Nintendo talks Switch – origins / creation, going with one screen, name, online play, January event, much more
A little while back, Famitsu published an interview with Nintendo’s Shinya Takahashi and Yoshiaki Koizumi all about Switch in one of its issues. It was extremely extensive, covering the system’s origins and early development (including some involvement from Satoru Iwata). The two developers also touched on numerous other topics such as going with a single screen, choosing the name out of thousands, tying in smartphone usage to online play and making it paid, system updates, VR, and why the January event was held in Japan. Again, there is a lot here.
We’ve now readied a pretty complete translation of the interview. Continue on below for the extensive discussion featuring Takahashi and Koizumi.
The goal from the start: “bring everyone together and play”
Can you tell us how you both were involved with the Nintendo Switch, and how the development started?
Takahashi: When development for the Switch began, it didn’t even have the codename “NX.” But at that time, there were discussions taking place between the late president Iwata (Satoru Iwata, former president of Nintendo), Takeda (Genyo Takeda, Nintendo’s “Technology Fellow”), Miyamoto (Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s “Creative Fellow”), and myself. The four of us began by looking at the entirety of our new hardware plans. When the discussion turned towards who should be at the center of the project, we decided to call in Koizumi.
Around what time were these discussions taking place?
Takahashi: That was about 3 years ago. You tend to discuss what sort of hardware you want to create whenever you’re on the verge of moving into something new, but Nintendo is always coming up with new ideas, so we had numerous materials and concepts already prepared. We decided the direction we wanted to go with these materials and the person we wanted to lead everything around the same time.
And that’s when Mr. Koizumi joined.
Koizumi: I was on the Tokyo production team at the time, but one day they suddenly told me I was to come to Kyoto. There, the late president Iwata told me to “create a tag team with Kawamoto” (Kouichi Kawamoto, the Nintendo Switch’s general director). I still clearly remember what he said back then, “I’ve chosen the most un-Nintendo-like people”. (laughs)
What?! (laughs) What did that mean?
Takahashi: Both Koizumi and I were originally oriented around the visual aspect of games. During the time of the Nintendo 64, about twenty years ago, the two of us would talk about various different things. He was making Super Mario 64, and I was making Wave Race 64 while working on the system’s launch. Koizumi left for Tokyo afterwards, but we’ve always kept in touch since then, so I know him well. That’s why I thought he would be the best man to lead this new venture. Because, even though he has been involved in the Super Mario series for quite some time now, his ideas for Mario have always been kind of crazy. (laughs)
Koizumi: It’s my job to come up with new ideas for the Mario series, is what I think he’s trying to get at. (laughs)
So Mr. Koizumi was chosen based on the eclectic software he’s produced and his unique approach.
Takahashi: That’s right. Kawamoto has also made many different kinds of innovative things, such as Brain Age (Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!), so he was brought on as well. However, the two of them had never collaborated until now. They weren’t even acquainted with each other.
Koizumi: I had been mainly in charge of home console development on the Tokyo production team, while Kawamoto had mainly been in charge of portable systems. We each had different duties, so we never really got the chance to interact with each other. That is, until we were suddenly brought together one day.
So you brought in Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Kawamoto, and then decided on a more concrete concept, among other things. Mr. Koizumi, what were your thoughts when you first participated in those discussions?
Koizumi: Even while I was in Tokyo, I had participated in the discussions regarding “what we should do next regarding new hardware” fairly often. The late president Iwata would often come to Tokyo and speak with me, so when I was told to come to Kyoto to participate in the development of the new hardware, I was very happy. But I also knew that I had to devote myself entirely to it, to live up to this responsibility that I was given. However, I was never asked to just “create something like this.” It was more often “how do you think we should do this, considering the situation?” And I began discussions centered around this grand idea of “what we need in present times” with this man I just met, Kawamoto. We broached and debated a wide variety of topics. For example, we’d start with something general, like “The Wii U is in the market, but so are smart devices…” and then go into more specific things from there. On top of that, we were narrowing down what it was that we should be making. From there we spent 3 years filtering the various concepts that came up during those discussions, deciding what would be used in the actual hardware.
