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What the game industry thinks of Nintendo’s Switch

Developers and executives discuss the hybrid system.

Scarlett Karsidi

Four days from today, Nintendo's latest console will go on sale.

A little over four years since the launch of Wii U, a little over four months since Nintendo announced Switch, and to many, the system seems like a breath of fresh air — a game console Transformer full of potential with a steady stream of software to back it up.

To some, though, the system seems incomplete. From early reports of controllers that don't properly sync to a limited launch lineup, a lack of non-game apps like Netflix, a missing Virtual Console library and lingering questions about the online service, there's a simplicity to Switch's launch that recalls the '90s — Zelda is Mario 64, and if you don't want that or a few other games, you might not need the system right away.

In time, Nintendo will address those issues. Yet more than most consoles, Switch remains a bit of a mystery at launch. Are motion controls going to be a big part of it? What type of player will Switch developers cater to? And will third-party studios embrace the hardware once the initial hype dies down?

In an attempt to wrap our heads around it, we recently reached out to a group of developers and industry veterans to get a sense of where those in the game business see it going.

Scarlett Karsidi

Have it your way

When Nintendo revealed Switch in late 2016, it pitched the system as something you can play on a TV at home or take with you and share with friends. Then in January, the company took a deeper dive into the hardware, noting that the screen will have multitouch functionality and every pair of Joy-Con controllers will include motion capabilities, a capture button, a near-field communication reader, advanced rumble and an infrared pointer.

Essentially, Nintendo designed a customizable system with options to play in multiple configurations with multiple control schemes. And on first impression, those we talked to were excited about the various bells and whistles. Mostly.

Douglas Wilson
(Co-owner, Die Gute Fabrik, not currently working on Switch)

My first reaction was one of dread because I'm currently writing a scholarly book about motion control play, and it was just like, "Oh no, this changes the whole narrative. I need to update the book." … [Nintendo making motion control games again] took me by surprise, right? Because in my head there was this notion of motion control being kind of dead in the game industry. And I felt like Microsoft unbundling the Kinect, however many years ago that was, was this kind of nail in the coffin. … So it was like out of nowhere, Nintendo was like, "JK, we're really all again about physical play.” …

[But] to me there's some mixed messaging there. Like beyond 1-2-Switch, is this gonna be a further trend for the system, this kind of look-at-each-other gameplay?

Omar Cornut
(Co-founder, Lizardcube, programming Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on Switch)

For me the big thing was local multiplayer. I love the spirit, and the console shipping with two Joy-Con, as well as being portable, makes it a strong contender to be the queen of local multiplayer consoles.

Yoshinori Ono
(Series producer, Street Fighter, overseeing Ultra Street Fighter 2 on Switch)

When Nintendo gave us a presentation on the Joy-Con that attached to the side, showing that you can remove and play on small controllers like with the NES and SNES, I remember thinking, "Oh! If it looks like this, we can create an environment where players can casually enjoy fighting games [anywhere]."

Mobeen Fikree
(Owner, Vertex Pop, designing and programming Graceful Explosion Machine on Switch)

The one thing we were really intrigued by is the HD Rumble. … Generally rumble has been a very low fidelity output device. It kind of rumbles or it doesn't, and you don't have a lot of control over how it feels. And you also don't have a lot of control over directionality. But with HD Rumble, you can make something come out of the left motor but not the right one — you know, the left side of the device can rumble but not the right. … It's kind of like surround sound.

Goichi Suda
(CEO, Grasshopper Manufacture, directing untitled Switch game)

I've worked with Nintendo on lots of different projects, and I think most of the time Nintendo does a good job of challenging developers with new ideas. … That's kind of the essence of game design. So this time, I feel like Switch is new and offers something really interesting. … Being able to go from a handheld to a console hooked up to your TV is pretty cool and revolutionary. For example, a game like The Silver Case [an adventure game Suda is working on, which has not been announced for Switch] would be perfect because that’s something where the story makes you want to keep going and take it with you.

