Nintendo's Switch: Last Bastion of the Mid-budget and Niche Game?

The upcoming console may be the console market's last hope to prevent what was once its core product from migrating entirely to Steam and mobile.

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

A few months ago, I played and enjoyed a mostly overlooked game by Gust and Koei Tecmo called Nights of Azure. It wasn't a great game — on the contrary, it had plenty of flaws! — but what it lacked in finesse it made up for with a certain ineffable spirit that reminded me of the PlayStation 2 era.

Most video game nostalgia these days centers on 8- or 16-bit systems, as indicated by the horrifying price spike games for consoles like NES and Super Nintendo have undergone at the hands of ravenous collectors. These days, though, I find myself pining increasingly for the PlayStation 2 days — a time when publishers weren't afraid to send an enormous variety of games to retail for consoles. The PS2 library had plenty of garbage, yes, but more than enough unexpected or unheralded little gems to justify the carpet-bomb approach publishers took to their release schedules.

Digital distribution has more or less made that methodology obsolete, and kooky, mid-budget experiments like Raw Danger (a game about surviving an earthquake) or Steambot Chronicles (an open-world, morality-based adventure involving mechanical armor combat in a rustic 1920s-like setting) have long since ceased to dominate consoles. Where the walls of Gamestop used to be lined with an endless array of new and used games with untold treasures to be discovered, these days the console walls contain fewer titles featuring bigger budgets and far less freewheeling, devil-may-care experimentation.

The death of the mid-budget console game has been a slow and painful process that began more than a decade ago with the shift to high-definition graphics. No surprises here; we've been over it before. More detailed graphics demand larger budgets, which shuts out games with only modest sales potential in favor of big studios leaning on proven ideas. Video games have had Hollywood envy for most of the medium's existence, and the industry has fallen into the same blockbuster rut that movies have. I appreciated Nights of Azure specifically because its rough edges and lack of formulaic design hearkened back to the days before HD development strangled the sense of surprise out of console games.

It's not that games like Nights of Azure have vanished altogether; on the contrary, they're arguably more plentiful than ever. They've simply found a new home, safer havens where they can operate under more modest budgets, with smaller development teams, and can be profitable without selling multiple millions of units. Mid-budget games made the jump a decade ago from lead consoles to the lower-spec Nintendo Wii, and to handhelds (Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable). But the Wii failed to find a suitable successor in the Wii U, and neither 3DS nor Vita has reached the heights of their respective successors. Publishers continue to cling to handhelds, but their days are numbered, and that means hard choices ahead for those mid-tier studios. Do they give in and go mobile, transforming their creations to work with mobile interfaces and monetization? Jump to Steam and hope there's enough overlap these days between PC and console gamers to make it work? Or look to PlayStation 4 and hope they can sell enough to sustain the increased resource demands required for the console?

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Nintendo Switch.

We don't know the full details on Switch's specs yet, but rumors peg it as being less powerful in some respects than PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In any case, we can safely assume it'll definitely be less capable than the upcoming PlayStation Pro and Scorpio; Switch is said to run on an Nvidia Tegra chip, which means its architecture would be optimized toward mobile experiences rather than high-performance console games targeting upper-end personal computers. This lines up with Nintendo's design philosophy over the past decade; after experiencing diminishing returns with the top-of-the-line console power of N64 and GameCube, the company decided to step back and allow its hardware to run a generation behind the competition. By all appearances, Switch will straddle this philosophy with that of the "micro console" niche, creating a system that looks to combine the company's preferred M.O. with current trends.

Of course, this means Switch probably won't impress gamers who salivate over PC rigs capable of running new releases on "ultra" settings. But while it seems destined to disappoint hardcore types, it should be equally likely to appeal to developers and publishers who have turned to 3DS and Vita over the past five or six years and face the prospect of losing their last refuge in the console gaming space. Niche developers like Nippon Ichi, Marvelous, and Idea Factory have found some success in converting their portable games to Steam, and Square Enix has adopted a multi-platform strategy (some combination of Vita, PS3, PS4 and mobile) for games that a few years ago would have appeared exclusively on Vita. A meager, continuing trickle of new 3DS release announcements aside, it's become hard to deny the fact that the last bastions of middle-tier development those aging handhelds represent are about to go the way of dinosaurs.

That could be a saving grace for Switch. It would appear to offer pretty much everything mid-tier developers could hope for: A lower technical bar to aim for, the option to play on a small screen (potentially with a touch interface) that will be kinder to mid-grade graphics than a 65" 4K TV would be, and a mobile-like development pipeline for a system that doesn't have to be workable with only touch controls (and can work with a standard retail model rather than mobile-esque monetization). Small studios — Japanese developers in particular — have been bouncing from one lower-powered console to the next since the PlayStation 2 era closed out. If nothing else, Switch should offer them an opportunity to keep some skin in the console game without having to commit to PlayStation Pro support.

