The Nintendo Switch has become an incredibly popular console with over 52 million units being sold since its launch in 2017. Additionally, in 2017, Nintendo reported around 30% of Switch owners play undocked for more than 80% of the time. However, there’s an ongoing issue I’m noticing with the UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design in existing games that are being ported over to the Nintendo Switch — They’re all far too small when in handheld mode.
Because of this, for a while now, I’ve had some questions lingering in my mind. How complicated is it for a developer to implement resizable UI features in a video game prior to launch? And would having that feature available in a game before porting it to the Nintendo Switch allow the developer to add additional resizable steps to accommodate a smaller screen?
The Nintendo Switch and the even smaller Nintendo Switch Lite, while handheld, is obviously far smaller than a HD TV. To this day, players still complain about struggling to see the UI on Death Stranding on their large 32” 4K TV, and other games all have a similar situation. So what’s the problem with having an inaccessible UI design that’s ported over to the Switch?
Simple: The information being conveyed to the player isn’t entirely clear, nor is it accessible. Having an inaccessible UI is a huge disservice to players, especially if timed pop-ups with tips and key information are difficult to read in time.
This problem stems from video games adapting to a modernised clean-cut feel to enhance player immersion. Informational text has become thinner, minimaps are smaller, main menus become shiny and tiny, and some elements vanish completely.
Let’s imagine an existing game is planned to be ported to the Switch. In an ideal world, to fix the UI situation, the studio porting the product would simply need to add a feature that allows the user to increase the UI to a size suited to their personal needs. But it doesn’t appear to be that easy.
“The Switch uses a 16/9 ratio, so that makes things easier, since at the very least, just rescaling the whole rendering of the UI would just work and fit in the screen.” Clement Capart, a programmer at High Tea Frog explains in an online chat. “With a UI designed with a focus on playing on TV (or worse, on a computer screen!). You end up with fonts way too small for a [Nintendo Switch] screen that size.”
Chris Payne, founder of Quantum Soup Studios adds to the conversation, “If your fonts are too small for a 720p screen then they’re just generally too small.” I asked if adding resize options to an existing game’s UI would complicate the porting process. Frazer McCormick, who has worked on Man O’ War: Corsair, and Plague Inc replied, “Yes, though I imagine less so if you designed it to have that in the first place.”
This was backed up when I spoke with Tom Spilman, the co-owner and programmer at Sickhead Games, the company responsible for porting ConcernedApe’s Stardew Valley to the Switch. “We got lucky in that Stardew for PC has a pretty streamlined UI that was pretty clear visually, and it already supported scaling,” he tells me.
Stardew Valley has an option that allows the user to increase or decrease the UI, and has had this option in the PC version initially. When asked if this helped port the game to the Switch, Spilman says, “having that working did help.” However, the unique thing about Stardew’s resize feature is it actually scales the visible playing area, not just the UI. “This actually caused performance issues across all the consoles which is why the feature didn’t make it in until the 1.4 release of the game.” he explains.
Already, it seems clear that it’s important to have the UI design either accessible, or capable of being resized from the off as it only complicates matters during porting. LA Noire and Skyrim have existing UI elements that can’t be adjusted to make the game more accessible. Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed III: Remastered are the same, with players only capable of choosing to turn this information off or on.
The process of adjusting an existing UI seems like an incredibly complicated matter of which none of the developers I spoke to explained. But it makes sense as to why older games ported to the Switch keep their original interface at the cost of becoming inaccessible. Going from the developer comments, my understanding is that having the visual design principles planned out from the start to include an accessible UI helps somewhat. As does having different UI sizes to choose from already implemented.
However, I’m sure these options being present would still come with challenges. For example, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt allows you to choose from a small and large preset for the interface, just as the other versions do. Rocket League also allows you to adjust the interface with a slider which is also available in other versions. However, while these options should have the ideal outcome, they make hardly any difference to the size of the UI because they, understandably, weren’t originally designed with the Switch in mind. But this does show that having the feature readily available means it can be ported.
I may find myself frustrated at the small UI on Nintendo Switch ports, but because these games weren’t initially designed for such a small screen, it means we’ll likely just have to make do. However, newer releases need to start being more proactive with their UI design, especially if there are plans to bring a future title to the Switch. As always, it seems the best way to make a video game accessible is to plan it out from the start with research, and ensuring the groundwork is already there
If you want to know the difference between UI and UX, this handy video shows you how best to present the UI and UX by using visual design principles.