Takashi Iizuka
(VP of product development, Sega of America, overseeing Sonic Mania and Sonic 2017 on Switch)

When I first heard about [Switch back when it went by the codename NX], I felt there was a lot of appeal in being able to enjoy a console gaming experience whenever and wherever you wanted. … [In the future] I'd like to see them further expand on the diversity of the hardware by maybe making a smaller, more shock-resistant version for younger gamers, a supercharged docking station for additional performance or even a larger size screen version of the Switch that would all be compatible with the same software.

Christian Svensson
(Chief Operating Officer, Sixfoot, publishing Rime on Switch)

[If I was to give Nintendo advice I'd recommend they] play up the portability. I know they're trying to do the dual-purpose message, and I think that's good for a certain audience. The core audience that they need to penetrate first, I think, will find it an amazing portable experience. The comparisons on the home side are a little more challenging.

Greg Wohlwend
(Artist/designer, Tumbleseed on Switch)

I don't really think of the Switch as a handheld console. It's a high-end console, full stop. It's the console I've wanted for 10 years. Nintendo is listening to the needs and lifestyle of its players and making a new console we all want. I'll probably spend just as much, if not more, time with it on the couch playing Zelda, Mario and TumbleSeed as I would on a long train ride or in bed. It's not the DS or the Vita or anything like that. It's a fully featured, modern console you can throw in your backpack. Laptops were once thought of as lesser to standard computers or impractically heavy, etc. Now they're just computers.

Scarlett Karsidi

The return of motion controls

At Nintendo's January Switch press conference, one of the biggest surprises was the company's announcement of a pair of motion controlled games. Nintendo kicked off the conference by demonstrating 1-2-Switch, a minigame collection where two players each hold a Joy-Con controller and look at each other rather than the screen. Using audio and rumble cues, they face off with one another in challenges such as a Western quick-draw shootout.

Following 1-2-Switch, Nintendo revealed Arms, an arena fighting game where the player holds a Joy-Con in each hand and punches at the screen like a boxer.

Put together, the two games opened up questions about whether Nintendo and third parties will try or be able to revive the motion control success of the Wii, and what sorts of other face-to-face games might be possible with the Joy-Con — especially as much of the industry has shifted its physical control ideas to more precise virtual and augmented reality games. So we asked Douglas Wilson, designer of past face-to-face games including fan favorite Johann Sebastian Joust, to analyze Nintendo's approach.

Douglas Wilson
(Co-owner, Die Gute Fabrik)

You know, people mention Joust [in conjunction with 1-2-Switch], and certainly this "look at each other, not the screen" was kind of a tagline that me and my colleagues used for awhile. But what it actually really reminds me of is this failed project that I worked on for a number of years. …

In 2009, some colleagues of mine in Copenhagen, we had done this weird, artsy, no-graphics, erotic sex rhythm game called Dark Room Sex Game, which was like no graphics, rumble and sound, look at each other, you have an orgasm. There was all this stuff where looking at each other was deliberately awkward, and confronting that was kind of the fun of the piece. But then we were like, "This is really interesting, looking at each other [while] playing video games. Let's do something more with that." And you know, of course we're used to looking at each other when we're playing sports and board games. But there's something about subverting that context of video games and having sound and rumble and lights and all that kind of stuff.

So we worked on a wizard dueling game for the Wii. It was actually running on a Wii for a long time. … It went through a bunch of iterations, and the idea was sort of Harry Potter-style. You were going to gesture or move the controller in a certain way, looking at each other, and play this kind of psychological game, almost like a fighting game, and then one player would win. And that was really problematic for a lot of reasons, or at least we never fully cracked it. …

I both think the Switch maybe solves a few of the issues that we ran into, but I think it kind of doesn't. I mean, I haven't put my hands on the hardware, so the real answer is I don't know. I'm just pontificating. But there are a few red flags I see when I see the website and the videos. … If they're interested in face-to-face play, I think the Switch is sorely lacking the LED light of the Move controller … With just one giant pixel, you can signal all this stuff like, "Are they in or are they out?" Warning them when they're close. What team they're on. Some of the power-ups I did in some of the weirder JS Joust modes.

