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Making Proper PC Versions of Cross-Platform Games
by Matthew Blevins on 07/09/10 02:40:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Playing Activision and High Moon's new title Transformers: War for Cybertron on PC made me realize that someone should catalog how to make a proper PC version of a cross-platform title. Most of this involves taking into consideration the logistical differences between platforms, and the differing expectations of each group of gamers. Many of these issues can be easily remedied if the developer is aware of them. So, let me discuss some common issues that plague the PC versions of many cross platform games.

Field of Vision:

One frustration faced by PC gamers in cross-platform titles is that the default field of vision (FOV) is often narrowed - sometimes to as low as 60 or 70 degrees, rather than the common 90 degrees to which PC gamers are accustomed. A natural human FOV is very wide, and a narrow FOVs make the gamer feel like they are looking through a tube, with no peripheral vision.

A narrow field of vision can make sense in a console game. When a player is sitting 10 feet away from their television, a narrow FOV feels natural. It is similar to looking out a window from halfway across the room - one don't expect a panoramic view at that range. Also, at that distance a wider FOV would make in-game objects smaller and harder to distinguish. I have also heard that the FOV is sometimes reduced to improve framerates, but I am not sure how much stock to put into that assertion (perhaps it varies by the culling method of the game engine in question?).

A PC gamer, on the other hand, typically sits very close to their monitor. It feels more natural to have a wide field of vision at that distance, especially on a widescreen LCD. The size of assets onscreen is less of an issue on PC. In addition to the player's close proximity to the monitor, PC games run at high resolutions, and a mouse's accuracy makes targeting small objects easier.

I would also add that a narrow FOV, at that range, can cause motion sickness in some players. This may be made worse by how quickly one can look around with a mouse versus a controller. I was unable to play Borderlands for more than a few minutes without feeling ill until I found a workaround to widen the FOV.

The solution is simple: give the PC version of the game a wider default fov, and allow the fov to be customized, either in-game or by manually altering the config files.

Sometimes a wider FOV is needed in general, even on consoles. In War for Cybertron, the game will sometimes point out to you where Omega Supreme is. He is the size of a building, but the player's non-existent peripheral vision still makes him easy to miss. Also, when playing in widescreen the FOV should be even wider; what is the point of a widescreen monitor if not to enjoy a wide, panoramic view of the action? Widescreen gaming introduces issues more complicated than just FOV, especially if you are using multiple monitors; there are entire websites dedicated to those issues.


Visual Detail & Graphics Resources:

The PC has jumped ahead of the consoles in terms of graphics power, and that difference will only increase as the 360 and PS3 age. However, cross-platform games are often developed with the lowest common denominator in mind. One common issue (see Bioshock 2) is texture quality. Textures that look great at 720p may look mediocre at 1080p or higher. PC graphics cards have enough RAM to handle those higher quality textures, but often get served the same textures as their console counterparts.

The solution is to start with PC-quality resources to begin with, then scale those down as needed for consoles and slower PCs. Console compatibility will still limit complexity in some areas in the game, but texture quality does not need to be one of them.


Framerate:

Many console titles (Borderlands and War for Cybertron, for example) have their framerate capped at 30fps. This keeps it from bouncing up and down as much, and makes the console experience feel a bit more even.

It becomes a problem, though, when developers maintain this cap in the PC version of their title. The issue here is less that there is a difference between 30fps and higher framerates - there is - but rather the expectations of the consumers in question. PC gamers buy their hardware with a certain level of performance in mind; to have a game arbitrarily hold back their system's performance feels like a slap in the face. Respect their expectations, and the money they have invested in their hardware (and thus in the industry), and do away with limitations like this.

Dedicated Servers:

Dedicated servers are important to PC gaming for several reasons. For one, they allow clans and groups of friends to have space for practice, competition, and private games. They also help combat cheating and griefing, as player admins can kick or ban gamers who try to ruin the game for others. Dedicated servers are also necessary for server-side mods, and custom maps and content. Popular servers may have a lot of regulars, further decreasing issues with cheating and increasing the social aspect of even straightforward death match games. Dedicated servers are an important part of building a community around your game, and can contribute to its long-term success and popularity.

