Bringing Starlink to Nintendo Switch: A Q&A With Virtuos Games

Starlink Battle for Atlas

When it released last autumn, Ubisoft’s Starlink: Battle for Atlas performed better on Nintendo Switch than any other format.

Perhaps it’s because of Nintendo’s handheld format that attracted more people to that version. Or perhaps it’s because of the exclusive Starfox crossover content that the Switch version held over the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version.

Whatever the reason, though, there is one studio who played a very important part of the Switch port’s success: Virtuos Games. It may be Ubisoft that widely developed the game, but it’s Virtuos who was in charge of bringing the Switch version of the game to life.

A massive studio with over 1,500 employees, Virtuos Games is one of the largest game producers on the globe. But with the work they do often in the background, it’s not a name that’s familiar to many of us. Along with the Switch port of Starlink, the game have also been responsible for bringing Heavy Rain to PS4, Batman: Return to Arkham to Xbox One and PS4, and Dark Souls Remastered. And that’s just a snippet of their work in the last few years.

To find out more about Virtuos, the work the company does, and what it’s like working with a major studio in bringing one of its games to another format, I spoke with Jon Boldiga, the company’s senior technical director about working on Starlink.

What was is like to work with Ubisoft on a big project like Starlink: Battle for Atlas?

Boldiga: We’ve always had an excellent relationship with Ubisoft and have worked on many projects with them in the past. Ubisoft is a great company and they want to release great products. We knew that Ubisoft didn’t want to settle for anything other than the best quality on the Nintendo Switch. Part of our mission was for the Switch version to have parity with the other console platforms.  It was a strict mandate and was certainly challenging, but the result was one of the best-looking Switch titles around in our opinion. Interesting fact – our founder and CEO is a former Ubisoft employee himself!

What challenges did you come up against in bringing Starlink to Switch?

The project as a whole was very technically challenging.  From the beginning, Ubisoft’s mandate was for console parity and so we used every trick and optimisation technique we could to squeeze everything out of the Switch.  We also did a variety of CPU, GPU, and memory optimisations to get everything we could out of the platform.

What was it like working with the Star Fox franchise, one of Nintendo’s most-loved IPs?

Absolutely amazing! I still remember buying the original Star Fox for SNES at Toys R Us when I was younger.  Everyone was so excited when we all found out that Fox McCloud was going to be in the game. We couldn’t wait to get started and add him into the game. The fan reactions to the Star Fox announcement were also fantastic to watch.

Why do you think the Switch version of the game in particular has performed so strongly?

The success of the Switch version can be attributed to the mass appeal of Star Fox, but also to the platform itself.  The Switch is a great home for a game like Starlink. Our team was incredibly proud of what we were able to deliver on the platform.

Did you have any scope to put your own mark on the Switch version of the game in any way?

The game was creatively led by Ubisoft’s design team, but we had our own creative input as well. Especially as it pertained to the Switch platform. Our Creative Director, Cedric Fiorentino, was involved in creative discussion with Ubisoft’s creative team. He provided ideas, designs, and feedback regarding Switch user experience, combat, and other gameplay mechanics.

What was the best part about working on Starlink: Battle for Atlas?

The best part has to be bringing Star Fox into the world of Starlink. Who wouldn’t want to work with one of the most loved characters in gaming?

What typical challenges do you face in bringing an existing game to a new format? What was different about Starlink?

Many of our previous projects were remasters, where we were bringing older games to new formats. While not an easy task, it’s fairly straightforward to plan for. You have your older content and you polish and update it to bring it more in line with what gamers expect today, whether it’s art assets or post process effects. The difference was that with Starlink, we were already working with highly polished, cutting-edge content. The challenge was therefore to make it run and look the same on Switch as on other platforms.

Did the toys-to-life element of Starlink pose any new challenges?

It did, but not as much as we initially anticipated. There needed to be special functions added to the Nintendo firmware so that we could communicate directly with the toys and how the mount would work on the Switch which uses Joy-Cons. In addition, we needed to do several QA passes to test with and without toys attached when validating issues. Of course, this impacted our bug tracking but overall it was a fairly smooth process.

What’s it like working with some of the biggest IPs in the gaming industry?

It’s always exciting to work with true icons of gaming, but ultimately working with other companies’ IPs is our bread and butter. We always treat every client’s IP as if it was our own. This project was especially exciting as we got to work with an all-new IP for Ubisoft, as well as one of Nintendo’s best loved characters.

You’ve got some impressive port credits under your belt from the last year or so – Starlink, Dark Souls Remastered, L.A. Noire, Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection. Any hints as to what we can expect to see from you in 2019 and beyond?

Unfortunately, we can’t give too much away but stay tuned for the Final Fantasy X and X-2 HD Remasters where we’ve been in co-development with Square Enix. They’re coming to Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in early 2019.

What’s your favourite project that you’ve worked on so far?

I’ve enjoyed all the projects I’ve had the pleasure of working on with Virtuos but I think Starlink might edge out as my favourite. Working on such an iconic brand like Star Fox in combination with a great game like Starlink was an amazing experience.

Many thanks to Jon and Virtuos Games for taking the time to speak with us!