Minecraft for the Nintendo Switch is about to look dramatically better when connected to televisions, and it's thanks to the cautionary diligence of its console handlers that we're seeing it now, a few months after release. The game shipped on May 11 locked in both handheld and TV mode at 720p, pushing on the order of about a million pixels. After the update, it'll run at 1080p in TV mode, and push over twice as many pixels.
How'd they do it? Microsoft told TIME in May that the reason for the lower resolution involved “issues currently experienced shifting from one resolution to the other when docking/undocking.” The company passed along speculation from 4J Studios that 1080p might be attainable, but it couldn't promise anything.
I just spoke with 4J Studios CTO Richard Reavy, and it turns out the issue of getting Minecraft for the Switch to 1080p involved double and triple checking the interface — and a bit of performance optimization. (4J develops all console versions of Minecraft.)
Reavy tells me the game needed further optimization to handle 1080p comfortably, but that the studio was confident it could make that happen given sufficient time.
“We did spend some time analyzing our GPU usage and optimizing things before we did this move as well,” he says. “We needed to spend some time looking at the fill rate and being more careful with that, just because of the number of pixels in 1080p. We kind of knew we could do the optimization and we would get there with the performance. But yeah, ultimately, the fundamental problem was switching resolution.”
More specifically, switching the user interface at different resolutions. Reavy tells me the user interface on each of the console versions — besides the Switch, they include the PlayStation 3 and 4, PS Vita, Xbox 360 and One, and the Wii U — have custom user interfaces. “Every interface seam is handcrafted by our art team to suit the exact resolution of the console it's on,” says Reavy. Everything through May ran at a fixed resolution. But when the Switch arrived, 4J Studios had to grapple with its signature feature: transitioning dynamically between different resolutions without hiccups or pauses.
“We wanted to make sure the transition was really slick, and that the user wouldn't notice anything, like it taking seconds unloading one user interface system for another,” he says. “And also because you can dock and undock your console at any point, it can be quite problematic that the user could switch the console at a really inopportune moment.” This explains Microsoft's delay in rolling out the feature between May and now: 4J Studios simply wanted the time to thoroughly vet the user interface while changing resolution at any point while playing the game.
For now, 1080p is the biggest technical revision. The draw distance is still a bit lower than on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, you're limited to “Medium” world sizes (3,072-by-3,072 blocks versus “Large,” which supports 5,120-by-5,120 blocks) and you don't get the checkbox to create “Amplified” terrain. “Everything else is unchanged at present,” says Reavy. “We really just wanted to make sure jumping up the resolution wouldn't cause any problems.”
Those differences may fade when, later this fall, Minecraft for the Switch transitions to the much more versatile and scalable “bedrock engine” that currently runs on Windows 10, iOS and Android devices. And it's at that point things get really interesting, because Microsoft and Nintendo will be doing something that has no industry precedent, allowing Xbox One, iPhone, Windows PC and Nintendo Switch owners to play together in a single, seamlessly backend-unified ecosystem.