I do have some sympathy for the player-host model - for games with a small number of players (ie Borderlands), it seems reasonable. However, for larger games a dedicated server is appropriate. It doesn't help that many player-host models don't allow the host to be chosen (so it may arbitrarily pick a player with a weak PC or sluggish internet connection), or for host migration (so a host can't end the game by leaving). Even host migration interrupts the game, and is undesirable.

So, even on consoles the use of dedicated servers if preferable for most games. There are also legal issues related to forcing players to host games. Hosting a "server" is against the user agreements of many ISPs.

Modding:

While some games have locked out modding for obvious reasons - usually so they can sell DLC - allowing modding has long-term benefits for a game. The success of the original Half-Life is a testament to that, and games like Oblivion have benefited greatly from their "modability." Like dedicated servers, modding promotes long-term community interest and involvement among the PC community. It also serves as a place aspiring game designers can gain experience and build their portfolios.


Control & Access to the Game Engine:

"Configure-ability" is something expected by players on PC. They expect games to have a robust graphics options menu, and to have access to a game's configuration files to tweak it further. This is not just a matter of player expectations. Every player on PC has a different gaming setup. Whether it is tweaking a game to run on an older system, or setting up a 3-monitor view, being able to configure a game to meet individual circumstances is a practical need when it comes to PC games.

Leaving configuration files open to tinkering also allows players to find work-arounds for bugs and other technical issues unanticipated by developers.

Removing Features:

There is also the issue of removing features from the PC version of a title. Split-screen multiplayer, for example, is often cut out on PC. Other games have removed functionality for 360 controllers. Why not leave these options in? Players have gone to great lengths to re-enable split-screen gameplay in the PC versions of UT3 and Left 4 Dead, and to get controllers working in games like Bioshock 2. Let players decide whether these options are valuable to them. Again, remember that every PC player has a different system, and plays under different circumstances. In this case, hooking PCs up to HDTVs has become common enough that both controller and split-screen support are selling points for some players.

To developers' credit, some PC games that have dropped features (like Ghostbusters' co-op, or Sonic & Sega Racing's online support ), or are clearly just ports of console games (like War for Cybertron) are discounted to reflect these omissions. Still, even a quick port should have easy-to-fix issues like field of vision addressed.


Don't Let Your Game Be A "Console Port"

There is a reason the expression "console port" evokes such contempt among PC gamers. It suggests a hasty console to PC conversion done simply as a cash-grab, with no real consideration given to the differing needs and expectations of PC gamers. While there is room for straight-forward ports to PC - far more than in the past, in fact - when developers fail to make even the most basic concessions to the platform, consumers will feel neglected.

One reason these issues are so frustrating is that many could be fixed with little to no effort on the part of developers. In War for Cybertron, for example, fixing the field of vision and framerate cap would be as easy as altering two values. In fact, these could be fixed on the player's end were the configuration files not encrypted. Don't think your players don't know these things. PC gamers are very tech-savvy, and know when a problem is due to neglect, apathy, or ignorance on the part of the developer.

Given how many of these issues are easy fixes, I suspect some cross-platform developers are simply unaware what PC gamers need and expect from their titles, or how the PC platform differs from a console environment. Hopefully this article will help developers improve their titles - not mention their sales, and their relationships with customers who play on PC.


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Comments


Simon Ludgate
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Great article. As a PC gamer, I'd love to see far more effort go into PC ports of Console games.



