There’s never been a game console quite like Nintendo’s Switch. It combines a weak but serviceable engine for running games in docked mode on a TV screen with a less powerful but more than adequate configuration for playing the same games on a handheld when undocked. The technology that supports these two modes of play provides game developers with a unique set of possibilities. Is a game best suited for docked play? Undocked? Does it work for both? The range of possibilities offered by the Switch opens up new opportunities for both players and game developers.
The Switch has a unique hardware configuration.
The differences between playing a game docked or undocked are rooted in power consumption. Running a game with the graphics and performance settings the Switch can handle in docked mode would quickly drain the console’s battery. This means games are almost always limited when played in handheld mode. The limitations are usually in graphics quality.
The processor in the Switch is a modified version of Nvidia’s Tegra X1 which combines the CPU and GPU on a single chip. The CPU runs at 1020 MHz in both docked and undocked modes. When docked, the default GPU speed is 768 MHz combined with 1600 MHz of memory bandwidth. This is sufficient to run games at a native 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution.
When undocked, default memory bandwidth is 1331.2 MHz and GPU speed is 307.2 MHz. This is a substantial reduction in graphics processing power compared to what the Switch can do when docked. Undocked memory bandwidth is a bit more than 80% of docked and GPU speed is pared back to only 40% of the docked speed.
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The gameplay consequences of this loss of graphics power are not as severe as they may seem. The Switch has a 6.2 inch screen with a native 720p (1280 x 720) resolution. A 720p image looks good on a screen this small, and the Switch has enough graphical processing power to produce 720p when undocked.
While the 307.2 MHz GPU clock speed is the undocked default, game developers are given the option to push GPU speed to 384 MHz if they wish. Developers can also choose to limit docked performance to the undocked GPU speeds and memory bandwidth.
Credit: Brian Fargo/Twitter
Brian Fargo teases ‘Wasteland 2’ on the Switch
A unique opportunity for third-party developers
The modified Tegra 1X chip in the Switch is too weak to produce the beautiful and detailed graphics seen in games that turn their nose up at 1080p and strive to deliver 4K (3840 x 2160p) resolution. However, this doesn’t mean that games developed for more powerful platforms can’t be successful on the Switch. Many outstanding games that don’t demand the processing power of visual feasts like Hitman, Horizon Zero Dawn, or Assassin’s Creed Origins have succeeded on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
For example, Brian Fargo recently let it be known that Wasteland 2 is coming to the Switch. Wasteland 2 is a tactical RPG that features turn-based gameplay and an isometric viewpoint that the Switch should be able to handle in both docked and undocked modes. As I noted in an earlier article, bringing Wasteland 2 to the Switch provides an opportunity to expand the game’s audience and bring tactical RPG fans to the console.
Wasteland 2 is far from the only successful game that can look good and play well on the Switch in both docked and undocked modes. Hollow Knight, Terraria, Darkest Dungeon and Inside have already been announced as upcoming Switch games. Other terrific games that could find a new audience without technically challenging the Switch include Gone Home, Night in the Woods, Undertale and Spelunky. I’m sure you can think of many more.
Credit: Resident Evil/YouTube
‘Resident Evil: revelations 2’ suggests a new way to view the Switch.
Working the undocked/docked divide
The performance capabilities of the Switch in docked and undocked modes are so different that optimizing a game for each mode is akin to scaling a maxed out PC build down to a console version, or enhancing a vanilla Xbox One build for the Xbox One X. It’s not easy and in some cases, it may not be necessary.
Digital Foundry’s technical analysis of the Switch port of Resident Evil: Revelations 2 came to an interesting conclusion. They thought players who wanted to play the game on a TV would do better playing on a different platform. However, they strongly recommended the Switch as the platform of choice for players who would rather play Revelations 2 on a handheld console.
This characterization of a game that is inferior when docked but superior when undocked opens a field of opportunity for game developers. If an existing console or PC game makes graphics demands that the docked Switch can’t meet, effort can be focused on designing a version for undocked play. The Switch port would include a version for docked play, but the undocked build would be offered as the reason for buying the game. A game that has already found an audience on other platforms could find a brand-new audience among players who are attracted to the Switch because it’s the current state-of-the-art handheld console.
The same strategy could work the undocked/docked divide in the opposite direction. There are many excellent 3DS games that were never ported to consoles or PC. Upgrading their graphics to an acceptable level for the current generation PS4 and Xbox One consoles would be a daunting task that probably wouldn’t be worth the effort. However, aiming to clear the lower bar set by the docked Switch might be within the realm of possibility. The payoff could be bringing a game many would enjoy to the TV audience while providing a graphics upgrade for the handheld player.
Looking at things in new ways brings new opportunities.
Taking full advantage of the Switch
The Switch is commonly viewed as a platform that offers more-or-less equally attractive play in both docked and undocked modes. Games built from the ground up for the Switch can fulfill this vision by being designed to take full advantage of the Switch’s limited hardware in both modes of play. Some games that demand less than the full power of the platforms they were designed for can do the same thing.
There’s another approach one can take to the Switch, however. Why limit the Switch to being a console that’s only for games that play equally well in both docked and undocked modes? Why not expand this view to include the Switch as a home for games that play and look better on other consoles when viewed on a TV, but are fun to play and can only be played in handheld mode on the Switch? Why not expand the view even further to include games that were previously only available for handheld play but can now be played with enjoyment in docked mode on the Switch?
The Switch can be all of these things. It’s a unique console that provides new opportunities for players to enjoy games and game developers to reach new audiences.
Limited viewpoints are a vehicle for limited options and opportunities. If Nintendo, game developers and players can accept the idea that the Switch is a home for games that play well both docked and undocked, and for games that are designed to only play well undocked, and for handheld games that now look good on a TV at 900p or 1080p, existing games can expand their audience, Nintendo can sell more consoles, and players can have more great game to play on the Switch. It’s a win-win-win for everyone.