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How the Nintendo Switch’s HD rumble makes Tumbleseed feel real

I was delighted the first time I played Tumbleseed on the Nintendo Switch.

You play the game by raising or lowering both sides of a screen-length, horizontal bar with the system’s two analog sticks, and and you can feel every roll of your little seed. When that seed picks up speed before banging into a wall — which probably means you lost control — it feels almost as if there are physical objects rolling around inside the system, especially if you’re playing portable mode. It’s a game that values small movements and precision, and that is telegraphed through those rumbles.

How the hell did the team do it?

The history of Rumble

We have been trained not to expect much from the rumble feature that comes with most consoles. An explosion happens, and the controller shakes a bit. That’s it. Basic haptic feedback has become so rote that it’s mostly noticeable when it goes missing, not when it does something cool.

The HD rumble in the Nintendo Switch Joy-Con controllers is a big improvement from the status quo.

“The biggest difference between HD rumble and what we’re all used to from previous controllers is precision and responsiveness,” programmer David Laskey told Polygon. “With old rumble motors, when the developer wants the haptic feedback to kick in. the motor takes a small but measurable amount of time to get to the desired intensity. We’re able to immediately jump to the feedback we want with HD rumble. That alone makes it a more one-to-one experience regarding what you’re seeing, hearing and feeling.”

Traditional rumble uses small motors inside the controllers to spin weights that make the controller shake, while the Joy-Cons use a linear resonant actuator (LRA) that iFixit reports is very similar to the hardware found inside Oculus Touch controllers.

It has been tricky to find detailed information about how Nintendo’s hardware and software works together to deliver HD rumble — there is an NDA in place when it comes to some aspects of the Switch — but the Tumbleseed team was happy to explain how the technology improved the game.

This is the linear resonant actuator (LRA) that powers the HD Rumble in a Joy-con

“With traditional rumble, frequency and intensity are linked,” composer and sound design Joel Corelitz said.. “So, in other words, to make the rumble effect more pronounced, the motor has to spin faster. HD rumble on the Switch is much more detailed — sort of like a sound you can feel. We were able to use it to create a recognizable feeling for the game’s core mechanics, and being able scale the intensity of those sensations without sacrificing their identity really helps them feel real.”

Corelitz rolled all sorts of objects over all sorts of surfaces to help with the sound design of Tumbleseed, and those experiments also helped when it came to developing the game’s haptic feedback.

“I rolled marbles, clay pots, rocks, salt blocks, acorns and sticks across different surfaces and listened really closely to the relationship of pitch and volume as they sped up and slowed down,” he said. “And what was really interesting — particularly with a marble rolling across a smooth wooden surface — was that the change in volume was much more pronounced than the change in pitch. It was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of what makes HD rumble different.”

That’s what HD rumble gave them that traditional haptics did not: texture and context. You can learn about the game’s world by how it feels, not only how it looks and sounds.

“When designing the rumble effects, rather than say ‘I want the player’s hand to shake when they feel an earthquake and I want the player’s hands to shake when they’re rolling really fast,’ HD rumble allowed us to say ‘I want the player to feel the ground crumbling beneath them; I want them to feel a pointed crystalline rock tumbling across a vine,’” Laskey explained.

But the extra detail meant the stakes for every event were higher. If the player felt something that didn’t match up perfectly with what was happening on the screen, they would be distracted and yanked out of the experience. This meant that the sound and feedback needed to be synced very closely.

“We took special care to make sure that HD rumble always parallels what the sound is doing,” Corelitz said. “When the seed stops, the sound then abruptly fades to nothing, accompanied with a slight bump or hit. I know from doing a lot of synthesis work that sounds that increase in volume logarithmically are more ‘real’ sounding than things that increase linearly. David and I worked out an intensity curve that fades the rumble in logarithmically too. It’s those kinds of dynamics and the blend of engaging two senses: hearing and touch, that give TumbleSeed’s rumble its unique physicality.”

Tumbleseed was developed by five people while still coming to the PlayStation 4, Mac and PC, as well as the Switch. Taking time to support a feature that is only available on one console is a risk that comes with a very real opportunity cost, especially when the team didn’t know exactly what HD rumble could do. Laskey spent over a week just figuring out what was possible.

“I absolutely think it was worth it,” he told Polygon. “I was pleasantly surprised at how simple Nintendo made it to get HD rumble working. With the tools being as good as they are and the fact that we were already looking to provide rumble feedback with the PS4, it only made sense to dive deeper with the potential of HD rumble. It can really bring certain moments and mechanics to another level, giving developers a whole new axis of communication with the player.”

The effect is best experienced when holding the Switch in portable mode. The separation of the Joy-Cons — with the screen between them — sells the way the rumble is able to simulate the movement of your character from one side to the other. It doesn’t feel like the seed stops rolling when it hits a wall, as much as it feels like it bangs into the side of the system itself.

All this work means that the Switch version of the game should deliver the most information to the player, which is another advantage of the Switch on top of the portable nature of the system.

Tumbleseed will be released on the Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Switch on May 2, our full review is coming later this week.

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