Against all the odds, Nintendo Switch has hosted some stunning third-party ports since launching back in 2017. Disproving the idea that third-parties and Nintendo platforms don't mix well, Switch has attracted some truly excellent (and unexpected) games that manage to squeeze performance from the console's modest mobile chipset that few believed was possible. Where there's a will there's a way, it seems, and a handful of porting houses have worked wonders on Nintendo's hybrid handheld.
One of those developers is Feral Interactive, the studio responsible for bringing both GRID Autosport and Alien: Isolation to Switch. Both games are masterclasses in porting to the console and, incredibly, they represent the first two games the developer has brought to any dedicated home console since the London-based company was founded in 1996.
"Feral began with the aim of bringing AAA games to the Macintosh platform and we built up a lot of experience doing just that," says Edwin Smith, Feral Interactive's Head of Design. "Over the last several years we have extended our activities to include Linux, iOS, Android and most recently Switch. We started working with Switch because it seemed capable of handling some of the games that we had brought to other platforms."
Given Feral's history of quality port work on other platforms, it's unsurprising that the end results on Nintendo's console have been impressive. While there are benefits to working on a specific device, each one has its specific drawbacks, too. "Having a single piece of hardware to target simplifies the development and QA tasks, all other things being equal," Smith explains. "Having said that, all other things are rarely equal…the Switch CPU is not as powerful as most recent mobile handsets so you have to eke out of it all the performance you can and that means lots of performance analysis and optimisation, and that takes time and effort."
When it comes to the two Switch games the company has worked on so far, it's clear that that time and effort has been well spent. Feral is not alone in producing stunning work on Switch, but for every incredible port there's another bare-bones or sloppy effort which only sets apart the quality examples further. With GRID on Switch the team went out of its way to provide players with graphical options to tailor the experience to their individual tastes, providing three distinct visual modes enabling the player to choose between graphical loveliness at 30 frames-per-second, smooth performance at 60fps or a handheld-only energy-saving mode to make Switch's battery last longer. A free HD texture pack for the cars was also made available as a separate download, giving players even more choice over how much space the digital-only release takes up on their console.
There are a number of factors in [evaluating a potential port], not least our enthusiasm for the game as a game.
While it's tempting to see these port houses like M2, Saber Interactive and the like as tech 'wizards', the reality often comes down to simple hard graft and time. "The elapsed time for each [game] was less than a year," Smith reveals, "but in terms of man months we’ve had different teams working on different problems so it’s hard to give an accurate figure. Getting the games up and running was relatively straightforward. However we spent a lot of time tuning visual effects, controls and performance hotspots."
Interestingly, it seems both Alien: Isolation and GRID came about more organically than you might expect, with neither being the result of a specific pitch from either Feral or the games' respective developers/owners. "We are lucky to have long-standing relationships with both SEGA and Codemasters. A decision to bring a particular game to a particular platform tends to come out of our continuing conversations with our partners rather than a discrete event such as a pitch."
Feral has partnerships with some of gaming’s biggest names - Square Enix, 2K and SEGA to name just a few - and while it maintains a dialogue with all partners throughout development, the team finds it most productive to keep contact to a relative minimum. "There is always regular contact with partners throughout a project that includes a range of companies, licensors, card vendors, platform holders, etc, The frequency of interaction and intensity of information flow varies by project and stage of the project. The ideal scenario is enough exchange of information, but no more to get the project done in a timely way at a quality with which everyone is happy."
Of course, the notion of bringing a game - any game - to Switch is easy enough to dream up, but that's just the start of a process. Potential projects undergo an evaluation which includes, perhaps surprisingly, whether the team actually likes and enjoys the game in question. "There are a number of factors in that process, not least our enthusiasm for the game as a game. But also, technical feasibility, sales potential, platform suitability, code quality, etc. If we are unable to port a game to the level of quality we wish to achieve, then we do not proceed, and occasionally that has happened. You see quite a few ports, which have dropped a number of features from the original game or else are released to run on a limited range of the latest hardware. We think that is self-defeating in that it generates disappointment rather than enjoyment."
