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 Bastion 's argument for doing away with cross-platform development
Bastion's argument for doing away with cross-platform development
February 6, 2013 | By Simon Carless

February 6, 2013 | By Simon Carless
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Production, Business/Marketing

In a talk at the DICE Summit on Wednesday, Supergiant Games co-founder and studio director Amir Rao (Bastion) talked about the year-plus his team spent taking Bastion to different platforms.

Along the way, he urged the audience to get away from the concept of simultaneous 'ports' and 'lead SKU' and towards a thoughtful, non-parallel multi-platform development process.

Having worked with mixed success on simultaneously shipping PC and console games in the Command & Conquer series at Electronic Arts, Rao decided that in transitioning Bastion to new platforms, they would use a full team, not simultaneously ship, and take the time to understand the new audiences and advantages of new platforms.

Rao gave the example of Plants Vs Zombies, which he loved and bought on multiple sequential platforms, from PC through Xbox to iOS, and he feels like many people rebought on the new platforms.

In Bastion's case, the team went from Xbox to PC to tablet and smartphone, and gave the core original team plenty of time to think through the tricky issues, like taking a multitude of console and PC controls to touch.

By putting a "hard constraint" on themselves that the game be playable only with one hand, the team gave themselves a really tricky goal, but managed to do it, by having a "touch to run" mechanic. They stayed away from the virtual game pad because they wanted an experience that truly felt like it was made for the tablet, rather than hacked across, and the extra time was worth it

The point of sim-shipping, Rao suspects, is meant to be to "maximize the lightning rod of attention paid," but he then showcases the features, attention and bundles that Bastion got by not doing this. In fact, 90% of the 1.7 million copies sold of Bastion were after its first month on sale.

So, by solving the interface problems across multiple devices serially, Bastion has succeeded in a kind of video game "world tour" across separate platforms and times.

Concluding, Rao suggests that you can make an entire business model around giving fans what they want, on the platforms they want it on - "but what they don't want is a bad version of the game" on their particular platform. Your fans want you to take the "same creative energy" that went into the original game to re-imagining it to new platforms.

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Sven Bergstrom
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An interesting point would be that this way means committing 1 more? 2 more? 3 more years to reach many platforms?

Making a 3 year (+3 years porting) game is not fun for many parties involved, especially game designers and artists... And audio engineers.. Waiting around for the great porting party to end can be quite drab.

Kris Morness
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This is a nice perspective. I think it works better for smaller studios, as it makes it easy to gauge market success and whether to proceed to other platforms or not. The concern with simultaneous ship for EA was ant-piracy and maximizing the effect of advertising budget. And they had problems with very large cross-platform teams being left idle after launching a title.

Jacek Wesolowski
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[Disclosure: I work for a company whose main source of income is porting other people's games.]

I definitely agree it's crucial for each version of a game to be optimized for its platform. Controls are the prime example. The "virtual gamepad" is clearly the worst offender in this category, but emulating gamepad with mouse & keyboard in a naive manner can also be quite damaging. Another example is how some console games benefit from assuming a constant framerate, whereas their PC ports are expected to deliver variable but consistently higher framerates thanks to increased processing power.

For small teams, it probably makes sense to create each version one after another, due to budget constraints and the beneficial effect of multiple "hype spikes" that was mentioned in the article. For large teams working on large projects, time becomes a major concern. Porting of a "large" game such as DmC can easily take several months.

If you can forgive me a bit of self-indulgence, then I would say developing for several platforms in parallel makes a lot of sense, but only if the porting team is doing it right. Part of "doing it right" is understanding that, countrary to a fairly widespread belief, a porting project is not a job just for programmers and testers. A small design and art team should get involved as well, taking care of exactly the kind of things Rao mentioned. It's still not the same as simply hiring another development team, for instance because most of gameplay prototyping doesn't need to be redone and the art direction usually doesn't need to be reinvented.

Marc Schaerer
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I agree.
Its quality and dedication that matters, attention to the experience and outcome.

Too bad that this is a general problem in the gaming industry and not just one affecting porting or a minority of titles.

Jacek Wesolowski
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It's also largely a question of the process.
Traditionally, game development has been technological in nature, particularly in case of large titles. AAA games are technology showcases. They are created to justify the existence of platforms, engines, or brands. The focus is on programming and functionality, rather than gameplay and creative expression.

In case of pure development, the problem is mitigated by the fact that a game has to have at least some gameplay. It's frightening how many people consider it a necessary evil, but at least they recognise it as something that needs to get done.

In case of porting, developers tend to assume gameplay is a non-issue, because it's already there. Design challenges pass under everyone's radar, so to speak.