The September Nintendo Direct was an ostentatious, PowerPoint-y glimpse at the absolute deluge of content constantly flooding Nintendo’s portable console. In some kind of reverse Black Friday, publishers were stampeding to display their products on the hardware’s digital shelves.
Every conceivable kind of port was represented. The long-requested triple-A titan (Overwatch). The 100-hour RPG that people with busy schedules would rather have on a handheld (Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age, Divinity Original Sin 2: Definitive Edition). The Wii U port (Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE Encore). The Wii port (Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition). The port of a last-gen open-world game (Assassin’s Creed: The Rebel Collection). The cult classic (Deadly Premonition). The regular classic (Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast). The indie PC darling (Return of the Obra Dinn). Oh yeah, and 20 Super Nintendo games!
It’s a staggeringly diverse assortment of games. At this point, it really feels like nothing is off the table; like anything could come to the Switch. That may provide the opportunity for graphical upgrades -- as in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles -- but, more often, porting a game to Switch requires compromise.
We chatted with developers from Iron Galaxy (who ported The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), Panic Button (Doom, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Rocket League) and Warp Digital (Return of the Obra Dinn, Blasphemous, Close to the Sun) for a look at the downgrades, and occasional upscales, that different games demand. And, for some historical context, we talked to the man who literally wrote the book on porting games to underpowered hardware, David L. Craddock, author of Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room.
The Switch is the least powerful home console on the market. It’s also incredibly popular, with nearly 37 million units sold as of July (before the launch of the Switch Lite) and more than 10 million units sold in Europe alone. As a result, publishers are willing to sacrifice framerate and polish to get big games to the tiny console’s huge user base.
“If you look back at any hardware generation of consoles, the most popular platform(s) drowned in a deluge of games,” said Craddock. “Besides the Switch, the best two examples are the PS2 and Wii. Both of those platforms sold tens of millions, and consequently hosted countless ports, even if -- in the case of games such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare on Wii -- they weren’t technically equipped to do them justice.”
“The big difference with the Switch, and the reason why I think its catalog, when all is said and done, will eclipse even the Wii’s, is the Switch marks the first time a manufacturer produced a handheld with near-parity to traditional consoles," he said. "Think of it this way: Two years ago, if someone would have asked you to recommend the most technically advanced Mario Kart game for portables, you would have said Mario Kart 7 for 3DS. Now the answer is Mario Kart 8 Deluxe -- a port of a Wii U game, and still jaw-droppingly gorgeous in 2019.”
As a result, this era of ports is distinct from any era that came before. And yet, little has changed. Downgraded ports have always promised convenience -- at a cost. Players being willing to pay for a graphically unimpressive version of The Witcher 3 on Switch isn’t all that different than players being willing to pay for a graphically unimpressive version of Mortal Kombat on the SNES. Mortal Kombat promised an arcade classic in the comfort of your own home. The Witcher 3 for Switch promises a PC and console classic in the comfort of…anywhere. For adults with vanishingly little spare time, the ability to play when and where you can is just as appealing, if not more appealing, than impressive graphics and a silky framerate.
But, that doesn’t mean that ports can be half-baked. For the folks at Panic Button, big compromises on either front are unacceptable.
“We have to achieve a balance. Spectacular graphics at 10 frames per second? Nope! Solid 30 FPS with uninspiring visuals? Fail!” D. Michael Traub, co-founder and technical director of Panic Button, said via email. “The question ‘Is it possible?’ is largely academic. We consider questions such as: ‘Does this project make good business sense for both parties? How long do we think the project will take? Are applicable resources available at the right times? What quality levels do we expect to realistically achieve?’”
The folks at Panic Button -- who have an excellent history of “much better than you could possibly expect” Switch ports -- don’t take anything for granted as they begin a project.
“We begin most of our projects with a ‘due diligence’ evaluation phase. A game may look simple (or complicated), but you never know until you crack it open to see how it works,” said Traub.
Warp Digital outlined a few of the challenges the company faces, and a few Switch-specific fixes.
“Framerate is an obvious one,” said technical director, Stuart Miller. “Taking a title that runs at 30fps on a high-end PC to Switch is always going to pose challenges. Addressing this often comes down to spending time with the game, finding out exactly why it's not hitting frame target and formulating a plan that hopefully leaves the game exactly how it was on PC.”
“For example, if the issue is graphical, we can often optimize shaders or geometry so that it's more ‘Switch friendly,’ with the end goal being that the game looks the same or as close to the original as possible," Miller said. "Some more advanced post effects will often have to be changed to fit with the Switch GPU, but there are so many tricks that we can employ to do this that often it's hard to tell.”