Some [players] don’t immediately understand the implications of an [in-depth Digital Foundry-style technical] analysis, but people are smart, if they are interested they figure it out, and it’s good to have knowledgeable customers.
On the subject of missing features, anybody who played GRID on Switch at launch will have noticed that the multiplayer mode wasn't included to begin with. The local and splitscreen components instead arrived in December and online multiplayer is scheduled for later this year. "We wanted to manage the development risks," Smith elaborates. "Part of that was to separate some of the major ones and so stage development and release. The initial aim was to make the best possible single player racing experience on Switch in a given time frame. If we achieved that, we felt that we would be in a good position to offer additional functionality via patches."
Breaking development up in this manner might seem risky if the initial offering fails to sell sufficiently well, but by splitting multiplayer modes off and patching them in later the team has been able to give each aspect of the port the attention it deserves. "Similarly by first offering local multiplayer and splitscreen we have been able to focus on the multiplayer experience per se without having to worry about all the online issues that need to be solved."
Whatever your opinion on this compartmentalised, staggered method of development, it has worked very well for Feral and the results speak for themselves. In the case of Alien: Isolation, Digital Foundry has argued that the Switch version actually looks better than its counterparts on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. While this praise must be encouraging to the team, knowing that the work will be analysed in such forensic detail, with side-by-side comparisons drawing attention to any minor inconsistency, must put additional pressure on the developers.
"It does add pressure," Smith confirms, "but in a good cause. Reviewers such as Digital Foundry set a standard by which developers know their efforts will be judged, and setting the bar high is good for everyone, players, platform holders and developers. It is true that some don’t immediately understand the implications of an analysis, but people are smart, if they are interested they figure it out, and it’s good to have knowledgeable customers."
We have had a blast working on GRID Autosport and Alien Isolation. We are confident that they won’t be the last games we bring to Switch
Of course, it's impossible to please everyone. A small number of players noted input latency while playing the Switch version of Alien: Isolation and Feral responded saying this was partly the result of triple buffering and will remain present as part of a development ‘trade-off’. "Every game has some form of latency," Smith explains, "as any input from the player has to do several things before any correlate appears on screen: the player presses a button on the controller; the Controller reports the input to the main device; the device reports the movement to the game; the input is processed by the game; the GPU draws the frame; the frame is rendered to the screen. Every step of this process incurs a small delay. Some players are very sensitive to these delays, but the majority of people don’t perceive them."
"The trade-off here was between incurring a little extra input latency perceived by a very small faction of players versus displaying screen tearing, which would be seen by everyone. We chose the path, which affected the fewest players." Given the inevitable compromises required when porting games effectively, it's hard to argue Feral didn't make the right choice here. Personally, we find screen tearing interminably distracting but everyone will have their own preferences.
With more powerful hardware, fewer compromises are necessary. A potential 'Switch Pro' would expand the possibilities for everyone, although Smith mentions a more surprising area he'd like to see improved with new hardware. "We assume the next version of the Switch will have more computing power, but less obviously support for analogue triggers on the joy-cons would be very welcome for racing games." Indeed, Feral went so far as to include GameCube controller support in GRID Autosport, just another example of the studio going above and beyond in search of the best possible gaming experience on Switch. This year's update will see Labo controller support added, too.
With Sega/Creative Assembly and Codemasters seemingly pleased with the team's efforts ("They seem very happy") and Nintendo itself being "a pleasure to work with, responsive, helpful and supportive", we're certain we haven't seen the last of Feral Interactive on Switch. Smith is enthusiastic about the console and the studio's work on it. "We have had a blast working on GRID Autosport and Alien Isolation. We are confident that they won’t be the last games we bring to Switch, but we will all have to wait and see."
Whatever the future holds for Switch and third-party ports, Feral Interactive's involvement will be a sure sign that potential future releases are worthy of investigation. 'Port-begging' might have become a dirty word, but with games like Witcher 3, GRID Autosport and Alien: Isolation showing just what's possible on Switch, it's hard not to imagine what could be with the right people on the job.
Many thanks to Edwin for his time, and to Timur at Feral for helping set up this interview.