Why the Steam Deck will never quite be a Switch killer for me

With Steam Decks finally getting into the hands of press and public alike, there’s been a lot of discourse over whether or not the Nintendo Switch is “relevant” any more. After all, the argument goes, if you have access to a more powerful device with a similar form factor — and one where your digital library won’t suddenly become useless if and when a new “generation” of hardware arrives — then why would you bother playing on a system that, by 2022 standards, has underpowered tech and, in many cases, noticeably inferior versions of games?

Well, the simple answer to that is just that some people like the Switch more than Steam. That’s a straightforward matter of preference, and there isn’t always a rational explanation for it. I speak as someone who has a pretty kick-ass gaming PC, but also someone who still buys games on Switch by preference.

Actually, that’s not quite true; I do have several rational explanations for why I prefer Switch. So let’s talk about those now.

I don’t care about frame rate and resolution

Assault Android Cactus on Switch
Assault Android Cactus, a frantic shoot ’em up, runs like a dream on Switch.

Outside of a game being literally unplayable due to poor performance — which is a seriously rare occurrence these days — I just don’t. Sorry. I know lots of people do, but I don’t. Particularly when it comes to games where technical performance simply doesn’t matter, like RPGs and visual novels. I’ve lived through pretty much the entire lifetime of gaming and still frequently play PS1 and PS2 games, so I have zero issue with games that don’t perform “well” or look “good” by modern standards.

And in instances where frame rate does matter, like shoot ’em ups, the Switch will quite happily demonstrate itself to be perfectly capable of super-slick 60fps gameplay anyway. So this simply isn’t an issue for me.

The physical factor

Nintendo Switch collection
The Davison Collection.

It’s been said time and time again, but if you’re a game collector, consoles are the way to go. Filling up your Steam library with goodies is all well and good, but it’s just not the same as having shelves full of games. And you have no option to collect physically for the Steam Deck — even if you were to connect a DVD or Blu-Ray drive to it, so few PC games get physical releases these days that collecting simply isn’t really an option.

For me, it’s simply more fun to get physical objects that you can look at and admire instead of just clicking a “buy” button to make something disappear into the depths of your Steam library. Coming home from a shop with a new game or getting a new game in the post is orders of magnitude more exciting and interesting than getting something new on Steam.

Now, granted, these days there are a lot of companies who don’t make a ton of effort with their physical releases. Manuals are no longer standard practice, for one thing, and not every publisher takes full advantage of the semi-transparent nature of Switch cases to include some delicious inner artwork. But, again speaking from my own personal perspective — which is what this piece is all about — I tend to buy a lot of games from limited-press companies. And those folks pretty much always put in the effort.

The gaming community as a whole seems to have rather mixed feelings about limited-press companies, with their critics lambasting them as creating “fear of missing out” and “artificial scarcity”. But these arguments are both kind of bollocks, because these companies are not there to provide to the entire gaming sector: they are there to specifically provide to collectors, which these days is a subset of the complete market.

Gal*Gun Switch limited edition
Limited editions make great display pieces, too.

Even if you “miss out” on a game released by a limited-press house, you can download it digitally in all but a few cases, where physical exclusives have been released with plenty of advance warning specifically for collectors to enjoy. And, by extension, there’s no “scarcity” because digital copies are infinite… with the caveat that they could be withdrawn from sale at any point, of course.

I like limited-press releases for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s the fact I simply enjoy having games as a physical object; it makes me much more likely to remember that I own them and inclined to pick them up and give them a try if I’m yet to boot them up for the first time.

Secondly, the vast majority of limited-press releases are deliberately late in comparison to their digital counterparts because they’re held back until all downloadable content and updates have been applied to the original software. That means you nab a limited-press copy of something on Switch, it will just work in 20 years’ time, whereas there’s no guarantee the downloadable version will be available any more — or if it is still available on Steam, that it will run properly on today’s hardware. And, likewise, mainstream physical releases may require patches to even be playable — looking at you, Final Fantasy XV.

Discovering new experiences in my own library

Code: Realize for Switch
One of the big reasons I returned to Code: Realize is because it was mocking me from my shelf.

This ties in with the physical aspect, because by buying those physical versions of games for Switch and thus developing some sort of connection with them, I am much more familiar with what I own and, by extension, what I might want to play at any given moment.

By contrast, browsing through my Steam library makes me think “huh, I had no idea I bought that” on pretty much a daily basis. And this can be attributed to a couple of things: Steam sales, and bundle deals. Both of these things will cause your library to become filled with stuff that you “might” play — or even stuff that you know you’ll never play — simply because those games were cheap. I have a copy of NBA 2K17 in my Steam library that I know I’m never, ever going to touch; it’s only there because it was part of a Humble monthly bundle for the brief period I was a member of that service.

Steam v Switch: Steam library
Yep, there it is, forever reminding me not to bother with bundles.

