Why It Might Be Good That The Switch OLED is Disappointing
Nintendo’s approach to hardware doesn’t play by tech’s rules and videogames are better because of it.
For almost the last eighteen months it seemed like the most talked about story in the world of videogames was the rumored “Switch Pro.” Leaks and data mining and garden-variety speculation all congealed into a rough outline of what we could expect from the non-existent console: 4K resolution in docked mode (maybe thanks to a new Nvidia chip using a recently refined technology called DLSS), boosted hardware that would enhance frame rates for some games, and a bigger, higher-resolution OLED screen.
Well, on July 5th, Nintendo announced the “Nintendo Switch (OLED model),” a minor revision of their existing hardware that, for an extra $50, features a slightly bigger OLED screen but seemingly none of the other rumored upgrades. No 4K in docked mode, no DLSS, no boosted frame rates, no higher-resolution handheld screen. (You do get an ethernet port on the new dock though!)
On Twitter, this spawned a torrent of takes, many of which reminded me of the stages of grief:
Most reactions were a mix of anger and depression (stages 2 and 4).
While others were a mix of denial and bargaining (stages 1 and 3).
And a select few jumped right to acceptance (stage 5).
Now, before going further, let me just say that everyone is allowed to feel however they feel. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s feelings or say that they’re stupid for feeling any sort of way or that they should’ve known better. If you are sad or disappointed or grieving that this Switch didn’t meet your expectations, I’m truly sorry that you are experiencing those uncomfortable feelings, and I hope you are able to process them and feel better soon.
But I also want to explore these reactions because I think they say a great deal about how we think about videogames — as a medium, as a product, as a segment of the “tech” industry, and, most importantly, as an art form.
Why did anyone want what the Switch (OLED) failed to provide? Why did anyone want more pixels, more frames, more power? It seems a silly question to ask — more is better, right? — but just consider it as a thought experiment.
The obvious answer is that the changes would offer a boost in visual quality that would make games more aesthetically pleasing to play. Right?
Maybe. 4K is indisputably more pixels than 1080P, but depending on the size of your TV and the distance you sit from it, you may not even be able to perceive the difference. For instance, if you’re looking at a 55” screen that’s 7’ away, a 4K image won’t appear any different from a 1080P image due to the maximum level of detail that the human eye can see. (This is also why the Switch’s handheld screen is only a paltry 720P — at the arms-length distance most people hold it, a 1080P screen wouldn’t appear any sharper.)
Some sort of overhaul to the system’s internals might boost the frame rate of some games, but many games already run smoothly at 60 FPS on the Switch — even graphically detailed ones like Mario Kart 8. Some games that are more demanding on the system’s internals might see more stability, but almost all of the games I’ve played on Switch are stable enough as they are. (But, to be fair, not everyone has had the same experience I have.)
And besides, the idea of boosting the performance of many of the Switch’s most popular games feels kinda laughable. Do you really need to play Animal Crossing or Super Mario Party or Super Mario 3D All Stars (you know, a collection of games that are at least 15 years old) in 4K? In a best case scenario, I imagine that a hypothetical Switch Pro would provide about half the visual boost of moving from DVD to Blu-ray.
Which, don’t get me wrong, would be nice! I definitely prefer Blu-rays to DVDs! But I also think there are deeper forces at play here.
This phenomenon of wanting something new and incrementally better — even if we don’t need that device to do anything it can’t already do — seems like a weird but logical outgrowth of the way tech is marketed these days.
Following tech news is now akin to how one might follow celebrity gossip or a sports team. We check the blogs, read the rumors, wait anxiously for announcements, and then watch with rapt attention as a CEO announces their company’s newest products during a professionally produced and live-streamed keynote presentation. Then, because we’re dialed in, we thirst for the new product because we know all the little benefits of the new device. Yes, my iPhone 11 shoots fine video, but now I want the iPhone 12 Pro because it shoots in Dolby Vision! (Nevermind that I hardly ever record video on my phone.)
