With every new console launch, the media world tracks each and every move a console makes. Media outlets run stories tracking each million-unit milestone reached, making sure to highlight what new record-breaking pace a newly-launched platform has broken. In reality, however, launch sales for a console have rarely been a good barometer for the true success of a console. As a result, it is wise to temper expectations. A successful launch day for the Switch does not necessarily mean Nintendo’s new hybrid will be a massive success, just as a summer’s sale slump does not mean the console will be a failure. For a good indicator of the console’s lasting appeal, it is best to wait for the first holiday season. The Switch’s first 4 – 6 months will do little to reveal its long-term success.
The thing about console launches
What gamers often miss is that historically, consoles sell out at launch, especially in the modern gaming era. The PS4 and XBO sold out in virtually all territories after launch, as did the Wii. Even the Wii U, often considered an abject failure, was hard to find in the United States in the first two weeks after its launch, being virtually sold out everywhere. Scalpers were re-selling the console for upwards of $500 on eBay.
Similarly, the Switch’s launch day will likely tell us little about its longevity. The console is bound to sell out on day one, especially with its pre-orders all gone. When you see those headlines on March 4 screaming “Switch sold out after launch,” make sure to temper expectations. If the Wii U sold out on launch day, the Switch likely will as well.
A timid launch window does not mean failure
Imagine this scenario: The Switch comes out swinging, selling out completely in its first several weeks after launch. Then, its momentum substantially slows down over the summer. Nintendo continues releasing one major first-party title per month – Mario Kart, Splatoon 2, Arms – each of which bumps sales for the console slightly. Overall, however, sales stay lukewarm, perhaps only performing marginally better than the Wii U in its first few months.
There is no need to panic. First of all, the Switch’s situation is different than the Wii U’s. Though the Switch may see less third-party support than the Wii U in its first year, the Switch will see a steady release of first-party titles and indie games that will prevent the console from the drought that plagued the Wii U.
Even more substantially, the Switch’s marketing has a different approach than the Wii U’s. Take Nintendo’s Super Bowl commercial, for example. If the Switch is likely to sell out at launch either way, why would Nintendo spend $5 million on a 30 second ad tailored to casual gamers? In reality, Nintendo is still trying to raise awareness for its product. The company isn’t necessarily hoping that Super Bowl viewers will buy the Switch on launch day, but it wants to ensure that audiences know what the Switch is. By contrast, for years after the Wii U launched, many consumers and even retailers were unaware that the Wii U was a new console.
All of Nintendo’s marketing is ensuring that their product is top of mind for the holiday season, so that kids and their parents think of Nintendo’s new console when considering their wishlists. Moreover, launching in March will allow hardcore gamers to pick up the console and expose their family members to it well before the holiday. Like the Wii, the Switch has the potential to have an even better second year on the market than its first.
Finally, it’s wise to look at the Switch as a paralogue to the 3DS. When the handheld launched in the U.S. and Japan, it sold out across virtually all retailers within an astounding timeframe. However, sales quickly tanked after its launch. The two primary reasons for this failure was that the handheld was overpriced, at $250 – Nintendo was looking to make a profit on the hardware – and it lacked substantial first-party software to really sell it. By August, however, the 3DS saw a steep price cut to $170, bundled with popular games like Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. The Switch could easily deploy a similar strategy if it has trouble getting out of the gate.
As opposed to other console launches, Nintendo is selling the Switch at a profit at $300. In this scenario where sales drop off in the months after launch, Nintendo could easily cut the price to $250 going into the holiday season. With major games like Splatoon, Mario Kart, Arms, and others launching before year’s end, the combination of price cut and good releases could easily bump up console sales after a mediocre summer.
Judgements take time
Ultimately, it is best to wait before making judgements on the success of the Nintendo Switch. Just as a sold-out launch may not mean the Switch will be a massive success, a mediocre summer may not mean the console will be a failure. Nintendo is setting the stage for its console for the holiday, when there will be several huge first-party games released to entice existing Switch owners and seduce potential Switch buyers. Only after the holidays, Nintendo will have a better idea of whether their Hail-Mary pass was successful or whether they need to go back to the drawing board – fast.