After making a name for itself on PS4, Xbox One and PC, rogue-like space shooter Everspace has arrived in the Nintendo Switch’s orbit, docking on the console in deluxe form.
The Stellar Edition of the cosmic shoot-and-loot fest is now available through the Big N’s eShop. It includes the core game, the ‘Encounters’ add-on, the original soundtrack and a bonus art in-game book. All of the achievements from the original versions have been carried across, too.
To coincide with Everspace’s Switch debut, we caught up with Michael Schade, Co-Founder and CEO of Rockfish Games, to discuss the inspiration behind the game and the challenges his team faced when porting it to the Nintendo platform.
Did you face any unique or unexpected challenges in bringing Everspace to Switch?
When we first looked at the technical specs of the Switch, we thought we wouldn’t be able to port Everspace to it as it already took quite some effort to hit 30 FPS on the regular Xbox One without lowering the quality of the game too much. Of course, on Switch, we are looking at 720p instead of 1080p, but the GPU wasn’t even the biggest bottleneck. In fact it’s the CPU. It does run on a similar clock speed, but it has got less cores than the Xbox One and we expected this to be a show stopper.
You might wonder why that’s such an issue for a space shooter where, typically, space is pretty empty. Well, for starters, since space IS fairly empty, you can see everything from right in front of you to all the way to infinity, or wherever you set the far clipping plane of your camera. Which means, we cannot work with occlusion culling to reduce the load on the CPU, as you do in pretty much any other 3D game. To make it worse, any proper 3D space shooter features at least a certain level of 3D physics. So, unlike in most first-person shooters, the player takes damage when colliding with the environment or enemies. Again, another hefty task for the CPU.
Still, this wouldn’t have caused us such a headache if Everspace wasn’t focusing so heavily on combat. Things can get pretty messy with lots of enemies chasing and shooting at you with dozens of projectiles flying around while dashing through a dense field of asteroids, which can mean anything between a slight scratch to instant death on collision for you or any of your opponents. However, these intense space dogfights define the core experience of Everspace, and we knew we needed to nail that on Switch as well, no matter the technical constraints.
How did you solve this problem?
So, apart from tweaking the PC/console UI as reasonably as possible (we know the text is quite tiny, but we're counting on the good eyes of a younger audience), optimising visuals for the lower GPU, beyond what Unreal Engine 4 does for you automatically when compiling for Switch (which is already a great starting point), we spent quite some time on optimising the performance of the moving actor blueprints as well as batching all moving projectiles.
This got us close to hitting 30 FPS most of the time, but the loss in overall quality compared to the standard console version was pretty obvious, and we were concerned that Everspace fans on PS4 and Xbox, who were eager to double-dip on their favorite space shooter to also play it on the go, would be quite disappointed. Thankfully, Epic Games made some significant performance improvements on Switch in Unreal Engine, and we saw an overall performance gain of approximately 25% after migrating the entire project to UE4.20. With that performance boost, we were able to significantly improve the quality while maintaining 30 FPS almost all the time. Ironically, we decided to patch some of the CPU-based performance optimizations for Switch into the builds for PS4 and Xbox One.
Were there any other obstacles you had to overcome?
Another major challenge for us was the tight memory constraints of the Switch console, which utilises 4GB of RAM that is shared between CPU and GPU. A big chunk of this memory is required for textures of all kinds. We didn’t want to adjust our art style for the Switch version, so we took a lot of time to look at individual assets and see which textures we could sample down without too much compromise. We also rewrote parts of the texture loading so that textures are streamed in on-demand instead of residing in memory for the whole game session. This also helped us with loading in the music, which was another big chunk of memory consumption. There are still a few places where we could do more optimisations, but we will keep looking into that for a future patch.
Finally, we also spent quite some time on optimizing the controls for Switch as it is more challenging to play a 6DOF space shooter with Joy-Con controllers. As player skill sets can vary quite a bit, we also added a slider to alter the level of aim-assist to anyone’s liking.
We're yet to see many space exploration titles developed for PC, Xbox, and PlayStation make the transition to Switch. Why do you think that is, and why is Everspace the exception so far?
