On March 3, 2017 Nintendo launched the Nintendo Switch in the US, Japan, and Europe. These developed markets got the hybrid console day and date because Nintendo has an official presence there. Usually, the likes of India would see the console release late at a steep price via parallel or grey imports as Nintendo is absent in such countries.

This was not the case. Cities like Mumbai and Delhi had the Nintendo Switch day and date, courtesy of enterprising parallel importers and an efficient grey market. If you knew where to look, you could have bought a Nintendo Switch even a few days before the official release date of March 3, 2017.

At launch, the Nintendo Switch was far from cheap due to limited supply. Indian gamers who wanted to buy the console were spending as much as they would for a PS4 Pro (around Rs. 38,000 in 2017).

In addition to this, games were (and still are) pricey. On an average Indian gamers were spending more for a copy of Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild than they would for a yearly entry in the long-running Call of Duty series, which is far and away the most expensive game in the country at Rs. 4,699.

An expensive console and exorbitant game prices would suggest that the Nintendo Switch would be an abject failure in a country that’s essentially PlayStation Nation. Throw in the aforementioned lack of official Nintendo support and there would be little reason for most to care. However the Nintendo Switch hasn’t just survived, it has thrived. It’s the second best-selling console in a country where Nintendo does not an official presence and an active community of users.

We’ve spoken to a host of retailers, distributors, executives as well as sources familiar with Nintendo’s plans, many of whom opted for anonymity fearing retribution, to piece together what occurred.

The Nintendo Switch Indian gamer

Advertising professional Harish Iyengaar knew he had to have a Nintendo Switch the moment he watched Nintendo’s 2016 reveal of the console. Despite owning a PS4, he cites convenience being a major factor in buying the Nintendo Switch.

“Taking it off the TV and playing on the go is next-level,” he says. “It’s perfect for long commutes in Mumbai particularly.”

Unlike the console’s early adopters in India who had to pay close to what a PS4 Pro was priced (around Rs. 38,000 in 2017), Iyengaar lucked out. Amazon India’s many promotions through that year in the country saw him spend close to US retail price. “I managed to buy one off Amazon a few months after launch, it was fairly priced at around Rs. 22,000,” he says.

Obtaining games proved to be a challenge though with him asking “friends from the US” to pick up the latest and greatest or at the worst case, make a trip to the local grey market. For him buying digitally via the Nintendo eShop is “the last resort” meant for games that have no physical release at all.

Since then Iyengaar has spent close to 200 hours in strategy role-playing game Fire Emblem: Three Houses and a similar amount of time in indie mega hit Stardew Valley as well as Pokemon. He counts it as being one of his favourite consoles ever, going to the extent of creating a local Facebook group for fans of the Nintendo Switch.

The Nintendo Switch Indian community

Iyengaar isn’t the exception. There’s a vocal Nintendo Switch community around Super Smash Bros. Ultimate too. In fact, Dreamhack Mumbai 2018 had one of the world’s first Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments. It’s an interesting addition when you consider that Nintendo doesn’t have an official presence in India.

“As an organiser I work with the the community from the ground up and not just with companies that give money to support such events,” said Dreamhack FGC Director Alex Jebailey at the time. “Because I do a lot of the Smash events in America — Nitin [Rao] reached out and asked if Smash could be a part of Dreamhack, he knows Smash isn’t popular in India because Nintendo is not here, which is weird.”

“But they said they would supply everything, just to give them a chance of having Smash and we have the space here at Dreamhack,” Jebailey continued. “So I figured I’d give it a shot. We don’t have to invest any money in it, just a little space which goes a long way.”

This kind of grass-roots initiative with community itself supplying the necessary consoles and copies of Smash is unheard of in India. Though it went a long way in cementing the game and the console in the eyes of many.

