Zelda BOTW

Soapbox and 'Memory Pak' articles give our team a chance to share some personal perspectives; today it's the turn of Kate Gray to tell us her memories of the week the Switch came out, five years ago...

Five-ish years ago, in February 2017, I had just decided to move country. I had moved out of my ludicrously expensive London apartment that I shared with two other people the year before, in order to travel the world a little bit and generally be very in my 20s. I mostly hopped from couch to couch, staying with generous friends, here and there, which freed me up to go to conferences and conventions in exotic locales without having to worry about rent back home.

It was the perfect time for a hybrid home-and-handheld console, in other words — and I ended up in the perfect place, too.

The week before the Nintendo Switch release, I travelled to San Francisco for the very first time to attend the Game Developers Conference, and the hype amongst the attendees was palpable. The Switch would release on the last day of GDC, which meant that anyone with a talk or a game to show on the 3rd of March was basically boned. It was also a Friday, which gave the whole thing an end-of-school-year vibe.

Kate on a train
This is me, on a train to San Francisco! Beep beep!
Hahaha networking
This is me, networking! Hahaha networking. Synergy!

GDC is basically the game developer social event of the year, like The One Ball Where Everyone Gets Husbands in a Jane Austen novel. Developers from all over the world descend on San Francisco's Moscone Center, whether it's to network and schmooze, pitch their game, attend and give talks, or show off a demo.

Some of the biggest names in gaming were there, from Double Fine's Tim Schafer to Arkane's Harvey Smith, plus basically any indie who could afford the astronomical cost of travel, bed, and board in one of America's most expensive cities. Investing in a week in San Francisco while GDC is happening can make or break a game, because if you play your cards right, you have the opportunity to meet people who can get you millions of dollars in funding with just one handshake. It's a crazy week. You don't even have to buy a ticket to the event — just be in the right city at the right time, which is good, because tickets cost between $300 and $2,000. (There's a lot to be said about how utterly exclusionary and limiting this way of doing business can be, but that's for another time.)

GDC official
It's like this, except everyone is exhausted all the time and usually drinking bubble tea — Image: GDC

All of this is to say that I, through a series of coincidences, choices, and peer pressure, ended up in San Francisco at the same time as the movers and shakers of the games industry, for one glorious, shining week that also happened to be the launch of the Nintendo Switch, a console that would change my life in some pretty meaningful ways.

Some of the game developers at GDC undoubtedly already had developer kits, but they were bound to secrecy by Nintendo's legendarily draconian NDAs and embargoes; the rest of us, despite being entrenched in game development and all of its woes, were just as excited as regular nerds. A few people were planning to head to Target or GameStop or wherever Americans usually buy their consoles for the midnight launch, but I didn't join them. After all, I had no permanent address — so why would I buy a home console, even if it was a hybrid one?

Instead, I enjoyed the Switch vicariously for its first week of life. At the hostel many of us were staying in, someone hooked their brand-new Switch up to the single shared TV in the common area, and we all crammed into this tiny, windowless cinema room to sit on beanbags and watch the first hour of Breath of the Wild.

Forgive me for being incredibly sappy and perhaps a little hyperbolic here, but the Switch changed the world of gaming in that moment — and being around game developers made it even more exciting. Link stepping out of the cave into the bright sunshine of Hyrule after 100 years felt poignant, like that was a metaphor for us moving from Nintendo's disappointing Wii U era into something new, and unknown, and full of possibility. For the first few minutes, we were all like children again, and then quickly everyone in the room seemed to simultaneously remember that we could make games like this too.

(In case you're thinking "haven't you already told this story?" then you are correct — I talked about it in my piece about the Switch being a perfect travel companion!)

It's not surprising that we all felt like children in that moment. The Switch felt like a toy, for the first time in a long time, because consoles had slowly been moving away from their reputation as Things For Kids and more towards luxury gadgets for Cool Adults. The Wii U was Nintendo's attempt to try and get into that market, and no one really wanted that — so the Switch was them returning back to their home ground, accepting their position as "The Fun Uncle", and going all-in.

Nintendo BOTW GDC talk
Developers from the BOTW team gave a talk on the 1st March. I did not get in. It was massively over-subscribed, so I went for bubble tea instead — Image: Nintendo

The possibilities for indie games were made clear from the start with the excellent launch game Snipperclips, which managed to capture that family-game feeling from the Wii era while bringing it into the modern day. It was perfectly pitched, and it was perfectly received, as people got together in groups to play games, immediately making every single person want to buy a Switch for themselves. It practically sold itself, and for game developers, it was all they needed to convince them to jump on board, too.

I forget who was in that room at the exact time, but the people I met that year at GDC would go on to make games like Celeste, Flinthook, Beast Breaker, Untitled Goose Game, and Wargroove, all of which exemplify what the Switch is capable of. Yes, we've had some fantastic first-party games, from Breath of the Wild to Super Mario Odyssey, and about fifty Pokémon games, too... but what I will remember the Switch most for is the breadth and depth of its indies.

It's incredibly cool to think that I spent the first week of the Switch surrounded by game devs who would go on to help define what the Switch would be. In that moment, none of us knew what to expect from this new, shiny rectangle, but it quickly became apparent that its potential was great, and that we all wanted to be a part of it.

It was only a week or two after that first magical day before I bought my own Switch. It didn't last the full five years, and a lot has changed in that time, too, but there hasn't been a single day where I've not had a Switch with me in some form or another. Whether I'm spending 8 hours a day playing Skyrim for the first time (!) or I'm popping my head into my Animal Crossing: New Horizons island to check up on things, there's always something to do.

The Switch has defined the last five years of my life, just as it defined that one trip to San Francisco with a bunch of other dorks. I might not have appreciated it at the time, but there was nowhere better to be for the Switch launch — and nowhere more appropriate for a console that would come to be something indies and AAA studios alike could rally around.

Thanks for the memories, Switch! I hope I'm somewhere equally cool for the next launch.