Sharing a bizarre comedy adventure
Trover Saves the Universe was created by Squanch Games and the co-creator of Rick and Morty. Originally released on the Sony PlayStation 4, it is a comedic virtual reality (VR) title that received significant praise from both critics and players. Shortly after its release, Squanch Games got to work creating new downloadable content (DLC) to release for free. Along with this free DLC, Squanch Games wanted to build upon the success of the game, by releasing it across all platforms. As Puny Human had previously assisted in the release on PC, getting the same studio to release it on the Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Xbox One was an easy choice.
EXECUTING THE VISION
Puny Human dedicated a team of engineers, quality assurance testers, and producers to release Trover Saves the Universe on two new platforms. During this project’s lifecycle, Squanch Games would handle all marketing, store management, localization and art assets. Though this was Puny Human’s first time executing a port of an existing title to new consoles, there were several factors that gave the team an advantage.
On this particular project, the team operated separate from the rest of the development team. Up until this point, Puny Human had worked exclusively on projects while embedded with the development team. Squanch Games communicated deadlines, but allowed for Puny Human to manage the path to meeting them.
As a result, the team did a lot of internal regulating, relying on self-imposed timelines and corrections. For example, the engineering team found it more motivating and efficient to create their own code review processes, instead of typically relying on a client’s standards and practices.
The engineers were split between the two platforms, with producers managing the project’s progress and communicating with Squanch Games. As development continued, the communication between both studios became less necessary as trust was built. The execution was fairly smooth but challenges always arise.
Trover Saves the Universe was built for the Sony PlayStation 4, and visually comes with numerous art assets of high quality. The Nintendo Switch, however, has much lower hardware strengths than any other modern platform, and was simply too large to transfer directly to the Switch without modification. The team needed to optimize the game and find areas to reduce memory usage. This required compromising on certain visuals to meet the engineering requirements. Puny Human approached this as systematically as possible, creating a data driven approach to identify and prioritize areas of concern. The goal was to ensure the changes made for the Nintendo Switch were the least invasive as possible to the artistic vision of the game.
A similar process was done to optimize for the Xbox One, which was presenting its own set of challenges. Although both specific models of the Xbox One were more robust from a performance perspective than that of the Switch, issues arose none the less. For instance there were problems with account swapping and game save data, causing the game to send players back to the Main Menu or crash when an account was changed. To remedy these complications, Puny Human wrote custom code for account and user management. The team embraced the challenge and were able to get the title to run at 60 frames per second in a stable fashion.
The team created pre-programmed agents utilizing the Gauntlet automation tool, to perform testing and gather metrics with little management. Some of these agents were programmed to continually warp around the game, gauging performance while doing so. Automated testing allowed the team to constantly capture data on performance, and identify areas that could be optimized to reduce performance strain. Puny Human executed audits on textures and lighting in order to identify assets that had unnecessary features, such as high-resolution textures or dynamic lighting, that could be optimized for areas that players would never notice. The team was able to successfully transfer the title to the Nintendo Switch by reducing quality on some textures, dynamic lights and merging meshes at 30 frames per second consistently.
Additionally, during the project, the team upgraded the underlying version of Unreal Engine 4 that ran the title multiple times, affecting the development process. Upgrades introduced new defects, such as changes to physics impulse that caused objects to rotate at drastically wrong speeds. Every time a new defect was identified, it was thoroughly tested on other platforms to determine if it was platform specific. Additionally, any problems discovered were compared to the shipped release of Trover Saves the Universe, to identify if it could possibly be addressed on existing platforms. The use of automated testing relieved much of the testing workload, allowing the testers to focus on defects due to engine upgrades that were tedious to identify and resolve.
There were several positive results beyond the original stated goal of the project, to transfer Trover Saves the Universe to the Xbox One and Switch. The team was able to build the confidence to execute a service project without being embedded in an external team. In addition to technical challenges, Puny Human was able to navigate the logistical difficulties of working with a separate team charged with art development and the release of downloadable content. The team developed numerous standard operating procedures, and created new documentation to train future engineers on the process of working with new platforms. The impact of a good build system and artifact repositories were resounding, which Puny Human makes use on all of its projects.
Trover Saves the Universe was released on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR in May of 2019 to significant praise. The game was nominated for Best VR/AR Game at the 2019 Game Awards and Immersive Reality Game of the Year at the 23rd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards. Trover Saves the Universe’s free downloadable content was released in November of 2019, packaged within the releases on Microsoft Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, which came later that year in December.
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