”There’s been a Smash scene in India since 2017 with Super Smash Bros. Melee, though Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch brought a lot more people in,” says Vishal Rangwani. He helped organise both Dreamhack 2018 and 2019 Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments and runs the Super Smash India community along with fellow Nintendo fan and esports organiser, Nitin Rao.

”For 2018 Nitin rented eight Nintendo Switch consoles in Bengaluru, we carried four each when we flew to Mumbai for Dreamhack that year,” he says. “He spent Rs. 25,000 for copies of Smash as well. 2019 had us spending nothing because the community brought their Switches and copies of the game complete with all characters unlocked.”

Rangwani estimates that major Indian cities have a sizeable Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fan base. He counts Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, and Delhi as locations where most of the game’s community resides. There’s even a small growing base in Bhopal and neighbouring Indore courtesy of India’s best player, Abhiroop Verma hailing from the former. “He’s the only player from Bhopal but Indore has a small growing scene because of him too,” says Rangwani.

Furthermore, it’s also indicative of Indian gamers’ preference for Nintendo’s stable of exclusives. Granted the country has a large mobile gaming audience, but Nintendo’s content has its takers even if it means buying additional hardware to experience it.

“If we talk about Indian audiences, the question is if it makes sense for someone to get a hybrid portable console, when they have a mobile phone that can achieve similar results for them,” claims Ranbeer Hora, MD at GodSpeed Games, a Nintendo Switch developer in India. “The only difference is if you are into playing those Nintendo Switch exclusive titles, then your mobile is not of much help.”

Nintendo Switch exclusives rule India

It’s this preference that many a retailer and importer has noticed. Several of them speaking to The Mako Reactor on the condition of anonymity admit that the Nintendo’s first-party line-up makes up almost 80 percent of all Nintendo Switch game sales. More importantly it revolves around a few key titles from 2017 and 2018 rather than the latest and greatest.

“From March 3, 2017 to now, Breath of the Wild has been my biggest-selling Switch game,” says a Delhi-based retailer. “Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart, and Smash do well too as do any new Pokemon game.”

Not too bad when you consider most of these games hold their price after release often selling between Rs. 3,800 and Rs. 4,200 months if not years after launch while most PS4 and Xbox One games are usually discounted a few weeks post-release. It’s indicative of an Indian audience’s capacity to pay for content at a price that’s rarely subjected to reductions. When asked if there’s a similar uptake on newer exclusives, the answer is far from optimistic.

“We didn’t bring Link’s Awakening after the initial shipment and Super Mario Maker 2 didn’t do too well either,” a Bengaluru importer of Switch games tells us. “Most of the stores I supply to can’t get enough of the older exclusives like Mario Kart and some newer games Pokemon Sword.”

What’s more is third-party Nintendo Switch game sales aren’t as robust as they are in other markets. For many a game store, there’s no point stocking up on them due to the price difference versus playing such titles on other platforms.

“The price of multi-platform games on Switch like FIFA or Mortal Kombat 11 don’t drop as much as the PS4 or Xbox One versions,” states a buyer for a large format retail chain. “Customers aren’t interested in spending more to play on Switch when it’s cheaper elsewhere.”

For it’s part though, E-xpress Interactive, India’s largest games distributor has refuted these claims. “The Nintendo Switch has become an important platform as there is always a demand,” says Allwyn D’Souza, head of corporate communications for E-xpress Interactive in an email to The Mako Reactor. “All Lego Switch titles, Mario Rabbids and FIFA 20 have done well for us.”

The second best-selling console despite poor Nintendo Switch Lite sales

While the commercial viability of third-party games on the Nintendo Switch is up for debate, what’s not is the popularity of the console itself. Its sales eclipsed the Xbox One back in October of 2019. This is despite the less that lukewarm reception towards the Nintendo Switch Lite.

“The Xbox One S sells just as well as the Nintendo Switch Lite,” a Mumbai game store owner tells us. “Consumers see it and think ‘why should I get this when I can spend a bit more on a version that works with my TV also?’”