There are all sorts of psychological things that feed into this cycle. Many pieces of tech are now seen a status symbols (to quote NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway, “An iPhone is saying to the opposite sex, or a potential mate, ‘I have good genes. You should mate with me.’”) and the process of anticipating buying some things brings many people joy (to quote Jerry Seinfeld’s CLIO Acceptance speech, “I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I get the product that’s being advertised because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy. And that’s all I want.”)
Much of the disappointment around the lack of new features on the Switch (OLED) seems to stem from the frustration that Nintendo is unwilling to participate in this joy-inducing cyclical process. When there’s a new phone every year and a new tablet every two years, going 4 years without a refresh (as the Switch more or less has) seems like an eternity. We want the rush! The rush of seeing the announcement of a new model with new features, the rush of blissfully anticipating purchasing the item, and the rush of being able to show off the item as a symbol of dedication to our hobby.
This is the way the tech industry works, and if profits are anything to go off of, it’s a process that works quite well. But ever since the mid 2000s, Nintendo has basically rejected this overall philosophy of incremental performance upgrades.
It rejected this process not because of some principled stance or new wave business philosophy, but because it needed to stay alive in a changing landscape.
In the early 2000s, Nintendo was in trouble. Although it was riding a wave of popularity thanks to Pokémon, the videogame industry was shifting. The big players were now PlayStation and Xbox, both of which were (and still are) mere divisions of their much larger parent companies, Sony and Microsoft. This meant that PlayStation and Xbox didn’t need to be profitable in the same way that Nintendo or its old rival Sega did. Because they were owned by mega-corporations, profitability for PlayStation and Xbox became part of a much larger picture. Sony can take a loss selling PlayStations if their TV sales can make up for it. Microsoft can take a loss selling Xbox if Windows still sells well.
Nintendo began to look like it might take a similar path to that of Sega, who decided to stop creating consoles in 2001 and simply focus on making games for other systems. But, in 2002, Nintendo’s new president, Satoru Iwata, took the company in a different direction. To quote from Tristin Donovan’s videogame history Replay, “[Iwata] concluded that the game industry had become enslaved by its pursuit of the latest technology, producing ever more complex games for ever more expensive consoles.”
Iwata realized that Nintendo could either try to compete with the mega-corps and fail (as the the GameCube had recently done, getting outsold by newcomer Xbox), or they could take a fundamentally different approach to videogames and make something that appealed to a wider audience.
In 2002, Nintendo released the Nintendo DS, which would go on to sell a massive 125 million units, and, as Donovan explains, “confirmed Nintendo’s hunch that the expensive battle to provide players with the most technologically advanced games was a zero sum game.” Four years later in 2006, they released the Wii, which would sell well enough that it basically bifurcated the market: half of videogame hardware sales were going to the expensive, cutting-edge Playstation and Xbox consoles, while the other half was going to Nintendo.
Nintendo has not released a “cutting-edge” console since (arguably) the GameCube because it has not wanted to release a cutting edge console since the GameCube. Instead it’s approach has been “lateral thinking with withered technology” — a strategy outlined by Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi that revolves around using tech that’s older (but cheaper, better understood, and potentially more reliable) in new and innovative ways.
The Switch is a perfect example of this approach. It’s not as powerful as an Xbox One or a PS4, but it can do things that those “cutting-edge” consoles can’t do, like ping-pong back and forth between being a handheld system and a TV-based system.
However, times have changed again.
Unlike the Wii and DS which required games to be more-or-less custom tailored for their hardware, the Switch is more of an all-purpose gaming machine. It plays first party Nintendo titles (obviously) but it also plays lots of popular indie games (many of which aren’t available on any system other than PC), and even occasionally gets scaled-down versions of games made for the cutting edge consoles.
This new normal can create the illusion that Nintendo is competing with PlayStation and Xbox and therefore that Nintendo ought to behave like Sony and Microsoft do. We see Microsoft and Sony continuing the Sisyphean battle to have the most high-tech console by updating the Xbox One lineup with the One S and One X and updating the PS4 with the PS4 Pro, and we think, “why can’t I, as a Nintendo fan, get the rush that those sweet incremental updates provide?”
