Following its release on other consoles back in March (on the same day as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, if you remember), Switch owners will soon be able to enjoy the fruits of id Software and Switch port specialists Panic Button's labours. The studio was responsible for the Switch versions of Bethesda's DOOM 2016, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and various other ambitious projects, but original developer id Software really pushed the boat out tech-wise with this next chapter in the Doom Slayer's hellish journey. As the first game using the new id Tech 7 engine, bringing this one to Switch was going to be a whole new challenge for the team at Panic Button.
A few weeks ago, we caught up with Senior Producer Cody Nicewarner and Lead Engineer Travis Archer from Panic Button to talk about the unique challenges this project presented, the future potential of large-scale Switch ports, and Animal Crossing memes.
Nintendo Life: What were your immediate thoughts when the idea of Doom Eternal on Switch was first mentioned? We're sure after [Doom 2016] it was thought of much earlier on, but we're also sure that it wasn't just "Oh yeah, sure, we'll do that too — it'll be easy!".
Travis Archer: We actually went over to id Studios and were given an early look at the title in early development and so we didn’t really know what to expect when we got there and I still remember that by the time we had left that day we were jazzed, we were excited about it, because you could just tell, even then, that they’d taken all the positive gameplay elements from the 2016 version of Doom and really expanded on it, they just took it to 11. And we could tell even then, like I’ve worked in games long enough that you can tell when a game is going to be good early on sometimes, but it’s not that often that happens, but this was one of those times where we knew this going to be a great game and we were just excited at that point.
It was the first game running on id Tech 7, is that right?
Travis Archer: I believe so, yeah, I’m not entirely certain, but yeah, I believe so.
Can you tell us some of the things that Doom Eternal is doing that are above and beyond what Doom 2016 was doing, in terms of the engine and effects, that made if difficult for you?
Travis Archer: Yeah, sure, it was a challenge, Tech 7 is a next gen engine, it takes everything to a new level. They’re targeting top of the line graphics cards, they’re trying to squeeze every ounce of performance out of the existing consoles and so translating that to the Switch was definitely a challenge. But in terms of specifics, I mean there’s so much it would be hard to pick any one thing, and there’s some things that I'd defer to id to discuss or reveal about the technology, but it’s definitely got some fancy bells and whistles.
We guess that with this game you were involved very early on — did that make things easier? Were id more accommodating [this time] knowing what 'oh, we've got the Switch version to think about too'?
from day one [id Software] looked at Switch as kind of a first-class citizen when they were starting to develop for Doom Eternal and we definitely saw some benefits from that
Cody Nicewarner: Yeah, from day one they looked at Switch as kind of a first-class citizen when they were starting to develop for Doom Eternal and we definitely saw some benefits from that and their team getting more and more familiar with the hardware in their pipelines, definitely that contribution and collaboration did move forward from Doom 2016 to Doom Eternal, so there was definitely some positive elements in looking at this early on.
Travis Archer: Absolutely.
Can you talk a little about how you evaluate potential Switch versions? Is there something you always do first? 'Okay, we're gonna strip this out, replace this, and see what happens'...
Travis Archer: It really depends on the title. Every engine is different and usually when we get involved in the port process for a game that’s already been shipped we’ll evaluate the performance to see where things need to be reduced, but it’s kind of an ongoing process as we stand up the engine on the platform. Some of the bottlenecks reveal themselves to be different than what we predicted, so it’s just an ongoing process. And of course, in the case of Doom Eternal, we were involved in the process early on, so the art wasn’t necessarily final, the technology wasn’t necessarily in its final state, there was still features being added, so that was a particular challenge, but it was also great because we got to be involved when they were putting some of these things in to the game and make our lives easier so things weren’t coming out as a surprise at the last second.
You could head things off at the pass a little bit.
Travis Archer: Yeah, yeah, we worked with them to make sure that the data being generated was in a format that would work for the Switch or that could be converted easily, so there was a lot of things like that that we did with them to make that process easier.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you faced with this game specifically?
Cody Nicewarner: I would say that from the previous projects that we’ve worked on with both id software and Machine Games, nothing I would say necessarily stands out as atypical as far as the challenges that we’re faced with, but we did transition from id Tech 6 to id Tech 7, so this really did, in a way, push the limits of not only the Switch, but the scalability of the new id Tech 7, so I wouldn’t say anything stood out.