It’s in stark contrast to similar markets Nintendo operates in such as China, Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at Niko Partners tells us. Niko Partners is a firm that tracks the China and Asia games markets extensively.

“Whilst the Nintendo Switch Lite is popular on the grey market, especially due to its lower price, we note that the OG model remains more popular overall,” says Ahmad. “Only the original model has been released officially in China so far, with plans for the Lite to officially launch later in the year.”

Nonetheless the widely accepted install base for the Nintendo Switch (launch model, Nintendo Switch Lite, and the Nintendo Switch with improved battery life) in India is between 55,000 to 60,000 units — more than the Xbox One which has been on the market three years prior to the hybrid console complete with official support from Microsoft.

“When we plan our sales forecasts for games, we pretty much assume the Nintendo Switch install base in India is bigger than the Xbox One,” a product manager at a third-party games publisher tells us.

While it’s unlikely to surpass the PS4’s 425,000 consoles sold (as of December 2019)it’s indicative of a base that could be grown if Nintendo decided to take India seriously like its efforts in China.

“The Nintendo Switch appeals to gamers in China due to its high quality games, hybrid nature and social features,” Ahmad says. “We expect the Nintendo Switch to become the market leader, overtaking the PS4 in sales, by 2022 when accounting for grey and legal sales. The majority of sales in the country are via the grey market as the Nintendo Switch only officially launched in China at the end of 2019. We note that due to a tough regulatory environment in China, as well as the impact of COVID-19, that Nintendo has only been able to have one title (New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe) officially approved for the console so far.”

So why isn’t Nintendo in India?

According to retailers in other territories around the time of the Nintendo Switch launch, it was suggested that Nintendo didn’t have any interest in markets that weren’t the US, UK, and Japan. This attitude seems to have changed.

Two sources close to Nintendo familiar with its plans have told The Mako Reactor that it does want to launch the Nintendo Switch in India but BIS regulations make it a complex, complicated endeavour. Unless that changes or Nintendo partners with a local company it’s unlikely that we’ll see the Nintendo Switch get an official Indian release.

We’ve reached out to Nintendo for comment though we did not receive a response at the time of publication.

Even if Nintendo does manage to launch the Nintendo Switch in India, it may be a case of too little too late. The console is already halfway through its lifespan and an official launch may result in a higher price tag.

At the moment you can pick up a Nintendo Switch in India between Rs. 22,000 and Rs. 25,000 via parallel or grey imports available offline or through sites like Amazon. While an official launch means after-sales support, warranty, and hopefully a consistent supply of consoles, accessories, and games, it also means you’ll be paying more for the Switch itself.

“Assuming the Switch did have an official release you can forget about the current Rs. 25,000 price range,” claims one console sub-distributor. “It’ll cost Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 7,000 extra if not more when you factor in customs, GST, and after-sales support. Game prices would be hiked too. We saw this when imports of Pokemon for 3DS came in with duties paid.”

There is always the possibility that if Nintendo decides to launch in India, it may take a totally different approach. In emerging markets like China, regional pricing for Nintendo Switch games is the norm.

“Tencent [Nintendo’s China partner] and Nintendo price games at RMB 299 in China, which works out to be around $40 (around Rs. 2,800),” says Ahmad. “This is in comparison to games costing $60 in the US. Regional pricing is key in China where most $60 games are usually sold for between $30-$40 in the country.”

Keep in mind that there is a catch. With regional pricing comes region locking.

“The Tencent Nintendo Switch games are region locked and only work on official China version consoles, to prevent players abroad from importing the Chinese version,” says Ahmad.

Nintendo Switch game development in India

Although Nintendo’s India plans for retail may be in limbo, it appears to have fared better from a development standpoint, which also borrows from its China playbook.

“Nintendo has been aiming to court Chinese independent developers directly, working with them to bring existing projects to the Switch,” says Ahmad. This is contrast to Sony’s China Hero Project that aims to fund new projects for PS4 he explained.

