Game porting is the practice of taking a video game that exists on one platform and adapting it to play on another. The biggest reason a studio and/or publisher might consider porting their game is to increase their audience. Video games are a global phenomenon, and while a small percentage of players might own multiple gaming platforms, it’s far more common for a household to possess just one. So, for a game to reach the widest possible player base, it needs to be ported. For example, if a game was developed and released for the PlayStation 5, porting it to PC would effectively increase its reach.
However, the process involved in porting a game is not as simple as the decision to do so. Different platforms are constructed differently, and these underlying architectures can make porting difficult. There are also UI, input, and outreach considerations to take into account when deciding which platforms a game should be ported to.
Let’s examine the top 5 essential elements involved in a successful video game port.
There are significant structural differences between platforms. One element that can drastically affect a port is optimization.
Optimization refers to the process required to ensure that a game’s visuals and gameplay are the best they can be on a given platform. Improper optimization results in performance issues like bugs, framerate problems, and graphical glitches, among others. And with those issues come negative player sentiment that can quickly impact sales.
Optimizing between different console platforms can be challenging, with changes between different GPU specs and power requirements. Still, consoles like the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series S have hardware that remains constant, and thus are known quantities, while the specs of any one PC can be very different compared with another. Therefore, it typically tends to be easier to port a game from PC to console, rather than the other way.
Regardless, there is a general rule of thumb to follow in optimization. It’s important to know the performance goal of the port, or the level of performance the client requires. That tends to be dependent upon what kind of game the port is, from fast-paced action to slower RPG with storytelling as its focus. It may be deemed more important to prioritize visual splendor over framerate, or to sacrifice a bit of graphical fidelity to achieve smoother movement. This goal will be set before any work on the port begins.
Gameplay considerations aside, a vital element of any successful port will be rethinking how players interact with the game. Using a keyboard and mouse, as with PC games, offers a higher degree of menu navigation because users can simply point and click. With console and handheld platforms, however, everything must be done using hardwired thumbsticks and buttons.
One proven way to manage the complexity of a PC interface is by employing radial menus. A radial menu takes advantage of the mobility of a thumbstick by presenting a circular interface, rather than a linear one. Options are presented lining the perimeter of a circle, making it easy for the player to select them with a simple flick of the stick. These menus can be invoked with a dedicated button, easing the time and effort required of the player that would otherwise be spent going through multiple menu choices.
Outside of this, the standard interface convention is to use the thumbstick and/or D-pad to highlight UI elements and select them by pressing a dedicated selection button. But these are workarounds to use an existing UI when time and cost prohibit rethinking it entirely. Ideally, the game studio will have thought ahead and considered to which other platforms their game might be ported and designed an interface that fits all of them equally.
It’s worth mentioning that many modern PC games are designed to be played using either controller or keyboard and mouse, depending on player preference.
It’s not a given that any one game will be ported to another platform. But if it does, simply mirroring the experience is the basic expectation. What elevates a port is when it takes advantage of the unique features of the platform it’s ported to.
For example, PlayStation 5 offers controllers with a feature called haptic feedback. The term “haptic” simply refers to creating a sense of touch using vibration. The PS5 isn’t the first to do this, but it has advanced the range of feedback to include resistance on the triggers and thumbsticks to simulate a wider array of sensations. Therefore, a port from PC to PlayStation 5, for example, would greatly benefit from incorporating this haptic feedback, which is otherwise lacking on the PC platform.
A strength of the PC is that it allows a greater range of options for customizing the gameplay experience. Depending on the specific hardware the player possesses, gameplay and graphics can be adjusted to suit the player’s preference to a much greater degree than on a console. As mentioned above, players also often have their choice of input between controller or keyboard and mouse. Some games even boast mods created by the game playing community that change character appearance or even gameplay itself.
It will only benefit the studio and publisher to make these platform-specific changes to a port. Doing so will create a positive reception from the game playing audience and generate goodwill and anticipation for the next release.
The influence of social media and online reviews cannot be overstated. It’s common for a newly created game to go through its cycle of announcement and hype before release, and this includes reaching out to influencers and reviewers to generate some advance excitement.
However, it is a mistake to assume that the impact of the initial promotional activity will sustain itself through to the later release of a port. These days the game release calendar is so full that players always have a new release to play at any given time. Thus, it’s easy to forget that a port is coming, or to overlook it once it arrives.
Every new port should be regarded as a new opportunity for outreach to a player base that perhaps hasn’t heard of the game yet. In this case, a publisher can learn from what went right and wrong from the previous release of the game. Prior mistakes can be avoided, messaging can be modified or built upon, and if possible, new promotional artwork and text can be created that suits the specific elements of the new platform’s community.