Virtuos has made a name for itself with Switch gamers as one of the premier developers of quality ports on the platform. With impressive Switch versions of L.A. Noire, a clutch of Final Fantasy remasters, Starlink: Battle for Atlas and Dark Souls: Remastered under its belt, we were pleased to hear that the Spingapore-based developer was in charge of porting upcoming titles The Outer Worlds, BioShock: The Collection and XCOM 2 Collection to Switch.
Focusing on Firaxis Games' XCOM 2--a game first released on other platforms in 2016--we recently spoke to Senior Producer Zhang Chengwei and VP of Games Studio Elijah Freeman about the challenges of bringing Firaxis' turn-based tactics to Nintendo's platform intact and on time.
Nintendo Life: How did Virtuos get involved with porting XCOM 2 to Switch?
Zhang Chengwei: The team at Virtuos were very excited when we found out we were bringing XCOM2 to the Switch, but as most people will know, it’s not a simple case of dragging-and-dropping the game to a new platform. In this case, our work involved bringing the complete XCOM2 game to Switch. That means the base game, DLC and the War of the Chosen expansion.
We then developed a clever general-purpose rendering library that allows XCOM2 to be rendered directly on the Switch without changing the original rendering module from Unreal Engine 3. And of course, there was also a certain amount of QA testing that’s required.
But arguably the most important thing is all the work done to optimise the game to make sure it can run smoothly on the Switch. Take memory capacity, for example. The XCOM2 PC game uses more than 7GB memory, whereas the memory usage of the Switch is just 4GB (only 3.2GB are delegated to game itself). This takes some real skill from our team to repurpose the game so you still get the same XCOM2 experience using half the memory.
It has been stated in the past that you’re only interested in offering the best ports possible. What’s your evaluation process when it comes to porting software? Have you ever had to say “no, sorry – that’s just not going to be possible”?
Zhang Chengwei: When we discuss any Switch project with our partners, the first step is to figure out what their expectations are for the game. How do they envision the finished product? It's not just about timelines or budgets, but more about achieving the game quality they want for the game they know and love. So, we start by taking them through all the areas they need to consider for a great Switch game. How do they make the most of the best Switch features?
The next step is what we call creating "Virtuos' Solution". We propose the best solutions for how to fully use the Switch’s best features and really make the game shine, not just as a game, but specifically as a Switch game. Off the back of our work on Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Dark Souls: Remastered, The Outer Worlds and the coming XCOM2, we now have no doubt that Switch adaptations can be worked for games on any of the current generation of consoles (PS4/XB1).
We have our own quality standards and obviously we don't create low-quality products which might hurt the Switch library or the wider games industry.
From start to finish, how long did it take to port XCOM 2?
Zhang Chengwei: We kicked off the project in June 2019 and finished in the first few months of 2020. All in all, it took around 10 months of work.
What aspect of the original game was most challenging to get right on Switch?
Zhang Chengwei: The biggest challenge we find is memory optimisation. The XCOM2 PC game uses more than 7GB memory but on Switch we can utilise just 3.2GB of memory usage. You need to continuously profile the game, make decisions, implement and test, then profile again. I’d say that we spent half a year just to optimise the memory, and we used many methods throughout this period, including using more efficient formats for files, removing needless memory usage, and even modifying and optimising the original console's memory system. This process is like squeezing water from a sponge. As more water is squeezed from the sponge, the harder the process becomes!
I’d say that we spent half a year just to optimise the memory [...] This process is like squeezing water from a sponge. As more water is squeezed from the sponge, the harder the process becomes!
Considering UI, text scaling and that sort of thing, have you made any changes to the experience that players from other platforms might notice when playing on Switch? Will there be any Switch exclusive enhancements or features?
Zhang Chengwei: We didn't specifically look to add new features on XCOM2 for Switch. Instead, we really focused in on what we could do to make XCOM2 a great portable experience. In the past, XCOM2 was always played on a PC or console, and in either case the look of the game came down to the quality of the TV or monitor you owned. We know everything about how a game will look on the Switch’s built-in screen, so we took time to make sure the game was optimised to look great on the handheld screen when in portable mode.