The game on other platforms launched back in March and there was a little delay on that initial launch, before COVID [hit], and there was another delay with the Switch version. Can you tell us a little about how and why that initial plan changed?
Travis Archer: Sure. Yeah, I mean the primary reason is that Doom Eternal, as I mentioned, is a title targeting top of the line graphics cards and it really does squeeze every ounce of performance out of the other consoles and so unlike a typical port where there’s a little bit of breathing room left for us to work with there wasn’t a lot of inefficiency to fix. The title is amazingly efficient, the engine, I think you may have heard that it can run at 100s of frames per second on a top end PC, which is a testament to how scalable it is. That it can run efficiently without a bottleneck at that rate is amazing. And so typically with a game, when we port a game, we’ll find there is a single thread that’s the bottleneck or there is some inefficient algorithms or things that just don’t work well on the Switch that we can optimise out, but this title, it was really well optimised when we started and so yeah, that was a challenge, but…
unlike a typical port where there’s a little bit of breathing room left for us to work with there wasn’t a lot of inefficiency to fix. [id Tech 7] is amazingly efficient
You had to get more creative.
Travis Archer: Yeah, we had to take it to eleven just like they did.
With COVID, which has affected everybody, did this alter your plans for Doom Eternal on Switch specifically? How has Panic Button coped with the lockdowns?
Cody Nicewarner: It didn’t necessarily change the plans, but it definitely had an impact on scheduling and trying to re-evaluate a working situation that none of us could have predicted. We moved to a work from home environment in early March as a company. [For] our leadership here at Panic Button, the health and safety of our employees was paramount, so that’s the decision they made and to this day we’re still working from home. Being as we are a much smaller organisation, we depend a lot on being agile and at each other’s desks, and that’s been taken away.
So there’s been a lot of changes in how we collaborate on a day to day basis that we’ve just had to kind of learn how to do and a lot of improvements. So, it’s definitely impacted us, but it hasn’t changed anything as far as how diligent we are with the project and bringing it to the Nintendo Switch audience. It’s been a ride for sure and we’ve had to learn a lot and we’ve made a lot of tweaks here and there and collaborated with id Software along the way to learn from their processes and vice versa. So nothing has changed as far as day to day, it’s just been kind of I guess changed to a different angle, I suppose.
We've spoken to a few teams over the past few months and before we'd imagined that just having access to the server or bad internet would be the primary thing, but they've mentioned communication — just the extra time eaten up by having to go through emails, etc.
Travis Archer: Yeah, there’s some specific examples of things that are more challenging. For example the process by which you deliver a build to quality assurance, which is a key part of our team is the daily back and forth we have with QA, it’s critical to our efficiency and just getting them a build can take hours and typically when you’re in the office a programme can make a special build themselves and just zip it over through the LAN to their desk, you know? And that’s not really viable at home, it might take me three hours to upload that build and then them another forty minutes to download it, so something that would take five minutes takes four hours. So there’s challenges like that that we had to adjust for, we have to account for and change our process, but we got creative.
Moving back to the game itself, does the Switch version have any specific [new] features? We've read about UI work you've been doing — are there any specific things that are fresh to the Switch version?
we did take a complete pass at the UI so it should be more readable in handheld mode
Cody Nicewarner: To touch on the UI, we had some initial feedback and I think on previous titles we’ve worked on with Bethesda that readability and scalability, especially for handheld mode could have been improved, so we did take a complete pass at the UI so it should be more readable in handheld mode. Other than that, the main big feature that we pulled forward from Doom 2016, Wolfenstein: New Colossus, and Youngblood was motion aiming. We took what we had done previously and tuned the values to make it really shine for Doom Eternal.
Are there any omissions or any things that had to be cut?
Travis Archer: Nope, it's the full experience.
I've just got a couple of 'boring' things — what sort of file size are talking? And is it getting a physical release?
Cody Nicewarner: That one I would really defer to the PR team.
When it came out [on other platforms] there were a load of memes as it came out on the same day as Animal Crossing. Is there any Isabelle amiibo functionality or anything [like that] hidden away?
Cody Nicewarner: Again, I would probably refer to [PR] for any kind of future plans such as that. Great memes though, great memes.