One of the problems we had with this wizard dueling game prototype was … players didn't really know whether to look at the screen or each other. We wanted the players to look at each other, but we were trying to make this deep fighting game that was also accessible, which I think was a kind of having your cake and eating it too, which just didn't make sense. But we would have visuals on the screen to show your health bar and some other stuff. And so it was awkward — players would kind of gesture, and they would kind of look at the screen, and they would kind of look at each other, and it was just a bad mix. We didn't go all in, and we couldn't really, because we were trying to make too complicated of a game.

And stuff like rumble feedback, if you start designing with this stuff [in face-to-face games], you realize really quickly it's quite limited. In the heat of the moment, if you're playing an action game, it's very hard to interpret different patterns of rumble. Basically, you can be like, "Rumble a lot when you're hit." That's essentially the limit you can do. So stuff like HD Rumble, it'll be really interesting to feel … I think it'll be fun for some of the slower games, so maybe that safe cracking game, or the guess the ice cubes or balls or whatever it is. But I think, for real-time play, it's probably limited. …

Another thing was, so you're supposed to be this fictional wizard and you're supposed to be having a spell battle, but there are no spells between you and the player in physical space. So it's all this metaphor, this fantasy thing, but you're not really rendering a lot of the fantasy stuff. And that's why you want to look at the screen to see the spell or what happened. The reason I bring this up is … I'm on the 1-2-Switch site where they have videos for five of the games. The one that stood out to me, although this is probably true of Milk as well, was Samurai Training. If you look at their video for Samurai Training, they render stuff on top of the video to make it legible. So they draw this white sword when the players are playing with the Switch. And notice Milk does this with the udders that you're pulling … To me that's an immediate [red flag]. Having made one of these failed games, was like, "Oh no." Because that's a sign that there's something not legible that you really want legible. …

I think the reason 1-2-Switch might kind of get away with it is because they're minigames. You play it for a second. It's over. You see the result. You go on to the next one. Whereas what we were trying to do was supposed to be a longer fighting game, and that was totally impossible. So maybe as a series of one-off jokey minigames, it's fine, but certainly the big thing I noted was those videos of them struggling [with] what's going to be legible. The fact that they felt pressure to explicitly put the fictional world overlaid on the real world. …

Clearly, I like the idea and it's really interesting to see Nintendo doing it. It also, though … I'm no great businessman, but I do kind of agree with everyone who's saying, "Why isn't this a pack-in?" And that's … So it's weird. They lead the whole press conference with this game, right, which is interesting because it's really positioning face-to-face gameplay as at least one of the major facets of this new console. But unlike Wii U, they're not [saying] "everyone has to have this experience." So it really seems that the real heart of this console is mobile play, local multiplayer, or co-op, or play it on an airplane, bring it to a friend's place, bring it to the park. So the 1-2-Switch thing, it almost feels like Nintendo's only half in on the face-to-face play, but really that's just one version of what their real goal is, which is playing it on the go. …

But then I guess the question is, will their first- and second-party games really push the local multiplayer, travel with it wherever [idea]? And I guess that's why I'm surprised they didn't lead with a weird co-op Pokemon or a Smash Bros. or something. Because that seems like it would have really sold this idea of play with people wherever.

Scarlett Karsidi

The target audience

Ask Nintendo what players it targets, and it will reliably say it makes games for everyone. It's a broad statement that covers the company’s tracks whether it wants to release a fantasy space role-playing epic like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 or a mainstream picnic experiment like 1-2-Switch.

But there are degrees to which any game lineup will skew to a player's tastes. And for those wondering whether Switch’s games will appeal to them long term, it can sometimes feel like searching for meaning in a random assortment of titles.

A recent Wired article interpreted Nintendo's initial Switch lineup as directly targeting Nintendo loyalists, with the title, "Nintendo Switch ain't for mom and pop — it's for die-hard fans.” Though as the article points out, 1-2-Switch is an outlier in that theory. Conceptually, 1-2-Switch is more of an attempt to reach a mainstream crowd than anything Nintendo released on Wii U.

So we asked our panel how they see the Switch audience shaking out.

