What's it like developing for the Switch? 9 indie studios weigh in
Before the Nintendo Switch launched on March 3, developers who were among the first to bring their games to the new console described themselves as having been “gagged.” Nintendo forbade them from saying anything public about the process of developing games for the Switch.
After March 3, that gag was lifted and many of those silenced developers have been able to speak up. But forget any association with kidnapping that the word “gagged” may have. Those developers aren’t telling horrific stories of being locked up in development hell. On the contrary, the consensus is that the Switch is “the least demanding Nintendo console” to develop for yet.
This is no small feat given that the whole idea behind the Switch is that it doesn’t serve one console experience but many. It can be placed in a dock and transmit to a TV like a traditional home console, but it can also be taken out of that dock and played as a handheld, and from there the two Joy-Con controllers can be detached from the sides of the screen for multiplayer sessions.
All of these transformations happen in a snap, too, so developers have to ensure both an instant and smooth transition. Except they don’t. “Usually, you have to think about a second screen or some kind of feature that requires rethinking your game from the ground up,” says David D’Angelo of Yacht Club Games, the studio behind Shovel Knight. “The portable/console transition [of the Nintendo Switch] just works and is seamless!”
The notion that it “just works” is repeated by the other early Switch game developers. “The switch between the handheld and the console mode was the first thing we tried. It worked on the get-go. Nothing to do for us, the display changed from TV to the LCD (and vice versa) without any specific code,” says David Bellanco of Game Atelier, the studio making Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom
“After the first test we just had to handle the change of gamepad mode and make it work at 720p resolution in handheld mode," adds Bellanco. "That's it, really! It's very easy to have the game working in those two modes.”
This is a big relief for all. The big question for most developers when it came to the Switch is how many small adjustments it would take to get their games working well on both a large TV screen and a smaller handheld one. But it seems Nintendo has performed a magic trick by almost entirely eliminating the potential hassle of that process.
The only minor note on this topic came from Brian Provinciano of VBlank Entertainment, who is making the open-world action game Shakedown Hawaii for the Switch. “One difference is the need to handle the old TV ‘safe area’ when in console mode, but not in handheld mode. TVs by default cut off the outer edge of the screen,” Provinciano explains. “If you don't leave extra padding, half of the score might be missing, for example. So, if you run your game identically for both, you'll notice a bit of a border in handheld mode. The alternative is to use a different camera, and use different HUD/UI placement for each.”
Other than that the Switch has arrived as a blessing for these developers, especially Dant Rambo of Choice Provisions, who is currently working on rhythm game sequel Runner3. With its BIT.TRIP series alone, Choice Provisions has developed seven titles that were released for both the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo 3DS. That was a lot of work. But in having dropped that dual console approach with the Switch, and instead releasing a hybrid, Nintendo has thankfully lessened the development work for multi-platform studios like Choice Provisions.
“After years of spreading ourselves thin focusing on several platforms at once, it’s been an incredible relief to focus all our efforts on just one platform, and for it to be so easy to develop for,” says Rambo.
Given that the Switch is a hybrid console, being for both TV and handheld gaming, one of its biggest tests is the power and performance of the hardware. Consoles have always been judged by their processors and graphical output: the bigger the better. But the Switch is a different kind of machine that requires a new measurement stick.
For Valerio Di Donato of 34BigThings, who is working on futuristic racing game Redout, “the Switch is first and foremost a mobile console.” What that means for him is that, while the Switch’s custom NVIDIA tech does have “some real power,” it’s not necessarily trying to compete with other consoles on that front. Instead, Donato looks at the Switch in its own category and with its own goals.
“I think NVIDIA did an amazing job with the GPU of this console and you can't simply find anything that matches it in terms of GPU power and portability at this time,” Donato says. “I would probably have preferred to have something to spice it up once connected to the dock instead of just unlocking additional power on the same components, but I'm assuming something like that would have skyrocketed the costs.”