With several high-profile and very successful Switch ports now under your belt, did any lessons learned from previous projects help with this project?
Zhang Chengwei: In many ways I think the XCOM2 project is now an example of best practice here at Virtuos. The more games we develop for Switch, the better we get and the more we can squeeze out of the hardware. We are now very clear about what the Switch's hardware power is compared to the current (and next) generation of consoles, so we know what is and isn’t possible before starting a new project. It’s also interesting to note that XCOM2 for Switch was developed in parallel together with BioShock: The Collection for Switch, so when we were formulating the strategies at the beginning, one of the pillars was sharing knowledge so that these projects could both get the most optimisation and benefits in terms of cost and timeline. These two games have more in common than many people might think.
XCOM2 for Switch was developed in parallel together with BioShock: The Collection [...] These two games have more in common than many people might think.
How close was your contact with Firaxis on this project and what specifically was each team responsible for?
Zhang Chengwei: During the project we had regular weekly meetings, and we also used Slack for instant messaging. Virtuos and 2K have been working together for decades now, so our teams know each other really well. When it came to these specific games, Virtuos was responsible for all game development, and 2K was responsible for all Publisher's registration materials, localisation materials, and final QA sign off.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected most developers and companies, including Virtuos. Tell us a little about its effects on day-to-day work for the team. Is there anything that has particularly surprised you about the situation (from a work perspective) – positive or negative?
Zhang Chengwei: As your readers will probably already know, when COVID-19 broke out in China, it coincided with the Chinese New Year. The Spring Festival is one of the most important festivals for our teams in China. Similar to Christmas in the West, people from all over the country will return to their hometowns and reunite with their families. At the same time, XCOM2 reached the milestone of submitting to the Nintendo lot-check. So, you can imagine the stress caused by team members not able to get back to the office, and many could not even return to Shanghai.
At that time, Virtuos held a high-level meeting immediately (virtually, of course). Firstly, we evaluated the current situation and most importantly how to protect the health of our employees. We then evaluated the potential impacts on a project-by-project basis. Fortunately, all of Virtuos’ staff were well and accounted for, with no signs of infection reported. In general, everyone in China was stressed by the restrictions imposed to slow down the spread of the infection, but we were safe at home. Once I had a clear picture about the impact on a project, I started to talk with our partners, brief the situation and told them the mitigation plan on the project. I was very touched that our partners could also understand the situation and gave the greatest supports and encouragement. Looking back now, all our actions were very successful and ahead of the curve.
Virtuos is one of a select group of developers putting out really high-quality Switch ports. Are there any examples of other Switch games or companies whose output has particularly impressed you recently?
Elijah Freeman: We always look to first-party games as outstanding examples of great gameplay built for the platform. Interestingly, the multiplayer shooter genre is one we keep an eye on as the games created there are impressive. They manage to maintain good frame rates and a comfortable experience. What is most appealing about these shooters is that they feel perfect on the platform and are a testament to game centric design. The game sessions contain all you need and are perfect for the pick-up-and-go Switch. Get in, get out, get on your way.
the multiplayer shooter genre is one we keep an eye on as the games created there are impressive.
Developers starting projects these days are tending to consider scalability from the beginning, but with next gen consoles from Sony and Microsoft on the horizon and Nintendo’s console over three years old now, how long do you think Switch will be able to handle quality ports of new releases without significantly compromising the experience? What upgrades would a new Switch require to ‘stay in the game’, so to speak?
Elijah Freeman: We always speak of a game-centric trend in development, where developers focus primarily on what makes a great game, rather than what platform they’re building it on. This way the game can be fun, and the experience will meet the expectation of the platform. In my opinion, the experience of playing a game depends much more on the design, rather than the platforms. That said, it is very exciting to see the tremendous leaps in technology and we love seeing how we can push games further on the latest hardware. When it comes to creating amazing game experiences, I am sure that the Switch will keep pace.
Our thanks to Zhang and Elijah for their time. XCOM 2 Collection is out for Switch on 29th May.