The Switch still has a young and burgeoning library of AAA titles, and Nintendo has done well in securing consistent indie support every week to supplement that. Due to the large number of early adopters waiting around for more retail Switch games, some particularly savvy smaller publishers have been able to secure retail releases of their games on the platform. The problem is, due to the higher manufacturing costs for game cartridges, those retail versions can’t cost the same as digital or disk without the company taking a loss. Thus: the “Switch tax” was born.
This “Switch tax” essentially means that games cost more on the Switch. Not only are carts more expensive than disk-based media, but they also vary depending on the size of the game. Larger carts naturally cost more, and publishers have to take all of this into account when bringing their game to stores. Normally this would make sense; limited runs of smaller titles will always be more expensive than buying them digitally. However, early rumors suggested that Nintendo had a policy that required a game’s digital version to match the price of its physical version in an effort to stay in the favor of retailers. Games like Puyo Puyo Tetris and Rime seemed to corroborate this as they were $10 more digitally and physically than on other platforms. The gaming media had a field day, developers were harassed, and subreddits exploded.
And yet, the air around physical releases has largely changed since the Switch’s launch a few months ago. The rumored Nintendo policies were soon debunked. SEGA stepped out as the first publisher to lower the digital price of its game (Tetris) while also including a couple of key chains with the $40 physical version to make it more palatable. After SEGA set the standard, several other publishers quickly followed suit. Grey Box listened to fan outcry and brought the digital version of Rime down to $30 to be in line with all other platforms. To appease physical buyers (who, similar to Tetris, still had to pay $10 more) they included a code to download the full OST, a $10 value to be sold separately on the composer’s Bandcamp page. The Switch release of Cave Story+ launched for a comparably pricy $30, but Nicalis (which had also published Isaac) included a manual and mini soundtrack CD to add some extra value to the package. They also struck a deal with GameStop to throw in an exclusive keychain and pouch for their customers. Even Thomas Happ, the dev who spoke out about his frustration and struggle trying to bring Axiom Verge to the Switch, has announced that the digital version of the game will be the same price as on other platforms and the physical bundle will include a bonus soundtrack CD not found in the other versions.
These publishers have all set a precedent for how cartridge cost issues should be dealt with in the future. Now when games like Battle Chasers: Nightwar are announced at a higher physical and digital price without any bonus for the Switch version, gamers have every reason to be skeptical of the company’s intentions. By making their frustrations fully known early in the console’s lifespan, the Switch community has actually been able to move the needle in terms of what is and isn’t tolerated in the games industry. Greybox spoke candidly about how consumer feedback influenced their decision to lower Rime’s digital price and include a physical bonus. The positive ripples of this decision can already be seen throughout the community; once gamers don’t feel like they’re being taken advantage of, they can get back to being excited about the game.
So what does this mean for publishers on the Switch going forward? Well, they have a choice to make. The now-standard physical bonuses coupled with the console only being a few months old has gradually created a sort of “collector’s edition” feel for nearly every non-major physical release. Now it’s become something of a luxury to splurge and spend a few extra bucks on the retail version of Switch games, and with the Switch’s limited internal storage, more and more gamers are turning to cartridges. However, going physical doesn’t automatically spell success. Has Been Heroes joined The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ as one of the first retail indies on the platform. Unlike Isaac, however, Has Been Heroes received middling review scores and generally negative press both leading up to and after its release. As a result, not even No More Heroes’ parity price point ($20 all around) could keep it from flopping.
In the end, it’s equal parts quality of product and community relations. Just as many gamers will ignore a game because it reviews poorly as will boycott one due to unfair business practices. There’s a unique market for physical indie releases on the Switch right now, and if a team has the funds and a strong enough product (Rocket League, anyone?) they should absolutely go for it. Every physical Switch release is picked up by tons of gaming outlets and internet personalities. As long as publishers follow the standards set in these first few months their games have the chance to not only make strong sales but to make strong ties within the Switch community early on. If there was ever a time to make the plunge, it would be now.