In his 18 years with Ubisoft, Xavier Poix has seen a lot of consoles come and go. Right now the managing director of Ubisoft’s French studios is learning the ins and outs of the unreleased Nintendo Switch. With a launch date looming in the first quarter of next year, it’s more than just a technical challenge. It’s a philosophical one as well, one that could unite both casual and hardcore players.
“The biggest thing for us when we’re learning about a new console is ‘Does it change the way we play?’” Poix told Polygon during a visit to his offices outside Paris, France. “If it does not change the way we play, but it’s more power, it's more memory or stuff like this then it doesn't change a lot the way we design the game.
“But when it comes with something that really changes the way you play — for instance the Wii ... then it's a total change in the way we imagine our games. That’s why, in our case, it comes with new brands because this is the moment where you are totally creative and you want to design a game based on that new way of playing.”
For the Wii, Poix said, Nintendo’s choices allowed for a very straightforward design philosophy: translate gameplay into physical motion. Rayman Raving Rabbids, which launched in 2006 alongside the Nintendo Wii, did that with a collection of minigames that made creative use of the Wii Remote’s motion controls.
“The sentence I gave to the team was, ‘Let’s do something that Nintendo wouldn’t dare doing.’ That’s why we came up with all this crazy stuff because the Wii has no limits because of the way you can use motion controls.”
Not every gamble paid off, Poix admits. “Some of those didn't make it to become big brands,” Poix said, pointing to Red Steel, a fencing game for the Wii that many felt was both clumsy and lacking in depth. But the design philosophy for the Wii was easily understood.
Later, when his team began to learn about Wii U, Nintendo’s goals weren’t as easy to articulate.
“When it arrived, with this double screen feature, it was actually not as clear as it was for the Wii,” Poix said. “With that, it was a way of putting the gamer in a situation where he would need to, for instance, look at two screen at the same time. So we created ZombiU, which is more a game based on the fear that we can create with this device.”
ZombiU reviewed well here at Polygon and at other outlets. Currently it sits at 77 out of 100 points on Metacritic. Despite being ported to other consoles, it remains a defining game for the Wii U as a platform.
So what’s the philosophy Nintendo is showing with the Switch and how is Poix reinforcing it with his French design teams? This time around it’s all about continuity of play.
“The Switch is very clear as a premise,” Poix said. “The way it changes the way you play doesn't come necessarily with the controllers, because they were here with the Wii as well ... but in the way it is mobile.”
The Switch has been shown with a single, tablet-sized screen that connects to two controllers on either side. It can readily dock with your television, moving gameplay onto your big screen. You can also pick up the tablet and go on your way. The expectation is that the play experience will be the same, or similar, on both formats.
“The way you can play it on the bus and go home and put it on your TV immediately and come back to your room because somebody else wants to watch TV, this is very interesting,” Poix said. “Not necessarily revolutionizing the way you play, but since we are world creators that try to put the players in our universe and find ways to keep them there. It's very exciting to find ways of staying in this world.”
“I think it's a good match for our style. And I think yes, this is a good evolution because for the first time you have a console that is bringing two worlds together which is the mobile-handheld and the usual console experience.”
To Poix’s eyes, however, there is a subtle shift in who the audience of the Switch will be. Where the Wii was targeted at families and non-traditional gamers, Switch seems to be intended for two previously disparate groups: casual adult gamers and hardcore console gamers.
“We are thinking that if Nintendo’s philosophy is really to gather those two worlds,” Poix said, “if adult players and console players could be the same community, then what's the best user journey of one player that would own the Switch? Not necessarily only with the Switch mind you, but we tried to consider this in the way our upcoming games are being designed. We thought about the time needed for a play session in this game to fit the experience of a handheld.
“When you are playing a game, an adult console game or mobile game for instance, you are spending less time than you then when you are at home in front of your TV for hours. So that's something that we have in mind for the games that we are producing right now.”
Of course, Poix wouldn’t tell us precisely what it is Ubisoft have up its sleeve for the launch of the Switch. Last week rumors began to circulate that it could be another entry in Rabbids series, a crossover starring Mario himself. Reached for comment, Poix’s office dismissed the story and said it was unable to comment further.
The announcement of the Switch came just a few months ago, after both Microsoft and Sony had announced updated variants of their own consoles. The PlayStation 4 Pro brings more power to certain games and allows for 4k output, and Microsoft’s Project Scorpio is expected to offer a similar bump in performance.
Poix sees this as evidence that all three console manufacturers are changing their strategy to a more evolutionary console cycle, rather than a revolutionary one.
“I think the way the home console industry is evolving is quite interesting,” Poix said. “The main difference I'm seeing from the last generation to this new one is that the architecture has turned more into a PC architecture. No more of the PlayStation 3 being really, very specifically designed and quite hard to develop on from the start.
“For us it was a good decision for [the major consoles] to be more alike. We are going from a eight to six-year cycles, even 10-year cycles in some cases, to what we can already see is a three to four-year cycle. I think this is the way the industry is going.
“For us this is good, because as we already know how to handle these cycles on the PC. We are already facing a lot of different configurations for PC, so I guess two years from now we'll be happy to launch games that will be on the PS4, the PS4 Pro, the Scorpio, the Xbox One but with no big differences. That's interesting and that’s also, for us, a way to push ourselves into more of a very short cycle, which we try to be good at here at Ubisoft.”