Christian Svensson
(Chief Operating Officer, Sixfoot, publishing Rime on Switch)

The Wii U audience never hit the broad market that, for example, the Wii did. And I think that the Switch has the ability to recapture some of the Wii magic in a couple of different ways. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's a 2-in-1 system. The fact that it is trying to be a portable and a home console all in one package — first of all, it's an easy sell from a value for money family purchase standpoint. You know, I just think that if you looked at it only as a portable system, it's probably the best portable that has ever been. And if you look at it as a home system, it's capable, is probably the best way I'd put it. In that regard, I think the adoption is going to be broader than the Wii U was.

Omar Cornut
(Co-founder, Lizardcube, programming Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on Switch)

Well, it's certainly not a Kawashima/Nintendogs sort of lineup but I don't think it is particularly hardcore either. I mean, Just Dance is a launch title and it has a very wide appeal. And Snipperclips looks amazing and super accessible. With the motion controls and easy-to-use controllers … Switch is technically equipped to do many of the things that Wii could do. So that could evolve. Nintendo could have a super casual Christmas lineup if they wanted to. I'm just waiting for the next iteration of WarioWare! As a player I really hope developers will embrace the Joy-Con and do fun, simple things with them. Maybe our next game?

Gabby DaRienzo
(Artist/visual designer working on Graceful Explosion Machine for Switch)

It's really interesting. The majority of the marketing I've seen from Nintendo [hasn't had any] kids in it. All adults. I think that's a really interesting thing. I don't know if that [will affect] what kinds of games come to it, but it is interesting that they're doing that.

Mobeen Fikree
(Owner, Vertex Pop, designing and programming Graceful Explosion Machine on Switch)

I think Nintendo is still Nintendo. It's not that they go after the younger market or whatever. It's just that they naturally make games that appeal to all ages. So even if they tried [to market themselves toward a specific demographic], their games would still fundamentally appeal to this wide audience. And their playful nature, both in the hardware and the games they make, just simplicity, means it appeals to a lot of people.

Gabby DaRienzo
(Artist/visual designer working on Graceful Explosion Machine for Switch)

I think it's such a versatile concept … this is not new; you were able to before, with the Wii U, play games on your television and take the controller with you, somewhere within a 20-foot radius within your house. So it's not like the idea of going from television to mobile is a new idea, but I think it definitely — being able to take it to a completely new location like they showed it in the commercials, like on an airplane, or taking it to a party across the loft where you live, or whatever. I think it presents a lot of interesting opportunities for people, and I think that, maybe in some ways, makes it a little casual but in other ways makes it less so.

One of the early trends fans have spotted in the Switch lineup is the prevalence of new versions of games from the '90s — and in particular, games with strong local multiplayer features calling back to the Super Nintendo days of competitive Street Fighter and Bomberman. Yet while this may sound like a coordinated plan to reach out to the core audience looking for a hit of nostalgia, it seems to be a coincidence that they all showed up at the same time. Or perhaps the Joy-Con controllers had something to do with it.

Omar Cornut
(Co-founder, Lizardcube, programming Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap on Switch)

SF2, Bomberman, Puyo Puyo are probably here mostly because they are brilliant local multiplayer games, and that works out well on [Switch]. Also maybe the fact that they are big, established, Japanese publishers with long-running ties with Nintendo helped to get them onboard early? As for us, we started showing our game to Nintendo last year and eventually they came to us and offered to [let us develop for Switch].

Takashi Iizuka
(VP of product development, Sega of America, overseeing Sonic Mania and Sonic 2017 on Switch)

We first heard about the other Switch titles at the Nintendo announcement event, and we noticed that same point about the lineup. For Sonic Mania, the concept for the title came out of our conversations surrounding the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog and how we wanted more than just a port of the classic titles, but a brand-new title with the design and gameplay aesthetics of the original. It was just a coincidence that it was announced alongside other classic franchises; Nintendo never approached us about that.

Mizuki Hosoyamada
(Series director, Puyo Puyo at Sega of Japan)

Oh, it's a little too well thought out to be a mere coincidence! [But] Puyo Puyo Tetris was originally conceived to be developed for practically every game machine out there.

