First announced for Switch in a bumper Indie World Showcase from Nintendo back in August 2020, we were delighted to hear that developer Unknown Worlds and Bandai Namco are bringing not only the original Subnautica to Switch this year, but also its sequel, Subnautica: Below Zero. The latter has been in Early Access on PC for some time, and it's pleasing to see Switch owners won't miss out on either of these marine-based open-world adventures.
Ahead of the games' simultaneous Switch launch on 14th May, we asked Ted Gill, president of developer Unknown Worlds, some questions about this pair of games running on the Unity engine, their journey to Switch, and what it's like developing a game while incorporating feedback from Early Access players.
Nintendo Life: For anyone who perhaps isn’t familiar with Subnautica from other platforms — or has perhaps only heard the name in passing – how would you best describe the game?
Ted Gill, Unknown Worlds: Subnautica is an open world exploration game that challenges players with surviving the depths of an alien, underwater world by crafting equipment and out-smarting the local wildlife. Subnautica: Below Zero builds on all of that with a new story set in another area of the same planet with even more challenges and new creatures.
Any developer of an acclaimed console game has heard the familiar refrain “Is it coming to Switch?” many, many times over the past four years — we’re sure you’ve heard it plenty! We’ve heard at one point Unknown Worlds didn’t believe Subnautica on Switch would be possible at all. Why was that?
Subnautica is an open-world game originally built for PC, with a lot of underlying streaming technology that can push modern PC hardware fairly hard. We just didn’t think the game could run at the performance level we expect because of the way it was originally architected. With the assistance of our friends at Shiny Shoe and Unity, we were able to work through many of the technical issues and get it looking and running great.
When did plans solidify to port the game to Switch, and how long has this version been in active development?
We got a bare bones test up and running a couple years back, and the full-scale engineering effort began about a year and a half ago for both Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero (in parallel with other platforms).
What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing the game(s) to Switch? Any particular surprises or elements what required extra attention?
Often the hardest part of adapting a game for console is refining the content for a particular platform so the players have the immersive experience we want to deliver. There was a ton of effort applied to performance — in code and in art — with a careful eye on the in-game quality. We’re thrilled with where we ended up.
There was a ton of effort applied to performance — in code and in art — with a careful eye on the in-game quality
Was it always your intention to release both the original game and the sequel simultaneously?
After the launch of Subnautica was met with some success we knew we wanted to get it to as many platforms as possible but when the Switch came along we were still figuring out what exactly Subnautica: Below Zero would be. So while it wasn’t always our intention to release them together at the same time, by doing so we’ve been able to ensure we’re putting the next version of both games out and giving players the chance to immerse themselves in the entire story of Subnautica from the beginning.
Will the Switch versions use any of the console’s bespoke features?
The Switch version of Subnautica: Below Zero does feature HD Rumble support. We’ve worked incredibly hard to make the experience of this game on Switch just like other platforms. Both Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero will give players the opportunity to take this adventure anywhere.
Moving onto the sequel, how does Below Zero expand upon and differ from the first game?
Subnautica: Below Zero drops players into an entirely new area of planet 4546B with a new story, entirely new environments, new items and unique vehicles (such as the Seatruck and Snowfox). Many quality of life improvements have also been added to the game for an even better survival experience.
Below Zero has been in Early Access on PC for over two years. Has the game evolved and changed much in that time from your initial vision?
The game has evolved immensely in terms of scope and the sheer amount of content we continued to add. We initially planned Below Zero to be a smaller game but those plans quickly ballooned as we thought about what could be possible. We’re excited we were able to build on that initial vision with the support of our partners and also owe infinite thanks to the players who have been providing feedback throughout Early Access.
As a developer, do you enjoy refining mechanics and revealing story over time (as opposed to delivering the entire experience in one go on release day)? We imagine a staggered release building to v1.0 must have its pros and cons.
While it can be challenging to let people in on the creative process at times, nobody is better at letting us know when we’re doing great work… or when we’re veering off course.
Early Access and open development are a part of Unknown World’s DNA; we love making games with our fans’ input. While it can be challenging to let people in on the creative process at times, nobody is better at letting us know when we’re doing great work… or when we’re veering off course.
Both Subnautica and Below Zero are better games for having been regularly tested and refined based on the input of hundreds of thousands of real players.
How has the global situation of the last year or so affected the project and the team at Unknown Worlds? We’ve spoken with developers who told us that the logistics and times involved with things like sending/downloading new builds has been a major hurdle when working from home. Have things like that affected your plans and scheduling?
The pandemic has impacted our lives immensely and has created new types of challenges than we’ve seen before. That being said, Unknown Worlds has always been a fully remote team with representation from all over the world. We’ve learned about the different hardships of dealing with the global situations in various countries and we’re all in this together.
From a production standpoint we were lucky though to already have the tools and systems in place for remote work. Our schedule has not been impacted greatly and we even recently just released the final Early Access build before the game launches for the Nintendo Switch on May 14.
Following the release of Subnautica: Below Zero, what’s next for Unknown Worlds? Will we be seeing more of you on Switch?
Even after the release, we’re never truly done so we’ll be keeping a close eye, and hand, on Subnautica: Below Zero to attend to the community of players that have been with us since Early Access began. The Nintendo Switch allows us to get our games into the hands of more players and Nintendo has been a great partner so we’ll always welcome the opportunity to work with the platform.
Finally, what games have you been enjoying in your downtime recently – on Switch or elsewhere?
Many on the team are obsessed with Slay the Spire. Spire has completely changed our perspective on what a digital card game can be, it’s wonderfully designed, and a deeply satisfying experience. We can’t stop playing Dead Cells and we’re also huge fans of Spelunky 2; looking forward to that landing on Switch later this year!
Our thanks to Ted. Both Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero launch on Switch on 14th May — like buses, huh? Look out for our verdict(s) nearer the time.
In the meantime, let us know below if you're excited to dive into these games on Nintendo's console.