We don’t realize that Nintendo can not afford to do that. We don’t realize that although Nintendo is arguably the most recognizable brand in videogames, it’s also one of the smaller players financially. We don’t realize that Nintendo isn’t playing the tech game that Sony and Microsoft are, they’re doing something completely different.
But we also don’t realize that Nintendo’s approach is significantly better for videogames as an artistic medium.
A few weeks ago, Iain Garner, the co-founder of game publisher Neon Doctrine, published a tweet thread expressing his anger with “Platform X,” a console platform that may or may not be the largest cutting-edge game platform (aka: PlayStation.) That thread prompted Matthew White, the CEO of Whitethorn Games, to tweet out a “Totally Hypothetical Definitely Not Real Revenue Breakdown” in the form of a pie chart that seemed to indicate that while PlayStation, Steam, and Xbox sales made about 40 to 45% of their revenue (with Xbox providing the bulk of that), the majority of their income came from “Plumber without a wrench” aka Mario, aka Nintendo, aka the Switch.
That chart shocked me for a couple reasons. First, PlayStation, despite often dominating in terms of consoles sold, only accounts for a narrow sliver of this company’s revenue, indicating that perhaps install base isn’t proportionate to sales for all companies. Conversely, Xbox, which is typically last in terms of consoles sold, provides the second largest chunk of revenue. But the most surprising thing is that Nintendo is providing the bulk of Whitethorn’s revenue.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be too shocking considering that Whitethorn’s games — which, according to their website, are focused on being easy-going, bite-sized, and stress-free — are a natural fit for the Switch. But still, seeing that chart makes me hypothesize about what Nintendo is doing to enable such success.
I imagine the crux of this phenomenon is, as I discussed in my Game of the Year 2020 video, that the Switch’s combination of affordability, convenience, and ease of use is opening the doors of videogames to people who would never remotely consider themselves “gamers.”
In my video I talked about a Washington Post columnist who, like so many of us, got hooked on Animal Crossing during the pandemic, and I speculated that many people like her may have bought a Switch during lockdown and are now exploring other games that the console offers. Someone who bought a Switch for Animal Crossing might now find themselves playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Kentucky Route Zero, or Untitled Goose Game, or Divinity Original Sin II, or Doom Eternal, or any one of the hundreds of games from various styles and genres available on the Switch’s eShop.
Obviously I’m making a roundabout install-base argument again, but I think another contributing factor to the Switch broadening people’s gaming horizons is its status as a “pure gaming” device.
These days, consoles often pull double or triple duty. They can play games, but they also serve as streaming boxes and Blu-ray players. I’ll admit that I have an Xbox One X in my living room that spends 95% of its time just running streaming apps. But the Switch could never fit this role. It offers apps for Hulu and YouTube, but not for Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount+, YouTubeTV, or any of the other dozens of apps that can run on an Xbox or PlayStation.
This limitation means that when people pick up a Switch, they always think videogames. While a console can quickly become a glorified streaming box, the Switch remains an almost exclusive videogame machine. When someone finishes the game they bought an Xbox or PlayStation for, they might think “now I’ll catch up on Love Island on Hulu or watch a Blu-ray.” But when people finish the game they bought a Switch for, they might instead think, “now I need a new game for my game machine.”
It’s also worth noting Nintendo’s laissez-faire approach to the Switch eShop’s content, even if only for its historical significance.
In the NES and Super NES days, Nintendo carefully controlled every game that made it onto their systems, allowing only family-friendly games for their family-friendly system. This (when combined with Sega’s push for less family-friendly content like *gasp* Night Trap) lead to the notorious “censored” Super NES version of Moral Kombat that omitted blood and fatalities which, eventually, sparked the congressional hearings that birthed the ESRB.
But these days, Nintendo seems to be taking the opposite approach, allowing almost any game onto their platform while relying on a mix of the ESRB’s ratings and a parental control app to police inappropriate content. In the past, if Mom or Dad wanted to play Mortal Kombat after the kids went to bed, they’d have to hide the already less-offensive version’s cartridge in their underwear drawer. These days, they just need to use the Switch’s parental controls app to restrict access to the game.