The other developers had no complaints whatsoever about performance or power but this is largely due to the low demands their games put on the hardware. “Shovel Knight is not the most power hungry game in the world, so we haven’t spent the time really investigating the bounds to wish you can push performance on the Nintendo Switch,” says D’Angelo. “That said, the specs outline a very powerful machine at that size and price - we’re impressed!”
The only potential exception in the group was David Bellanco, whose game Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom is a 2D platformer like Shovel Knight, but happens to be a little more heavy going on hardware. But the Switch passed that test too. “Before we got our hands on the hardware, we were concerned about the mobile chip: fill-rate is important for a full HD 2D game (lots of alpha blending is really taxing on any GPU),” Bellanco says. “But the performance is excellent and the game is running 1080p at 60fps. We can keep adding graphical features to the game without fearing any optimization trouble.”
It’s not only the physical hardware of the Switch that has helped to make game performance so smooth and optimization so easy for these developers. The console’s integration with third-party engines is also a big contributing factor. “The Nintendo Switch is compatible with Unreal Engine and Unity engines, and our games being mainly developed on those graphic engines, it is really convenient for us,” says Stephane Longeard of Microids, who is developing adventure game sequel Syberia 3 for the Switch. “We can also count on Nintendo’s support during development process as well as Unity’s.”
Donato adds to this that if you’re already using Unreal or Unity then “porting the game should feel exactly the same as porting it to any other console: each has its quirks and workaround to fight and you will still need to pour a lot of work into it, if you care for a decent porting.”
If you’re not working with Unreal or Unity, but are instead using your own game engine, then evidence so far suggests there shouldn’t be any big issues there either. Kai Tuovinen of Frozenbyte, who is bringing roguelike action-strategy game Has-Been Heroes to the Switch, speaks on this.
“We didn't have almost any difficulties with making Has-Been Heroes for Switch, our own engine has been pretty flexible and easy to adapt to it, and we managed to get the game running at 60fps at 720p portable and 1080p docked,” Tuovinen says. “One of the things we stressed about in the early stages was how to make the resolution change dynamically from the handheld's native 720p to 1080p when going from handheld to docked and vice versa. This turned out to be a non-issue in the end, and it works great.”
A joy to behold
One of the Switch’s defining features is its two Joy-Con controllers. They have been criticized by some users for being so small, at least in comparison with traditional game controllers, and this was a concern for some of the developers at first, but that soon passed. “We were a little worried at first that hand cramping could occur if you played for a long period, but that hasn’t been the case,” says Rambo. “They’re really neat little controllers.”
What most players agree upon is that there’s a luxury in being able to have your hands separate while playing a Switch game. Each Joy-Con has its own face buttons and analog stick, but also come with an accelerometer and gyroscope motion sensor so they can be used independently. You can play with your hands down by your sides or you can split them between people during multiplayer games.
The developers also found this to be a major boon while playtesting their games on the Switch. “The biggest surprise was how nice it is to play with the separated Joy-Cons, one in each hand,” says Provinciano. “Even with games designed around a traditional controller, it feels pretty good having the freedom to rest each hand and arm wherever. I'm pretty into ergonomics though, so I might be extra inclined to like it.”
Greg Wohlwend found a similar behavior occurred among his team at aeiowu as they worked on rolly roguelike TumbleSeed for the Switch. “We'll often detach [the Joy-Cons] when playing development builds when we're all in the same place working on the game together. That way we can pass them around when testing out different feels in the rumble or whatever else,” Wohlwend says. “That's really handy. We pretty much use the Switch as it wants to be used, unplugging it and doing some bug-testing on the couch is a nice change from sitting in the desk chair hunched over.”
The biggest complaint about the Switch’s controller from users since the console’s release is that the left Joy-Con has trouble maintaining a consistent wireless Bluetooth connection at certain distances. But the developers didn’t come across any similar issues with connectivity or the inputs of the controllers themselves.
Bellanco sums up their impressions on that topic when he says, “It’s pretty straightforward. We have here the same number of inputs as the Xbox One and the PS4 controller, so we didn't have anything to change.” The only slight hiccup experienced with the Joy-Cons came from Donato: “We had to change the mapping of one single button and everything worked automatically, but that's mostly thanks to Unreal Engine and the Switch integration,” he says.