Tetsu Katano
(Producer, Sega of Japan, working on Puyo Puyo Tetris for Switch)

The fact you can share the controllers, which is called "Osusowake Play" in Japanese … that was a big factor [in why we ported Puyo Puyo Tetris to Switch]. … This is a competitive puzzle game, and the ability to easily invite your friends to play by simply handing them the controller makes it particularly suited.

Noriaki Okamura
(Producer, Konami, working on Super Bomberman R for Switch)

While I can't share specifics about our discussions with Nintendo due to confidentiality reasons … the Switch's multiplayer features, including its social abilities to play with friends … played a big role in [why we made] Super Bomberman R. … I wanted to make a Bomberman game like the SNES Super Bomberman series because it was simple and fun for everyone. But I knew I couldn't just port the game. In order to develop it for a new console, I had to make it new.

Yoshinori Ono
(Series producer, Street Fighter, overseeing Ultra Street Fighter 2 on Switch)

When Nintendo presented their concept for how to enjoy the Switch, I interpreted it as, "This is a platform where you don't have to be restricted by opportunities, places and situations where you play games." I'm sure there were a lot of creators and team members that felt the same way, so I imagine that inspired them to bring other popular games from the past back. … At the very least, that's how Ultra Street Fighter 2 came to be. … Since Street Fighter 2 spread around the world on SNES … we thought it made perfect sense for us to develop Ultra Street Fighter 2 for the Switch and get as many players as we can to play Street Fighter 2 again on a Nintendo console.

Scarlett Karsidi

Third-party support

People don't buy Nintendo consoles for third-party games, the logic goes. They buy them for Nintendo's games and third parties tend to come along for the ride. That's been the punchline since the mid-'90s, with varying degrees of accuracy over the years.

If early signs are any indication, Nintendo is being much more aggressive about bringing small independent studios to Switch than it was with previous consoles. And it has lined up exclusive games from larger studios, including titles from Capcom's fighting game staff, Grasshopper Manufacture and Yakuza producer Toshihiro Nagoshi — none of which released original games for Wii U.

To date, though, the majority of Nintendo's third-party deals, whether with indies or larger companies, have resulted in ports of PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC games. While many of these are available on a handheld system for the first time, they don't otherwise help distinguish Switch from its competitors.

Similarly, we haven't seen many of the sorts of third-party games that lean into Switch's unique hardware features like we did in the Wii era. So we put the question out: Why? What about Switch makes it an appealing port machine, and what about the system makes it less of a magnet for an immediate rush of outside-the-box ideas like the Wii?

Christian Svensson
(Chief Operating Officer, Sixfoot, publishing Rime on Switch)

I think it's still early. That's the big thing I would say. … The other part of this is the nature of ports depends on how ambitious you're gonna be. The minute you start adding new inputs, you've almost changed what the game is … and the design has to change for it not to be a bolted-on gimmick. … You know, we gave some thought to, could we make any use of the touch-screen elements [on Rime]. But we backed off of that in the end. We felt it would be a little too forced for what the game was, and instead we opted more for a straightforward play.

Mobeen Fikree
(Owner, Vertex Pop, designing and programming Graceful Explosion Machine on Switch)

We started working on GEM before there was a Switch. There was just an NX, right? So I think that now that we’re working on it, we’re thinking of new ideas. Like, “Oh, this would be so neat. We should do this for the Switch.” And so I think a lot of the games now, apart from the Nintendo first-party games, are games that are asking themselves, “How can we best take advantage of the Switch?” Whereas in the future are going to be like, “We should make this idea [specifically for the] Switch.”

Gabby DaRienzo
(Artist/visual designer working on Graceful Explosion Machine for Switch)

I think a lot of it is, as game developers, it’s a really interesting challenge for us to use new tools and devices to come up with interesting [gameplay] mechanics using those things. And I think right now, it’s still very early. We only got our hands on one not that long ago. … I remember we were talking about some stuff in October, like, “Hey, this game idea would be really cool.” And then now, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a whole new thing when you have your hands on the device itself.”

Greg Wohlwend
(Artist/designer, Tumbleseed on Switch)

I would say new technology always takes a bit to catch up to. Once developers get their hands on stuff and we all get a chance to integrate it more into our lives I think the ideas will flow and so will the games.