This approach equals more games in more styles from more creators. Just look at one of this week’s top selling eShop games: Doki Doki Literature Club. (Spoilers ahead if you’ve been waiting to play it.) This game is the perfect example of a title that would’ve never made it onto the NES or SNES because it commits a shocking bait and switch. The game initially bills itself as an innocent visual novel, but it morphs into a deeply disturbing psychological horror game after a few hours. It’s rated M. The only way to restrict this game in the NES-era would be to outright not support it. But now, it’s available on the Switch and parents can decide to restrict access to it with the tap of a screen.
Finally, it’s also worth circling back to the idea of incremental upgrades.
I am not a videogame developer, so I can not judge how easy or difficult it is to create videogames for different consoles. However, I do think a lot about a tweet or statement I saw just before Cyberpunk 2077 was released explaining how that one game was really being developed for ten different platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox One S, Xbox One X, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro, PlayStation 5, and Google Stadia.
Obviously having to develop for so many different platforms isn’t the only thing that complicated Cyberpunk 2077’s release, but this adoption of incremental upgrades by Xbox and PlayStation does push against one of the things that (I imagine) made developing for consoles easier and more tempting: uniformity.
Until recently, every console that a company made was exactly the same: every unit had the same RAM, the same GPU, the same CPU, the same disc drive, the same everything. This meant that if your game ran perfectly on one PlayStation 2, you could be certain it would run perfectly on every PlayStation 2. But recently, consoles have become more like PCs. Incremental upgrades and less-expensive budget models have diversified what counts as an “Xbox One” or “PS4.” In the last generation there were three tiers of consoles that all existed under the same name: the launch version (Xbox One and PS4), the revised launch version (Xbox One S and PS4 Slim) and the “pro” version (Xbox One X and PS4 Pro).
Again, I can’t really say from experience that this makes developing games harder (though it seems like it might), but it does open the door to purchasing games becoming a less certain proposition. Having so many different hardware configurations could lead to games that might only run acceptably well on the “pro” level. Fortunately, (Cyberpunk 2077 notwithstanding) this hasn’t seemed to come to pass, but on the Switch, it would be an impossibility. Why? Because just like the PS2 days, there’s only one hardware configuration. If your game runs well on the Switch, it will run well on every Switch.
And that’s not a certainty that we would’ve had if Nintendo had introduced a Switch Pro this week.
Although a Switch Pro would’ve improved some aspects of playing games, it’s also worth considering whether those trade offs would be worth it for more casual players, or fans who can’t afford an upgraded console, or developers who would’ve had to start patching games for a new system.
In the end, this entire discussion comes down to the fact that not only are videogames a wildly diverse medium in terms of content, but they’re also a wildly diverse hobby in terms of what people enjoy about them.
While some people might just enjoy playing the new Mario game when it comes out, others love watching Digital Foundry videos and learning how different games focus the power of different consoles in different ways, and still others love the puzzle of building a PC that can run their favorite game at 300 FPS. These are all equally valid ways of loving videogames. No one method is more legitimate than any other, and indeed many fans (like myself) like dipping into all the different pools at different times.
But videogame fans also need to realize that not every company can — or even should — appeal to their specific sensibilities. Different companies, whether out of strategy or necessity, are focusing on different aspects of providing videogame enjoyment to different audiences and that’s ok.
I feel like this truth got lost in the tweet-storm following the Switch (OLED)’s release. I feel like so many voices (understandably) got caught up in the joy-inducing thirst for incremental upgrades that no one seemed to remember the fundamental business logic that allows Nintendo to continue making some of the best games of all time on a console that is bringing many people into the world of videogames who would’ve never made it there otherwise.
I think we all (including myself) so often get so caught up in the miracle that is the rapid development of technology that we don’t stop and wonder what might actually be good for videogames from an artistic perspective (affordability, convenience, simplicity) as opposed to merely from a performance perspective (more pixels and frames).
We all (definitely including myself) sometimes get so obsessed with how videogame hardware generates images that we sometimes forget the magic that interacting with those images provides.
I don’t fault anyone for wanting more pixels or frames, or obsessing over performance, or being fascinated by how videogames work.
I only wish to remind you that the reason you fell in love with videogames in the first place might (might!) have very little to do with any of that.