Singapore-based Virtuos is a studio that has already made quite a name for itself on Switch thanks to its superb ports of L.A. Noire, Dark Souls and Starlink – a trio of third-party efforts which have done much to enhance the library of Nintendo's hybrid system.
However, the company's next project could be seen a rather more daunting, given the stature of the franchise; Virtuos is currently hard at work bringing over Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster and (at a later date) Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age to Switch. Keen to learn more about the process, we spoke to executive producer Lukas Codr and senior producer Fang Xiaoshu about the remasters, working on Switch and much more besides.
Nintendo Life: Can you tell us what led to you working on the Final Fantasy Remasters? Were you approached by Square Enix?
We have a great relationship with Square Enix, having previously worked with the company on Final Fantasy Remasters for PS4 and PC. These games were big hits so it was only natural for us to be brought in to work on the Xbox One and Switch remasters, too.
What has the response been like to existing PlayStation and PC remasters?
The response has been great; we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from players and the media, so I think it’s why Square Enix approached us for the Xbox One and Switch remasters.
When did discussions start regarding the Switch and Xbox One versions?
This project got on our radar in the second half of 2017, so the team was up and running in December. For big franchises like Final Fantasy, it usually takes some time to get release dates aligned with the rest of the SKUs and other projects, so we usually put some flexibility into the schedule.
We're talking about two very different consoles here; how hard has it been to scale the games for release on the Switch, given its unique portable nature?
I would say it was quite technically challenging because to make Final Fantasy work on Switch, we needed to convert it to 32GB. So, the Switch version needed to be shrunk without impacting the performance. As this requires a fair amount of skill, we have a small team specifically to target these parts of the remaster.
Did you have to tweak any element of the games in the process of porting them to new systems? Likewise, were there any ways in which you feel you improved the experience?
For such a great franchise, the main goal is to bring the exact same experience as the original version to the player. So, we haven’t touched the core content of these games in order to keep the same flavour as before.
However, some obvious legacy issues have been fixed during porting, including some UI logic and translation glitches. We’ve taken the “quick recovery” feature from PS Vita to Switch in order to take advantage of its touch screen. Finally, we’ve also integrated the “key mapping” system into both Xbox One and Switch versions in order to give more control flexibility to players around the globe. This is the first time we brought it to consoles (PS4/PSV don’t have it, only PC has such functionality).
We believe these features and fixes can actually give a better experience to players than the previous remaster versions.
Were there any lessons taken from Dark Souls and Starlink that came in handy with these games?
Communication is always super important in this type of project. The key is to be fully transparent to the client and never hide any issues the team encounters, so that we have time to find good solutions together.
We also had a well-experienced Japanese producer in charge of talking to the client, which was essential to bridge any cultural differences between Japanese and Western game development practices. Having such a person on site has proven extremely useful in those potentially tricky moments when we faced technical or production constraints. That was the last piece of the puzzle, next to things like technical feasibility reports, feature demos and so on.
What lessons did you learn from having to port these games to two such different systems?
Xbox has a unique “player profile” system, which requires title response to the changes of player profile status at any time when the game is running. Unfortunately, the original game could not be paused at any given moment, so we had to change some lower level code to make sure the engine can satisfy these platform requirements.
For Nintendo Switch, the main challenge was the package size, as the previous raw data size could reach up to 50GB. This much data simply cannot fit on a single Switch game card, so we had to analyse and modify the data cooking pipeline and managed to fit the game on a 32GB card without any impact on visual quality or loading performance.
Another tricky part is middleware. Some specific middlewares are no longer supported, so we had to remove them or replace them with our in-house libraries, which we have available for such situations.
Would you say this was an easier task than Dark Souls and Starlink?
Compared to Dark Souls, we can say the development was smoother in general. It was still a lot of work due to the sheer size of the games we were porting and all the different SKUs we had to prepare, but we had a very good understanding of the code. Moreover, many of the necessary performance optimisations were already present in the code.
Just like with every project, we also had our share of issues and difficulties. However, the team at Square Enix was very responsive, so we were able to solve them without too much hassle.
Final Fantasy, Dark Souls and L.A. Noire are three massive properties – what's it like to be trusted with them?
We always treat every client’s IP as if it was our own. It’s our bread and butter working with other companies’ IPs so we’re very comfortable with doing so. The key thing is good communication with the client, both in knowing exactly what they want and keeping them updated along the way.
Not so long ago, the concept of a remaster was pretty unusual, but we've seen a sharp rise in this kind of project in recent years. Do you think this will continue, and if so, does that make a studio like Virtuos even more valuable to publishers?
We're big fans of remasters and older games so it’s very exciting to see that IP owners want to bring them back, bigger and better, onto more powerful consoles. We think remasters will continue to be very popular in part from older generations playing the very same games when they were kids, with their own kids.
We’ve found though that it’s not just remasters where studios are looking for support from companies like us. We’re working more in co-development of titles, and are increasingly designing entire levels for new games as we help studios to expand the scope of their games.