DISCLAIMER: This interview was conducted via Skype with Mr. Jonathan Lowe from 3DClouds, the developers of Xenon Racer. While the interview was recorded, due to a mistake on my end, I was unable to record his audio dialogue. Thus, very little exact quotes are provided in this article. However, I took notes throughout our discussion. This article has been read and approved for publishing by Mr. Lowe beforehand.
Back in March, the folks over at 3DClouds had quite the situation on their hands. The still relatively new studio launched their second game so far, Xenon Racer, which had a noticeable amount of fanfare behind it. However, a lot of that fanfare quickly turned into criticism on launch day, almost exclusively because of the Switch version of the game. Many were livid over the poor quality of this build of the game, which led to 3DClouds getting flack left and right. The problem stemmed from the game’s poor framerate on Switch, along with severe pop-in of scenery objects. None of this was present in the promo materials used prior to launch.
Truth be told, I personally added fuel to the fire with my scathing review of the Switch version. It’s final sentence read: “Xenon Racer for Switch needs some serious work. Do not buy it unless there’s an update. If you really want this game, get it on the other platforms.”
Sure enough, 3DClouds was able to roll out a patch in early May, which ended up addressing just about every issue that I had pointed out in the review. But, there was still a big question: “Why did the game launch in such a bad state?” Thankfully, a member of 3DClouds reached out to us here at Nintendo Enthusiast to explain the situation. I happily took the opportunity to conduct the interview, and to be honest with you, doing this not only changed my mind about my feelings on the matter, but it also added some context to other situations involving game development as a whole.
Timing is everything
The rep from 3DClouds who I spoke to is none other than Mr. Jonathan Lowe, who manages Sales & Operations at the studio. According to him, the basic answer behind this whole fiasco is mismanagement of time. Mr. Lowe explained a bit of all that’s involved with releasing a game, and a lot of what he said are things that not even I really thought about before.
Going through processes like receiving age ratings and conducting platform QA (quality assurance) testing can take a lot of time (several weeks) on top of being very expensive. Honing in on the point about Q&A testing, Mr. Lowe explained that Nintendo’s process is a bit slower than other platforms. Even then, this testing is only meant to cover whether there are any serious bugs and to see what happens in unique situations. For instance, testers try to see what happens in a game when a controller battery dies or the console is disconnected from the Internet. So, none of the issues that players found with the launch version of Xenon Racer really concerned the QA team. Their sole goal is to make sure games pass compliance and functionality tests. But, what about the developers themselves? Surely they must have realized something was off, right?
Well, Mr. Lowe candidly explained that not even 3DClouds team itself had much issue with the launch version of Xenon Racer on Switch. He used the term “underestimated” quite frequently when talking about this. I asked if it was basically a matter of creator’s bias, and he agreed; the team was so attached to the project that the flaws were not always recognized. When the game launched and people started complaining, the team ended up being disappointed by the negative reaction. Still, Mr. Lowe went on to explain the technical reasons as to why these issues were present in the first place.
When dreams don’t align with reality
Mr. Lowe explained how Xenon Racer‘s porting process differed on Switch compared to the other platforms. The game was always intended to come to all the consoles, but there were some caveats. Porting the game to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One was fairly straightforward, while Switch proved to be a different beast. This is due to the graphical complexity of the game.
Xenon Racer features very detailed scenery, thus resulting in heavy CPU usage. Powerful PCs along with the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X can handle this well, but the relatively weak CPUs of the base PS4 and Xbox One have trouble with this. With that being the case, it’s no surprise the even less advanced mobile CPU of the Switch is especially taxed by such operations. As a result, in order to fix the framerate and pop-in issues, the graphical assets needed to be optimized and superfluous ones were removed.
One example Mr. Lowe gave of this was a track in the Tokyo environment. One section of this track is in a tunnel, and in that tunnel, there are vending machines. Due to the fast-paced nature of Xenon Racer, Mr. Lower flat-out said that assets like this were fundamentally “pointless”, which I couldn’t disagree with. But, the artists at 3DClouds were upset that assets like the vending machines needed to be removed after they’d already finished them. So, there was a lot of internal debating as to what needed to go, which took even more time. Artists don’t like their work to be touched!
But, even after the devs got the Switch version of Xenon Racer in a much better state, there was still yet another hurdle: Nintendo’s policies. Mr. Lowe explained that Nintendo has file size limitations on patches. Since every track had to be altered, this made for a very large patch. The problem is that Nintendo has a policy in place to protect the players’ user experience by limiting the size of patch files – no one likes to download a patch, after all. (This is probably also in place due to the Switch’s limited storage capacity, though that’s just a theory on my part).
So, the devs had to jump through a lot of hoops to deliver the update, and even then, the timing was still another issue. According to Mr. Lowe, Nintendo’s other policies on patch deliveries are slower than that of PlayStation and Xbox. All companies require updates to be certified, and on PS4/Xbox One (and PC), updates can be rolled out as soon as certification is complete. With Nintendo, however, it has specific times for patches to be delivered, which makes the whole process even more lengthy (certification itself also takes up time).
A picture paints a thousand words
All that said, there remains the matter of the ‘false’ promo material. The screenshots and trailers used to advertise the game for all platforms looked nothing like what the Switch version ended up being.
This is primarily the reason why folks ended up feeling jilted about this whole situation. Taking all the aforementioned factors into account, Mr. Lowe explained that Xenon Racer’s publisher, Sodesco, handled promo material (though he didn’t blame them for this mishap). Things like trailers take lots of time to make, and the team just didn’t initially think about making material specifically for Switch.
Mr. Lowe explained that there are other studios that have released promo material that doesn’t represent the Switch version, and this is true. In fact, Nintendo Life put together a video diving into this. Regardless, after the flack, 3DClouds responded in mere hours by updating the eShop listing of Xenon Racer with proper gameplay and screenshots from the Switch version.
So, ultimately, this entire situation ended up being caused by the team underestimating a lot of things and schedules being completely thrown off. Despite all this, Mr. Lowe confidently mentioned how the team is taking it in stride. He admitted that they learned many lessons from this situation, and they’ve applied them to 3DClouds’ upcoming game (which they haven’t revealed yet). It will be coming to Switch, and now the team understands the hardware better.
Mr. Lowe provided a bit of context to the porting process, too. For a game to truly work on Switch, it’s better for it to be designed ground-up for the system. That didn’t really happen with Xenon Racer. But now, 3DClouds is much better equipped to handle things.
One last interesting tidbit I’ll share from this interview is something Mr. Lowe said about Nintendo’s business. He mentioned how Nintendo has only recently really started pushing for relationships with third-party/indie studios. Thus, everyone — Nintendo, third-party studios, and publishers alike — have been in the process of getting acquainted with and fine-tuning various processes. This attributed to 3DClouds underestimating things, with Mr. Lowe saying ”we just assumed some things would be the same [as the other platforms], and they turned out not to be.” Meanwhile, PlayStation and Xbox have had strong indie relationships for a while, and both publishers and developers know them inside out at this point.
Looking at this whole situation from this complete perspective, it makes sense why things turned out the way they did. It’s unfortunate that the team had to learn some hard lessons, but they’re clearly not giving up. Hopefully, there won’t be similar situations for the Switch in the near future as the console becomes more established and Nintendo continues venturing more and more into the modern state of the industry.