There’s a good chance that many of you hadn’t heard of Austin-based studio Panic Button before the Switch came out, but don’t feel downhearted; the company had flown under the radar prior to the release of Nintendo’s latest console, creating a handful of Wii and Xbox 360 exclusives before finding its niche as an in-demand porting powerhouse. But there’s a lot more to Panic Button than simply being an outfit which is repeatedly entrusted with major conversion duties; this is a company which has deep technical roots and has mastered the complexities of the Switch in a way few others have managed, outside of Nintendo itself.
"Panic Button was founded eleven years ago, at the end of 2007," says Adam Creighton, Panic Button’s Studio General Manager and Director of Development. "Two of those founders, Craig Galley and D. Michael Traub, are still with the company, and are active, hands-on Technical Directors and Developers. They were doing tools development at the time with their other company, [and] they wanted to get back into working with games, so they founded Panic Button." At the time of the company’s birth, the Wii was dominating the world of home console gaming, and Panic Button - like so many other companies - identified Nintendo’s platform as the one which offered the biggest chance of commercial success.
"It was a very different focus for developers who were coming from working on the other consoles or on the PC, where you had basically the same interaction capabilities," explains Panic Button’s Technical Director, Andy Boggs. However, the experience ultimately stood the company in good stead, and arguably laid down the foundations for its future success on Switch. "It was an arms race for power and graphical fidelity," continues Boggs. "On the Wii, you had to go into it targeting a different look and performance profile, but you also had this huge unique challenge in the motion controls. We spent a lot of time tuning input – you might write some input code that felt great to you, and then hand it to another person and it would fall apart. Interpreting user intent through motion controls, in a way that works for every person, was – and still is – very challenging."
2009’s Go Play Lumberjacks was followed by We Wish You A Merry Christmas in the same year and then Attack Of The Movies 3D in 2010; the latter title also came out on Xbox 360. Swords was the company’s final contribution to the Wii library before it moved onto another challenge – but one that was at least thematically connected to the motion-based gameplay seen on Wii. "After we had spent a lot of time working with the Wii's motion controls, the Kinect looked like a natural step," says Boggs. "It was just another novel way of interpreting user intent. Looking back, I think everyone who developed for Kinect wasn't prepared for just how difficult it was to do that. Looking at a rough outline of someone's 'skeleton' and trying to develop real-time gameplay with that data was just massively complex and difficult."
In 2012, Panic Button embarked on the path which has given it the most success, although Creighton suggests it was a case of heart ruling head, at least initially. "I guess we did one port in 2012 – Ms. Splosion Man – but that project was more about working with good Austin folks and a good game," he says (the original developer, Twisted Pixel Games, is based nearby). Nonetheless, this was the first step in what has proven to be a very rewarding process. Panic Button has since worked on properties such as Injustice: Gods Among Us, Disney Infinity and Octodad: Dadliest Catch, but it is the company’s efforts on Switch which have singled it out as a studio in demand.
Rocket League was the first title to make the public aware of the company’s talents; an assured conversion job which effortlessly retained the core mechanics of the original game but allowed players to take the experience on the road thanks to superb portable performance. The stunning conversion of id Software’s FPS masterpiece DOOM followed, but not before Panic Button released its own original Switch eShop game, Astro Duel Deluxe. As we all know, the company’s latest effort - Wolfenstein II - caused jaws to drop all over the world in the same way that DOOM did, and this year it will also carry over the popular online shooter Warframe to Nintendo’s console.
It’s therefore easy to see why Panic Button has gained such as solid reputation in the development industry. In Creighton’s opinion, the studio as a whole pulls together to make these projects really sing, and one solid project has a habit of leading to another. "What makes this work is amazing, amazing people. From technical chops to business savvy, and soft skills like context switching and collaboration. We’ve brought in projects that explicitly, strategically build on each other. We worked with Disney on Disney Infinity, and after doing Disney Infinity 2.0, we made a case for putting the full game on the PS Vita, which was our first, big, ‘challenging’ retargeting effort. We did the Xbox One version of Rocket League from those great, great Psyonix folks, and then we pitched and did the PS4 Pro version, and then we pitched and did the Nintendo Switch version. We did DOOM for Nintendo Switch, which is a technically and thematically challenging game, and then we did Wolfenstein II for Nintendo Switch, and that game is more technically and thematically challenging – that wasn’t ‘serendipitous’ or ‘lucky’."
