There is a lot to love about the Nintendo Switch. From the extensive library of games, which encompasses both triple-A releases from first and third-party developers and a number of excellent indie titles, to the simple fact that this is finally a proper bonafide games console that you can take on the go with you. The Switch truly feels like a game-changer in terms of what it brings to the table.
The top reasons why people buy a Switch are:
- It’s portable
- You can play exclusive Nintendo games
- It’s great for families and friends
- Perfect for commuters and travelers
- It’s cheaper than a PS or Xbox
But there is one aspect of owning a Switch that is pretty much guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of any Switch owner, regardless of their affinity for Nintendo. We are talking of course about the infamous ‘Switch tax’. The mysterious price discrepancy that seems to exist between the Switch version of a game and its counterparts on other platforms. If this is something that you have not yet encountered, allow us to break it down for you.
What is the Switch Tax?
If you compare most multiplatform titles that are available on the Switch to their counterparts on other consoles, you will find the Switch version costs more. For example, The Witcher 3: Game of The Year Edition, which includes The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt base game along with both of its expansion packs, has come down significantly in price for most platforms but remains stubbornly at $60 for the Nintendo Switch.
Sure, The Witcher 3 along with all the downloadable content is an absolutely enormous game, and there is no shortage of content here, Switch owners are still getting a hell of a lot of game for their 60 bucks, even if they are paying more than they would if they were to play it on other platforms. But many indie developers are having a hard time explaining to their customers why their prices are higher for the Switch.
One of the most notable cases cropped up in early March 2017, when the Spanish studio Tequila Works came under fire for the pricing of its puzzler Rime. While many gamers have laid the blame squarely at the feet of publishers and developers, who Nintendo has left free to set their own prices, the ultimate fault for the discrepancy might lie closer to home.
Developing games is, as developers and publishers love to remind us, an expensive process. The difference in development costs between a small indie game and a big triple-A title is the same as the difference in production cost for a Hollywood blockbuster vs. your home movie. The biggest studio is making the biggest games and will often have hundreds and hundreds of people working simultaneously. For a big triple-A title, it is not unusual to have entire teams and departments dedicated to the work that a single person would do in an indie studio.
But given how the Switch tax seems to equally impact games regardless of who has developed them, it seems unlikely that it is tied to development costs. Developing a game for different platforms is not necessarily simple; some games are easily translated from one platform to the other, while others require extensive work and often outside help.
The Switch is very different from other consoles in the following ways:
- It is portable for one thing
- The screen has touch-screen interface
- It features HD Rumble
- Full Gyroscopic controls
- It requires more optimization for games to run smoothly on its hardware.
However, even if the developer were to add touch features into a game that currently did not support them, as with The Witcher 3, this isn’t a significant enough undertaking to justify an enormous price hike.
The costs of developing a title or porting it from an existing platform onto the Nintendo Switch might require a reasonable financial investment, and could even justify charging a little bit more for some Switch games. However, the Switch tax is something that we see across the board, irrespective of the underlying development process. It, therefore, seems unlikely that the ultimate reason for the Switch tax is development costs.
It is here, away from the actual development process, that we find our culprit.
While they are not usually anywhere near as high as the costs of developing a game, there are still costs associated with manufacturing and distributing games. Once the game has been coded and completed and is ready to be released, it then needs to be printed onto thousands, even millions, of Blu-ray discs for most consoles.
But the Switch does not utilize Blu-ray discs – it utilizes cartridges instead, and it is here that we find the primary culprit for the Switch tax. It is often said that Nintendo is its own worst enemy. This would seem to be another case of Nintendo doing things a little differently, but not necessarily doing them better.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any merits to printing games on cartridges as opposed to disks; you need only look at Sony’s brief foray into the mobile market with the PS Vita and the short-lived UMD format Sony devised for the platform, to see the folly of trying to invent a new storage system. However, whatever advantages cartridges might offer, they are more expensive to produce.
Not only is it cheaper to put a game on a disc compared to a cartridge, but there are a number of other factors that will widen the price differential between the two. For example, developers who buy their cartridges in bulk and do larger print runs will receive bulk order discounts that are available to small developers who can’t realistically expect to sell as many units.
The issue is further complicated by the availability of different sizes of game cartridge ranging from just a couple of gigabytes all the way up to 32GB cartridges. Because the Switch doesn’t support full high-definition or 4K graphics like other consoles, developers do not need to store massive high-resolution textures on cartridges. As a result, even a massive game like The Witcher 3 game of the year edition can fit onto a 32GB cartridge.
If this kind of thing fascinates you, and if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t just want to play the games but wants to know how it all works, you should consider studying a computer science degree online. A computer science degree won’t teach you how to develop videogames, but it will give you a much better understanding of the consoles themselves and the theory that underpins their development.
Once you couple the above observations with Nintendo’s policy of ensuring price parity between their eShop and physical retail outlets, the source of the Switch tax becomes clear. Note that while you might pay a little bit more for most Switch games, the Switch console itself is an absolute steal. However, it is worth being aware of the price discrepancy and why it is there.
This post was written by Mike Scorpio