Nintendo Switch has been a massive, record-breaking success in its first year on the market. No doubt much of that success is due to the device's hybrid nature, functioning both as a home console and a handheld. However, this dual nature isn't without its downsides. Historically speaking, Nintendo handhelds almost always outsell their home console counterparts, and Switch's $300 price tag definitely puts it closer to the home console camp economically. With the all-important launch of the first main series Pokémon games on Switch fast approaching, it's time for Nintendo to get serious about reaching out to the handheld market.
Prior to Switch's release, Satoru Iwata (the company's now-deceased former President) teased a few things about his plan for the console. In 2015, he indicated that the console was based on a brand new concept and shouldn't be seen as a successor to either Wii U or 3DS.
This would seem to be his description of the console's hybrid nature. However, even before that, Iwata teased way back in 2014 that future Nintendo hardware after Wii U would be something completely different for the company. Iwata envisioned a Nintendo future in which there were no longer significant differences between "home consoles" and "handhelds." Instead, all Nintendo hardware would exist as "brothers in a family of systems."
Whether or not Nintendo still shares this vision for Switch in a post-Iwata world remains to be seen, but I'd argue that they should. Iwata made the decision to combine Nintendo's once-separate handheld and home console divisions in 2013, and Switch is better off for it. Creating a 3DS successor with hardware distinct from Switch is a step backwards, placing a wedge between Nintendo's development teams once again. Abandoning dedicated handhelds altogether after 3DS is also inadvisable, as Nintendo's well aware that a low price point is crucial in driving handheld sales longterm.
As Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima recently explained to investors, there's an important difference between a console that's viewed as "one per household" and "one per person." 3DS and all of its handheld predecessors fall in the latter category, and Switch falls into the former. When you're talking about longterm sales potential, that's a vital distinction, and it's bad news for Switch. In fact, it's the primary reason why Nintendo is still supporting 3DS and why they plan to do so until at least 2020.
"Consumers purchased Nintendo 3DS systems in numbers we expected last fiscal year. It has an ample software lineup at a price point that makes the system affordable especially for parents looking to buy for their kids. We expect that demand to continue during this fiscal year as well, so we will continue to sell the product.
"Given that Nintendo Switch is a home gaming system that can be taken on the go, this situation may change if it grows from being a one-per-household system to a one-per-person system. But the price of Nintendo Switch is not something with which most parents would buy a system for every one of their children in a short period of time. Moving forward, we will work to ascertain what kinds of play people want at which price points, and as long as there is such demand, we will continue to sell the Nintendo 3DS system. I see the product coexisting with Nintendo Switch at this point in time." — Tatsumi Kimishima
This is the longterm problem Switch faces. Consumers see Switch as a must-have for the living room, but not as a must-have for each of their kids. At $300, can you blame them? Nintendo's solution to this in Japan is to start selling Switch packages that don't include the dock. Nintendo is marketing this as a "second set" for your Switch, and it costs about $50 less, making it a little more accessible to consumers on a budget.
This option is a step in the right direction, but $250 is still a tough ask for a handheld when you're hoping that families will buy it multiple times. That's the price point both 3DS and Vita launched at, and both stumbled out of the gate. Better software and a price cut eventually salvaged 3DS, but Vita never recovered.
The solution to both the problems of Switch's price point and eventually replacing 3DS seems clear: Nintendo should make a cheaper, portable-only Switch. According to Digital Foundry's analysis, a docked Switch's GPU clocks in at 2.5 times its undocked speed. In other words, when in handheld mode, Switch is only using 40% of its GPU power. A new Switch model exclusively designed for portable play could match the current Switch's handheld quality while drastically undercutting it in price. A $200 price point would put a portable-only Switch much closer to the cost of previous successful handhelds.
If this is the road Nintendo chooses to travel, they should pack their bags and get hiking sooner rather than later. Pokémon, a franchise which has previously restricted its main series entries to handhelds, is on the way to Switch soon. With its social elements like trading and battling, Pokémon is exactly the kind of game where the distinction between "one per household" and "one per person" become so critical. Pokémon is a much better experience when you can play with and against your siblings (or roommates) instead of waiting for your turn to play the family Switch.
So how does Nintendo avoid branding confusion so they don't end up with another "Wii U is a tablet controller for your Wii" nightmare scenario? In keeping with the theme of Pokémon's important role in the future of Switch, the rumored titles of the upcoming Pokémon games provide a suitable answer.
According to multiple sources (and backed up by domain filings), the two games will be titled Pokémon Let's GO! Pikachu and Pokémon Let's Go! Eevee, clear evolutions of the Pokémon GO brand. Nintendo could easily take advantage of this by offering them bundled with the newer, cheaper, portable-only Switch under the name Nintendo Switch GO.
Nintendo Switch is playable in three modes: TV mode, tabletop mode, and handheld mode. Switch GO would allow Nintendo to capitalize on the hype of the new Pokémon titles while accurately explaining exactly what the system is: a Switch that be played in its two on-the-go modes, but not in TV mode. A $200 price point, a must-have piece of software, and clear and compelling branding that ties the software and hardware together would all combine to make Nintendo Switch GO an extremely appealing product. Ideally, Nintendo would still want to get the $300 docked Switch in every home, but Nintendo Switch GO is the brother device in the Switch family that get it to the desired "one per person" state of past Nintendo handhelds.