Goin' Pro

The Switch Pro will force Nintendo to make tough decisions about gaming’s future

It's not entirely clear what a "Switch Pro" or "Super Switch" would be.

The majority of the speculation about Nintendo’s rumored “Switch Pro” has been around the console’s graphical capabilities.

A Switch that can output 4K Graphics while docked, even one using Nvidia DLSS, is certainly exciting for fans waiting for the next Zelda game or whatever Metroid Prime 4 will be. A stable 60 fps frame rate for that new Pokémon game would also be greatly appreciated, frankly. These are important things to ask if you’re someone who’s considering shelling at least another $300 for another console out — but there’s a bigger question that fans aren’t asking yet.

A small but significant factor in the Switch’s success story hasn’t just been the amazing games Nintendo has put out for the system, but also the redemption of Nintendo’s relationship with third party developers. Doom Eternal, Mortal Kombat, The Outer Worlds, and The Witcher 3 are just some of the great third party AAA games that received Nintendo switch ports that run natively on the console. The visual results vary wildly in many cases, but the fact publishers were willing to make the investments needed to port a game from x86 to a far weaker ARM-based system, speaks to the strength of the platform Nintendo has built.

There’s also value created for players who may have always wanted to play these big games on the go without needing a persistent internet connection, or for whom the Switch is their only gaming system, portable, or otherwise.

However, the introduction of the PS5 and the new Xbox consoles has changed the dynamics for Nintendo significantly. It’s not just that these systems provide a significant boost in power, they also represent a fundamental shift in how games will be built going forward. The Switch Platform is at a crossroads of sorts now, and the Pro would be the perfect console to show which way Nintendo chooses to go if the company wants to continue the Switch’s streak of relatively impressive third-party game support.

The issue at hand is the Switch’s storage. Specifically the 32GB of eMMC storage that the console has shipped with since day one (which can be expanded with a MicroSD card up to 2TB, if that’s your jam). Under optimal conditions, the fastest eMMC drives can hit speeds around 400MB/s. However, load time testing from Eurogamer suggests the Switch’s drive is only marginally faster than the MicroSD cards needed to expand its storage (around 100MB/s). All of this is to say: there simply isn’t a universe where Nintendo can natively support games that will be built around minimum SSD speeds of at least 2GB/s, the speed of the new Xbox consoles’ SSDs, on the current Switch.

The issue at hand is the Switch’s storage.

A handful of Sony titles, like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, are already ditching the constraints of hard drive speeds. The Medium, currently a timed exclusive on Xbox, represents the middle ground of current game development. The game can run off a hard drive on PC because, as speculated by Destructoid, the game can lean on the 8GB of DRAM and 6GB of VRAM listed in its minimum specs when it detects it’s running off a hard disc — a luxury not afforded to older consoles or the Switch.

Nintendo has a choice to make to address their storage shortcomings. The first is the most obvious: increase the speed of the Switch’s internal drive for Switch Pro. UFS 3.1 would be the best choice as it’s both very fast and works great with ARM processors. It boasts read and write speeds similar enough to the Xbox’s drive that developers will have an easier time porting next-gen caliber games to the system to run natively. UFS 3.1 storage is more expensive than eMMC, however, meaning this could force Nintendo to charge significantly more for the Pro to make up for a hit to their margins. Another downside to this option would be its expandability. Just like the PS5 and Xbox Series consoles, a UFS 3.1 Switch would only be able to play next-gen games off the internal storage. Nintendo would need to develop a new way to add space to the console, since microSD cards aren’t nearly fast enough. This would likely take the form of proprietary storage cards similar to the Xbox.

The Switch is still an extremely high-selling console.

The problem with this solution is that the Switch is still an extremely high-selling console without a refresh. Tens of millions of customers are still buying consoles and show no sign of slowing down. Only letting next-gen games run on a “Switch Pro” that isn’t technically a new generation of console would instantly cut off the vast majority of systems from next-gen only games... in the middle of a massive sales surge.

That leaves cloud-gaming as Nintendo’s only option to bring next-gen games to the Switch without needing to cut off older systems. Nintendo is currently working with Ubitus, a Taiwanese company that runs servers that other companies can use as white-label cloud machines. Ubitus is already running Hitman 3 and Control for Nintendo and more games are on the way, according to the company. Ubitus did not respond to a request for comment on this piece.

“The best thing about cloud gaming is that it breaks the ‘upgrade cycle’ of hardware generations.”

Mike Fischer, CEO of Remote Gaming PC provider Shadow, is optimistic about white label cloud gaming platforms usage in direct-to-consumer offerings. Fisher tells Input, “The best thing about cloud gaming is that it breaks the ‘upgrade cycle’ of hardware generations.” Since the burden of improvement is shifted to the cloud, as opposed to the end user, it allows superior experiences to always be delivered. Even to something as old as a Nintendo Switch, for example.

As Fischer and Shadow see it, the challenge of scaling cloud gaming to compete with native hardware is not capability, but capital. “This is a capital-intensive undertaking. The challenge is that the big-tech companies with the capital to compete don’t necessarily have the disruptive, agile mindset to break through. But the agile, disruptive startups are challenged to raise the capital necessary to finance scaling.” He’s also optimistic about Ubitus’ partnership with Nintendo going forward, and the money at Nintendo’s disposal is certainly a big reason to be optimistic that cloud games on Switch will actually improve over time — regardless of what promises are made.

Reviews for the currently available cloud editions are mixed. While input lag is reportedly fine on both Hitman and Control, there are still issues with compression artifacts that can make more intense scenes look ugly. The biggest drawback, of course, is that cloud gaming requires the console to always have an internet connection (and a fast one at that). The speed at which developers are shifting to next-gen gaming means that if someone’s only console is a Switch, the number of third-party games they can buy without needing to be on WiFi will steadily decrease over time. This would make the Switch an inherently less-portable system.

What is possible is Nintendo choosing to use both of these tools. Force older console owners to play cloud versions of games, and upgrade the Switch Pro to UFS 3.1 storage so buyers who upgrade can get the advantage of native playback on the go.

If Nintendo does choose to simply make cloud gaming their default for AAA titles, then the Switch Pro will just be a system people buy to play Nintendo games in their best form. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; their original games are selling better than ever and many people would buy the Pro just to get a glorious 4K Tom Nook on their TV. But it would mark the end of what has been somewhat of a golden era of the Switch as a “do-it-all” machine.