Five years ago, Nintendo made an internal change that may not have seemed important at the time, but has since become a major part of the company’s dramatic turnaround. In 2013, Nintendo merged its two game development divisions, which were previously separated by platform. One focused on home consoles like the Wii U, while the other created games for handheld devices like the 3DS. Combining the two was meant to speed up development, and allow Nintendo’s creative teams to better share ideas and technology.
It didn’t help the Wii U much — the console suffered from huge gaps between major releases — but it’s finally paying dividends with the Switch. This new structure has made it possible for Nintendo to release a steady stream of well-received titles over the Switch’s first 16 months of availability. It started with a bang, when the tablet launched alongside The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and has continued through games like Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey, this week’s Mario Tennis Aces, and upcoming holiday releases like Pokémon: Let’s Go and Super Smash Bros Ultimate.
At the top of this structure is Shinya Takahashi, general manager of Nintendo’s Entertainment Planning & development division, who oversees all of the company’s software efforts to ensure those huge gaps between games remain a thing of the past. “It’s something that I think about and worry about all the time,” Takahashi told me last week at E3 in Los Angeles.
“It’s something that I think about and worry about all the time.”
The main benefit of the re-organization, according to Takahashi, is that it allows Nintendo to be more flexible and purposeful with how it uses its developers. “We think very carefully about how we can assign people to projects in development,” he explains. “What number we can assign, what we can have them working on. And that’s something that we always think about very closely in regards to how we ensure we have a steady release of high-quality titles.”
With everyone now working under the same umbrella, and in many cases under the same roof at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters, this makes it simpler to make adjustments when needed. If a game like Breath of the Wild is taking too long, for instance, Nintendo can more easily pull the necessary developers from another project to make sure that Zelda hits its release date. And sticking to those dates is an important part of the company’s process. “If they don’t have a deadline, they’ll be happy to refine the project forever,” says Takahashi on Nintendo’s creative staff. “If we didn’t have a deadline, we might still be working on Super Mario Bros 3 for the Famicom.”
In addition to keeping track of all of the software at Nintendo, Takahashi also works with the company’s sales and marketing teams, in order to ensure everything follows the right schedule. “Putting all of that together is maybe the biggest part of my job,” he tells me. It’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s part of the reason why Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé once described Takahashi as the company’s “conductor.”
Merging the two software divisions has proved a prescient move given the nature of the Switch, which doubles as both a portable tablet and a home console. And being able to have one device as a primary focus has also made it easier to craft a large volume of games for the Switch. Nintendo still makes 3DS games, of course, but the dual-screened handheld now serves a different purpose than it once did.
“As a platform that is now in its eighth year since launch, I think it has found a very interesting role for us,” Takahashi says of the 3DS. “Which is that it’s accessible to a lower age demographic, and we’re able to focus a lot of software that’s really appealing to that audience on the Nintendo 3DS platform, which means that we can also look for software teams that are very well-suited to creating games of that type.”
The early signs are encouraging. In just 10 months the Switch outsold the Wii U, and it currently sits at nearly 18 million units sold worldwide. This has led to some impressive software sales — Mario Odyssey tops the list with 10.4 million in sales, followed by Mario Kart 8 Deluxe at 9.2 million. Perhaps just as importantly, those sales have made the Switch an enticing platform for developers outside of Nintendo. Not only did the Wii U suffer from gaps between major releases, there were also few third-party and indie games to fill in those gaps. That’s changed with the Switch.
The hybrid console is home to an ever-growing library of indie titles, and many of those games are selling better on Nintendo’s platform than elsewhere. The developers of the Metroid-like Steamworld Dig 2 have said that the game sold 10 times more on the Switch compared to PC store Steam, for instance. “Those recommendations, those statements, speak volumes for the overall developer community,” Fils-Aimé says. “This is a platform that you have to be engaged with, that you have to bring your best content to. That’s the key for us.”
This hasn’t translated to major third-party developers and publishers to quite the same degree, but a number of these companies are lending their support to the Switch. Bethesda, in particular, has been a heavy backer of Nintendo’s device, releasing versions of Skyrim, Doom, Fallout Shelter, and soon Wolfenstein II for the platform. And while EA has been more cautious with the Switch, the publisher is following up a portable version of FIFA with an enhanced version for 2018, suggesting that the experience on Nintendo’s platform has been positive.
“That passion has not changed.”
Many of these multiplatform games arrive much later on the Switch than other platforms (something that Fils-Aimé believes will change by next year), though Nintendo says that it works closely with outside developers to ensure that working on the Switch is as seamless as possible. “How do you take a game like FIFA, built on the Frostbite engine, and have it look and play as well on our platform as it does elsewhere? Our technical team is working with their technical teams and development community to bring that to life,” explains Fils-Aimé.
Having all that platform knowledge in one place not only benefits the games Nintendo makes, but also its ability to help outside partners. “All of the systems that we create internally to improve the development environment are things that we’ve been able to share,” Takahashi says. So even though a game like Breath of the Wild takes years to create, the lessons learned during that process may end up benefitting the platform as a whole. “It becomes an investment not just in one title,” he adds.
The process has worked for the Switch so far, and Nintendo has a number of titles lined up for 2019 and beyond, including Metroid Prime 4, a new Yoshi game, and a “core” Pokémon role-playing adventure. For Takahashi, who started at Nintendo in 1989 just as the Super Famicom was set to launch in Japan, the challenge is to keep that momentum going. And based on his experience at the company, he believes Nintendo is in the right frame of mind to pull it off. “There was a wonderful energy around at the time that I still see there today,” Takahashi says. “That passion has not changed.”