Okay. What are your thoughts on Switch as we move forward into this next generation? Obviously, there's the desire to see everything on Switch, but like you say with id Tech 7 being able to hit 120fps on some PCs, when do we get to a point when the current Switch — or even one with just a little bit more memory or something like that — is not viable as a platform for these sorts of games?
Travis Archer: I think it’s always viable, depending on what you’re willing to do to make it happen. There’s kind of the 'straight port' where minimal content changes, minimal content optimisations where it’s really just trying to get the exact same game, and then you have the more extreme case where you have to redo all the art assets to be more appropriate, redo the rendering pipeline to be more appropriate for a lower spec platform. As we progress forward with next gen I think it is going to be more challenging to port certain titles to the Switch, but it really depends on the engine, the content and whether a team is able to make that… I mean it’s a big effort, you’re essentially making the game twice if you have to go that route, so yeah.
It's kind of straddling almost two console generations now.
Travis Archer: Right, yeah, it will certainly get more challenging. I still think there will be significant ports, so not every game is going to be 100 percent retracing, so I still think there will opportunity to port some great titles to the Switch going forward.
What are your thoughts on cloud gaming? We've seen the release of Control recently from Remedy on Switch. Do you think that's something Panic Button might consider in the future?
Cody Nicewarner: I don’t think we would want to necessarily speculate, I think it’s an interesting technology and we’re curious to see how that audience widens and we’re open to most any challenges for any future projects, you know, we don’t take on easy projects, so if it’s compelling it’s something we’ll listen to and hear about, but I wouldn’t want to speculate any further.
In terms of a project like Doom Eternal, how long do you support it post-launch? Obviously, there'll be patches and tweaks and things — do you factor that in to the project beforehand and how long do you anticipate that support?
Cody Nicewarner: We anticipate being on this project for the foreseeable future, through the early part of 2021. It’s hard to say beyond that, and how we anticipate that is it’s part of an ongoing collaboration between production and stakeholders. It’s defined that we will support post-release, but the length at which we do define that can change.
The development of Doom Eternal on Switch — when did it start exactly for you guys?
Travis Archer: We kind of had sort of a slow launch very early on and then efforts ramped up over time, so we were involved in the process for quite a long time, but early on it was mostly in terms of getting us up to speed with what they were doing and making sure that the direction was something that was going to work for the Switch, brainstorming how we would approach taking some of the things that were being done for the other consoles and the PC and making that work for the Switch and starting to port some of the features that were still in development. But because the game is still in development there were some things that we couldn’t really engage fully on until later, so there are certain elements of gameplay, you know, multiplayer features that, like any game, there’s prototyping, there’s things that make it into the final game, there’s things that don’t. So our engagement ramped up over time.
it was certainly a unique experience, unlike porting a finished product, that was part of the challenge [...] being able to give input early in the process definitely helped.
It must be quite difficult to plan out for something that the next day: 'Hmm, actually we've changed direction'.
Travis Archer: Yeah, it was certainly a unique experience, unlike porting a finished product, that was part of the challenge. But it was also, as I mentioned before, one of the advantages we had was being able to give input early in the process definitely helped.
The last thing we've got about Doom Eternal is about the multiplayer and how that translates to Switch. Will there be cross-platform support with that?
Travis Archer: I can’t speculate for the future plans, but at launch there will not be cross-platform support in terms of cross-play, if that’s what you mean...
Travis Archer: But the multi-player experience is preserved entirely, everything that you’d experience in the other platforms is there and it’s very solid. So yeah, we’re really excited about that part of it actually.
What have you guys been playing recently on Switch — anything you've been enjoying?
Cody Nicewarner: Personally I play a lot with my nieces so it’s generally focused on the family friendly stuff, but to me that’s the uniqueness of Doom Eternal and bringing it to Switch, is that I can go and play these titles with a great catalogue of Nintendo titles with a younger audience and then at the end of the day if I want to boot up Doom Eternal I’m going to be able to do that, so that’s kind of what I’m playing right now and how I view it.
Travis Archer: Yeah, actually there’s a couple titles, Luigi’s Mansion or something, I play when I have a free moment, and some other titles for the Switch. A lot of games that I don’t have opportunity to play on the TV because it’s in use by the family. So it’s games I already bought for other platforms that I end up buying for the Switch and playing on the Switch to finish them.
We know about that, definitely.
Many thanks to Travis and Cody for their time. This interview has been edited for clarity.