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NBA Playgrounds’ bizarre Nintendo Switch patch situation, explained (update)

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Well, that’s weird

NBA Playgrounds - Scottie Pippen goes up for a dunk Saber Interactive/Mad Dog Games

The Nintendo Switch version of NBA Playgrounds, the arcade-style basketball title from indie studio Saber Interactive, has frustrated Switch owners with its bumpy development path. Now its road has taken another turn with a strange re-release of the game, known as NBA Playgrounds: Enhanced Edition.

NBA Playgrounds debuted in May 2017 simultaneously on PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows PC and Xbox One, but the Switch version has always lagged behind the others in terms of its feature set. The game launched without online play on Switch, and Saber wasn’t able to patch it in until mid-July, two months after release.

Switch owners have been waiting many months for further updates, including both free and paid add-on content that Saber has released for the other versions of NBA Playgrounds. After all, if those versions got new elements through patches, why not the Switch too?

NBA Playgrounds: Enhanced Edition, which was released on Switch last Thursday, Jan. 4, contains all the free post-launch content that is already available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. That includes more than 100 new players, such as retired NBA greats like Tim Duncan and Julius “Dr. J” Erving.

Saber has also brought NBA Playgrounds’ two paid add-ons to the Switch: “Hot ’N Frosty,” a $9.99 pack that adds three courts and eight NBA rookies, and a $9.99 purchase that unlocks the game’s entire roster — both the current list of players, and anybody that gets added in the future. (This may be vastly preferable to the built-in system, in which players unlock new athletes randomly by earning packs of virtual cards. Note that this setup does not feature microtransactions.)

NBA Playgrounds - Switch eShop icon comparison, with original on left and Enhanced Edition on right
The Switch eShop icon for the original version of NBA Playgrounds (left) and the updated icon for the Enhanced Edition.
Saber Interactive/Nintendo

Anyone who already owns NBA Playgrounds on Switch can download the Enhanced Edition for free. New customers can buy the game on sale for $9.99 — a 50 percent discount — until Jan. 18, at which point it will jump to its regular price of $19.99. Saber reiterated that anyone who bought the Switch version by June 10, 2017, will still receive a free copy of Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn when it is released.

Curiously, the Enhanced Edition completely replaces the original game in the Switch eShop. That means that if you already own NBA Playgrounds on Switch, you’ll need to download the Enhanced Edition separately — it’s not a patch — and then delete the old game. (The re-release has a gold border around its icon in the eShop.) Just make sure not to erase your existing save files, since you’ll need them for the Enhanced Edition unless you want to start from scratch. Saber also noted that although customers who don’t take advantage of the free upgrade will be able to continue playing NBA Playgrounds, they won’t be able to play online with Enhanced Edition owners.

So why do Switch owners have to go through all that rigmarole to get the updates they’ve been promised? Well, it now seems that the Enhanced Edition was a way for Saber to circumvent the limitations of Nintendo’s platform and bring that content to Switch owners at long last.

A stylized Lebron James soars over a carnival scene in NBA Playgrounds. Saber Interactive/Mad Dog Games

Saber had online play working on the Switch well before July — in a post dated June 1 in a public Facebook group about the game, studio head Matthew Karch said the Switch patch was “long done” — but the update was delayed for weeks as Saber negotiated with Nintendo. The patch apparently did not meet Nintendo’s technical requirements for the Switch eShop.

“There are certain elements of our patch that are absolutely essential but that are out of normal Nintendo guidelines,” said Karch in a post to the Facebook group that he seems to have deleted later (you can see his comments collected on Reddit). “If Nintendo were to approve the patch it would be released immediately, but we are in the midst of a long process of back-and-forth to get small matters waived.”

File size was one of the main sticking points. NBA Playgrounds originally weighed in at 7.4 GB on the Switch, a hefty download that made headlines for being bigger than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. With the online play update in July, the installation ballooned to 9.6 GB. (Saber had to get an exception from Nintendo for a patch that big, a process that Karch said took “almost 3 weeks.”) Karch later told Game Informer that the large file size resulted from developing NBA Playgrounds as a multiplatform title, and from starting the project “far in advance of having any access to Nintendo’s Switch development resources.”

Aware of the file-size complaints, Saber was hoping to reduce it with the July patch; the plan was to cut it from 7.4 GB to approximately 3.5 GB. Unfortunately, at the time Nintendo did not support shrinking file size with a patch, said Karch: “It just technically isn’t feasible yet on their platform or they would definitely allow it.”

Through June, the NBA Playgrounds community continued to hammer Saber about the timing of the online play patch. Karch tried to keep the frustrated fans at bay, tossing out nuggets of information and hope while doing his best, as an indie developer, not to throw Nintendo under the bus or break any nondisclosure agreements. Late in the month, he noted that Saber had considered a drastic option: “We have thought of every possible scenario including pulling the game and uploading a new version.”

Cut to Oct. 30, when Saber posted on NBA Playgroundsofficial Facebook page about a “radical solution” for the Switch difficulties. “A new version of NBA Playgrounds on the Switch is heading to certification within a week,” the studio said. It might have taken two months — and eight months since the game’s debut — but the Enhanced Edition appears to be the wild workaround in question. While it doesn’t reduce the Switch file size to the previously mentioned target of 3.5 GB, it does bring it down to about 7.6 GB from 9.6 GB.

We’ve reached out to Saber for further details, but the company has not yet responded to multiple requests for comment. We’ll update this article with any information we receive. For more on NBA Playgrounds, read our review.

Update: Asked for comment on why Saber Interactive decided to release NBA Playgrounds: Enhanced Edition, a representative for the studio told Polygon that the reasons were twofold — updates to the Unreal Engine that necessitated changes to the game’s code base, and the need to conform to Nintendo’s platform restrictions. The company said that “tens of thousands” of customers have bought the Enhanced Edition or upgraded to it since its release.

“Releasing an Enhanced Edition of the game was, in our judgment, the best way” to bring all of NBA Playgrounds’ post-launch content to the Switch version, Saber said in a statement to Polygon.

“When we first developed NBA Playgrounds, we used a pre-release version of Unreal, and since then we’ve learned a lot about optimizing for this new system,” Saber continued. “Unfortunately, the code had changed so substantially that a simple patch wasn’t feasible while also staying within platform guidelines. The amount of content we were working with, combined with the reduction in file size, ultimately resulted in the need to release this as a new game.”

In response to a question from Polygon, Saber also confirmed that the Enhanced Edition finally does bring the Switch version of NBA Playgrounds up to par with the other versions in terms of content, gameplay balance tweaks and bug fixes.

“We can’t thank our community enough for their patience, as we know this has been a very trying period for those who purchased the game,” said Saber. “We’ve done our best to share what we can with players throughout the process as we’ve worked to deliver the quality experience they paid for.”

Saber did acknowledge that it has been “criticized for a lack of proper communication” on the status of patches for the Switch version, and described that feedback as “totally fair.” The studio hinted in its defense that its hands were sometimes tied regarding communication, saying, “We hope players understand that sometimes there are limits to how much can be said about work that is still actively in development, especially when you’re working together with other partners.”