One thing I'd like to add is that a lot of console ports fail to re-design their menus and interfaces and leave them in "controller" mode (select item with cursor, press A or B to go forward or back) rather than "mouse" mouse (click, click and drag, etc.). Whilst may console ports do allow the mouse to (kinda) work, they are often very unresponsive to user's rapid motions, especially when the interface use animated graphical queues to indicate which menu item is currently selected. Many intuitive features are lacking: for example, you often can't click and drag on the box between the arrows on a scroll menu to direct your place in that menu, or click in the empty space between the box and the arrows to make a larger jump than you would get by clicking on the arrow itself.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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I'm one of those pc gamers that gets frustrated from console ports and it feels like it's just getting worse and worse. My two big complaints that you didn't really go over are UI and control configuration. It feels like so many games, especially UE3 based have really bad pc gui's. Borderlands had a lot of problems and really inconsistent things such as sometimes requiring you to click somewhere instead of hitting a key or vice versa to leave a menu and the random lack of mouse scrolling in certain windows. For controls, it gets frustrating sometimes where they try to make one button a jack of all trades because controllers have fewer buttons. It gets frustrating when you keep swapping weapons accidentally instead of reloading because you can't change the key binding(it's annoying on consoles as well, but it's easily fixable on pc). I unfortunately don't see these practices changing much with the view that publishers and developers usually have on their pc ports, especially when they immediately create it with the idea that it will sell far less(hard to blame them sometimes, but still a hard pill to swallow).

Jonathan Ghazarian
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@simon



I worked in test on a game that had absolutely no mouse support in the menus and it drove me nuts that they wouldn't fix it.

Matthew Blevins
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@simon:

Thank you for bringing up the interface issue, I'm not sure how I could have forgot it! You're right, it really is something that needs to be taken into account by developers.



@ Jonathan:

Not being able to rebind keys is another issue with War for Cybertron. Very frustrating.



I *will* say that I like how 360 controller support has been "natively" implemented in some games. Blur and Streetfighter IV, for example, can be run entirely with the controller once the game has booted up- appropriate for a game that is best played that way. While I prefer keyboard/mouse for most game types, more people are using PCs for gaming on HDTVs, so the controller is a nice option to have. And lets face it, the lack of a "standard" controller has always been an annoyance on PC, and made configuring them a lot of work. It is so nice to just plug it in and have it work.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Xbox controllers working by default is definitely one of the huge benefits of this console generation for pc games, but it's also something that they really don't have to do much to support, since it's already in the console version. It's more amazing when it isn't supported (see bioshock 2). I'd actually be interested in seeing figures for how many high end pc's are getting connected to tv's for gaming, since I think that's where a controller comes in handy most often.



One side complaint on the controller front, it still irks me that I can't use the charge cable on my wireless xbox controller to connect to my pc. Okay, rant done.

Maurício Gomes
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I still remember (shocked) when I went to play Lost Planet 1.



The tutorial starts mid-combat (or something like that... you can die several times in the start not following the tutorial correctly), and the tutorial consists of photos of a XBOX 360 controller and a button highlighted...



It was like: "Ok, I have to press B... to do what? And what button is supposed to be B on my keyboard?"



The boss fight was hell on earth, I did not fought the boss, I fought the controls... (in the last boss fight you can fly, thus adding more dimensions to control, only that the bindings on the PC suck, and you cannot really edit them properly, because several actions are tied... like, if you change the button that changed how you strafed in flight, also changed other random stuff...)



But it remembered me of Need For Speed Underground onward (where you had to navigate menus with "Z" and Shift and "A" pretty silly... or you had to change the color of your car with TAB... it was really bizarre), or Dead Space (where the mouse is so slow, that even with heavy tweaking I gave up on the game completly after some hours of trying), or Mass Effect series (they had several interface issues, and Mass Effect 2 attempt to slow-down the mining cursor for mouse resulted into some really bizarre behavior bepending of configuration).





But nothing beats Need For Speed Pro Street, that the controls speed depended on windows "repeat" setting, and even in the highest setting on some machines the car still drived like a boat... (on my machine with my regular settings, the car was so slow to respond that I had to press the key about 3 seconds in advance, or the car would not turn in time...)

Matthew Blevins
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Lost Planet was very irritating. The worst was what I would call the "mouse DEceleration." When you tried to look around, it was very sluggish, as if they were trying to emulate how it would feel using a controller. I finally managed to disable or minimize it as I recall. I suspect it was to slow down PC players in cross-platform games online, since a mouse trumps an analogue stick every time.



To their credit, though: the game supported 64-bit, DirectX 10, and multiple cores. And it looked amazing. It's strange when so much effort goes into one aspect of a game, and so little into another.



