Nintendo Switch: death of the Vita, or resurgence of portable gaming?

Will Nintendo’s new Transformer device bring the much-announced death of the PS Vita? Or will it fortify the dedicated portable gaming market?

Nintendo has made a bold move with the Switch: they have created a device that is both a home console and a dedicated portable gaming console. It isn’t the promise of a “home console-like experience on the go”. It is, literally, your Nintendo home console… on the go.

Rumors already abound regarding the power compromise the big “N” had to make to achieve portability: an nVidia processor that, while impressive for portable standards, will mean that the Switch will fall far behind its Microsoft and Sony rivals in benchmark tests.

For the Vita, power was almost never the problem. It surpassed the (far more successful) Nintendo 3DS in pretty much every single measurable way. Except success.

The 3DS family of systems have sold over 60 million units, while the PS Vita has yet to reach a fourth of that [source].

Funnily enough, the 14.7 million Vita units mean that Sony’s biggest flop still sold better than Nintendo’s last-gen home console: The WiiU sold a decidedly underwhelming 13.6m units [source].

The Nintendo WiiU: Because if Sony can fail, Nintendo can do it better.
The Nintendo Wii U: Because if Sony can fail, Nintendo can do it better.

The crude reality of the matter is, though, that both the Wii U and the Vita have hurt gaming as a whole: on the one hand, the failure of the Wii U means that the Switch is the last chance for Nintendo to keep making hardware. Investors are wary of Nintendo’s shaky future already, and if the Switch goes the Wii U route in terms of sales, the big “N” will probably pull a Sega, wrap up its hardware division, and shift focus to IP-derived revenue on other consoles, and the ever-growing mobile gaming market, where despite somewhat misplaced revenue models, Nintendo IPs have seen great success.

On the other hand, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida himself announced that the Vita was such a flop, they’re already bowing out of the dedicated portable market. Sony has instead focused on developing its VR business, along with the PS4 family of systems.

The PSP's 80 million shipped units are, I'm guessing, not touted as successful due to the rather large pirate community around it.
The PSP’s 80 million shipped units are, I’m guessing, not touted as successful due to the rather large pirate community around it.
So, what does this mean for the Switch, the Vita and dedicated portable gaming?

The Vita and the Wii U had similar, yet different issues during their midlife cycle: both lacked software support. However, while the Vita lacked first party support and has since survived largely on indie releases and Japanese ports, the Wii U had pretty much zero third party support of the best part of the past three years, thriving mostly on Nindies and first-party titles like Splatoon, Mario Kart 8 and the “will-we-ever-see-it” Zelda title Breath of the Wild.

We arrive, therefore, at a crossroads.

Door 1 has in store a successful and long-lived cycle for the Switch, revitalizing dedicated portable gaming by bringing “real games” (as people who haven’t played a single indie call them) into the wild, as well as incorporating a rather smart local multiplayer element that was lacking from almost all of the portables presented to date. Third party support will abound, and Nintendo will thrive on its quirkiness, like they did with the Wii. This will in turn affect Vita sales and software development, as Switch and Vita share a lot of game engine cross-compatibility. Hell, we might even see a Vita 2.

Door 2 hides behind it the total death of dedicated portable gaming. The Switch fails at being a home console due to underpowered hardware and limited third party support, and fails again at being a portable device due to the lack of variety in its library. Nintendo exits the hardware business, and we see a duopoly emerge between Microsoft and Sony in the home console market, and the portable market absorbed by the mobile, phone gaming market.

There is a Door 3, however, and it’s one where things are not quite black and white: The Switch is successful enough to warrant Nintendo staying in the game, but not enough to revitalize the dedicated portable gaming market. Switch absorbs 3DS, Wii U and Vita market shares, and sits comfortably without having to fight the much more powerful, much more focused Playstation and XBox offerings.

"Meet me up at Starbucks for a Mario Kart 8 showdown on my Switch" - Hopefully, future me.
“Meet me up at Starbucks for a Mario Kart 8 showdown on my Switch” – Hopefully, future me.

As a portable gaming fanatic, I’d love to see Door 1 to be the reality. A thriving market for dedicated portables and the big “N” as big as ever.

As a student of statistics, I can’t ignore the market trends that back up Door 2’s rather scary ability to exist.

As a Vita lover, Door 3 holds for me the end of a half-decade love affair.

What will it be, then?

Sadly, the more I think about it, the more likely it seems that Door 3 will be indeed the future of this industry of ours. The casual mobile gamer will continue to find more and more time-wasting Angry and Flappy birds to fill their time with. People like me, who have a love affair with dedicated devices, are no longer the purchasing majority. I’m part of the “old guy with a hobby from the 80s and 90s” demographic.

Nintendo will not fail in a way that makes them exit the hardware market. It won’t be allowed, either by the industry or the company itself. It’s a matter of pride. A matter of tradition. A matter of what’s right.

So, the lukewarm “it did well enough” is quite probable, possible and likely.

Whichever way the wind blows, though, it will be a difficult year or two for the Vita moving forward: either Switch succeeds, in which case it will probably attract the attention of the indie and Japanese developers that are keeping the Vita alive, or it will fail, in which case portable gaming will be ditched altogether in favor of the home-console-and-smartphone dichotomy.

As for me… well, I’m 31 now so being cool is out of the question. Evenings now find me looking for good deals on Pocket C.H.I.P. and fantasizing about having a portable gaming museum. I will simply continue to do what I can to support the communities that I love, in the hopes that someone out there is, like me, looking for a portable console to scratch the itch.

I only worry about Mateo.

Mateo is my nephew. He will be born sometime in February. He will live in an era of information enlightenment, where intellectual growth is but a click away, and medical advancements have allowed us to reach “ripe old age” and still kick ass.

But will it be worth it, if he can’t play some obscure Japanese RPG while he’s out and about walking his dog? Or make some fellow train traveler uncomfortable playing the latest PQube release?

We shall see.

For the time being, I leave you with this: a true hallmark of what it meant, for me, to be in love. And a bit of false advertising thrown in for realism.

That’s what love is, isn’t it?

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