The Passion of the Port
When most people think of porting, or refining a game to work on various platforms, they don’t consider the how many roadblocks developers run into when fitting a game for a new system. Altering a game to work not only on, say, a console but also a PC is a complicated process that involving skills similar to translating a language.
And if you think there's little room for creativity in game porting, think again.
Porting may be a technical task first and foremost, but creativity still has a big role in developing control schemes that fit old games ported to new systems. How do you take advantage of the platform’s new design while also capturing the feel of the original version?
A big part of port development focuses on bringing classic arcade titles into the 21st century. When Iron Galaxy developers took on the port of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, they had to completely rework the game's joystick controls just to get it on the same level as modern day console controllers.
“Capcom was looking for an arcade-perfect port,” said Iron Galaxy Technical Director Mike O’Connor. “We needed to replicate that arcade experience on the console so that people from that original scene couldn’t tell the difference.”
Taking a game designed to be played on an arcade machine and creating a nearly perfect one-to-one port on the PS3 and Xbox 360 was an incredibly daunting task on its own. But another challenge awaited O'Connor and his team: working without all of a game's assets.
“You need to have a complete source archive, and sometimes it’s taken more back and forth with the publisher to get everything,” said O’Connor. “Some of these games are from the early nineties; people who worked on the game are long gone from the company. Somebody’s basically in the IT closet dusting off hard drives.”
Even when the publisher provides all the assets you need, they may not be in a form that’s easily digestible by your whole team. O’Connor’s team couldn’t read any of the notes written by 3rd Strikes original development team. “All of the code was in English, but any comments explaining what that code was for was in [Japanese], which no one was fluent in,” O’Connor said. “You don’t realize how much you count on those comments to be like breadcrumbs until you effectively don’t have them.”
O’Connor and his team had to paste Japanese characters into Google Translate for loose notes on each section of code. And when that didn’t work, they had to manually retrace the code to find out what it was for. “It was like an archaeological dig,” O’Connor said. “There were some translations that came out partially mangled and some that basically meant nothing at all.”
Preparing old code from the 1990s for the current generation of consoles is only one area port developers shine in. It takes real creativity and innovation to ensure modern games are translatable across platforms, in order to ensure they reach the biggest audience possible.
And that audience uses every type of controller available from mouse and keyboard to Xbox controller. That range of options makes control adaptation one of the most important pieces of the porting process.
When the team at Blitworks took on the port of Klei Entertainment's Invisible, Inc., a turn-based strategy game revolving around spycraft, they faced a unique challenge in reconfiguring its PC controls for the PS4. “Porting a title from PC to a console like the PS4 requires a complete overhaul of the UI,” said Tony Cabello, co-founder and software engineer at Blitworks. “The consoles don’t have a device like a mouse that makes pixel perfect selections; the interface won’t be the same at all.”
Cabello’s solution was to tailor the PS4 controls so the feeling between the two versions was identical, even if the console's UI had to be completely different. “Usually in a PC game, you move with the arrows and select with the mouse, but this can’t be translated directly onto a [controller],” Cabello said. “You have to change the way you handle the actions, like using contextual menus to keep the action on the screen depending on where you are in the game.”
And that's exactly what they ended up using -- rather than having players stumble through levels glancing up and down from their controller, prompts identified what needed to have happen, allowing for easy hand-eye coordination. A player's eyes never have to leave the screen.
“The game is still the same, it plays the same, and you have the same feeling,” Cabello said. “Even when the way the UI is shown on the screen is completely different you still feel the same; that’s a sign of a good port.”
While recreating the same experience on a new system was their primary objective, designing a control scheme that players would enjoy was equally, if not more, important. “It’s important to understand what players' expectations are,” O’Connor said. “You need to understand what a game is supposed to feel like, that’s very different for all the mediums out there.”
The most challenging aspect of working with ports is being able to roll with the punches. Technical issues are lurking around every new feature implemented and it’s vital that each one developers solve every issue, creating a technical sound port.
“Any port has a lot of problems that are completely unexpected,” Cabello said. “Different console generations, controls, PC and mobile optimization all need to be considered. You have to use some creativity to find solutions to problems that the original developers didn’t have.”