In the years since Switch first launched, we've seen some remarkable ports of games we really didn't expect to see running on the handheld's mobile chipset, let alone running well. Getting cutting-edge cross-platform games on Switch requires hard work and real skill, and with exceptional examples like Witcher 3, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, it's tempting to think that absolutely anything is possible with enough budget and bandwidth to get the work done.
However, the reality of the situation for many developers is that, while Switch is an ideal 21st century video game delivery device, bleeding-edge console tech that’s affordable to the average consumer will always come in packages far larger than Nintendo’s hybrid console. We’ve all joked about the incredible dimensions of Microsoft and Sony’s new systems, but devs riding the next-gen wave are being pulled in different directions when it comes to supporting Switch; for smaller companies working on big projects, it's usually a case of either/or. Scalable game engines can only do so much to bridge the ever-widening power divide between Nintendo's console and the other platforms.
Yesterday's excitement around the surprise release of Remedy's Control: Ultimate Edition was tempered for some by that addendum on the title: "Cloud Version". It's the first Switch game to be delivered this way in the West, although Japan has enjoyed Cloud Editions of both Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Capcom's Resident Evil 7 (incidentally, both powered by the same cloud gaming tech from specialist company Ubitus). Sega has also used cloud tech to power Switch versions of its Phantasy Star series in that region.
Control was one of the games we hoped to see come to Switch at the start of the year, although at the time we realised it was a little pie-in-the-sky. If you'll permit us to quote ourselves discussing the chances of seeing the game on Switch:
We'd say that the biggest obstacle to a Switch port of Control is a technical one. If you're lucky enough to have a mighty PC rig, that version supports fancy-pants ray tracing and looks exceptionally lovely. On the other home consoles though, performance was less than solid at launch [...] it seems unlikely that the time, energy and resources exist to bring Control to Switch at the moment. Still, we'd love to be wrong.
Thankfully, we were wrong — well, kinda. The Switch version runs remotely with gameplay streamed to your Switch just as Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and Resident Evil 7 did in Japan, with all the benefits and limitations that entails.
Regardless of their individual successes or failures to date, platforms like Google’s Stadia, Microsoft’s xCloud and Amazon’s Luna illustrate — when they work well — the convenience cloud gaming can offer if you don't own the hardware to run a particular game. It would be lovely to have all the consoles under your TV, but that’s unrealistic for many gamers. Are cloud versions the optimum way to play these games? No, but convenience is a potent selling point, possibly enough to offset a modicum of lag or image quality issues for the curious gamer.
Putting aside for the moment those issues around latency and performance, there are other plus points to having your Switch function as a mere receiver and display. Hardware-heavy visual effects including ray-tracing and higher quality textures become possible (Remedy states that Switch players can choose between "Enhanced Graphics mode at 30fps with ray tracing on or Enhanced Performance mode at 60fps with ray tracing off"). There are also no updates or patches to download – no massive downloads of any sort, actually; Control’s ‘wrapper’ app comes in at a mercifully tiny 98MB.
It's also free to download said wrapper and check that your internet is up to the job of streaming the game. This necessary pre-purchase connection test seems to be well-implemented and gives you a ten minute taster to check you're not wasting your money.
Cloud versions are also good for development teams and publishers. The ability to stream a quality version of your game to players without the huge workload associated with a full port may make bringing a title to Switch financially viable where it was previously 'impossible'. Not having to code and optimise a port 'to the metal' makes for far fewer headaches and, potentially, faster, 'better' results.
companies like Remedy and IO Interactive are far from huge. They're talented, respected developers, but that doesn't mean they have the bandwidth and budget to retrofit games onto a lower-spec platform
It's also worth remembering that companies like Remedy and IO Interactive are far from huge. They're talented, respected developers, but that doesn't mean they have the bandwidth and budget to retrofit games onto a lower-spec platform. The ability to stream the game may well make the difference between the game coming to Switch or not.