In fact, it's already begun. Koei Tecmo — incidentally, the publisher responsible for Nights of Azure — announced today that it will be bringing Nobunaga's Ambition games to Switch. Currently the company supports PS4 quite prominently (the latest Nobunaga's Ambition game, Sphere of Influence: Ascension, hit PS4 a couple of days ago), but they're somewhat unique in their preference to target PS4 first and foremost. Other companies of a similar size, such as XSEED, Aksys, and Atlus, tend to treat PS4 as a secondary platform after Vita, 3DS, or even PlayStation 3. As those platforms vanish from retail and living rooms alike, Switch may give them the modest target hardware they desperately need to keep their businesses running.

Of course, as Kat points out, Switch could be stuck in a lonely and short-lived niche if indeed it doubles down strictly on that mid-tier content. The industry desperately needs mid-grade material to keep things lively and interesting; man cannot live by generic open-world action shooters focus-tested within an inch of their life alone. But as Wii U has demonstrated, Nintendo really needs some big titles with mainstream appeal in order to ensure a long and happy life for Switch. In a perfect world, the new console will bridge the divide and offer both forms of material, blockbuster and niche alike. That was the secret of PlayStation 2's success, after all: It had something for everyone, even if it lacked the horsepower of competing systems like Xbox and GameCube. If Nintendo wants to make Switch a hit, it could do a lot worse than drawing on PS2 for inspiration.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for Vonlenska #1 Vonlenska A year ago
    I sort of hope so. I'll always prefer consoles for their ease of use and the myriad ways developers weasel around hard limits to make beautiful, stylish titles.

    I can understand why platforms like Steam make the most sense, but I miss the PS2 days when odd, unique console games were the rule rather than the exception. I already miss the Wii, even; there were numerous strange Wii gems that never really found their audience thanks to a perception of the Wii as inferior. Kind of depressing that, "Videogames Are for Everyone" was a message that offended the sensibilities of so many. At least I have an inexhaustible supply of weird DS games to look forward to.

    And, hey, we'll always have adorable Baby Nintendos.
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #2 Spectreman A year ago
    Maybe with digital-only release in USA, like some 3DS and Vita japanese games. Too bad because if was this way, because it is a niche market that appreciate physical media and those kind of game, in general, don't need post release patches, making the cartridge alone more valuable to keep.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows A year ago
    Well this would definitely be nice. I miss weird stuff.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #4 MetManMas A year ago
    My guess is that if the Nintendo Switch fails, those mid-budget and niche devs will probably bite the bullet and make PS4/Steam co-releases on a lower budget. Assuming they don't give up and sell their souls to the freemium market.
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  • Avatar for blueberryboll #5 blueberryboll A year ago
    This is what I expect and look forward to on the Switch, but I wonder what the price point of games will be. US gamers expect to pay $60 for home console games and $40 for handheld games. Wii games were $50. I think that is part of what is driving the demand on PS4 for AAA "safe buys" with value for money in the form of the best graphics, the biggest worlds, and many extensive modes.

    Will it be possible to have two price points on Switch, or will all games basically have to be $60 to support their budget (8th gen level–assets, game card cost, etc.)? If so I think mid-budget games will have a harder time, but indies should still be able to turn a profit on just download sales alone.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #6 riderkicker A year ago
    It all depends on if Nintendo is willing to make those licenses cheaper and is willing to make the Switch the Playstation of our generation, even if smartphone gaming already is.Edited October 2016 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for daverhodus #7 daverhodus A year ago
    Isn't Tegra meant to equate to a lower end gaming PC? Switch is more apt to get PC ports than Wii U and 3DS did, right?Edited October 2016 by daverhodus
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #8 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    I fear the other blocks that made up that foundation (strong retail, a non-bespoke selection of winners for a year's titles, etc) are long, long gone leaving such a hope swamped and floundering.