Conversely, literally everything I’ve bought on Switch is something that I either have played already, or that I am going to play. I’m someone who prefers to take on a single “big” game at once, so it might take me a while to get through my entire library — but that’s a good thing to me. Everything I’ve bought on Switch is something I picked up because I know I’m interested in playing it; I absolutely cannot say the same thing about my Steam library, because it’s rammed full of things I bought simply because they were cheap.

Cheap games, at first glance, would appear to be a good thing. Everyone likes saving money, particularly during hard times like those we’re living through right now. But under-pricing games has a more unfortunate long-term effect, which is that it devalues the hard work that developers put into these games, meaning you end up with those insufferable jackasses in Steam reviews who whinge about indie story games “feeling like a £5 game” or being a “wait for a sale” title because they didn’t take them 50+ hours to finish. Games are hard work to produce, developers deserve to get paid, and you have no obligation to buy everything.

Yes, Steam sales have been proven repeatedly to increase sales well beyond what they would normally be — but given what we’ve already talked about, where people buy things because they’re cheap and then never touch them… is that really of value to the developer in the long term? Is someone who bought a game for £1.99 and who then never plays it likely to pick up subsequent work by that developer and become a loyal customer? I suspect not.

B-but Game Pass…

You’re not going to find intriguing, weird, low-budget stuff like Physical Exorcism on Game Pass.

Game Pass can go fuck itself for the exact same reason. Yes, it might help some people discover experiences that they might not have tried otherwise, but it’s not really helping those developers out in the long term, because they’re getting a miniscule amount of money in comparison to what they would get from a full-price sale — and, moreover, the massive selection on Game Pass encourages people to “dip” in and out of things rather than commit to things over the long term. That’s not how you build a good relationship between player and developer.

Besides, what happened to all the people who were complaining about “not really owning your games” when it comes to the digital sector? You literally don’t own anything with Game Pass; the minute you stop paying up, you stop having access to those games. They’re not part of your collection; they’re just there for as long as you keep paying up. Besides not being a good way of building a relationship between player and developer, this doesn’t encourage players to value their own collection. Valuable creative works become “content” to be “consumed”. No thank you.

Peace and quiet

Steam v Switch: achievements
I just don’t care.

One big criticism of the Switch from Steam Deck advocates is that the Switch’s community and social features are lacking. There are no achievements, no communities to join, no discussion boards, not even built-in voice chat in multiplayer games. And to that, I say, with all honesty, I’m glad.

Achievements can be fun when handled well — Crackdown on Xbox 360 is still my gold standard for this — but in the vast majority of cases they’re grind-heavy nonsense that don’t add value to the game experience, and indeed often detract from it by forcing you to play in an unnatural way. On top of that, when you get people who buy, say, indie visual novels because they’re an “easy Platinum” (or Steam equivalent) one can’t help but feel that those players aren’t buying those games for the right reason. Again, it’s not a good way of forging a relationship between developer and player.

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that achievements can be used as a means of guiding the player towards more “off the beaten track” material in a particular game, and encouraging them to engage with optional parts of the game such as postgame dungeons and challenging super-bosses. This is fine to an extent, but not everyone wants to do that. Some people want to just beat a game and feel like they’ve had their money’s worth — and achievements can leave them feeling like they’ve somehow missed out on something that they might not have enjoyed anyway.

Steam v Switch: Seven Pirates H
I finished all of Seven Pirates H, including its postgame, without needing achievements to guide my way.

As for community features… have you been in a Steam Discussions page recently? I’m more than happy for the pointless arguments, yelling at developers for being “lazy”, needless aggression when responding to simple questions and outright bigotry to be left off my consoles, thanks very much.

Every time I go back and forth between playing a game on a platform with a significant online component and one which does not, I feel great relief at the sense of peace and quiet I feel in the latter instance. In that latter case, I know I can just focus on enjoying the game, knowing that I’m not going to get interrupted by people wanting to chat, scammers looking to loot my (non-existent) Team Fortress 2 inventory or simply achievements telling me that I “should” be enjoying this game in a particular way.

Why I’ll still get a Steam Deck

Steam v Switch
Somehow I doubt “Genderbend Me! Sayonara Demon Dong” is getting a console release any time soon.

I’ve been firmly in favour of Switch over Steam for this entire piece, and I would emphasise once again that this is simply my personal opinion — your own mileage may vary when it comes to absolutely everything I’ve said, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our own priorities.

I will likely still get a Steam Deck, for one crucial reason: visual novels. While the Switch is fantastic for visual novels already — and ones with a physical release, no less — there’s still an absolute ton of them that remain PC exclusives. Many of these are 18+ titles that we’ll likely never see on Switch unless Nintendo’s stance on adult content becomes even more relaxed than it already is, but there are also simply smaller-scale titles developed by individuals and companies who don’t have the budget to bring things to Switch.

The handheld form factor is ideal for visual novels. And thus, at some point when it is financially viable to do so, I will likely pick up a Steam Deck primarily to enjoy those visual novels that I can’t already get on Switch. But where the choice exists? I’ll still be enjoying most games on my Switch for quite some time to come.

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Pete Davison
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