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We started the year with customary hangovers and the certainty that 2020 would bring two major new gaming hardware launches to the table. Next holiday season, Microsoft and Sony will go head to head once again with Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.
Within days, however, the rumour mill seems to have homed in on a kind of consensus around yet another major hardware launch scheduled for the coming 12 months: a “Switch Pro” which will update the performance and aesthetics of Nintendo's current, all-conquering champion. In theory, this new device could update the internals of the Switch to Nvidia's latest Tegra chipset while giving the hardware itself a “premium” metal finish. It would turn the Switch line-up into a three-tier affair, from the entry-level Lite (which lacks TV docking functionality or detachable controllers) through the OG Switch in the mid-range to the new, high-end device.
Kantan Games' Serkan Toto, who is generally spot-on regarding all things Nintendo, reckons the device is definitely on the cards. He's backed up by a Digitimes report that claims the Pro will go into mass production in the middle of the year, though that publication has a rather more spotty track record on Nintendo revelations.
“Sooner or later there will be a device that looks very like the rumoured Switch Pro on the market”
Another point in favour of the Pro being real is that there was a pretty strong expectation of a device like this launching alongside the Switch Lite last year. In the event, we ended up with a slight update to the regular Switch hardware instead, but it's perfectly possible that the rumours of a major update were the result of mixed signals about an as-yet unreleased Pro device that would already have been in development at the time.
Whether Switch Pro actually hits store shelves this year or not, it's absolutely certain that something of its ilk exists within Nintendo's labs right now. As the sales of the Switch continue strongly and Nvidia's technology progresses, it's unimaginable that Nintendo wouldn't be experimenting with new Tegra chipsets and new possibilities for the platform. Sooner or later there will be a device that looks very like the rumoured Switch Pro on the market. However, the question of whether such a device coming to market in 2020 makes sense is another one entirely; strategically, this is a somewhat tricky move to justify.
Step back for a second. When a new piece of console hardware is added to a family like Switch, the key question is simple: what market problem is it going to solve? This question was easy with regard to the Switch Lite – the existing Switch was both too expensive and too delicate (due to the multiple moving parts in the removable controllers) for a lot of parents to be comfortable with as a children's device, and was also a little too heavy for a lot of kids to enjoy playing undocked.
With a major Pokémon title on the way, Switch Lite solved these problems with a cheaper, lighter, more robust version of the console. It has also been popular with plenty of people who aren't children seeking to play Pokemon (or their parents), of course, but the point remains that this was the problem to which Switch Lite posed a solution, and the solution itself was elegant and effective. As a result, the Switch Lite has done pretty well, and importantly seems to have been cumulative to the existing Switch business rather than cannibalising sales of the more expensive hardware.
“Switch Pro would be pretty much the same exact pitch as the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X”
So, what problem would a Switch Pro solve? There are a few possible answers, perhaps the most convincing of which is that the existing Switch doesn't support 4K displays and therefore doesn't look very good on a lot of people's expensive TVs. Perhaps some other “premium” features in a new Switch Pro could also solve a handful of problems – Bluetooth support for headphones would be a pretty nice addition, for example – but the key market problem solved by the Pro as it has been described thus far is simply “lack of support for 4K displays.” Pro would also presumably have a higher price point, so cannibalising sales isn't a problem.
This is, in other words, pretty much the same exact pitch as the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X – it's the same console, pitched at broadly the same market, but with specs capable of supporting better quality display hardware.
One could make the argument that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and thus there's nothing wrong with Nintendo pursuing the same strategy as its competitors. And that's fair, if we're willing to accept that Switch Pro is an effort to simply keep a minority of high-end customers engaged by giving them an upgrade path to a device that plays more nicely on a 4K television. I can see that position; it would make Switch Pro into an optional luxury for existing Switch owners and allow Nintendo to price it accordingly.
However, it's a much less compelling problem to solve than the one which Switch Lite was intended to address, simply because the Switch Lite problem was one which restricted the expansion of the market. By solving it, Nintendo opened up Switch to customers to whom it hadn't catered so far, while the Switch Pro “problem” doesn't do any such thing. Is there really a base of customers out there who would consider a Switch, if only it was a little more powerful and nominally supported 4K displays? I have no doubt that there are things Nintendo could do to its hardware to open up new markets, but a Pro version isn't it, and the market for it would be an upgrade market rather than a sideways expansion to reach new consumers.
“Is there really a base of customers who would consider a Switch, if only it was a little more powerful and supported 4K displays?”
The downside is obvious as well. Switch Pro would not be a particularly huge upgrade over the existing hardware, simply because the Tegra platform hasn't moved along all that much. It would probably manage a 15% or so speed bump at best, just about enough to support 4K on paper but certainly not something that would put the console in range even of the PS4 Pro, let alone the new devices turning up this year. That shouldn't matter – Nintendo gave up on competing on raw processing power or graphical fidelity back in the '90s, and quite rightly so – but by launching close to the new generation, comparisons between what each company is offering at their respective price points will be inevitable, and inevitably unflattering for Nintendo.
Perhaps Nintendo has considered all of this and still thinks a Switch Pro is a good idea – and perhaps it's right. The company knows its consumers, and while the existing Switch actually looks pretty damned good on a big 4K display in my experience, it may be that there's a significant enough number of consumers who would be happy to upgrade to a Pro device that supports that resolution natively in order to justify the creation of a whole new hardware iteration.
Or perhaps Switch Pro isn't really about 4K, but instead does something else we haven't heard about yet, solving some other problem we haven't considered. Nintendo is nothing if not capable of thinking laterally with its hardware revisions, after all. The basic case for Switch Pro right now, though, isn't all that convincing – which isn't to say that it isn't happening, but rather that if it is happening, it's unlikely to create a particularly big lift for Switch in 2020.
The platform and the company alike have a busy year ahead anyway – from a software release schedule (both confirmed and rumoured) that's likely to be packed with major titles through to the opening of its first theme park – so even if Switch Pro doesn't set the world on fire, Nintendo will likely enjoy a bumper year regardless. The bigger question a Switch Pro launch might pose, to which right now there's no real answer, is what it says for Nintendo's future platform plans.
It's always seemed unlikely that the company, a toy-maker at heart, would follow Sony and Microsoft into the “never-ending platform” model of regularly updated hardware, thus losing its ability to innovate in control and form factor. If Switch Pro does happen this year, we may all have to reconsider what Nintendo's future vision truly is.