    The biggest cornucopias of this broad sort also always came from a true winner in the field: FAM/NES, SFC/SNES, PSX, PS2...something we've not had from soup to nuts since.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #9 link6616 A year ago
    @blueberryboll i think the switch, like the Ps1 and ds, will have a lot of variety for game price points
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #10 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    and by virtue of the Switch's features, every purchase is a cross buy so it may fill in the ps4/vita spot yet so that should add to the value
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  • Avatar for magnamaduin #11 magnamaduin A year ago
    It's official: I'm abbreviating Nintendo Switch to Nitch.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #12 WiIIyTheAntelope A year ago
    I would not mind a return of mid tier games at all. In fact I think the market needs it, the indie game lovefest appears to be over now, thanks in no small part to unscrupulous developers spamming out garbage all over Steam and having the nerve to charge $20 or more for it. And full AAA games are just too bloated and expensive for a small-medium sized team to even dream of making without signing their soul over to EA or Activision. Games somewhere in the middle could fill that disparity very nicely. Sure a mid tier game may not sell 10 million units, but 10 different games selling a million units each? Completely doable. Remember those double or triple packs of PS2 games you'd see in Walmart or target for like 10 or $15? Sure none of them won any GotY awards, but they were almost always comptently made, fun games, at a great price. And I'd be willing to bet that there was plenty of money made from them.
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  • Avatar for HandheldGuru #13 HandheldGuru A year ago
    Leave it to Parish to accurately summarize how I've felt about the NX/Switch for the last six months. I've been a handheld gamer, for almost all of my gaming life and considering I'm younger than most users here...that really isn't that long PS2 glory days the mid 00's were when I really started. It is my fear that in the Post 3DS/Vita (and to a point, the Post-Sony handheld gaming) world...where do the little guys go from there? The Vita (and to a lesser extent, the 3DS) are the last bastion of several smaller "mid-tier" developers and publishers. A few of the bigger ones, Atlus and Xseed and even some like Falcom could make it on the PS4, yet their main audience is handheld gamers especially after the last decade or so. The Switch has an opportunity to connect handheld and console, more so than the Wii U. 3rd party support is going to be key, and I think these developers matter (and will definitely make dry spells less miserable), but Nintendo needs western support to remain we shall see...we shall see...
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  • Avatar for mobichan #14 mobichan A year ago
    @SatelliteOfLove I think you have hit the nail on the head. The only way consoles manage such large libraries of experimental fare is by having an enormous install base. Once publishers see that there is a large enough critical mass on a system, they are willing to fund less mainstream ideas. The risk has always been too great in the console space to simply start out a console's life cycle with your riskiest idea. The last few gens of Nintendo were build on hardware that was marketed on the non-traditional, so those systems saw experimental ideas right out of the gate. But that was what was going to get Nintendo to back you at that time.

    On the flipside, Steam basically requires nothing up front to get your game out to an audience of millions. I think unless Nintendo gets that install base, you won't be seeing many mid-tier devs joining them. And if Nintendo doesn't make the path easier for these mid-tiers, they may still not join.Edited October 2016 by mobichan
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  • Avatar for mobichan #15 mobichan A year ago
    The more I think about it, what is "mid-tier" really? In the PS2 era, it meant a group of 10 to 30 people who worked for 18 months on specific hardware, without the advanced toolsets that exist now, like Unity. They built engines from scratch and hoped they could recycle their tech to minimize dev time on future projects. Their funding came from publishers who had enough success to bet their cash reserves on unproven ideas.

    Now, indies really do make similar levels of polish in their products to mid-tier PS2 era fare. The big difference is that they take longer because their team size is much smaller (1 to 5 people) and they use existing toolsets, which require less time be spent on the tech side of development. So what we get now is a game every 3 years that costs a little less to make but can be had for a much smaller price on the PC platform (not consoles). If you want that same developer type to get on the Switch, Nintendo needs to make the same environment for those people.
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  • Avatar for The-Mike-Staub #16 The-Mike-Staub A year ago
    I think it's safe to assume that Switch will be less powerful than PS4 and Xbox One. At the most powerful, it may be just as powerful. I think niche games need a home, though that may eventually be PC. It would be cool if Switch was the Last Bastion.
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  • Avatar for docexe #17 docexe A year ago
    In some ways this seems to me like the best case scenario if the Switch gains a good install base (which is entirely dependent on Nintendo not screwing up). Given the nature of the console, I don’t really expect Western publishers to put most of their heavy hitters on the Switch, yet I do expect the Japanese, mid-tier and indie developers that continue to support the 3DS and Vita to eventually migrate to it (once again, provided Nintendo doesn’t screw up and that the Switch sells well).

    That could potentially make an interesting alternative to the PS4 and XBOne. While I do enjoy some AAA franchises, the fact of the matter is that the segment has become increasingly stagnant and most big games these days are some combination to different degrees of Open World, 3rd person shooter and RPG all-in-one. And once again, I do enjoy many of them, but with so many playing so similarly, a change of pace is required some times.Edited 3 times. Last edited October 2016 by docexe
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