Regarding Dead Space: yeah, mouse sensitivity is often way too low in console ports, even at maximum settings. I find myself glad I have an MX518, as I can boost sensitivity on the fly. Very helpful in the horrible mining portions of ME2.

Maurício Gomes
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@Blevins... Meh, if you look at side-by-side comparisons the DX9 version looked better... The DX10 version don't used any new features AND looked blurry But indeed, their processor support, and the lightweight engine was amazing...



I have too a mouse that I can adjust sensivity on the fly (on the fastest setting, even with windows on the mininum it zooms across the screen with me just touching it...), and even with that, I could not play Dead Space... It was REALLY annoying that game (specially because it CHANGES the sensivity according to the context, being menu, walk-mode, run-mode and combat-mode...)

Bart Stewart
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Excellent post. Some embellishments and additions:



1. As I understand it, the FOV issue is related to the issue of shifting from the 16:9 aspect ratio of consoles to the PC, which normally will use either a 4:3 aspect ratio (for older "square" monitors or the 16:10 aspect ratio of widescreen PC monitors. The problem here is that ports will sometimes take the easy way out: rather than extending the field of view on the left and right side of the screen for 16:10 and clipping them for 4:3, in 16:10 mode the left and right extents of the 4:3 FOV will be retained by increasing the zoom factor. Result: instead of seeing more of the gameworld with a widescreen monitor, you're actually seeing *less* in 16:10 than in 4:3 because the top and bottom strips are being clipped off due to zooming.



BioShock was one of the games where this lazy approach first drew a lot of negative attention; it emerged that this was a problem common to games developed around the Unreal engine. The Widescreen Gaming Forum has done yeoman's work in documenting this problem of using a "Vert-" rather than a "Hor+" model for displaying games in 16:10 on the PC.



2. Simon was completely correct to bring up the failure of some ports to properly support the PC's keyboard-and-mouse controls.



As noted, this can range from mild problems like not recognizing some buttons (such as mouse4 and mouse5 on gaming mouses), to serious problems like not allowing some keys to be remapped, to severe problems like Dead Space's notoriously slow mouse aiming or the complete failure to change on-screen menu graphics from talking about "A/B/Z" buttons.



(Regarding Dead Space's slow mouse aiming: some people insist that this can be corrected by toggling the Vertical Sync setting, completely missing the point that no such toggling would be necessary in a well-done port.)



3. The one porting issue I haven't seen mentioned is quicksave/quickload versus checkpointing. This has become a deal-breaker for me; I'm no longer interested in playing any game that doesn't allow me to decide when to save and load my game.



For one thing, I don't care if consoles don't have hard drives. (And I care even less now because more consoles *do* have hard drives.) PCs have hard drives, which is why games for PCs typically support a quicksave/quickload capability. Ported games should take advantage of that standard hardware.



There is a question that allowing players to save and reload at will would make the game easier, which would require ports to do more than just change the interface -- to maintain gameplay balance, they'd need to actually change the gameplay, and that's much more expensive. I'm sympathetic to that objection. At the same time, a developer/publisher who wants money from PC gamers ought to support the PC environment, including the standard quicksave/quickload capability. If that requires extra effort, well, that's a cost of doing business. (But note that I'm not assuming a PC version of a console game is a "right." If a developer/publisher decides not to make a PC version because it's felt that changing the gameplay to support quicksave/quickload would be too expensive, that's their call. What I'm saying is, either do it right or don't do it at all... and "doing it right" includes quicksave/quickload.)



One other note on quicksave/quickload: in part, I personally feel strongly about this feature because I care about "what-if." A lot of the value that I get out of a game comes from exploring the possibility space -- in other words, I enjoy reloading to see what would have happened if I had turned left instead of right, or selected the "tough" dialogue option instead of the "conciliatory" option, and so on. I wind up taking a lot longer to finish a game, but that's OK -- I feel like I'm really getting my money's worth that way.



Without quicksave/quickload, I can't do that. It's no longer "my" gameplay story I'm telling through my choices; I'm just a rat running through the developer's story-maze. That's acceptable in something like Call of Duty where there's no interactive narrative and the point is an adrenaline rush. Checkpoints (as long as they're sensibly frequent) aren't unreasonable in that kind of game that depends on maintaining the action.



