The free Monster Hunter Rise demo on Nintendo was pretty neat, but it also apparently had a secret: a developer says that it looks like the demo might also have been the first public test for a Nintendo Switch multiplayer upgrade.
Let's start by setting some expectations: no, this isn't some new kind of social features or an upgrade to Nintendo Switch Online. The reported new multiplayer in the Monster Hunter Rise demo has a little more going on behind the scenes then you might first guess. It might sound boring, but Nintendo appears to be moving its source code from its multiplayer NEX source code to a new codebase that could improve Switch's multiplayer on the whole.
Nintendo is preparing a big multiplayer overhaul, probably for games in development in 2020: every task currently taken by NEX is going to be switched over to NPLN. It's currently in a preview phase, and the Monster Hunter demo was a way to test how it worked under load.— Thomas (@thomasnet_mc) February 1, 2021
How Nintendo Switch Multiplayer Could Be Improving
The above tweet from @thomasnet_mc is certainly interesting on its face. It was, however, a little lacking in detail; we reached out to Thomas for more details.
Currently, Nintendo uses something called NEX for its backend. It's a pretty old system — @OatmealDome on Twitter told me that it's based on source code licensed from Ubisoft and has been in operation since around 2010 for the Wii U, 3DS, and now the Nintendo Switch.
Understandably, this system is a bit dated and the state of Nintendo's multiplayer services isn't generally well-regarded. However, a friend of @thomasnet_mc noticed something interesting about the Monster Hunter Rise demo — it was using something else entirely behind the scenes.
" A friend of mine (@nextIeveIbilly) looked at the list of servers the [Monster Hunter Rise] demo was connecting to a few days ago and noticed an unusual server, which happens to be the NPLN server for the game," @thomasnet_mc explained.
"From then, I asked Yannik/Kinnay (@Kinnay on GitHub) to look into it a bit more and seen it was listed as a new middleware inside the game's executable[,]" he continued. "After looking into it a bit more, it seemed to use HTTP/2 for transport and gRPC, which made it easy to proxy and look at the different requests the library could make[.]"
It's important to note that this is not an improvement to the netcode of games or anything like that. This change would only affect "authentication, matchmaking, data storing and presence capabilities" according to @thomasnet_mc — basically, the bits and pieces of programming that set up a game when you want to play with a friend.
"Matchmaking and DataStore are the tasks NEX is usually used for in both Nintendo first-party and third-party games since the 3DS, and it makes sense to want to change libraries as it's both old (the base library/server code dates from way before the 3DS) and costs licensing money to [Nintendo]." — @thomasnet_mc on Twitter
Players will still have to establish a peer-to-peer connection for games that don't have dedicated servers. However, @thomasnet_mc notes that there does appear to be support for "relay servers" which might improve your connectivity over long distances and/or on an unstable connection. Support for this functionality, however, does not necessarily mean that Nintendo will actually implement it.
As far as anyone can tell, the Monster Hunter Rise demo is the only game on the market that's testing out this new Nintendo Switch multiplayer functionality. If an upgrade using this system does go forward, we may well see an improved multiplayer experience on the platform. There's still a lot we don't know, though — will Nintendo actually use NPLN? Will it upgrade its older titles to use this new service? We can't say for sure, but the prospect of multiplayer improvements is certainly exciting.
What improvements would you like to see for Nintendo Switch multiplayer? How do you think Nintendo Switch Online compares to PlayStation Network and Xbox Live? Let us know in the comments below!