Each year we see at least a couple of extraordinary, sometimes even strange, story-based titles that stand out of the total mass of published games. It happens that these titles win lots of famous industry awards along with unconditional love of thousands of the players. Of course, publishers of outstanding titles want to extend the success by porting this game to platforms like Nintendo Switch but are often concerned about the dev team they could entrust porting to and be sure the same immersing gameplay experience for the new platform will be preserved.
In this article, we are going to talk about our experience of porting the award-winning What Remains of Edith Finch title, developed by Giant Sparrow and published by Annapurna Interactive, from PC to Nintendo Switch. You’ll find out what kind of team is needed and what challenges you may face while porting a story-based game.
Why we got the project?
Before we move to the details of the process, it’s important to highlight that porting games to new platforms is not a decision that publishers and developers can make spontaneously. It should be well thought out in each aspect: from a general assessment of how the game’s mechanics and features fit the target platform, to the composition of the porting team.
Setting up with an external team requires time and efforts that’s why publishers are looking for long-lasting partnerships with a reliable and experienced team with proven technical expertise that can result in serial game ports covering a solid part of their portfolio. Along with saving on setup procedures, they want to be sure that the team can understand the essence of the game and even fall in love with the story. Why? Cause in many ways this ensure the external team will also show care, excellence, and creativity while working on a porting project.
Room 8 Studio had the fortune to prove their ability to tackle all scope of work and ensure the high standards and the expected result. We gained experience in porting various game genres to Switch, some of the projects are described in our previous articles, like an art-based 3D adventure – ABZU and more. We also developed games for this platform from scratch (learn more about co-development of sports-based title with Ubisoft). Having this previous experience porting and developing various games for Switch, we discussed potential cooperation with Annapurna Interactive which resulted in porting two of their titles at once.
Besides the joy of working with great professionals from Annapurna Interactive, the project helped us to hone some skills gained in previous Switch ports. Especially, in a work with plenty of highly detailed art content in most scenes. Having a good background dealing with the same challenges in some previous porting projects, our team has improved the pipeline as well as made some creative decisions, some of which are described below.
Processes and challenges
What Remains of Edith Finch is a collection of strange tales about a family in Washington state. As Edith, you’ll explore the colossal Finch house, searching for stories as she discovers her family history and tries to figure out why she’s the last one in her family left alive.
It’s that game genre that unlocks your feeling and involves all your senses through the story. Tackling with game content like this, the developer should be careful while assessing what assets they can downgrade to optimize game performance and identifying those critical to be kept as is.
Level streaming. Passing through the core user scenario in What Remains of Edith Finch the player is going through rooms that are represented with separate sub-levels. Each of them is loading and unloading at the runtime, initializing significant impact on the console CPU resource. Our team worked on improvements to make the sublevels loaded and activated unnoticed for the player. We aimed to make the stream smooth and predictable and at the same time meet the technical limitations of Switch platform.
A small detail of huge value. One element that guides the game’s story is the pop-up text with some important notes. These notes have not only to inform the player about the details of the narration but also suggest Edith the next action. Rendering this text together with the whole scene wasn’t the right choice and made the text illegible. Therefore we allocated letters into a separate rendering pass. So, even in the case, we decided to downgrade some objects in a scene to fit the screen resolution, the letters always remained in the highest quality possible (720p -1080p).
Transition to forward rendering. To save GPU resources we made a transition to forward rendering – the new programmable graphics rendering pipeline. This transition required some additional work on reconfiguring materials and adding LODs to avoid the visible differences in the graphics quality in comparison with the original. The porting team also used some cool in-engine features like Precomputed Visibility. It helps calculate and predict where the camera will be at the exact moment of time and what objects fall in sight. Thus, we could save resources on rendering objects that are not visible in the scene at the moment.
SDK update. Initially, the game was made on Unreal Engine, version 4.10, which is not supported by Nintendo Switch SDK. When Room 8 Studio started work on a project, first of all, we made a huge jump by transferring the engine with lots of modifications and more than a thousand of custom changes to version 4.20. That was the only actual version of the engine at that moment, that was supported by Switch. Later, when Nintendo updated the SDK for Switch our team had to manually pull-up all changes from the latest version to avoid all possible sorts of bugs.
Another interesting challenge related to memory limits was the rich and amazing sound background, which absolutely could not be made less meaningful. Room 8 Studio specialists were working hard balancing between the need to preserve the original sound and compress to fit the memory limits.
Post effects. Aimed to preserve all visual enhancers and effects that translate the unique aesthetics of What Remains of Edith Finch game, we made lots of small but accurate adjustments. Trying to keep high game performance we mixed static and dynamic shadows on trees, numerous of which surround the house, along with other, like lighting, etc.
The most challenging ‘stories’ in the game. The gameplay and tone of the stories are as varied as the Finches themselves. The efforts we spent working on each story also varied. Some of the hardest places to work with during the project:
1. Forest at the beginning of the game, due to high GPU usage. Room 8 Studio specialists worked a lot optimizing lightning, shadows, geometry and small detailed objects like foliage.
2. Barbara’s Story (Surprise). As this story is stylized as a comic book and requires totally different shaders, we needed to add specific shaders support for forward-rendering.
3. Lewis’ Story (Coronation), due to high CPU and GPU usage. In this story, we worked with two scenes rendering at the same time. The ‘imagination’ scene (when the hero imagines a world where he is someone else) also needed support for forward-rendering and was very hard for CPU, for example, when we see the palace scene with lots of musical instruments (plus respective sounds) that needed to be heavily optimized.
Stepping back to this project and it’s challenging moments, we consider porting What Remains of Edith Finch to Nintendo Switch one of the most interesting and enjoyable projects. Room 8 Studio team values the support from the game’s publisher and developer that translated in frequent and regular feedback along with absolute alignment on the vision of the final product.
For the publisher besides the basic confidence that the project will be completed on time and budget, the unified vision of how the game is experienced by a player on the new platform is crucial, that’s why the proper team means so much.
Besides the technical expertise of developers and QA engineers, porting of storytelling games requires the involvement of creative stuff and vision holders into the team. You definitely want to be sure that all game components like its story, graphics and gameplay will be properly assessed, reworked and transferred to Switch in accordance with the original concept. The good dedicated porting team will result in even more benefit through the relevant expertise of well-chosen roles in the team that define the success of the project. Producer, who thinks your project success, foresees potential bottlenecks in terms of business and orchestrates all-around processes amplifying them by their own industry expertise can really make a difference. That’s why it’s so vital to engage roles like Game Designers, Producers and Associate Producers not only for developing but also for porting story-filled games to other platforms.
“If your title is a story-based adventure with lots of unique components in the gaming experience and you want to preserve that feel on target platform as well, you would want to entrust this project into the hands of porting team with a proven track record, a team that will be taken by the idea to port your game, a team that will think the market success of the final product ”
Executive Producer, Room 8 Studio
Do you have a unique title that is loved by gamers on PC, Xbox or any other platform? We are ready to get to the core of the gameplay, story, graphics, and technology and boost game’s success by porting it to Nintendo Switch. Contact us!