What practically all of the developers that were questioned got very excited about was the HD Rumble feature built into the Joy-Cons. It’s an advanced version of the rumble functions that modern game controllers have in that it allows for multiple sources of vibration to be felt within the controllers. One of the mini-games in launch title 1-2-Switch, for example, has players tilt the Joy-Con in order to feel how many balls are rolling around inside it. There are no balls inside the controllers but the HD Rumble gives the impression that there are many.
“I think the best new thing about the Nintendo Switch is the HD Rumble feature. We can have real stereo vibration with an accuracy level we didn't witness on the other platforms,” says Bellanco. “We only have it implemented in some limited cases for now but this feature is something intend to use more in the game.”
Wohlwend gets especially giddy when talking about the HD Rumble feature as it suits the focus on movement in his game TumbleSeed. “The HD Rumble is the big feature we're diving deep into. Because our game is very physical and you're constantly rolling around trying to avoid holes and attack enemies you want to know as much information about how fast you're going, where you are on the screen ALL THE TIME. So HD Rumble gives us that ability to communicate that sense or feeling to the player.”
Omar Cornut of the studio Lizardcube wasn’t initially so enthused by the HD Rumble but when showing Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap at GDC his perspective was changed. “We will put more resources at getting the haptic feedback right,” Cornut says. “As we found out with various demos shown last week [at GDC], the rumbles on the Joy-Con are really nice and it’d be a shame to not take advantage of that. It’s a little talked feature but with the right software design, people will really like it when they feel it.”
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap
Facing the future
It’s still early days for the Switch, but the developers working with it that were spoken to have been almost universally positive about their experience with it. They’ve found it to be a modern and overall pleasant package to work with. The biggest hope they have for the Switch’s future is for Nintendo to stay on their toes by continuously improving the software and listening to developers in the years to come.
When asked to rank the Switch against other modern consoles, many of the developers put it on par with the PlayStation 4 in terms of ease to work with. And they all seemed to agree that it’s the best Nintendo console for developers at this point. “The tools and hardware are much better than they were for the Wii U, so devs from the previous generation should look forward to digging into the Switch,” says Provinciano. “Nintendo's also been good with support whenever I've had technical questions.”
These thoughts are mirrored by the team at Frozenbyte who, like Provinciano, have developed for a number of different Nintendo consoles. “It has been easier to develop for than Wii U, mainly because of better documentation and the whole ecosystem has been thought out much more from a developer perspective - our programmers have been praising the API as well,” says Tuovinen. “It is so much nicer to work on a platform that has been designed well, not just from the hardware perspective but from the development perspective too.”
Another veteran of developing for Nintendo hardware is Bellanco, whose final thoughts are more mixed. “I've worked on several Nintendo platforms over the years, from the DS to the Wii U. Working on the Nintendo Switch is like night and day,” says Bellanco. “Nintendo did a very good job making it easier to develop on the Switch. It's very straightforward, I push play on my visual studio, it runs on the device and I can debug very easily.”
However, Bellanco still thinks that Sony is better with the SDK, but views Nintendo as rapidly catching up in that department. He finds the API easy to understand and the documentation that came with the Switch to be helpful, but not perfect. He wasn’t hugely critical but did say that Nintendo “could improve their docs; some API or features have limited docs. I like samples, I always want more samples.”
This was followed by Cornut whose criticism wasn’t aimed at Nintendo as much as it was all current console manufacturers. “I keep saying it, and it is daydreaming at this point, but the first console manufacturer who will allow programmers to publicly release code that uses their API (even if the actual libraries and release process are still fully under their control, like Apple does) will make a huge leap in term of development quality,” says Cornut. “Right now console developers can’t easily share code or discuss issues because, well, no one can release their code. It’s a mental switch that first-parties have to flip in their head, but it would be a small revolution.
Out of them all, it is probably Wohlwend that had the most damning complaint of Nintendo and the release of the Switch. “Don't release a new Zelda while we still have to finish TumbleSeed,” he says. “That's just mean.”