Well, as mentioned, the technical challenges of porting a high-end 3D space game, originally designed for PC and current-gen consoles, are substantial. That’s probably, even more, the case if you don’t have access to the game engine’s source code as you do if you use UE4, which is also so well-optimized for Switch, already. If a game runs on a proprietary engine, you still have to invest quite some effort into making all the source code run well on a new platform. I guess, for some smaller teams that’s quite another hurdle. The bigger space games might simply be too demanding for the hardware and gameplay-wise not a good fit for a handheld, anyway.
What were your inspirations for making the game?
Of course, everyone on our team is a big fan of classic space games like Wing Commander, Freelancer and so on. However, when we started designing Everspace back in early 2015, we knew we had to distinguish ourselves from the latest big space game hits as we were on a very limited budget for a prototype and also needed a clear message for our Kickstarter that we were not doing yet another space game. At the same time, we knew without an existing community, our Kickstarter would fail.
So, we decided to put the same virtues at our vision’s core that made Galaxy on Fire 1 and 2 such a great hit on mobile and reach out to our fans from our mobile legacy. At its core, Everspace is a fast-paced space combat game with a good mix of crafting and exploration within a pretty and colorful space environment, featuring super tight controls and highly-accessible game sessions which makes such a great fit for the Switch. The vibrant art-style was heavily inspired by the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but you can also see that we were using a similar color palette as we did in GOF2.
Of course, we would have loved to have a persistent open game world, where you can sink hundreds of hours into, but we didn’t feel comfortable to put out a seven-digit funding goal for “another space game” on Kickstarter. Even more so in combination with being the new kids on the block in PC and console gaming without any track record other than a bunch of pretty decent mobile games.
So, our team came up with the idea of combining a high-end 3D space shooter with a modern interpretation of roguelike mechanics as they also loved playing FTL, Rogue Legacy, Binding of Isaac and other roguelikes, which all enjoyed having huge success on Steam and other platforms.
How else would you say Everspace differs from other titles in the genre like No Man's Sky and Elite Dangerous?
Well, the third pillar was adding a proper story, scripted missions and quite some deep lore to the mix, which hasn’t been done before in a roguelike and didn’t really exist in any of the latest big space games, either. However, as much as I wasn’t a fan of making a roguelike at first, our team wasn’t crazy about adding storytelling to a genre either as it actually makes it quite difficult to follow a deeper plot when dying over and over again is an integral part of the core game loop. Later in production, it also turned out that having in-game cutscenes in procedurally-generated levels are a real pain in the back, but we managed to cope with that, too in the end.
But, I felt this could be the ultimate hook for Everspace. So, during a five-hour road trip to Nordic Game in 2015, I managed to convince Uwe Wütherich, our Creative Director, that the storytelling in the movie Edge of Tomorrow, where the protagonist dies a lot but makes it further with every new life, would also work well in a roguelike game. I mean, the movie’s tagline “Live, Die, Repeat” couldn’t be much of a bigger teaser for a roguelike story, right? Thankfully, Uwe is also a fan of games that combine intense action gameplay that make you sit on the edge of your seat and feature an interesting and well-told story as well. Together, we were able to get our team on board for this, and we’re pretty excited about what we have accomplished all together, in the end.
Lastly, how do you see the future of portable gaming developing and do you expect to see more studios embrace it?
Apart from continuing to cater to its super loyal fan base, I think Nintendo also managed to appeal to a new audience of hardcore console gamers who simply love to play their favorite console games on the go, too. We also heard from lots of “console gamer dads” who love to play for a few minutes on the Switch when their young kids fall asleep – as they know it won’t be worth it to fire up their console in the living room anyway. So, yes, I absolutely expect to see more console games being brought to Switch if game sessions are rather short and technical challenges are within reasonable limits.
Ironically, the Nintendo Switch fills a fairly large gap for hardcore mobile gamers that Apple initially created with the iPhone and the App Store. I still remember the days when we released Galaxy on Fire 2 for $9.99 on iOS and got tons of top worldwide features from Apple. GOF2 sold like hot cookies on the App Store and was perceived as one of the best AAA mobile games, ever. However, the lack of reasonable pricing rules for premium games on the App Store lead to the inevitable race to the button until F2P took over, and now Nintendo just ate Apple’s lunch in “mobile” premium gaming.
Everspace - Stellar Edition is available now from the Nintendo eShop, priced at £35.99. A boxed edition will be released in Europe and North America early next year.