[Nintendad Coffeehouse] Nintendo Switch and the Purple Ocean Theory

Written by Abram Buehner

Wii weren’t designed for everyone

It’s hard to argue with the Wii, on paper, being a success for Nintendo. At over 100 million units sold, there was a gargantuan amount of hardware moved, and several pieces of software in its library have sales figures which trounce the install bases of full Nintendo consoles, including the Wii U, GameCube and N64. Cash was flowing, the community was engaged, and the Wii ushered in an era of motion control which reverberated through the industry at large. Of course, this success was only possible due to the fact that the Wii sold to a Blue Ocean demographic, or in other words, the casual market. Whether you personally find this to be a shortcoming of the machine or not, the undeniable truth remains that the Wii and its incredibly appealing suite of software, from Wii Fit to Mario Kart Wii, attracted a type of player which had previously felt alienated in the console marketplace.

In attracting this demographic, though, Nintendo made one key mistake external to their Blue Ocean approach: they forgot to also cater to the Red Ocean gamers. A Red Ocean consumer can be considered the Yin to a Blue Ocean consumer’s Yang, or in this case, the hardcore player. In the eyes of many dedicated fans, the system simply did not offer the volume of engaging and deep experiences that the Wii’s predecessor, the GameCube, had in droves. To that point, in fact, the GameCube had a contrasting problem to that of the Wii—it catered too much to the Red Ocean consumer. The machine lacked any sort of tactile gimmick to draw in a casual demographic, and the software initiatives on the console didn’t help attract this audience, either. Quite the opposite, actually, because as sales of the GameCube began to falter, Nintendo attempted to bolster the system’s lineup through a timed-exclusivity deal with Capcom that brought such classics as Resident Evil 4 to the machine exclusively for a period of time. While the GameCube is well-respected by the industry, and is one of my personal favorite consoles, it undeniably was lacking in appeal to large portions of the market.

A balancing act

While the dangers of Nintendo leaning too heavily into the Blue Ocean consumer with the Wii weren’t apparent during that system’s shelf life as with the GameCube’s troubles, the damage proved to be latent but deadly with regards to the Wii U, which, well, is the Wii U. A great system, but one that tried to retain the Wii’s casual market, a market that didn’t understand or see a need for the machine. This appeal simultaneously cut off any hopes for a hardcore fanbase due to the system’s low power and focus on the Gamepad’s two-screen gimmick. That was the past, though. As evidenced by Nintendo’s three, previous home consoles, striking a balance between the hardcore and the casual is imperative for finding and maintaining success in the market, but such a task is daunting as it requires both intense, clever hardware and software-level planning.

As such, I found myself incredibly skeptical of Nintendo’s ability to accomplish such a feat with the Switch and from its initial reveal, I posited, as the junior industry analyst I proport to be (without any credentials to assert such a claim, mind you), I suspected that the Switch would top out sales-wise around a respectable 35 million lifetime units. However, after less than three, full years on the market, the Switch has already moved a staggering 41.67 million systems, with no loss of momentum in sight. For context, these figures are more than three times that of the Wii U’s lifetime sales, and with 246 million pieces of Switch software sold, those numbers likewise flatten that of the Wii U’s software numbers to boot. With each passing financial report, I found myself eating more and more crow, seeing just how successful the machine was becoming financially. With these milestones in mind, it is time to discuss exactly why I believe that the Switch is on top right now, and why it is already on the path to becoming my favorite Nintendo system of all-time. To do that, though, we need to swim into previously uncharted waters: the Purple Ocean.