In a more thoughtful game, however, which otherwise allows the player to make choices and explore the consequences, offering only a checkpointing system or developer-dictated "save stations" makes it much harder for me to explore the available options. The interactivity I love in PC games disappears, and I'm basically just reading a book with occasional uses of my fast-twitch muscles. And that's not as much fun.



So, developers: please consider including a proper quicksave/quickload function when porting your game from console to PC. (And don't limit savegame slots, either, not when 1TB drives are selling for $100.)



Matthew, thanks for getting this started with a very good list of issues!

Matthew Blevins
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@ Bart:



I've seen the Vert-/Hor+ thing mentioned before... that might explain why things got *worse* on my new 16:10 monitor! But even on my old 4:3 monitor, Bioshock 2 and Borderlands were terrible until I altered the field of vision in the config files.



I would prefer to play some games at 16:9, but ATI's Windows 7 drivers *still* do not support a "centered timings" or "scale but maintain aspect ratio" option. So if I try to run 1920x1080, instead of black bars it just stretches the image vertically to fill the extra space!



I am mixed regarding quicksave/quickload. On one hand it is hard to live without once you are used to it. But I do feel like it makes a game easier. Most people quicksave obsessively enough that if something goes badly, they just redo that part until it turns out more in their favor. That tough fight that drains your ammo and resources? It never really happens. There are no consequences to screw-ups, and players end up with more healthkits, ammo, etc. than they will ever be able to use.



I think the save style should vary by game; I'm surprised it isn't used more creatively. Imagine playing Mass Effect 1&2, and not being able to "redo" a part where you bomb a loyalty mission or important task. I think it would make the game more compelling and increase the replay value. Sometimes you screw up, and sometimes you don't know what the consequences of your actions will be. Why give the player choices in a game if they don't have to live with those choices?



What I don't miss, though, is having to replay the same part of a game again and again until I get it perfect- that's a trapping of old arcade platformers that I'm glad is obsolete in most PC titles. It's also why I despise "Quick Time Events," which seem to plague console titles. Either do a cut-scene, or give me full control... I am not here to play Dragon's Lair!



In terms of "doing it right"... I honestly don't *mind* a straight-foward port, especially if it is less expensive than the console version. Blur and War for Cybertron were $20 less on PC- that's a huge savings. Plus, the more "ports", the less reason to buy a console, and even a direct port will look better on PC. But they need to at least fix basic issues like FOV, interface, etc. so that the game feels properly playable.

Jacob Pederson
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I still have nightmares about the 30fps cap in Star Wars Battlefront 2. But, honestly I can't actually think of anything completely unplayable to come out recently. Sure, Borderlands required some wacky workaround to get the FOV right, but we're PC gamers, didn't we use to need separate config.sys/autoexec.bat files for each game? We should be use to this kind of thing by now :)



Many of the console ports I've played have had plenty of under-the-hood configuration options. In Dirt 2, I was able to achieve (for a game listed under the "poor" compatibility section) full 3dvision compatibility by tweaking a couple very nicely organized XML config files. In Borderlands, I was able to map FOV fixes ontop of my reload button on my 360 controller. Also, many, many, many console ports are unreal engine games, which, once you find where the cfg's are hidden, have a bazillion options to tweak.



Personally, my biggest peeve with console ports, is anti-aliasing support. Plenty of recent games have had such bizarre engines, that anti-aliasing is completely not possible. Dead Space and GTA IV come to mind. Others, like Borderlands, suffer from such poor performance with anti-aliasing, that a gtx 480 SLI system can't even keep up.

Kyle Jansen
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The only real issue I have with many PC ports is that they do not let you use a mouse to control menus. That alone made Jade Empire completely unplayable for me.

Michiel Hendriks
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Xbox controller in PC games actually bothers me. The reason for this is the fact that the xbox controller is not a joystick/gamepad, but some weird other device. As a result, most games that do support the xbox controller have no working joystick support. I'm not going to buy an xbox controller when I have quite a few input devices that do act like joysticks/gamepads/steeringwheels.