For gamers with multiple consoles, it's easy to focus purely on the negatives and scoff at these Cloud offerings, and it's certain that the negatives are many. The need for a reliably stable internet connection tethers almost everyone to their home network (ideally a wired connection through your Switch dock), and there are populated areas of the world which will find themselves dead out of luck when it comes to cloud gaming: they simply don't yet have the infrastructure in place to make it work. Data caps are another obvious barrier to entry depending on your location, data plan and provider. And if you're lucky enough to also have an Xbox and/or PlayStation in your home entertainment cabinet, you’re losing more than you gain by playing on the cloud version on Switch, be it in performance or price.
Firing up the eShop last night, the actual price of the game wasn't shown — the download was labelled as 'free', although after playing the game for a couple of minutes, the option to purchase reveals itself: access to Control on Switch costs $39.99, with 'access' being a key word.
It’s a familiar old chestnut — the age-old concern over ownership and physical versus digital — and while it's worth remembering that you're technically only ever purchasing a licence to play a game regardless of how that data is delivered to your console, that fact remains that if you've got the data stored locally on cart or card, your ability to play a single-player game offline can't be revoked when the servers go down or the company goes bust. When every bit and byte of the game is stored and processed on remote servers, though, you're constantly relying on a third party to not revoke 'access' to the game. Preservationists are quite rightly alarmed by the prospect of cloud gaming — how can you save something you never really had in the first place?
Want more negatives? Servers can go down, and even when they're purring and running thousands of instances of the game quite happily, those servers have a capacity that is not unlimited — a capacity that became all too apparent to some players on Control's launch day:
So, there are plenty of drawbacks to cloud gaming on Switch and elsewhere right now, but there's also incredible potential, especially as slow and steady improvements come over time. Over the coming years, connection issues we routinely encounter today could be mitigated almost entirely by 5G mobile connections. In a couple of hardware iteration’s time, Nintendo could choose to integrate 5G into its console, removing the Wi-Fi router middleman and reducing latency.
There’s also the potential for further integration between local and cloud gaming, as highlighted by analyst Daniel Ahmad in a series of tweets: the option to stream games or demos while they download before switching to the local version, for example, or quickly switching between devices (Switch and Switch Lite, perhaps). It's certainly not all doom and gloom for gaming as we know it: there are some exciting possibilities. No, cloud delivery is never going to beat the responsiveness of having the game running on a box under your TV, but it’ll work well enough for enough people to be a viable alternative.
No, cloud delivery is never going to beat the responsiveness of having the game running on a box under your TV, but it’ll work well enough for enough people to be a viable alternative.
Still, there are questions that need addressing, and you certainly shouldn’t jump into these games expecting a local-style experience – it will feel different. There’s also a concern that this becomes the go-to method of putting out a Switch version; a quick and easy replacement employed even by companies with the resources for a full port. Until the tech gets to a point where the discerning player can’t tell the difference between a game running locally or remotely – and we’re many years away from that scenario – this solution will hopefully remain the last resort.
Worries over revoked access and disappearing content are perhaps more pressing, though. Companies like Microsoft can boldly proclaim that your content will still be around decades from now, although who can say what the future holds? Legislature that ensures content must be hosted by somebody in the event of a company’s dissolution might be a way to ensure ongoing availability down the road, but that's a long way off.
Ultimately, everything’s a trade-off, wherever and however you play your video games, retro or modern; be it one of access, fidelity, cost or convenience. These experiments with alternative delivery models on Switch will result in bumpy experiences for many – and you’re sure to see them documented across social media. However, the plain fact is that Control is now available to play on Nintendo Switch; Hitman 3 will be playable on Switch. If cloud delivery is the only viable way for developers to get their game on the platform, would we rather not have access at all? Of course not. With rumours that Resident Evil 3 may be Switch-bound via the cloud, it would be churlish to say “no thanks, Capcom – back to the drawing board with you and give us the port we’re entitled to!”
If it's a choice between 'this, or nothing', we're happy to give the cloud a go — we just sincerely hope the teams who are able to produce native Switch versions continue to do so.