Ever since the Wii, Nintendo has pursued a fundamentally different hardware strategy than Sony or Microsoft. Where both of those companies focused on improving graphics and technical capabilities, Nintendo has often targeted lower price points or emphasized different aspects of their devices. This worked extremely well for the Wii and Switch, remarkably poorly for the Wii U, and eventually allowed the 3DS to take its place as a successful handheld system whose 3D capabilities were mostly ignored.
All in all, it’s not a terrible record. But it comes at a cost. Nintendo consoles rarely have cutting-edge games from other franchises, which can make it difficult for gamers on a budget who might like to enjoy some of the same games MS and Sony players have, while still playing franchises like Zelda and Mario.
One potential solution to this problem is game streaming — and it has the potential to revolutionize the Switch. To date, game streaming hasn’t been a particularly popular way of experiencing online games, for multiple reasons. Gamers may not have had access to the internet speeds they needed to make the feature work well, services may not have been particularly mature, the companies offering the service often were smaller or niche players in the game industry, and on mainstream consoles and gaming PCs, there’s the inconvenient fact that you can get better performance and higher-quality graphics by installing software locally. As for the niche systems, they were cheap but also limited, or tied to operating systems like Android, which isn’t exactly known for being a great gaming OS. Sony’s PlayStation Now is probably the highest-profile gaming service, but it’s not clear how many subscribers the service has. Game streaming, generally speaking, has not taken the market by storm.
But game streaming on the Switch sounds like it could be amazing for a host of reasons. The console already has a strong first-party library and a proven developer, with a second set of titles that can’t run on it but that players might want to enjoy. Assuming you’re willing to put a foot in both camps, you aren’t betting the utility of your gaming device solely on the quality of whatever Wi-Fi you might be using. And Nintendo is apparently exploring the idea — but for now, it’s only in Japan.
During the last Nintendo Direct stream in Japan, Nintendo announced that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would be available for Switch, but only in that country. It’s not the first time a game has come to streaming for Switch; earlier this year Capcom partnered with the Taiwanese company UbitusGameCloud to provide Resident Evil 7. For $ 20, players could stream the game for six months, via a 45MB client. The price and time frame might not work for American customers; six months is a great rental period, but $ 20 is a lot to pay. But pricing models and availability can, of course, be tweaked.
Stable game-streaming solutions that let the Switch play games that normally require far more console hardware could be a killer feature for Nintendo if the service worked robustly and pricing was right. Given the company’s generally poor online execution it’s hard to imagine such a capability becoming a major selling point. Nintendo’s current best idea is that you should lose access to your cloud saves once you stop subscribing to its services. That’s not exactly a great way to boost confidence that you’ve finally “gotten” online play.
But it’s not hard to see how this could play out — imagine a 2019 or 2020 Switch refresh with an integrated LTE or even 5G modem, superior overall power consumption and performance, faster Wi-Fi, and a game-streaming service that serves up experiences you used to have to pay Sony and Microsoft to have. Done right, those upgrades could kick off another Switch buying frenzy, given that they’d effectively open the console to new game franchises that have made only sporadic appearances over the past decade.
The console is still a personal no. I’m never buying a device that requires me to subscribe to an online service to back up my data, and that’s before we get to the part where Nintendo apparently erases your saves if you stop subscribing. But if that’s not a problem for you, a move like this could make the Switch even more enticing.