Creighton adds that a key reason the company’s Switch ports have turned out so great is the way in which the company works closely with the original content makers to ensure the end product is as faithful as possible. "We like all of our stuff to be collaborative," he says. "I don’t like ‘throw-it-over-the-wall’ projects. For things like DOOM, Wolfenstein II, and Rocket League, we’re actively working with those development teams and publishers. They make that stuff, and they make it great – we make it great and special for the hardware we’re responsible for."
Panic Button has worked wonders on Nintendo hardware, but Boggs is keen to stress that it’s rarely a cakewalk when it comes to bringing AAA titles to Switch, despite the studio’s prior successes. "The bar has been set so high for what's possible for the Switch, and so optimizing games for performance and making sure things still look great in handheld mode is always pretty hard." Ultimately though, the effort is worth it. "There's still just something magical about having this gameplay experience on your TV that you can transition to a handheld and take with you. We see that during development, and it's still exciting every time." And the satisfaction level of Panic Button’s current clients? "That’s a great question for them!" laughs Creighton. "I would say they say they are happy. And we almost always do more than one project with them, so... hopefully?"
It’s tempting to suggest that the company’s work is doing more to enrich the perception of the Switch in the eyes of the gaming public than even Nintendo’s own first-party software; games like DOOM, Rocket League and Wolfenstein II have a mainstream appeal which is capable of drawing in new players, perhaps even more so than the adventures of Mario, Link and Samus, all of which arguably cater for the needs of Nintendo fans first and foremost. "The folks at Nintendo are great platform partners," replies Creighton diplomatically. "My hope is Panic Button is a part of broadening the appeal of their great platform, and bringing franchises like DOOM and Wolfenstein to Nintendo gamers – for some people, maybe for the first time."
However, while Panic Button has scored commercial and critical successes with its initial salvo of Switch ports, all of these titles have appeared first on rival console hardware which is now coming towards the end of its lifespan. Given that Switch is still a relatively young system, is there a shrinking window of opportunity for these cross-platform ports? What happens when Sony and Microsoft release their next-gen hardware, and the bar gets raised dramatically once again? Can Switch – and Panic Button – possibly keep up? "I think there is a lot of room for good games on good platforms," comments Creighton. "Personally, I’m not going to talk or guess about future hardware. I do think there will continue to be opportunities for passionate, talented developers like the folks at Panic Button who can and want to do amazing things on all sorts of hardware, for games they are passionate about."
Warframe is up next, and Creighton reveals that more information on the port will be forthcoming this year. "Digital Extremes have been great about letting people know publicly they’re exploring all options for people to play on and with the Nintendo Switch," he says. "Personally, I dig the game and the hardware, and I am happy with what’s being developed for new and existing Tennos." But does Panic Button have any other ports in the works right now? "Maybe, yes," replies Creighton. It’s fair to assume that the company – which has limited resource, lest we forget – gets inundated with requests for ports these days, so how does it go about deciding what to take on? "[We’re] always, always selective," replies Creighton. "Personally, wherever I am, I want to make good games with good people. Just speaking for me, I work hard to take projects that we are passionate about, that make strategic sense, are challenging, and are surprising and exciting – without me having to tell people, 'Hey, these are surprising and exciting!'"
Panic Button has found its niche after a decade of experimenting with motion-based gaming. However, the aforementioned Astro Duel Deluxe proves that the desire is still there to create original content. "I’m a portfolio guy, so wherever I am, I want to make sure the company I am with is doing interesting and exciting things, is growing, and is taking care of everyone that is part of making that happen," explains Creighton. "I think most developers want to make their own original game, and I would say we are no different. Where we are maybe different is we won’t ‘bet the farm’ on a new game, and if it doesn’t succeed, have the company go away. So, original IP is an explicit part of our portfolio strategy, we’re creative about how we do that, and we won’t risk the company on it."
In the past decade, Panic Button has grown from a relatively obscure indie to a technical powerhouse which commands the respect of major publishers and is constantly in demand thanks to its talent for porting big-name titles to challenging hardware. But where will the studio be in another five years, when the console battlelines have shifted and Switch may have been supplanted by other groundbreaking platforms? "Hopefully, we'll have more great people and continue to work on challenging and interesting games. Maybe even our own?" replies Boggs. Creighton’s response is very similar. "If it’s the same people we’re working with right now? I can only see us doing 'more' and 'bigger' and growing and taking care of and being successful with this wonderful, passionate fan base that has decided they like what we’re doing – honestly, that is what makes any game successful."
Here’s to another decade of Panic Button – we can’t wait to see what the company achieves on Switch, and beyond.