Christian Svensson
(Chief Operating Officer, Sixfoot, publishing Rime on Switch)

If you’re already starting with a game that costs 10, 15, 20, 30 million dollars, your incremental cost to port may be — it depends on the port; I’m really generalizing and this is all-in, QA and the like — a million to a million and a half. You’re really leveraging the investment you’ve already made. Are you going to spend another million to million and a half, or three million or five million redesigning the game in a way that it’s not a bolt-on gimmick to make the absolute best possible use of the platform? That’s a case-by-case basis. I would argue that ports make more sense in general as the costs of the base SKU have increased. It’s smarter business sense to figure out, “How do I take that model that cost me X and have it reach and generate as much revenue as possible” in a very mercenary way of looking at things.

Douglas Wilson
(Co-owner, Die Gute Fabrik, not currently working on Switch)

I’m not convinced that all of these hardware features are going to be used that often. … Who knows? I can’t predict the future. I could be proven laughably wrong in a year, but it definitely feels like they were 60% there [with their creative ideas] and it feels a little half-hearted. … [None of their launch titles] are really taking advantage of this stuff so it feels like, why run the race 70% and then only just kind of fall flat on your face? But I think it is all about software and buy-in from devs.

Christian Svensson
(Chief Operating Officer, Sixfoot, publishing Rime on Switch)

Our reasons for [porting Rime] were we wanted to reach a broad audience, and it’s the type of game that feels like it belongs on a Nintendo platform. I don’t know that you could say that for every game out there. Everyone’s gotta have their own reasons for porting. From a technical perspective, the amount of work is not trivial. There are definitely easier platforms to get to. Without getting into details, a lot of it has to do with RAM limitations relative to the PS4 and Xbox One, as an example. So it’s a trickier — even notwithstanding processing differentials between those platforms. As far as why more people are doing it, here’s an obvious one: better support for certain engines. Obviously Unreal never existed on Wii U or 3DS, and it exists — or will more properly exist eventually — on Switch. … That’s a huge thing. I think there are certain tools that exist on Switch, for performance and optimization, that never existed on Nintendo platforms before. It’s a huge step forward on those fronts. So maybe that’s what’s giving developers a little more confidence to say, “You know what? We can figure this out. We’re not sort of feeling our way through the dark.”

Mobeen Fikree
(Owner, Vertex Pop, designing and programming Graceful Explosion Machine on Switch)

Our experience with Nintendo has been great. They’ve been a good partner. The tools have been really good. The development tools have been — I’ve worked on a lot of different systems, and this is up there. It’s really good. It was really easy to get started with. The tools are really good. The documentation is really good. …

I think that Nintendo — people will be like, “Oh, they don’t reach out to third parties” or whatever. But we actually got started talking to Nintendo because I tweeted Damon Baker. That was it. And he was like, “Yeah, sure — we can meet.” And that was it. So I do think they’re pretty approachable.

Playing into the idea of Switch being a home for ports rather than original titles, Sega — after years of making exclusive Sonic games for Wii and Wii U — has two Sonic games headed to Switch, both of them ports. Following low sales numbers of two of the rare high-profile third-party Wii U games, Sonic Lost World and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, it's easy to draw a line between sales performance and Sega moving away from custom games for Nintendo consoles. According to Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka, though, the move to multiplatform development wasn't a reaction to Wii U game sales or Nintendo's approach with Switch.

Takashi Iizuka
(VP of product development, Sega of America, overseeing Sonic Mania and Sonic 2017 on Switch)

In 2015 Sega of America formed the “Sonic Pillar” encompassing all elements of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise into one business unit with the directive to bring the appeal of Sonic to as many people as possible. Since the Sonic Pillar goal is to engage the worldwide audience in the characters and content from the Sonic the Hedgehog universe, we are broadly supporting the development of a TV show, mobile games, licensed products and theatrical content with various partners for international markets, in addition to developing multiplatform console titles to reach as many users as possible. …

This shift [didn’t have anything to do with low sales], but a shift in the direction of where to take the brand. We want to bring our games to as many people as possible, which is driving us to multiplatform development for our titles.

