. In large part, most 3rd party developers probably were already ignoring those features, rather than expending extra effort to create Switch-enhanced versions of their games that made full use of what the hardware could offer. But now even first party Nintendo titles that Switch-exclusive will likely not support these now-“extra” features.
Considering that Nintendo put so much effort into engineering these features in the first place, and made it a big part of the appeal to customers to buy a Switch instead of the more standard PS4/XBOne ,to me this feels like an admission that they were mistaken that such innovations would drive sales, and now they’ve taken an alternative track to target budget gamers. This might be a sound business decision; I’m not saying it isn’t. But it is a sad thing to realize; we’ll be seeing a blander future for games with the library of features reduced to just buttons and sticks.
It might well be that this is all any game designer “needs”, but I feel like the painter’s palette has been reduced. Imagine if painters had developed paints that produced scents that reproduced the odors of the subject, creating an enhanced experience for the viewer. Or textured paints that reproduce the tactile experience for someone touching the artwork. Not every painting would need olfactory features or haptics, but it would be more immersive for those that did make use of it, and would open up new worlds of possibility for people working in the medium. But if only a few painters bothered to make use of the capability, and if the enhanced features could only be experienced in person, and not through prints, photographs, or other-media transliterations of the original, many painters might well think “why bother?” and abandon the enhanced paints, leading to their death in the marketplace, and an endpoint to further development of the innovation.
What about “Switch Pro”?
The other rumored Switch revision has not surfaced. It seems unlikely now that it will. But many Nintendo fans had expressed a desire for a “Switch Pro” with features like a bigger, higher-resolution screen, larger JoyCons for adult-sized hands, larger internal storage and a beefier processor/RAM, and possibly losing the handheld mode and going TV-mode only.
While I’d definitely be more interested in this, I don’t think we’ll see it, especially now that the Switch Lite is out. Switch was intended to be a crossover device that unified living room and portable gamers. Splitting back up to “Switch Lite” for portable gaming and “Switch Pro” for higher-end entertainment center gaming would be a reversal of course, and for that reason alone I doubt Nintendo would make such a move.
It’s more likely that a hardware revision for the full Switch would bring additional RAM, CPU, and/or internal storage, but I wouldn’t count on a bigger screen with higher resolution (too much battery drain) and it seems to me there’s more than enough controller options for players with larger hands, particularly the Nintendo Pro Controller that if the JoyCons are too tiny for you, they’ve got you covered already.
Update: Nintendo announced a revision to the original Switch, bringing a larger battery capacity, and no other upgrades.