After Switch surge led by Mario and Link, Nintendo looks to maintain momentum

Nintendo's resurgence to the front of the pack in the video game industry surprised even some within the company itself.

Sure, a 2017 rebound for the gaming giant was nearly inevitable with the dog days of the disappointing Wii U coming to an end and the intriguing new Switch console going to market in March. But sales of the hybrid console/portable system shattered expectations, with 10 million units sold worldwide before the holiday season. 

By its first birthday, the Switch could surpass the total number of Wii U units sold over that system's entire inauspicious four-year run. And the sales numbers dwarf an initial forecast from gaming market research firm SuperData Research, which predicted just before its release that the Switch would sell five million units by the end of 2017.

"Like the movie business, the (video game industry) is a very difficult business to predict," Nintendo Canada general manager Pierre-Paul Trepanier said in a recent interview. 

"That being said, when we were first presented with the Switch concept and some of the key games coming for it, I think a lot of folks who have been in the industry for a while, we all kind of felt, 'Oh, we've got a winner here.'

"To which degree is it a winner? Will it sell 10 million units? Various internal bets were placed, but it has surpassed expectations overall, certainly mine."

Expectations will certainly be higher for Nintendo and the Switch heading into 2018, but maintaining its place in the video game hierarchy could prove tricky. While the new hardware started Nintendo's 2017 rise, it was blockbuster releases from its two venerable and massively successful franchises that carried the momentum.

The Switch launched with the long-awaited "Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild," and enjoyed another gargantuan tentpole release in October with "Super Mario Odyssey." As interesting as the Switch's ability to morph from console to portable on the fly may be, it's hard to imagine the system putting up those sales numbers without at least one, if not both, of those titles coming out during its first eight months.

"Having lived through four, five different platform launches going back to the GameCube we are extremely fortunate to have had both a Zelda and a Mario since launch and it's definitely helped the install base," Trepanier said. "As a publisher, salesperson, marketer and representative of Nintendo, it's a once-in-a-career kind of year."

With no core "Mario" or "Zelda" title planned for the foreseeable future, Nintendo will have to rely on its other intellectual properties and third-party titles to carry it through next year. This time, however, Nintendo has the advantage of a solid base of gamers that will be looking for new content.

"We've already announced some big third-party games like 'Wolfenstein' that are coming for core gamers, for family gamers there's a 'Kirby' game coming in the next few months, there's a 'Yoshi' game that has been hinted at, we've shown a logo for a 'Metroid Prime 4' game and not much else — but all of that suggests an amazing slate of ongoing support both from our internal studios and from third party."

Third-party support, which became an afterthought for the Wii U, is making a slow but deliberate comeback with the Switch. While hugely popular first-person shooters like "Call of Duty" may not find a home on the Switch soon, the platform has become a fertile ground for indie developers. Some triple-A publishers have also made forays onto the Switch, most notably Bethesda Softworks with its ports of "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" and "Doom."

Much like its handheld cousin the 3DS, still a strong seller in its own right, the Switch is in a position to forge a unique relationship with third-party developers who want access to the portable gaming market, as well as fans of Nintendo's intellectual properties.

"I think there are lots of models that seem to be working," Trepanier said. "Underlying all of it is the commercial appeal of having a large install base. And when you have a platform that is in the hands of kids and families then it opens up new opportunities for any game developers to access new markets.

"I think a lot of developers are seeing the Switch as a huge opportunity to reach out to what has typically been a user base of Nintendo franchises ... and introduce their IPs to the Mario fans."

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