‘Convergence’ is a word that has often been mentioned when it comes to consumer tech, and we’ve seen firsthand how it can manifest itself; the smartphone that many of you will be reading these words on right now is a wonder of convergence, as it has made the camera, PDA, MP3 player and (for some people) portable games console obsolete.
We’re seeing convergence in other pieces of tech, too. Your PlayStation 4 is perfectly happy to stream music and play movies over the web, while many modern smart TVs now come with the same kind of functionality, as well as the ability to play (admittedly crude) games. Amid all of this activity and duplication of function (we’ve lost count how many devices we have plugged into the TV which are capable of running Netflix – something the TV can do natively anyway), there’s one device which has remained steadfastly committed to its primary reason for existing, and that’s the Nintendo Switch.
Two years ago, the notion of releasing a games console that was focused solely on playing games might have seemed foolhardy; home consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One (particularly the latter) were pitched as being all-in-one solutions to your entertainment needs; the Xbox One, for example, was a device that not only played Gears of War but could also record sports and handle your video calls.
Nintendo took the opposite route and, by and large, has stuck to that strategy ever since. Switch is a gaming platform first and foremost, and we’ve only just gotten YouTube on it. Despite the system’s suitability for hosting apps like Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Instant Video, none of these services are available as yet – which strikes us as something of a missed opportunity, despite the fact that it would add yet another Netflix-ready piece of tech to many homes.
Now, don’t get us wrong; Nintendo’s commitment to gaming is admirable. It hasn’t allowed its focus to be distracted by media functionality that – as we’ve already touched upon – most people will already have access to via several other devices in their home. However, when you look at how other companies are slowly but surely encroaching on the gaming space, it could be time for Nintendo to open the door to such media-streaming applications to stay one step ahead and make Switch an even bigger success – or at least make it an even more essential part of the lives of the people who own it.
What has brought this into sharp relief for us here at Nintendo Life is the timely arrival of a promotional Amazon Fire TV 4K stick, complete with a gaming controller. Why, you may ask, is Amazon sending devices like this to a gaming site? Simple: the company has recently collaborated with Sega to launch a special bundle of classic games on the Fire TV platform. This digital selection features a host of Mega Drive / Genesis games, many of which are also available on the Mega Drive Classics collection, which recently launched on Switch.
Now, we’re not going to sing the praises of the Fire TV platform here; suffice to say, it’s a likeable and affordable means of gaining access to streaming apps like Netflix, as well as Amazon’s own enviable library of digital content. It also handles 4K and HDR video will ease. What really interested us is the fact that for such a high-profile attempt at winning over gamers, this promising hook-up with Sega is frustratingly wide of the mark.
The emulation of these titles – many of which are approaching 30 years in age – leaves something to be desired, with audio suffering the most. Believe us, we know when the sound on Alien Storm isn’t quite right, as we spent much of our childhood playing it (alongside regular trips to the Mushroom Kingdom, of course). The connection between the Fire TV stick and the Amazon-supplied (but by no means compulsory) SteelSeries Bluetooth controller is also rather sluggish and laggy, which contributes to the general feeling of disappointment. It’s possible to play the games using the bundled Fire TV Remote held sideways, Wii Remote-style, but the directional pad is hopeless and the buttons are arranged in an odd manner. All in all, the Fire TV Stick does a pretty underwhelming job of selling itself as a games console.
Now, if you buy a Fire TV Stick primarily for media consumption and you happen to find this selection of Sega classic sitting there, you’ll no doubt consider this to be a nice little bonus. However, the execution is so poor that it serves as a timely reminder of just how vital it is to have ‘dedicated’ games consoles which don’t try to cover every single possible base. Play Alien Storm on the Fire TV and then play the same game on Switch, and the difference is like night and day (at least to those who know the game inside-out).
“Wait a second,” we hear you cry. “You just said that Nintendo should start adding streaming services to Switch – isn’t that contradicting what you’re saying?” A fair point, but allow us to explain. The fact that Amazon is shoe-horning in gaming on its Fire TV platform shows that the company (which, lest we forget, has invested in gaming in the past) is eyeing the interactive entertainment sector as another possible revenue stream. Sure, its attempts have been lacklustre up until now, but if video game streaming takes off – as many feel it will – then Amazon, with its amazing cloud infrastructure, will be ideally placed to capitalise.
If you believe that cloud gaming is the future – and there are plenty of people who don’t, we should point out – then you could argue that Nintendo has a very small window of opportunity with consoles like Switch. Amazon’s fumbled attempts now may fail, but the company’s endgame is surely to be to unite all forms of media under a single device – and it has the resource and technology to do it, even if it takes many years to get the formula right.
Say that future is the one that comes to pass, Nintendo still has a chance to fight back – and what better way of doing that than making Switch ‘input one’ for millions of families all over the world? Consider this; by the end of 2019 Switch could potentially be installed under the TV sets of well over 40 million homes. Every single day, those same families are diligently docking their Switch consoles before using another system to access services like Netflix and Spotify. What if those services were already on Switch – there would be no need to shift your focus elsewhere; the other big benefit is Switch’s portability, which means you could download the movie or TV series you’re watching (MicroSD card permitting, of course) and take it on the road, making the most of that roomy screen. And – yes! – you can still play games on it. Talk about ticking all of the boxes, right?
For some, this might seem like a rather clumsy line of thought; if Nintendo has succeeded by embracing gaming, why should it muddy the waters by positioning the Switch as a media device, especially when (as we’ve established) there are so many other devices out there that already offer the same functionality? In short, it’s because Switch has done the hard part – it has sold itself to the masses and its commercial success is all but assured. Now, Nintendo can focus on building the console’s usefulness to the average user by adding in value that ties them to the Switch concept even more rigidly – something that is going to be of vital importance if the company really does want to turn Switch into an ‘iPad’ style product which has a prolonged lifespan.
We’re clearly at a rather confusing place as far as consumer tech is concerned; a time when a stick designed to stream video and music to your TV can masquerade as a games console. Nintendo would have good reason to feel threatened by such a situation, but the opposite is perhaps true; the company has the most talked-about gaming system on the planet, and one that works both on your TV and out of the house. If there’s ever a device that could become your go-to entertainment system, it’s Switch – now we just need the apps to see if that is really the case.