My Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch (KPCB Product Fellows Prompt)

Prompt: Tell Us About a Product You Love

Describe, in a blog post or video, the last product you used that took your breath away. Please explain what the product is, why you loved it, and any broader analysis or information you think is relevant.

The product that most recently took my breath away did so three times.

The Nintendo Switch is the latest video game console from Nintendo, and much of the excitement surrounding it revolves around its most innovative feature: the ability to alternate between home and portable modes. The console can be “docked” and played in conjunction with a TV and standard controller, same as any other home console. However, the tablet-like device can be removed from the dock without loss of power, connected to attachable “Joy-Con” controllers, and played on the go. In developing the Switch, Nintendo clearly tapped into their unique expertise around both home and portable consoles, the growing market trend of smartphone “grab-and-go” gaming, and the lessons learned from the success of the Wii and failure of the Wii U. That last point is significant – it’s easy to try to emulate past success, but much harder to learn from past mistakes.

When it was formally announced, I remember letting out an audible “whoa” as the launch trailer played. This was a device unlike any before it, yet at the same time seemed so perfectly “Nintendo”. The company has always pursued a fairly aggressive blue ocean strategy, and the Switch was no exception. Nonetheless, I was impressed at Nintendo’s continued risk-taking given their recent troubles around stock price and management. I wondered just how much they had learned from their previous failures – would third-party developers come on board, how were they going to reinvent decades-old intellectual property, and would the console prove to be as popular as Nintendo clearly needed it to be?

From a business perspective, it appeared to me that Nintendo not only addressed each of the above questions, but that they did so in a way that was on-brand and well-received by the gaming community. The Switch sold so well that it was hard to find one in retail stores for some time.

Eventually, however, I was able to get my hands on one, and so came the second the Switch took my breath away. After the initial excitement of unboxing and setup, I started to play around with the device and see if it was as good as people were saying. The short answer is that it absolutely was, especially when I had to head off to class and realized I could seamlessly keep my experience going while taking public transit to school.

Despite using an entirely new control scheme (a recurring trend in Nintendo consoles), the Switch felt intuitive to operate. The hardware was lightweight, the screen was gorgeous, and the transition from TV to portable mode and back was effortless. The games library at launch was also impressive; I would later learn that one of Nintendo’s priorities was to foster a stronger development community than it had in the past, by ensuring that popular frameworks like Unity and Unreal Engine 4 were optimized for the Switch. It seemed to me that Nintendo had thought of every detail: from the layout of the controllers to child-proofing the tiny game cartridges (they taste terrible, according to…uhhh…a friend), from the Nvidia Tegra processor to the industry-standard USB-C charging port, from the high-definition screen to the angle of the kickstand on the back.

So, first, there was hype. Then, there was the excitement of interacting with such a well-designed device. But it was the third “breath-taking moment” that brought me the most joy.

My wife’s youngest sister, who I’ll call Liv, has Down’s Syndrome. She’s able to speak in basic sentences – though she mumbles, loves to play, and is one of the happiest people I know. However, she doesn’t have the best hand-eye coordination, and her reflexes are noticeably delayed. Despite this, when she visits us, one of her favorite thing to do is to play games on my iPhone (often with my help). It’s challenging sometimes to find games that are both entertaining and not too dependent on timing or skill.

On her most recent visit, however, it occurred to me that one of the games I owned for the Switch – Mario Kart 8 – had a “two-player” mode. All you had to do was turn the two “Joy-Con” controllers horizontal and voila! A two-piece controller for one player became two single controllers for two. This layout allowed Liv and I to start playing together immediately, and even when we were competing against each other, an in-game feature allowed her to follow the course and complete the race. When I saw the huge grin on Liv’s face as she drove her kart successfully across the finish line without any assistance from me, I realized how just powerful the Switch truly was, and the incredible job Nintendo had done designing a device that enabled this moment.

Nintendo doesn’t sell video games. They don’t even really sell consoles. What Nintendo is selling are experiences, ones that can just as equally empower individuals as it can bring families and friends closer together. In my mind, the Switch is a new benchmark for product design. It is powerful hardware coupled with beautiful software. It is traditional and modern at the same time.

But, most importantly, it’s fun.