I would imagine you gathered your ideas together while taking into account both Nintendo‘s strengths and weaknesses. Could you tell us a bit more about that process?
Koizumi: Our goal from the beginning was to “bring everyone together and play”, and it never changed. After all, that is the core essence of Nintendo. And, while discussing the kind of hardware it would be, we made it another of our goals to make it possible for complete strangers to get sucked into the experience. We spoke about how the Nintendo Switch allowed people to “share the fun” at the presentation, and this key concept was something we came up with at a very early stage. But we were always concerned with how we would actually go about making that possible. It had to be capable of being played anywhere, and be able to be shared with strangers. We spent an incredible amount of time trying to figure out exactly how we would accomplish those two goals.
Takahashi: The 3DS’s local communications made it possible for everyone to gather around and play together. We tried to figure out how we could bring such an idea to a home console, and blend it together with the key concepts we were aiming for.
“Bringing everyone together to play” has been Nintendo’s identity since the NES era, hasn’t it?
Takahashi: It’s been that way for even longer than that. Don’t forget the hanafuda and playing cards (laughs).
Koizumi: Ever since the first prototype back in the early days of development, I would ask Kawamoto: “Couldn’t we make a game where players look each other in the face?” That idea eventually gave birth to 1-2-Switch, but this wasn’t a concept we came up with out of the blue. It was something we had wanted to do for a very long time. We would often wonder why it was that you could play card games face to face with your opponents, but not video games. Our company originally made karuta and playing cards, so it has been a very influential concept for us since the early days.
So you were trying to reexamine the way people interact with videogame consoles. Was that something the late president Iwata steered the development towards?
Takahashi: No, our mission was to create something using all of the concepts and materials we had amassed. The late president Iwata was an engineer, while Koizumi and I came from the design field. So although he helped us with many engineering aspects, he didn’t give any firm directions to do things a certain way.
Koizumi: That’s right. We went with our designer’s instinct and created an idea in our heads, and then tried to convey it. In other words, we designers are daydreamers. And when we tried to transfer our ideas into something concrete, he helped us figure many things out, like what would or would not be possible to implement, what costs would be involved, and the general feasibility.
Takahashi: Miyamoto and Takeda supported us in similar ways, so rather than presenting them our ideas and waiting for their approval, we would all discuss them together and iterate from there.
And was the Switch’s big selling point, the ability to pick up the game from home and play it anywhere, decided by that process as well?
Takahashi: That’s right.
Koizumi: It’s easy to say “let’s have it go from being connected to the television, to popping right out with the controllers attached to both sides, and then you can carry it around and play”, but making it a reality was another thing entirely. The engineering staff would tell us that they’d have to ‘do this and that’ in order to make it work, while they tried to come up with a solution.
I’m really happy that I can play Zelda at home, and then pick it up and continue on the go, like I did on the two hour long bullet train ride here to do this interview.
Koizumi: I ride the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto too, so I was thinking that it would be nice to be able to set it down on the little tables in front of the seats. That’s why I asked them to include the retractable stand. I can play Zelda on the train, then fold the stand back in and stick it in my bag, and continue playing once I’m at work. I can be in the game at all times. (laughs)
Koizumi: Actually, during the development of Switch, we gave two main ideas for the staff to work with: “let’s make a console that the most amount of people in the world can get sucked into”, and “let’s make the most addicting console in the world”
Takahashi: It all came down to being a “video game console”. What was important was how easy it would be to play the games on it.
The Switch has been defined as a home console, but I think you could call it a console-handheld hybrid too. Can you tell us why you chose to only call it a home console?
Takahashi: Because I want it to be a home console at heart. It’s a home console that you can play on the go. I believe that it will be primarily plugged into your TV.