Development started right after KI:U was finished, february 2012 if I recall right
Or so they want you to think. I don't think it's a huge conspiracy theory or anything, but I'm fairly certain with or without Sakurai, they'd make another Smash. Honestly, I figure that's why they got Bamco in on this game, to use their talent to make up for a lack of Sakurai.
Sakurai just agreed to jump in to help direct the game after KI:U was finished. I think anyone who figures the game started development after Sakurai signed on is naive, and they're underestimating Nintendo's extreme desire to get people to buy Wii U's.
lol... So you think they started a new game without a director (and therefore without direction), and also gave it to a third-party developer for that reason, as well?
That makes literally zero sense.
The more logical conclusion would be they hired Namco to help speed development along since Sakurai was unable to start working on the game as early as they wanted. So hiring a full team of experienced fighting-game developers, despite them being an outside company, made the most sense if they wanted to finish the game as quickly as possible.
There is absolutely no reason to believe they started work on the game before Sakurai was prepared to do so.... Otherwise, what would be the point of even hiring Sakurai? If they thought they could make the game without him then they would do so... It's not like Sakurai still works for Nintendo, you know?
I'm pretty sure Nintendo wasn't expecting the Wii U to be struggling so badly, saying "Oh they announced a new Smash just because they are desperate to sell Wii U's" is silly, the game was announced LONG before the Wii U was even released, I'm pretty sure they didn't predict the poor sales a year or so beforehand and think "Oh no we need a new Smash for our already doomed console"
Smash 4 was not made to combat the poor Wii U sales, but, it is something they can use to help it now.
As for roster size, I don't expect anything, but thats just because I don't get my hopes up unreasonably high so that way I'm never disappointed if say, we only end up with 40 characters (hypothetically speaking of course)
If I had to give a number, 45-52 seems reasonable if Brawl's roster is intact, that's 39 + 13 Newcomers at maximum, honestly? I'm not sure what to think at this point, Sakurai has been very contradictory and cryptic in his comments, mistranslations perhaps? who knows ...