August 11th, 2010
By Blake Snow
The biggest video game released in the last year was undoubtedly Modern Warfare 2. Unfortunately for PC gamers, they were sold an inferior version for the same price, thanks to erratic multiplayer and neutered options. Why is that? How did the PC go from being the historical target platform to an afterthought? And what does the future hold for ported PC games?
To understand the root cause, just follow the money, says Billy Pidgeon (who seems to have been a porter in a former life by the way he talks) of M2 Research. “Since PC versions of multi-platform games usually sell in lower quantities, publishers want console and handheld versions done first,” he says. “That being the case, a PC version is typically the lowest priority and the last part of the project to be worked on.”
Consequently, the PC is no longer the “target platform” (or primary development system) of choice when making multi-platform games. Consoles are. Which means awesomeness (and sometimes competence) can be lost in translation. “Code and assets don't usually adapt as well to additional platforms as they do on target platforms,” explains Pidgeon. “This is where things start to break down.”
The first of which is rewards for making good games. “There’s more incentive to finish the target version to good quality more quickly as target platform builds will count as milestones with payment due,” says Pidgeon.
But weakened economics and “PC as a second language” isn’t the only thing dogging native ports. It gets worse. When an additional platform is labeled as such—as the PC increasingly is—it’s automatically assigned to the least experienced developers within a studio. And since the lead studio or team has likely moved on to other projects, they’re unavailable to assist in the creation of faithful ports, Pidgeon says.
Sometimes the game completely changes hands and is sent to an external developer. “There are companies that solely perform game porting as service,” says Randy Stude, president of the PC Gaming Alliance. In other words, companies that are not necessarily in the business of making good games, rather, they’re in the business of porting popularity to make a buck. As Stude puts it, “entrepreneurs fighting for scraps.”
So it’s understandable why delays and inferior ports exist. But why are some PC ports lacking in features when compared to consoles? Why aren’t developers, even lesser ones, translating all the code from the target platform?
Two reasons, says Pidgeon. First, debugging a PC game to be compatible with as many hardware configurations as possible takes more time than on standardized consoles. To offset the difference, some PC porters cut features. Secondly, “the PC version of a game is going to require more customer service (patches, help desk calls, etc) as more things can go wrong,” says Pidgeon, “not the least of which is consumers not understanding their hardware.”
Subsequently, “Publishers tend to care less about performance and more about reduction of complaints, resulting in a dumbed down and reduced game.”
In light of this, there’s a perception among PC gamers that the number of poor PC ports has increased in recent years. Is that the case?
No, Stude says bluntly. “There are good ones and bad ones as there has always been,” he says, pointing to several poor MS-DOS ports of 16-bit games. “The only thing that’s gotten worse is the release window.”
And this is where it gets a little sinister. Yes, market incentives and hardware complexities contribute to the number of delayed PC ports. But Stude believes something else is at play: the fear of piracy. Specifically, that some publishers are holding back PC versions of games, sometimes not even announcing them, until after a game has already sold well on consoles. Thus, reducing the chance that a console owner will pirate their favorite games on PC instead of paying for it on consoles, which are harder to pirate on.
Take Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. The company says the popular console game is not coming to PC, even though they have a history of porting their biggest titles to “the house that mouse and keyboard built.” That said, if Red Dead Redemption does arrive on PC at some point in the future—which many expect it to—it’s likely piracy concerns will have played a part in its delay. And ironically, not the fear of PC enthusiasts pirating. But the fear of console owners pirating on the more easily pirated platform, the PC.
As for the reasons of inferior PC ports, freelance writer Peter Suciu doesn’t buy them. He believes there’s a causality dilemma and blames bad games and their publishers for reduced market incentives to support multi-platform PC games. “Consumers know they're getting an inferior product, and they'll soon stop buying,” he says. “When that happens, divestment in PC games will only worsen.”
There are, however, publishers that are reinvesting in PC ports. Capcom is one of them. After delivering shoddy PC recompiles of Resident Evil 4 and Devil May Cry 3 in 2007, the company redoubled their efforts last year in releasing the picture-perfect Resident Evil 5 and Street Fighter IV on PC. “Much of the success of Resident Evil 5 on PC is because gamers feel the publisher responded to their complaints about the previous version,” says Pidgeon. “It seems Capcom realizes the value of the franchise and the harm inherent in disappointing fans on any platform.”
Not only does Resident Evil 5 on PC look, play, and sound like the target platform (Xbox 360), it even manages to surpass it. All this, of course, without offensive references to the target platform, such as on-screen images of controller buttons as opposed to keyboard ones, or lazily referring to your computer as a “console” — minor quibbles that should never be found on a PC port.
Looking ahead then, what can developers do to improve their ports? For one thing, make sure the default and vast majority of controller configurations (aka mouse and keyboard), actually work. “The number of gamepads connected to PCs is pretty slim,” reminds Stude.
“Would a car be fun to drive if it handled like a motorcycle?” adds Suciu. “It would be awkward, just like a bike would be with a steering wheel.” Even so, hasty developers regularly overlook the mouse and keyboard when porting games to PC. “You don’t see Valve or Blizzard doing that,” quips Stude, referencing the leaders PC game development.
This isn’t to say developers should stop supporting gamepads on PC. On the contrary, they should follow the example recently set by Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, which lovingly supported the mouse and keyboard as much as the gamepad.
Another guiding principle? Develop accordingly while embracing the PC’s strengths. “PC games are a ‘lean forward’ experience with two to three feet of space between gamer and monitor, while consoles are a ‘lean back’ experience with six or more feet of space between gamer and monitor,” Pidgeon explains. “That said, PC ports should get special design considerations at the beginning of a project, much like Wii and handheld games uniquely do.”
Lastly, know when to say no, and that goes for everybody. “Some games were designed for console and just don't translate well to PC,” adds Pidgeon. “Similarly, the inverse is true of consoles. If that’s case, it’s probably best not to port.”
Which raises the questions: How big of a draw are ports to PC gaming? Do they even matter? "I don’t think they’re a big deal,” answers Stude. “I think they provide opportunity. But ports aren’t dictating the momentum of PC gaming. They’re not the future. They're just a means to an end."
Adds Suicu, “I'm not frustrated by the number of inferior ports, I'm frustrated by the lack of innovative PC titles. Developers should skip the ports and focus on good PC games.
“The industry is only killing the PC by porting games.”
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