Bloomberg recently reported that Nintendo is working on a new, 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 a nice feature, but that’s not why this news is so exciting.
The truth is that the switch has been underpowered for some time now, and it has become a problem for anyone who uses the hardware as their primary console. The problem was never a lack of 4K support, but rather the ability to deliver even graphically modest games to the player without having to interfere with performance.
The question of optimization
Switch was released four years ago and started as a rocket due to the hybrid laptop / console character of the system design and the availability of a Mario game that became an instant classic, a Zelda game that … well, did the same thing , and an updated version of one of the best Mario Kart games ever released.
The switch was not as powerful as the competition, but who cared? It did not have to be. Nintendo made their own excellent games for the platform, and they ran just fine. The difference in power between the switch and its closest competitors was also much less pronounced before 2017.
But that gulf of power increased over time. Overcooked launched with significant frame rate issues; Ark: Survival Evolved had to be cut down to the basics to run on the system at all. Motion Twin, the developer of Dead cells, apologized for the condition of the Switch version at launch. And the latest Switch port for a big game, Respawn Entertainment’s Apex Legends, is a very compromised experience.
Game developer Sterling Selover wrote about the challenges of porting Stingbot’s The Forbidden Arts to Switch in 2019. “All in all, I spent 4 months on the Switch port, while at the same time continuing to improve and complete the game on other platforms,” said Selover. “The Switch’s hardware is unique, and unless a game is designed specifically for The Switch, it will probably be very difficult to maintain the consistency of consoles with more powerful hardware.”
The problem only gets worse as developers focus on the increased power of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. It just gets harder to create games that work well on both console classes. The answer is either more time spent on optimization, which comes with its own costs and limitations for smaller teams, or designing with the huge power difference in mind from the beginning.
However, as time goes on, it becomes more likely that more games with disappointing performance, load times and resolution will be released for the switch. There is bad news for everyone, from developers trying to deliver the best version of their games, to fans wanting to play high quality sports on Switch. Something had to give.
So what does more powerful hardware get us?
The rumored new Switch hardware is also said to feature technology that will make it easier for developers to get more performance out of the system.
“The addition of DLSS would be a boon for new games and developers,” Polygon’s Michael McWhertor explained in a recent news post about the console. Nvidia’s technology uses AI to accelerate image reproduction through image construction, while maintaining high image quality while providing improved frame rates. Simply put, it allows 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) the game rendered with original resolution. ”
Forget the arguments about frame rate and resolution a bit. The real issues here are readability and how each game feels. Developers want to create Switch gates that let players see and understand the action while making sure the games still feel good to play. That is the goal.
Nintendo put developers a bit in touch with the original switch: The system is not powerful enough to be comparable to competing consoles, but it sells so well that developers may feel that they can not afford to skip it. By increasing the power of the lowest console on the market, Nintendo can facilitate the development of games across the board, which can lead to more – and better – ports on all the games you want to play on the go.
By offering more powerful Switch hardware, and getting players to the more powerful hardware as quickly as possible, Nintendo can provide developers with 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 several of these engine features on the Switch while keeping the game playable in terms of raw performance.
At best? More ports, done in less time, and uses fewer resources, which looks better and plays. And it’s good for everyone … except maybe Microsoft and Sony.