Matthew Blevins
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@Jacob:

I did a similar fix for Borderlands. War for Cybertron, however, has encrypted config files (even though it is also Unreal 3 engine). Very, very frustrating. And the lack of anti-aliasing support is an Unreal 3 engine limitation, isn't it? I know you can force it on some cards, though.





@ Michiel:

As I understand it, the 360 controller uses a different kind of input system than other PC controller peripherals. Unfortunately, that means that 360 controller support does not translate into support for regular PC gamepads. There are 3rd party apps to work around this, but it has been a real frustration for people who have invested in flight sticks, wheels, etc.



Now that I have sprung for a nice 360 controller, though, I am loving it. It's much nicer than the Logitech controllers I have used in the past, and I don't have to mess around mapping and configuring controls... if a game supports it, it just works. It's nice to have a few things be that easy on PC once in a while! It is also convenient for playing 4 player split-screen- configuring one controller in-game is okay, but four? I'd rather they were just plug-and-play in that case.

Maurício Gomes
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When a game support 360 controller and not others it bothers me too, specially since I like PS2 controllers (I have 2 PS2 controllers, one with USB adapter, and the other is made for PC and does not even fit in a PS2).



I like a lot control schemes that remember Super Nintendo, and the PS2 controller not only work for PS2 styled games, but also for Super Nintendo styled games too (only for 3 button megadrive games it is a bit crap, because you have to map two buttons to L and R...)



The reason why 360 controllers are incompatible with normal controllers is Microsoft greed.



If you research, you will see that on purpose, Direct Input misunderstands the 360 controller (it sums the analogs, making it just wrong), when you complain, MS tells you to use XInput instead...



The thing is: XInput only supports the 360 controller, and in the same way the XBOX 360 does (so, only the exact amount of axes, buttons and controller amount... it is WAAAAY inferior to DirectInput, specially when you compare numbers like 4 controllers vs. 128, or 4 axes versus 16, few "POV" directions...)



So, with MS pushing developers to support only the 360 controller, they make people do like Mr. Blevins, that get happy and glad that the game supports it, and buy a 360 controller (so money for MS), while all players that don't want a 360 controller, get ignored, and thus end needing a 360 controller too (or some wierd hacks).

Jonathan Ghazarian
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@bart

I totally forgot to mention the extra mouse buttons. That seems like such a glaring and simple issue, yet I see it time and time again. I have a logitech mouse with mouse4 and mouse5 buttons. It seems like they should be supported quite simply, since it's assigning them a generic button, but in games as pc centric as bad company 2 they don't support it. Luckily logitech allows you to remap the mouse per program, but I shouldn't have to do that just so that I can make mouse4 my melee attack. Good catch.

Jonathan Lawn
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Please, someone, send this to Rockstar before the PC version of Red Dead Redemption is beyond help! There must be value for them in getting good reviews for their port.

Matthew Blevins
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@ Jonathan:



That's one reason I wanted to post this blog here on Gamasutra. I figure a lot of developers read this site, so maybe this article will have a positive impact, even if just a few of them take notice.

Mustafa Onder
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A great article and nice comments. When Games for Windows and PC Gaming Alliance has been founded, I was hoping they were going to try to fix some of these problems and bring some standards but so far there isn’t much activity from them.

I think there is another issue that is not mentioned yet. These port games do not act as a Windows application and is incompatible with its environment. I expect a Windows application to exit when I press Alt-F4 and display me some a help window when I press F1. When I press Alt-Tab; I expect it to be minimized, not to crash. Also I hate when a game uses %100 of the CPU when it does nothing (like on menu window or when minimized), which is intolerable in a multitasking OS.

Daniel Green
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Mouse wheel annoys me. I lime being able to map say skills for action RPGs to the mouse wheel and scroll them for mouse one or two. I don't want to use my keyboard to do it. I run a notebook to save space I don't need to be forced to hitch over it one hand hover over the F keys waiting to use my skills.

The WASD setup is ok for FPS though.


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