On the other end of the spectrum, Grasshopper Manufacture was originally one of the strongest supporters of the Wii, making the No More Heroes action series for Nintendo's console — then Grasshopper skipped Wii U entirely, focusing on Xbox and PlayStation games, and now it's back, making a new game for Switch. According to CEO Goichi Suda, this leapfrogging has had less to do with Nintendo's hardware and more to do with the opportunities in front of his team.

Goichi Suda
(CEO, Grasshopper Manufacture, directing untitled Switch game)

It wasn’t so much that we intentionally skipped the Wii U so much as we already had other games in development, and we didn’t really have the manpower or the resources to do anything else. So it just kind of happened that most of our time was naturally spent finishing Let it Die. And as luck would have it, towards the end of that game’s development cycle we heard Switch was coming so the timing gave us a good reason to connect with Nintendo again. It really wasn’t that we wanted to skip the Wii U!

In some cases, ports with moderate changes make sense for third-party publishers. For Skylanders Imaginators, Activision decided to let players store their toys in the Switch memory as part of a "digital library" rather than keep all their toys next to their console like they've needed to in past Skylanders games, playing into the system's portability and marking the first use of Switch's touch screen.

Josh Taub
(Senior vice president of product management, Activision, overseeing Skylanders Imaginators on Switch)

Game development requires careful consideration to ensure fans have the best possible experience. The digital library was no different. Arguments for doing it included that Nintendo has done a great job with the console and gives people a slick way to bring toys into the game. On the other side, as the pioneers of the toys-to-life experience, we taught fans how to bring toys to life in a certain way [and weren’t sure we wanted to abandon that].

Scarlett Karsidi

Those who have been there before

As with any new Nintendo console, Switch has a lot of buzz surrounding its launch. Between the marketing, fan commentary and media coverage, it can be easy to get caught up in the hype. So in an attempt to take a step back, for our final piece of this story we decided to reach out to those who have been through the process of launching a console before.

We got in touch with five executives who played key roles in console launches over the past 40 years — reaching back to the Atari 2600 in 1977 — and asked them for their takes on Nintendo’s plans this time around.

Nolan Bushnell
(Former CEO, Atari, oversaw the Atari 2600 launch)

I guess the best endorsement that I can say is that I want one personally. I think that it has so many things that can be seductive that I think that it’s going to have a very interesting launch. The only thing that is a little bit of a concern is that I feel like — you always sell a game system based on software, and Nintendo has great historical software that I would love to play again updated, all the way back to the Famicom. But there’s a lot of hostility from the development community about working with Nintendo that probably stems back a long time. And maybe some of the new developers don’t have it, but it’s not uncommon sitting at a cocktail party or talking with friends, just talking about how a game that was developed was turned down or they missed the Christmas season because somebody thought the robes on an avatar needed to be purple instead of blue. [Laughs] You know, just what I call arbitrary bullshit. That [was a big issue] quite a while ago, so maybe that has gone away, but I think the concern lingers.

But other than that, I think the hardware platform — the way its designed, what the features are — it is a cornucopia of sensors and user interface features that I think you can just go batshit on and there will be some new games and new constructs that I think are really important. And the network of being able to have eight people in the same household [playing at the same time] I think is massively powerful. … There’s a lot of features there that make it viral. And virility in today’s world really is a precursor for a massively successful product. … When I first sort of casually looked at what they were doing, I said, “Oh my god. The last thing we need is another gadget to carry with us.” Because you know, I can just barely keep my cell phone charged. … [But] the hardware design, as I understand it, just feels almost flawless.

Trip Hawkins
(Former CEO, The 3DO Company, oversaw the 3DO launch)

Nintendo for, literally, a hundred years was a great toy company. … In their first several years in the video game business, they were a really great toy company in this new electronic toy category, and basically their products were purchased mostly by children. And then when it became a medium, and it became a platform and they had to start competing against the likes of Sony, it got to be a lot harder for Nintendo and they began to think of themselves [as], “Oh yeah, we’re a media platform company and we’re competing against PlayStation.”

