Nintendo ditched the usual playbook with Switch. E3 takes place in late spring, and new consoles usually go on sale either that fall or the subsequent one so they arrive in time for the holiday gift-giving season. Nintendo surprised everyone by releasing a three-and-a-half-minute video online showing Switch for the first time last October.
The trailer raised almost as many questions as it answered. What were the technical specs for the system? How much would it cost? What games would be available for it and when? Nintendo stayed mum, though it said Switch would be released in March — missing the holiday season last year.
Instead, the video showed the basics of how Switch can alternate between being played at home, where it can be plugged into a television through a dock, and on the go, where it functions more like a tablet with dedicated controls.
Building the Hype
The months leading up to the day when a console lands on stores’ shelves usually follow a predictable battle plan. Console makers keep up a steady drumbeat of media coverage. They dole out exclusive cover stories and behind-the-scenes tales of how the machines were created to gamer and tech publications. Their executives show up to do demonstrations on late-night talk shows, especially with the host Jimmy Fallon, an avid gamer.
Console makers will also do grass-roots marketing to get their new systems into the hands of consumers. Nintendo is a big believer in this approach, in part because the twists it introduces with its new consoles often involve how games are played rather than improvements in graphics, the forte of Microsoft and Sony.
In 2006, for example, in the months before the release of the Wii, the first console to introduce motion controllers to a mass audience, Nintendo organized house parties across the country to show how the system worked.
With Switch, Nintendo again did something different by hosting a game event in Japan less than two months before the new console went on sale to provide details about how much the system would cost ($300) and to showcase various games under development. That presentation, which was webcast, led to a sharp jump in web searches for Nintendo, as did the Switch video the company released in October.
All of the hype is designed to make a big splash on the day a new console finally goes on sale. This is also when one of the most persistent conspiracy theories about game console launches gathers steam.
If the teams at console makers have done their job by designing a compelling product and marketing it effectively, Day 1 demand for the systems is very high. Millions of die-hard gamers who are willing to take risks when buying new technology are begging console makers to take their money.
But new console supplies are rarely sufficient to match that demand. Lines form outside stores where retailers are said to be getting fresh stock. Scalpers begin reselling hard-to-find systems at huge markups on eBay. Accusations start to fly that the shortages are deliberate, an attempt to artificially create a frenzy for the sake of publicity.
The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence for it, and the shortages are not in the financial self-interest of console makers, who are after all in the business of selling as many of their systems as possible. Console makers have to decide months in advance of a launch how many systems they or their partners are going to manufacture. An overly bullish plan could easily detonate their balance sheets.
As companies start to make new boxes, manufacturing is at its most inefficient, said Robbie Bach, a former senior Microsoft executive who oversaw the introduction of the first two Xbox consoles. There may be new chips and other parts that are in short supply because they’ve never been made before.
Testing of new consoles can turn up manufacturing defects that require tens of thousands of units to be reworked. Finished units usually have to be sent from Asia on ships across the ocean because faster air shipments are too costly, Mr. Bach said.
Nintendo had a notoriously difficult time keeping up with demand for the original Wii. Demand was so high and supplies so scarce that lines formed during the second holiday season for the system. (Nintendo ultimately sold more than 100 million Wiis, one of the biggest game successes ever.)
According to a former Nintendo executive, who asked for anonymity to avoid conflict with the company, Nintendo was cautious about making new systems because its prior console, the GameCube, had not sold well.
With the March launch of Switch, Nintendo has missed peak shopping season. And while a new game in the popular Zelda series is being released for Switch at launch, a new Mario game — always a big draw for Nintendo fans — will not be available until the holidays.
“Supply and demand should be closer to being balanced,” said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.
On the other hand, the company has less competition from other game companies at the moment. Nintendo has promised to make two million Switches available for sale this month, a big number but still possibly not enough.
Year 2: The Real Test
While it may seem like a coda to the spectacle of a console’s initial launch, a new system’s second year on the market is the one that really matters. By the second holiday season, companies have hopefully ironed out most of their manufacturing issues and supplies of new consoles are better in stores.
More important, the games are better and more plentiful. It’s a truism in games that the first wave of titles is not of equal measure to those that come later, after game makers have learned how to harness the technology.
This is also the moment when game consoles move from early adopters to a bigger audience. There tends to be greater variety — more genres catering to different tastes — in Year 2. The unusual timing of Nintendo’s release of Switch may change this pacing slightly, making its first holiday season more important.
“They certainly have an independent streak,” Mr. Bach said.