A four-year old game being ported to Nintendo Switch wouldn’t usually ruffle many feathers – the success of the hybrid console has had developers and publishers the world over scouring their back catalogues for titles to revamp for the popular platform.
But when the game in question is something like The Witcher III – an epic open-world RPG, considered one of the most visually and technically impressive games of the current console generation, as well as one of the most demanding – one question immediately jumps to mind: how?
For context, The Witcher III is a game with recommended PC specs calling for a 3.4 GHz Intel i7 processor, 40GB of disk space, and 6GB RAM. The Switch, conversely, runs off a custom Nvidia Tegra chip, has only 4GB LPDDR4 memory, and a mere 32GB storage space. By all rights, “The Switcher” – to use its affectionate but unofficial moniker – shouldn’t even work. Factor in that the upcoming release will also squeeze in both expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, and that the entire package will fit onto a single Switch game card, and it’s even more baffling.
Understandably, the game has been slightly downgraded for the port, even below the Switch’s usual output standards. While Nintendo’s hardware is usually capable of outputting a 720p image in handheld mode and full 1080p HD when docked, for The Witcher III, it will be capped at 540p and 720p respectively.
“To fit it to the card, we had to recompress down a little bit to 720p,” says Piotr Chrzanowski, a senior producer at developer CD Projekt Red. “There is a resolution we’re aiming towards, so that gave us a bit of space there. We also did a lot of optimisation on the texture size, just to make sure everything works well and can fit into available memory on the Switch.”
Playing the game at a preview event at Nintendo’s offices, it’s hard to discern much difference in the game compared to its incarnations on more powerful consoles, despite the compression and digital trickery. The image is arguably a little softer overall, but all the detail that players familiar with the PC, PS4, or Xbox One versions of The Witcher III might expect is there. It also plays perfectly smoothly, with no noticeable slowdown or lag.
“We use dynamic resolution,” says Chrzanowski. “It’s adaptive for if you have some heavy loads and it depends on a few factors. It’s mostly about the GPU and how many objects it needs to render in a scene, and then it scales down to make sure you get a proper frames-per-second performance.”
A few technical changes also helped shrink the voluminous game, such as draw distance – the number of objects visible as the view disappears into the horizon – and shadow cascades, the number and quality of shadows cast by objects.
“Draw distance is a bit condensed. I would say you get roughly 20 per cent shorter than the PS4,” says Chrzanowski. “With shadow cascades, on platforms like PC, we had four if I recall; here you’ll have two – one closer to the player, the other a bit further away. On foliage density, you’ll see it’s a little lighter. We want to make sure you don’t really feel it, you don’t see it, but those are the kind of things we changed.”
There’s another question that comes to mind when the matter of ‘The Switcher’ is concerned – why? It’s a significant undertaking to bring such a gargantuan game to the platform, even with CD Projekt Red bringing in American studio Saber Interactive to help with the port, but the most immediate benefit to the project is simple: more people will get to finish the game.
“The Witcher III is a huge game. I think there are plenty of people who thought they probably couldn’t see the end. Not everyone can spend 160 hours in front of a computer,” says Chrzanowski. “So to bring that game to a mobile console, to allow you to enjoy the same experience but just on the go, it was a great idea.”
It’s telling that the preview event chose to show The Witcher III on Switch in handheld mode only. There’s a sense that CD Projekt Red knows that anyone who wants to play the game in full glorious high definition on a big screen TV will have already done so, via its previous console releases. There’s also no doubt that a 720p maxed image when docked won’t compare. But having a full-scale game of this calibre fully playable on the go – with the exact same content, same number of characters populating the world, same number of quests, and all fully voiced – is an incredible accomplishment.
Chrzanowski also cites the upcoming Switch Lite – Nintendo’s smaller, handheld-only model of the Switch – as a reason to be excited for big games in smaller sizes. He says that The Witcher III on the Lite is “going to be the same experience, the resolution is the same, it’s just a bit smaller screen size. Beyond that, spec wise, hardware wise, you get the same experience.”
Chrzanowski won’t be drawn on whether the much-rumoured ‘Switch Pro’ – a still-hypothetical more powerful version of the hardware – could potentially retroactively unlock PS4 levels of performance from the game. Yet the ultimate takeaway is that for CD Projekt Red – and perhaps even Nintendo – the comparatively low power of the Switch isn’t going to be an impediment, despite the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles promising even greater power. Fidelity of experience beats the number of petals on a virtual flower or a 20 per cent greater draw distance, and if The Witcher III on Switch proves successful, even more titles commonly held to be impossible to release on the console could start appearing.
“If you see the experience, the way it plays, it’s the full Witcher III experience,” explains Chrzanowski. “I don’t think that focusing on the resolution is the way to talk about it. For us, it’s a full game, an end-to-end port, something that we are really proud of. Whether [resolution] is a specific concern for someone is difficult for me to comment – but I don’t think it makes the game any less playable, or any less enjoyable.”
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