Nintendo's finally drawn back the curtain on Switch, the game platform previously codenamed "NX." As most of the major rumors totally nailed, it's a new home console that you can take with you on the go. It can plug into your TV via a docking station with HDMI output, or you can remove it from the dock and play it on a high-definition mobile screen.
That's completely category defining — traditionally, TV play and portable play each required a separate system. But what do you call this new category? Nintendo referred to Switch as their next home console in a teaser, but they haven't exactly been quick to coin a new name for their new device class. That they start from the premise that Switch is a home console gives us a powerful clue, though.
Dive into the Switch trailer one more time, and pay close attention (if you haven't seen it yet, you heathen, watch and be amazed!).
How does the trailer begin? It starts with a dude on a couch in an unattainably upscale home in Vancouver, playing some Zelda on his TV with a controller. That's the typical home console story, and it should feel familiar to hundreds of millions of people who play video games. But then the story changes. Switch.
Now he's walking up to the TV, taking his controller apart, and sliding the two halves of the dual-analog controls (which Nintendo is calling Joy-Cons) onto the sides of the console.
Next, he actually picks up the console, and — like magic — his gameplay resumes on the system's built-in, portable screen. Take a very hard look at the shot composition for this moment, which shows the TV screen go black and then the portable screen immediately lights up.
It's an important visual cue that says, "It's a home console that you're taking with you, not a handheld you're beaming to the TV." And they're using one of Nintendo's most technically impressive games — the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — to drive that point home.
It's a critical distinction to make. In the past, there's been a massive gulf between dedicated home consoles and dedicated portable devices. A lot of this has to do with screen tech — TVs versus tiny low-res screens — but it has also extended to what games are viable on a battery-powered devices. But today, thanks to modern mobile tech, the gulf between home console games and portable games is narrow enough for a high-definition game to be played on a handheld system.
Mobile tech is the magic that makes Nintendo Switch possible. And because Switch can only exist thanks to mobile tech, because it's the first major home console* to be based on mobile tech that lets you play it on the go, I think the appropriate name for the category is a mobile home console.
*There's a difference between a home console and a set-top box with app support or a receptacle for Android or PC games.
Look back on how iPhone changed the world. It gave us a way to do all kinds of amazing things on a little device we can carry with us. Today, we can check our email, look things up on Google, read and watch the news, pay our bills, get directions, and so much more using just a phone.
How did iPhone give us all that? It gave us a powerful mobile display — a way for us to reach out and touch the Internet no matter where we are. Behind that display, it packed the mobile computing hardware needed to make the Internet actually pleasant to use on a little device.
The result of the mobile revolution was the massive growth of Internet connectivity, but at the cost of traditional computers. Mobile exploded far beyond the reach of the PC, and now that they've got mobile, people aren't buying PCs like they used to (why should they?).
Image credit: IDC via PC World
Beyond just connecting to the Internet and Doing Things, mobile devices let us access all kinds of content — movies, TV shows, music, artwork, books, web content, and even games — anywhere, anytime, and on any screen. Today, mobile content viewing is growing massively, and TVs are increasingly being left behind.
The shift from TV to mobile is especially pronounced for people under 24. As The Washington Post reports:
Since 2010, the time Americans spend watching TV has dropped 11 percent, Nielsen data shows. For people younger than 24, their TV time has plunged more than 40 percent, with many of those minutes spent instead on social media and their phones.
To reach up and coming generations, you can't rely on the TV. And that means that if you want younger people to play video games, those video games can't rely on the TV, either. They need to be mobile if they're going to occupy the time and attention of future generations.
That means the definition of a game console needs to switch.
The game console needs to be mobile. The kinds of games people used to play on a TV also need to be mobile. That means you need a mobile screen. It means you need a controller that's portable. It means you need to design your system to be easy to use on the go. And you can't leave multiplayer behind, either — you need to be able to play with friends while mobile, too.
If they're going to survive beyond today's generation of gamers, game consoles need to go through the same mobile revolution that Internet connectivity, PCs, and TVs are all going through. We've had games on phones for a while, including lots of emulated classics — and those games are eating into the audience for traditional consoles. What we've never had is a truly mobile home console experience that complements the way people play today.
That's what Nintendo Switch is offering. That's how Nintendo is hoping to survive in a world where people expect content to be mobile. That's why Nintendo has disrupted its own product categories to form a new one.
And that's why I'm confident that — if it's backed by games that actually resonate with people — Nintendo Switch will be the most forward-thinking, future-proofed game console Nintendo's ever made.