Bloomberg recently reported that Nintendo is working on a new and more powerful version of the Nintendo Switch hardware that will reportedly allow the console to display games in 4K resolution when docked. That would certainly be an interesting feature, but that’s not why this news is so exciting.
The truth is, the Switch has been underpowered for some time now, and it has become a problem for anyone using the hardware as their main console. The problem was never the lack of 4K support, but rather the ability to offer the gamer even graphically modest games without having to compromise performance with distractions.
The optimization problem
The Switch launched four years ago and took off like a rocket due to the hybrid portable / console nature of the system design and the availability of a Mario game that became an instant classic, a Zelda game that … well, did the same, and an updated version of one of the best Mario Kart games ever released.
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 received power upgrades from midgeneration, and follow-ups from Microsoft and Sony attempted to bring some of the power from PC gaming to consoles. Nintendo launched its system with the innards of a glorified cell phone. It was a bold choice that paid off, proving that some gamers are more interested in the game’s library and portability than raw power.
The Switch wasn’t as powerful as the competition, but who cared? It didn’t have to be. Nintendo was making its own standout games for the platform, and they were doing well. The power difference between the Switch and its closest competitors was also much less pronounced in earlier times in 2017.
But that gulf of power widened over time. Overcooked released with significant frame rate issues; Ark: Survival Evolved it had to come down to the basics to get it running on the system. Motion Twin, the developer of Dead cells, he apologized for the status of his Switch version at launch. And the latest Switch port of a major game, Respawn Entertainment’s Apex legends, it is a very committed experience.
Game developer Sterling Selover wrote about the challenges of porting Stingbot’s The forbidden arts for Switch in 2019. “Overall, I spent 4 months working on the Switch port, while continuing to improve and finish the game on other platforms simultaneously,” Selover said. “The Switch hardware is unique, and unless a game is specifically designed for The Switch, it will probably be very difficult to maintain consistency with the most powerful hardware consoles.”
That problem is only getting worse as developers focus on increasing the power of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. It will only be more difficult to create games that work well on both classes of consoles. The answer is either more time spent optimizing, which comes with its own costs and limitations for smaller rigs, or designing with huge power disparity in mind up front.
However, as time goes on, more games with disappointing performance, load times, and resolution are more likely to be released for the Switch. That’s bad news for everyone from developers trying to deliver the best version of their games, to fans who want to play high-quality ports on their Switch. Something had to give.
So what does more powerful hardware offer us?
The rumored new Switch hardware is also said to include technology that would make it easier for developers to get higher system performance.
“The addition of DLSS would be a boon for new games and developers,” explained Polygon’s Michael McWhertor in a recent news post about the console. “Nvidia technology uses AI to accelerate graphics reproduction through image reconstruction, maintaining high image quality while offering improved frame rates. Simply put, it enables a video card to render a game with a lower internal resolution, reducing the load on the GPU as it uses Nvidia’s AI algorithm to generate a reconstructed image that looks as good as ( or, in some cases, better than) the game rendered in native resolution. “
Forget the frame rate and resolution arguments for a bit. The real issues here are readability and how each game feels. The developers want to create Switch ports that allow gamers to see and understand the action while making sure the games feel good to play. That is the goal.
Nintendo put developers in a bit of a bind with the original Switch – the system isn’t powerful enough to be comparable to competing consoles, but it sells so well that developers may feel like they can’t afford to skip it. By increasing the power of the lowest-end console on the market, Nintendo can facilitate game development across the board, which could lead to more and better ports of all the games you want to play on the go.
By offering more powerful Switch hardware and getting gamers to access that more powerful hardware as quickly as possible, Nintendo could offer developers an ecosystem where they can spend less time optimizing their games to achieve that goal. It also means that developers who spend time building scalable engines can use more of those engines’ features on the Switch while keeping the game playable in terms of raw performance.
The best possible scenario? More ports, done in less time, using fewer resources, that look and play better. And that’s good for everyone … except maybe Microsoft and Sony.