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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.
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 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.
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.
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.