Well, they’re not going to make it in the long run with that kind of thinking. And if you think about what’s really great about Nintendo it’s the games that they have invented, like Mario and Pokemon, that they have popularized [these] incredible brands. They’re now beginning to realize that, yeah, they really need to allow those brands to flourish on all the other platforms that are not proprietary Nintendo platforms, and that’s a big change because they never used to do that. They used to basically drive the sales of their own proprietary platforms by restricting these famous brands to be the killer apps for those platforms. But I don’t think it’s viable for them to think of themselves as a generalized console platform company. They really shouldn’t make a hardware system anymore in the future unless it’s kind of a great toy. Like, for example, when the Game Boy came out, that was a fabulous toy. And it came out with Tetris, and then Pokemon came out on it, and that was really all you needed to know to decide that you wanted to have a Game Boy.

I think the Switch is going to disappoint. I think the optimists are saying it’s going to sell 40 million units, and they’re saying that because they’re looking at Wii U selling 13 million units and they’re looking at the original Wii selling 100 million units, and they’re thinking, “Well, it couldn’t possibly go as badly as it did with the Wii U. And, in my opinion, it could go just about the same, because their price point is really high. The Switch is 300 bucks, and that’s not a toy price. That’s a media platform price. And they can’t win that game, even with proprietary, you know, killer apps. I just think that they have to have more modest expectations when they’re in the hardware business, that if they have a low enough price point, maybe they can get the 20 million units sold and it’s going to be a very successful toy for them. And their future value and future profit is going to have a lot more to do with what they do with their great brands and their capacity to create new games on all the platforms, not on their own.

Bernie Stolar
(Former executive VP, Sony Computer Entertainment America, worked on the original PlayStation launch)

They better have some strong games. They better have a whole good lineup of software. They're going to have to come out very strong. If they can really push Mario and Zelda and everything else that they have, their library will really determine what happens. You have to remember, Nintendo has nine billion dollars in the bank, so they can afford to do whatever they want.

Phil Harrison
(Former president, SCE Worldwide Studios and corporate VP, Microsoft, worked on the PlayStation 1-3 and Xbox One launches)

Any new Nintendo platform is always an exciting moment for the games industry, and for players. I’ve not yet had a chance to play Switch but as a Zelda fan I think of the new console as a delivery device for a Zelda fix. Breath of the Wild looks amazing, which is why I pre-ordered the console (for the first time in my life). The hardware has some very unique features and Nintendo’s challenge will be to communicate them in a way that resonates with players who are currently enjoying high-end consoles from Sony and Microsoft or (mostly) free-to-play mobile games on phone and tablet. That’s going to be tough in an increasingly crowded and fragmented games market.

But it’s always about the games. Their first-party teams are always incredible and they’re touting an impressive list of third-party publishers so they’re making the right moves. Apart from Zelda, the game that stood out for me is 1-2-Switch. That looks to be a fun and a clever use of the platform’s mobile or untethered elements. I really like the idea of games that don’t require visuals but use the controllers in multiplayer modes, so I’m looking forward to that. I don’t know if Nintendo can win the arms-race in terms of raw pixel power, so they have to do something different to compete and I applaud them for that.

Tom Kalinske
(Former president and CEO, Sega of America, oversaw the 32X and Saturn launches)

First of all, I still have remained antagonistic towards Nintendo [laughs] and I don’t have any Nintendo hardware in my home, so it’s hard for me to give them advice. …

You know, I think that any time you’re launching new hardware, you better be awfully good about who you target it to and how your marketing is done and what outlets are you going to feature it in and how are you going to get full support behind the launch of it. I guess in the case of Nintendo, there’s so many Nintendo aficionados that, no matter what they do, a huge group of people are going to buy it no matter what — as they had with the Wii U — and then we’ll see what happens after that. And it all comes down to: how great are the games and how good do you feel when you’re playing them. The feel of the game is still the most important thing. And, of course, the quality of the game, the engagement of the game and how well you interact with it — and then in this case, I guess, there’s a social gaming aspect as well. So, all that’s got to work really well for it to be successful.