The company has courted Indian developers with the same intent. One of the first games to hit the Nintendo Switch from India is from GodSpeed Games. The company brought 3D platformer Almightree: The Last Dreamer over to the Nintendo Switch from PC and is working on a soon to be announced casual combat game for the console as well. Made-in-India PC games like Asura and the soon to be released Raji are slated to hit the Nintendo Switch too.

Nevertheless, Nintendo Switch development kits themselves are a rarity in this part of the world outside of big AAA outfits like Ubisoft and Rockstar Games, both of which have Indian offices.

“It is not just Nintendo, but with all the console manufacturers there is a concern on licensing development hardware to India,” Hora says. “There is a huge investment on the dev kits for the game studios. And for the console manufacturers, they have to get different certifications that can allow the hardware to be imported to India and it is a bit tricky from what I understand.”

This lack of developer kit access is probably explains why we haven’t seen a lot of games from India on the Nintendo Switch. What’s less trickier though, is developing for the Nintendo Switch as Hora and his team at GodSpeed Games found out.

“The Nintendo Switch for us appears to be the least demanding console that Nintendo has released,” he says. “The fact that Switch does not limit itself to a one console experience is an advantage. We can dock it and transmit on a TV, and can also take out from the dock and play as a handheld. The Joy-Con can be detached from the sides allowing space for multiplayer sessions. And all these shifts are instant and the transition for the user is smooth. It just works seamlessly.”

For GodSpeed Games, it’s the Nintendo Switch’s versatility in how it can be played that makes it so appealing to develop for. This extends to how it works with game engines.

“It’s not only the hardware that has helped developers, but the console’s integration with third-party engines is also an advantage for multiplatform developers,” he says. “Both Unreal and Unity engine have support for Nintendo Switch and even with a custom engine there shouldn’t be any big issues either.”

Although it works with major third-party engines, developers have to be aware of specific issues they may run into, details of which Hora explained at length in a separate interview.

The Nintendo Switch Pro and the future

If the trajectory of Microsoft and Sony this generation are any indication, Nintendo may release a souped up, more powerful version of the Nintendo Switch, a Nintendo Switch Pro if you will. Considering the current Nintendo Switch essentially is vintage 2013 mobile hardware, a bump in specifications would be welcome. It’s something analysts like Ahmad are expecting.

“We do not expect Nintendo to release a more powerful Switch this year, but could see them launching one in 2021 to take advantage of new tech,” he says. “We believe that Nintendo will adopt an iPhone-like model for the Switch family, where all software is backwards compatible across multiple devices.”

Not only would a more powerful Nintendo Switch allow for a better, more immersive experience, developers like Hora feel it would allow Nintendo to improve on the current Switch’s existing design flaws.

“I personally do feel the market will need the next version of Nintendo Switch,” he says. “There are few limitations in the current version and further improvements will be useful for the players. For example: better battery life, a slight dock redesign or a direct HDMI output with no dock, and the top priority should be to achieve 4K gaming experience and bumping up to that resolution.”

While a better-specced console is always welcome, would Nintendo be able to cater to changing consumer preferences the way Sony and Microsoft have in India and the world over? Downloadable content (DLC), season passes, and online subscriptions make up a chunk of revenue for the two platform owners with the likes of PS Plus and Xbox Game Pass seeing decent uptake even in markets like India. Nintendo has often been seen as lagging behind the competition, though that’s quickly changing.

“We are already seeing Nintendo begin to change in this space,” says Ahmad. “It now has season passes and DLC for core titles and are experimenting with subscriptions in its mobile games. Nintendo is looking to maximise the value of each user in a way that is consumer-friendly and whilst still experimenting on mobile, it is making progress on console with online, DLC and season passes.”

When Nintendo decides to capitalise on its India fortunes and how it chooses to do so, will be interesting to see. Until then however, a more than efficient grey and parallel import market seems to be more than willing to cater to the needs of Indian gamers.

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