Microsoft apparently took a page out of Nintendo’s “Playbook of Surprises” when it dropped what many consider to be quite the curveball: the Xbox Series S. What makes the little system notable isn’t just the fact that it’s one of two different launch systems of a new generation coming from a single company (which has never been done before to this extent), but it is noticeably weaker. We all know that Microsoft did this to offer a cheap gateway into next-gen, but the Series S might also prove to be the gateway for continued third-party support for Nintendo Switch.
I am willing to admit that this idea is far-fetched, but I also want to look at this whole scenario from the perspective of a developer. I am not a developer, but after having kept up with the industry and its workings for over five years now, you tend to learn at least a little of how studios operate.
Nintendo Switch and Xbox Series S are not all that similar, but they do now occupy a similar sphere in the industry: they’re the standouts, the oddballs—albeit for different reasons.
The S factor
Microsoft spearheaded its next-gen campaign with the unveiling of Xbox Series X in December 2019. Until just a few months ago, this was the only official new console coming from Microsoft. But much like how Nintendo Switch was a not-so-secret “secret,” the existence of Series X’s smaller companion was leaked to death. When it was finally brought to the light, Xbox Series S’s biggest selling point wasn’t just its smaller size, but also its all-digital design, low price tag, and decided lack of next-gen “oomph.”
On paper, Xbox Series S is actually a bit of a step backward. In some respects, it’s not even as powerful as the Xbox One X, which launched in 2017. Xbox One titles played on the Series S actually default to Xbox One S mode rather than Xbox One X mode, albeit while potentially “applying improved texture filtering, higher and more consistent frame rates, faster load times, and Auto HDR.” It’s a complicated situation.
Despite not being all that powerful, Microsoft touts Series S as not just a budget next-gen machine, but one capable of 120 FPS. So far, next-gen games like DiRT 5 have cast a little doubt on how Series S is supposed to play in the same ballpark as the much beefier Series X and PlayStation 5. However, as Nintendo Switch has proven, the situation is not always black and white.
As we know for a fact, Nintendo Switch is not what you’d call a power machine. It’s even more modest than the Series S, possessing abilities more than that of the Wii U, but less than that of the original Xbox One. And of course, this is all while still being a mobile device with a mobile chipset and battery. When played in handheld mode, like a laptop, Switch will reduce some of its own capabilities in order to preserve battery life. Docked mode allows it to run full force, but this is a feature that’s technically only valid for a percentage of the platform seeing that Nintendo Switch Lite is now a thing.
Having established all of this, developers have quite the conundrum on their hands. If a studio wants to create a game for every active platform, that means they’ll need to make sure their title is running on, realistically, 10 different sets of console hardware. That includes (from roughly least to most powerful) Nintendo Switch Lite, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox One S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro, Xbox One X, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X, with Xbox Series S hovering somewhere in the middle. Remember when all they had to worry about was just three home consoles?
Going by this rundown, we see that Switch is actually closest to Xbox One. Eventually, studios will say bye-bye to the Xbox One along with PlayStation 4. (It’s anyone’s guess where PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X will stand in the future.) This is where Xbox Series S comes in.
How will it be supported in the future if it’s not all that powerful? Without getting too technical, it still shares DNA with the Xbox Series X, running on the same architecture. So, while it may be as powerful as an Xbox One S, it’s modern enough to still be future-proof.
When the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X came around, developers were obligated by both Sony and Microsoft to make sure games would be compatible on both the base and premium hardware, and that obligation has stood until this day. No doubt, Microsoft has the same mandate for games coming to Xbox Series X | S. This really is the bridge that may keep the Switch connected.
Nintendo Series Switch
As long as developers are tasked with optimizing their games for Series S, from a power standpoint at the very least, the Nintendo Switch can still benefit. What has kept the Switch in the port loop up to now has been the fact that, although modest in power, it’s apparently a dream to develop for.
Nintendo did a complete 180 and actually made Switch highly compatible with a lot of modern development tools, which has allowed a wide variety of different engines and other game tools to be brought over with relative ease.
While there is still a challenge with working around its power constraints, this system has what it takes to run modern games when they’re optimized correctly. Not all of its games run like a dream, but under ideal conditions, Nintendo Switch has proven to produce some impressive results. This combined with the Series S keeping the industry having to “take care of the little guy” so to speak may very well be a convenient combination for Switch as a future platform.
Of course, developers have also been keen on tapping into the ever-growing market of Switch owners. With over 68 million units sold as of the time of writing, this is not a system that’s easily ignored. Switch owners have been supportive of many games both large and small, and that’s why support has continued. While not every game is coming to Switch, there’s been enough to keep its market share from falling. Now all that’s left is seeing how the balance of power will truly play out.
The future is weird
This generation is truly unprecedented. Technically speaking, Nintendo Switch is a 9th-gen system just like Xbox Series X | S and PlayStation 5 but is also far less powerful. The PS4 sold so well that it may very well survive for a considerable amount of time in the future (which may also potentially help out the Switch). But the Switch launched in 2017, just going-on-four years ago. It’s still young but also too old to be new.
Thus, a potential Switch replacement could happen by the end of 2021. However, that replacement may very well just be an upgrade — the mythical Switch Pro — similar to the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. That means the original Switch and Switch Lite would still be a part of the active platform, all while continuing to coexist with the likes of the other next-gen systems.
The truth is I still don’t know what quite to make of all this. All I can say is game studios have an almost comically bizarre problem on their hands from both a business and development standpoint. This is a set of factors that has never been present in this industry before, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how it all unfolds as the year goes on. What’s for certain as of right now is that every gamer around is about to witness the transition to a whole new stage of growth for the industry: uncharted territory.