Charting a new course

As the previously established junior industry analyst that I am, I’ve taken the liberty to invent a new sales term, being the Purple Ocean consumer, or the convergence of the Blue and Red Ocean consumer, in other words. This is precisely the target demographic for the Nintendo Switch, and precisely why I like the console so much. Nintendo made a series of smart moves with the system, and the smartest is easily the choice to make the device’s central “gimmick” its hybrid design. This multi-faceted approach to play is Nintendo’s most unobtrusive and integral console gimmick yet in the way that it directly appeals to the needs of all types of players. Not only does it obviously allow for uninterrupted play at home or on the go, it smartly allows the player to interface with as much or as little of the Switch’s more experimental elements as they’d like. From the single Joy-Con experiences to the Pro Controller, both single and multiplayer gaming scales with the player’s tolerance for nontraditional control. Whereas the Wii and Wii U crammed motion and second-screen experiences down the throat of all players, the design of the Switch allows for much more nuanced and tailored gameplay.

This commitment to flexibility to obvious within the Switch’s software library as well. Of course, it has a wide array of experiences that span every genre imaginable, but the commitment to player choice runs even deeper. Nintendo’s output, on a surface level, roundly appeals to every type of player. Core gamers are treated to the likes the Fire Emblem Three Houses and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while the casual market is serviced with such ideas as Nintendo Labo and Ring Fit Adventure. Yet, both types of players are catered to in equal proportion, and in true Nintendo fashion, are designed to uphold the tenants of fun and accessibility, allowing for plenty of crossover and conversion between the groups.

Looking even deeper, Nintendo has made a concerted effort to allow their core experiences to scale to any level of play, promoting the joining of hardcore and casual play. With design decisions such as the assist modes in the likes of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Mario Odyssey, no player is isolated from the fun due to skill level. The pendulum swings the other way, too, with the likes of Master Mode in Breath of the Wild or Insanity in Three Houses, which allow the player to push themselves further should they desire the challenge. Even choices such as the sliding intensity scale in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate promote this sense of all-levels enjoyment, and this is a key move in the promotion of inclusive gaming.

Revitalizing that Nintendo magic

For me, the Switch’s commitment to a versatile gimmick and assessible gameplay has made the Switch such a special console for me. Before this generation, I found myself in a position where I was the only serious Nintendo fan in my friend group, with my gaming friends largely writing off the company and my non-gaming friends and family finding many of Nintendo’s experiences inaccessible. To the former, my friends simply saw the Wii U, and the Wii before it, as too gimmicky and childish to engage with. The hybrid design of the Switch, on the other hand, felt organic and tantalizing to them, drawing many into the Nintendo ecosystem due to the convenience and magic of switching (no pun intended) gameplay modes. For once, Nintendo had designed a machine that was cutting edge and subversive, while also promoting the core gaming experience.

The latter, though, has been even more important to me. The Switch has made multiplayer fun and accessible in a way that it never has been before. The likes of assist mode in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has allowed me to share the fun of racing with family and friends who used to be overly frustrated by falling off the track in past titles. Long car trips and airport layovers have turned into multiplayer throwdowns, as my sister and I break off Joy-Cons to compete in Super Mario Party or vent our latent frustrations at each other in a round of Smash. The Switch itself is so inviting to a non-gaming audience that I’ve had so many great moments seeing people who rarely touch the sticks grab my Switch and give it a go. Whether that’s one of my best friends excitedly traipsing through Hyrule when I left my Switch on the kitchen counter or my girlfriend exploring the halls of the Last Resort Hotel on a train ride to Boston. For the first time in a long time, Nintendo has cracked the mainstream gaming conscious once again.

I love the act of playing video games and getting lost in their worlds. Equally as strong as that love, though, is my love for the Nintendo community at large and getting to see others experience games. The Switch has lowered the bars for such interaction, making it more interesting and accessible than it has been in a long time. The Nintendo magic has never died, and even in the darker eras of the company’s history, the magic never faded, but it was undoubtedly buried. Seeing it brought back to the surface by the Switch and its intelligent design both from a hardware and software perspective is a true feat of ingenuity and one that is emphatically deserving of the success that the Switch has already found. This is a golden age of Nintendo, and I’m ecstatic to see the hybrid continue to flourish in the years to come.

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