Intelligent Design In a Flip of a Switch

The Gist

  • Nintendo harnesses the design spirit of Apple with its ingeniously crafted Switch console

  • Simple, innovative functionality means gaming can fit around your busy life

  • Settling old scores any time, any place, is a real game changer (sorry)

At WeDigital, we’re unashamed obsessives of design. Fundamentally, this is because great design improves our lives, or makes them easier. That’s a tasty biscuit we can all enjoy, right?

Experience and functionality are central to our ethos. So there’s nothing we appreciate more than an expertly designed piece of technology. Our offices would now feel incomplete without our trusty Alexa assistant. Alexa has personally seen to it that we no longer have cause to physically play music or adjust the heating/lights. Her knowing yet unseen presence is an expert piece of design engineering. She’s the product of a company who fully understood the potential to enhance in the context of the user’s life. Similarly, taking an often deceptively simple idea and making it intuitive is what has made Apple so successful.

Here’s one company without such a reputation: Nintendo. Undoubtedly, they are a business that knows its audience intuitively well. In such a cut throat industry as the games business, the fact they’re still swinging today is testament to that. It’s a space littered with the corpses of previously iconic brands. In each case, those companies were left chewing dust because they simply didn’t tap in to what its audience wanted.

Nintendo’s recent consoles have been well wide of the mark (commercially at least). Indeed, they have been failures to such an extent that the Switch, it’s latest console, may well be Nintendo’s last gasp effort to prevent it going the way of Sega, Atari et al.

Its previous device, the Wii U, attempted to haul it’s cheap, plasticky frame onto the ‘second screen’ bandwagon. But it singularly missed the point. The touchscreen controller device was unwieldy and cumbersome to hold (especially compared to the likes of an iPad). It was also unusable beyond the signal area of the mother console to which it was tethered. As a result, Nintendo were left literally selling ice cubes to the eskimos (not literally).

Meanwhile, arch rivals Sony and Microsoft were flogging state of the art central heating systems for the same price. Then putting the kettle on.

Similarly, Nintendo initially amazed with the ‘glasses free’ 3D effect of it’s handheld 3DS console. However, a popular backlash ensued when it slashed the price and released a bigger, better version of the console mere months after launch. Coupled with the fact that 3D melted the eyes of its MAIN audience (children), it was another ham-fisted attempt to usurp a wider macro audience trend.

Switching fortunes

So then, to the Switch. Nintendo’s do-or-doomsday device was something we just had to get our hands on. Now we’ve experienced it, what we have seen has blown our socks off. Truly, we mean that… the little device has blown our tiny little minds.

As is so often the case with truly innovative breakthrough technologies, its genius originates from just a simple concept. It’s one that doesn’t even sound particularly groundbreaking. It’s a tablet device with attachable controllers (called ‘Joy Cons’). That’s it. This isn’t even new; in fact things like the conceptually similar Nvidia Shield Android device have been around for over a year.

So what turns a promising idea into a phenomenon? Here, Nintendo seems to have understood exactly how to utilise the functionality that this simple premise can bring. Today’s gaming experiences are as numerous as they are varied. They’re played out front and centre in your main living room. They exist as diddy time fillers and attention occupiers, on the toilet or on the train. Or even, on the toilet in the train (more so when you’re waiting outside needing a ‘wii’ – grr!). They can be epic raging online battles between people who may not even know each other. They’re on mobile phones every bit as much as dedicated consoles, and steaming services may even be paving a gaming future with no need for hardware at all. With its latest console, Nintendo seems to have understood all this.

Because of its versatility, you can play its games in three completely separate ways. Each one ingeniously correlates to all of the above circumstances, and more. You can play it like a PS4, in TV mode. You can play it like a 3DS, in handheld mode. So… two consoles in one then? That’s just the start.

TV Mode

Drop the tablet into a system dock. Attach the two Joy Cons to a separate grip to form one traditional looking controller. Hey presto, you can cast your game onto the telly – a traditional home games console! While necessarily underpowered compared with rivals PS4 and Xbox One, the Disney-esque magic of playing Nintendo exclusive games more than counters this (it helps that it launched with the universally celebrated Zelda: Breath of the Wild).

Handheld Mode

It’s in handheld mode that things start to get interesting. It’s definitively the best handheld console hardware we’ve experienced. Though the console is small, the bright, vivid screen itself is much bigger than even the biggest 3DS model. Yet, the console never feels bulky or unwieldy. The light yet robust build means we’ve never had cause to put the console down. And here’s the thing: you’re not playing watered down mobile versions of major games. This is the full fat premium experience you’d get from a home console. We love games, and playing in this configuration for the first time was a special experience.

Tabletop Mode

Home and handheld consoles have been a thing ever since you blocked little white squares from drifting off the side of the screen with a rectangle back in the 1970s. But the Switch’s tabletop mode brings something entirely new to the, erm, table. Essentially, this mode means you can set the console on a table, detach the controllers. Et voila, an impromptu multiplayer game for monsieur ou madame, any time, anywhere.

Now, we admit to smirking at those pre-launch adverts of impossibly beautiful people playing Switch games at parties. Now we’ve played on one, we totally get what they’re saying. Playing Mario Kart two player in the pub, with the tablet on the table, and horizontally held Joy Con controllers in the hands of two inebriated fools, is riotous fun, and something that genuinely wasn’t practical and therefore possible before.

Gaming today is characterised by the ubiquitous popularity of online multiplayer. People love gaming because of its social element, yet online gaming is at its heart a solitary experience. Online play will always be at least partially abstract, since no-one is physically in the room with you. Ok, except maybe an increasingly irate significant other, who is demanding the use the TV?

With the Switch, Nintendo have disrupted this paradigm. That much is obvious right from  the moment you lift the machine from the box. In looking at the world’s fixation with online multiplayer, it asked a question that hadn’t occurred to anyone else. ‘Why do we play together?’ Nintendo are saying that rather than pretending we’re being social, let’s actually be social.

Finally, the Switch addresses Nintendo’s bit of unfinished business, the Wii U. It absolutely nails the central benefit that the Wii U had, and no one ever tried (thanks to its many spectacular design wardrobe malfunctions)… that of off-screen gaming. Here, you can play anywhere, any time, however and with whomever you like.

This new device is the product of some pretty simple looking design choices from Nintendo. Yet, these look set to revolutionise the way people look at gaming.

Conveniently, we’re running a competition to win a £250 Amazon voucher. Just as convenient, that about covers the cost of a Switch. If you’re the lucky winner, we’d suggest there’d be no better way to spend it. No pressure of course…

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