For associate producer Matthew Cederquist, the ultimate test of Diablo 3's viabiity on the Switch took place in a parking lot in Blizzard's Irvine campus. There the team did their best to push the system's handheld mode to its absolute limit.
"We took four Switches outside into the parking lot. We all made Necromancers, and we had, I don't know, 50 or so skeletons and mages on there, and we were going to performance test it," Cederquist says. "We started walking away from one another, and when we saw how far we were able to get, we were like, 'Virtual high-five, this is awesome.' To have that much stuff on the screen and have the performance be that strong was awesome."
Strong performance is the main goal for the team tasked with developing the first Nintendo port for a Blizzard game in a generation. Eurogamer reported late last week that Diablo 3 was targeting 60fps on the Switch, and producer Pete Stilwell confirmed that it "almost never" dips below 50fps. That's a pretty impressive feat for a system that has occasionally struggled with framerate issues, particularly while in handheld mode.
"We wanted to make sure that it held up with the differences in hardware. We actually got it up and running relatively early, and a lot of the backend services like DemonWare are universal, so we spent huge amounts of time playing and making sure there are no framerate dips or loss of quality," Stilwell says.
It's particularly impressive in light of the game it's running. Diablo 3 is seven-years-old now, but it often loads the screen with hordes of monsters and effects. It's enough that it's fair to wonder whether the Switch can handle its more taxing moments while undocked. But if Cederquist's anecdote about the parking lot is anything to go by, we have nothing to worry about.
Its translation to the small screen is another matter. While Diablo 3 obviously runs well in handheld mode, the smaller details, such as on-screen text, tend to get lost in translation. My Demon Hunter often looked like a fuzzy blur battling waves of on-screen smudges. That's the tradeoff if you're going to put everything on performance, I suppose. You're invariably going to trade off some fidelity.
Still, there's no denying that Diablo 3 is a natural fit for the Switch. Playing on handheld with another player in the same room feels tremendous. Blizzard half-jokingly refers to the Switch's powerful bluetooth receiver as a "wireless LAN," hearkening back to the days of toting a PC to a friend's house and spending hours on co-op Diablo 2. "Its like the good old days are back," Stilwell says.
As someone who played a ton of Diablo 3 couch multiplayer on PS4, I can see two benefits to switching over to handheld, even with the compromises. First, it's possible to wander off you friend's screen, lending you a degree of autonomy in the larger world. Second, it solves the extremely tiresome inventory management issues inherent to couch play. When playing the PS3 version with my friends several years ago, we would have to wait while each of us took turns clearing out our inventory. I swear we spent more time waiting for one another to dump unwanted gear than playing the actual game. Thankfully, playing on handheld fixes that problem by giving everyone their own screen.
I'm hopeful that Diablo 3 ends up catching on with the Switch multiplayer crowd (even if online play requires the Nintendo Switch Online subscription). Mario Kart 8 and Puyo Puyo Tetris have made the Switch into a great party machine, and while Diablo 3 offers a somewhat different flavor of multiplayer, it figures to fit right in with its existing library. Blizzard is counting on it, which is why its bringing back all of the previous multiplayer options from the PS4 version, including the ability to mix couch and online play. If you want, you can even play with a friend on a single screen with a pair of Joy-Cons, even if I wouldn't recommend it since it will only serve to exacerbate the issues with the tiny screen (and you won't have the benefit of a second thumbstick for quick evasion).
While Diablo remains a PC franchise at heart, it has proven to be a good fit for console as well, which is owed to Blizzard's thoughtful approach to the user experience and features. As with the PS4 and Xbox One versions, the skills map rather nicely on to the Switch's face buttons, readily translating the classic mouse-clicking action to the controller. More importantly, it makes couch co-op fun and easy.
Like its counterparts, Diablo 3 on Switch's audience will necessarily be more casual than the core fandom on the PC. By making it possible to start directly in Adventure Mode, Blizzard aims to entice returning fans to roll a new class and dive back in. But new players are apt to dominate the Switch's base. Stilwell says, "This is a unique offering, so I hope we have a lot of very new players who want an exciting sort of hack-and-slash, loot explosion style of ARPG that this kind of game has to offer."
That's the beauty of Diablo, ultimately. If you want hardcore min-maxing, seasons, and all the rest, then you will be supported. If you just want to giggle with your partner as she melts demons with the Wizard's Disintegrate spell, then there's a place for you too. If Blizzard is truly seeking a "restart" with Nintendo, then it only makes sense that it should be on the Switch, which has done a better job than any Nintendo console in recent memory of attracting gamers of all backgrounds. It's for that reason, even more than the attraction of playing on handheld or the excellent performance, that Diablo 3 feels right at home on Switch.