Tuesday, March 14, 2017

higher Nintendo Switch cartridges costs affect third party game sales

This week, Eurogamer has published an interesting piece about why a few games are just flat-out more expensive on the Switch than they are elsewhere.

They look at a pair of indie games Rime and Puyo Puyo Tetris, which cost £10 more than the same versions of the game on other platforms. What they found is that the cost of manufacturing Switch cartridges increases costs for these developers, particularly indie games with a smaller run, and that they can’t make their digital versions cheaper because Nintendo demands price parity between its physical and digital media in a bid not to upset brick and mortar stores. So even with no increase in production costs for digital, both versions of Rime cost £39.99 on Switch as opposed to £29.99 elsewhere.

When discussing this story around the FORBES office, a few interesting points were made. The thought is that this may not affect that many indie games because so many of them are digital only. This is true, and other games have forgone releasing a physical version of their game entirely, some because they never had one, but others because of the Switch demanding price parity between stores and the increased costs of cartridges.

It is a bit odd, however, that the Nintendo Switch, which has made a big point of courting indie games which are a perfect fit for the new console/handheld, has created this situation where games can literally just cost more than identical versions on its competition’s platforms. Even if this does not happen often, it’s not a great look, certainly.

But my concern is about how the Switch’s use of cartridges could affect its third party support more generally.

I have been beating the drum for ages that the “NX,” whatever it ended up being, would have to do a lot to court third parties to make games for the hardware. A console with the ability to have AAA blockbusters with Nintendo’s own must-have first-party releases would be unstoppable. But to get there, there would have to be less barriers in place for that to happen.
Rime costs more on the Nintendo Switch than it does anywhere else

The problem is, all the barriers are still in place, and then some. The Switch is not all that concerned with power, which is the opposite of the direction the larger industry is moving with PC, the PS4 Pro and Xbox Scorpio. The Switch also has unusual demands with its split functionality between running games in handheld and console mode. The online functionality of the Switch is largely a complete unknown at this point, which is a core component of many games. And now add to that the requirement of producing physical, expensive cartridges instead of Blu-rays. Larger cartridges too, given the size of most AAA games.

Now, I don’t think any one of these individual issues is an insurmountable barrier to third party Switch support, but combine them all together, and you a number of reasons why catering to Nintendo’s hardware may not be worth the hassle.

This is not a new issue, per say. We saw this back with the Nintendo 64, which was still using costly cartridges long after it was fashionable, and it did hurt third party support. But it’s a bit odd that once again we’re having this conversation in 2017.

Cartridges have their advantages, of course. They’re technically easier to develop for, and there’s something fantastic about popping in a game and having it ready to go instantly rather than waiting for length boot-ups and updates. But I do worry that it’s another somewhat alienating decision made by Nintendo which is certainly not winning them any third party support, though time will tell if it’s losing them any.

This issue occurs to me now more than ever because now that I own a Switch, I’ve found I actually quite like it. And I constantly find myself thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if I could play Mass Effect: Andromeda or Ghost Recon: Wildlands on my flight this weekend?” The idea of a Switch that could play all these big games is incredibly appealing, but that reality does not seem to be taking shape. The Switch has only drawn cursory support from big third party studios, and it’s been said outright that there are “no plans” for many of the biggest release of the year to come to Switch. And yet finally, this is a piece of Nintendo hardware that really, really cries out for this kind of support. Previously, few people wanted to play “worse” versions of games on Wii and Wii U, given their limited power capabilities, but would I play a stripped down version of certain AAA games in order to be able to play them on the fly via the Switch? Absolutely.

Is the cartridge issue a defining one? Perhaps not, but it’s another example of Nintendo doing whatever it wants based on its own needs, rather than considering how that might affect its other partners. We’re seeing that with these odd price spikes, and it’s yet another excuse for AAA publishers to avoid doing the work to port to the system.

Hopefully this isn’t how things play out, and strong Switch sales will drive third party support regardless of these obstacles, but we have seen zero signs of that happening yet, and the biggest third party “blockbuster” coming to the Switch at this point remains the six year-old Skyrim this fall.

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