“In other cases, re-architecting game systems (like how memory is managed, how graphics jobs are submitted to the GPU and making use of hardware-specific features) is enough to push the game into the frame target, which means the game itself is left completely untouched," he added. "The original developers of the game often have such a huge task of making the game that they don't have the time or the know-how to optimize systems, which provides us opportunities to squeeze more performance out on platforms like Switch.”
On that front, the problems that a game presents may not even arise from graphical or stability issues. When Panic Button was adapting Runic’s Torchlight II for the Switch, one of their primary challenges arose from a problem inherent to the Switch’s core conceit: that games need to look good on a huge HD TV and on the tiny built-in screen.
“One unexpected challenge with bringing existing titles to the Switch is… small text! Sometimes we are able to tweak the text size up a bit. Sometimes not much at all,” said Traub. “On Torchlight II, we completely redesigned the user interface, so we were able to take special care to keep the text readable on the Switch. With the slightly smaller screen on the Switch Lite, the issue of text size is even more significant.”
However, the folks at Warp Digital said that the newly released Switch Lite has not caused any real problems, as the features it lacks are also missing from other consoles.
“We don't see any major issues related to the Switch Lite. It's quite rare for us to see games that solely rely on motion controls and as we often port to Xbox One at the same time as Switch, which doesn't have motion controls, it's something that we have to tackle anyway,” said senior producer, Piers Duplock. “Likewise with HD Rumble. It's a feature we always like to support in some way and we'll continue to support on Switch, but most of our ports come with an option to disable rumble as some gamers don't like it, so again, it’s an issue we're used to tackling.”
In fact, the Switch Lite has actually improved text readability issues for the devs at Warp Digital.
“Initially, we thought the screen size might have an effect on the readability of smaller text,”said Miller, “but so far, we've found the new screen to be easier to read smaller text, not harder (probably because of the higher pixel density) and haven't seen any impact on the porting process.”
For Iron Galaxy, porting Bethesda’s massively popular open-world RPG Skyrim to Switch was an opportunity, because the team sought to make the game an improvement over its last-gen counterparts, rather than downgrading the remastered version available for the current generation of consoles. So, while the Switch port couldn’t match the graphical heights of the Skyrim: Special Edition, it was markedly better than the original Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.
“[We didn’t doubt] that it was possible [to get it running on a Switch], given that the Switch is more powerful than either of those platforms. What was in doubt [was] how hard we could push the Switch to make Skyrim look as good as possible for modern players,” said Tom Carbone Jr., community manager at Iron Galaxy.
“Our primary concern with any port is keeping the experience as close to the original as possible. For Skyrim, we tried adding things to enhance the experience for new players, like Amiibo support and motion controls that are unique to the Switch. Having said that, our plan was to focus on framerate at first, get a rate as fast as we possibly could on the Switch, and then focus on graphical enhancements second.
"Luckily we were able to pull in a fair amount of the content from the [Special Edition] and were able to keep a good framerate while adding a number of graphical enhancements. We knew we’d be able to go above and beyond what the PS3 and 360 versions could do given that the Switch is more powerful than those platforms. With this added power, we were able to utilize a bunch of enhancements from the Special Edition.”
Craddock doubts that introducing the Switch Lite into the wild will have any major effects on developers’ efforts to port to the Switch.
“My prediction is the Switch Lite shouldn’t impact porting games because its hardware is nearly identical to the ‘vanilla’ or base model Switch released in March 2017. Historically, developers have faced some hurdles when porting games to ‘half-step’ platforms. Game Boy Color games had to run on Game Boy and Game Boy Pocket, both of which were slightly less capable than the Color,” Craddock said.
“A more recent case is the PS4 and PS4 Pro and, especially, the Xbox One to Xbox One X, a more significant jump. I’ve talked with developers who have expressed frustration with having to develop Xbox games that perform well on both. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place: the X is far more capable, but has a smaller install base than the Xbox One launch and ‘S’ models, which share hardware.
"It makes me wonder whether half-step consoles are viable in the future, though I do predict we’ll see a ‘Pro’ Switch in the next year or two as Nintendo tries to stay relevant with the PS5 and Xbox [Project Scarlett]. They say they’re out of the console ‘arms race,’ but pragmatically, consumers like newer, shinier boxes.”
Craddock predicts that the arrival of Sony and Microsoft’s “newer, shinier boxes” may rain on the Switch’s port parade.
“I do think that trend will slow after the PS5 and Xbox [Scarlett] launch. At that point, developers will have to seriously consider whether porting games for hardware of that caliber (8K, 60 frames per second, etc.) to what will then be a significantly inferior platform in the Switch will be worthwhile.”
We’ll have to wait until next fall to see what next-gen consoles mean for the Switch. But, if history is any indicator, the time in between will be full of surprises. And yet, nothing will really change.