What’s The Best Way To Port A Game From PC To Console?

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Two oddities of 2015 have been the enhanced versions of Divinity Original Sin and Wasteland 2. Both are hailed as returns to the old school traditional computer RPG, but have gotten console versions. Beyond the interest in seeing how the console audience would respond to such games, it’s kind of nice seeing their developers put proper commitment into carefully converting these games for play on controllers.

PC games, among them PC RPGs, have been ported to consoles for decades, but from what I can tell most of the time the conversion is either somewhat sloppy or a completely different game. What prompted this look back for me was an article Gamasutra just ran on how Larian Studios went about making the console user interface and control scheme for Original Sin. I haven’t played it or Wasteland, nor have I actually played most of the games I’m going to write about so I’m not really the person to look deep into this issue right now, but I still think it’s worth bringing up.

In the article Larian talks about how it had to retool the entire heads-up display as well as the control scheme to make Original Sin more comfortable while played sitting 10 feet from a TV screen. I don’t know the details of what the developer did but I understand these kinds of RPGs tend to have extremely complex UIs that are designed around the presence of more buttons than any standard controller has. One really cool tidbit is how Larian took advantage of the couch setup to add local co-op, which is a perfect fit for these old-style party-based RPGs. The console version of Diablo III does this to great effect but also from what I hear has a pace of gameplay that’s significantly altered to accommodate controllers, compared to the PC version.

What’s impressive to me about these console ports is how extensively their developers seem to have gone into the UI and core aspects of gameplay without getting any complaints that the new versions feel dumber or simpler than the original PC versions. That’s typically what what has happened as old PC franchises have made the transition to being designed around controllers over the last several years. People bemoan what happened to the UI and combat mechanics of the Dragon Age games from the PC-oriented Origins to its more console-oriented sequels. Origins was an awkward game to control on consoles but felt at home on a mouse and keyboard. The PC UI of Inquisition on the other hand has left me utterly baffled.

According to some quick checks at Wikipedia, the Nintendo versions of older RPGs like Wizardry or Ultima weren’t even really the same games after conversion. There’s a PlayStation version of Ultima Underworld but I have no idea what it’s like control-wise. No one ever really tried to do Baldur’s Gate. The consoles got the separate Dark Alliance game, and when Sony asked developer Beamdog about a PlayStation version of Enhanced Edition they said developing a whole new interface would cost too much. In order to get really comprehensive I’d have to ask someone who actually has a bunch of experience with old computer RPGs.

It seems like the best solution for making an RPG that thoroughly leverages PC and consoles is to devote attention to one version first, then work really hard on converting the UI for the second version while maintaining the same game. Larian said of Original Sin, “…targeting both PC and console at the same time [at launch], I don’t think we’d have managed to make as good of a game as we did.” The AAA developers will of course target both for launch and the results have been mixed at best. Not only do you have the issue with Dragon Age, but Bethesda’s games have been modded back and forth to have better interfaces on PC. A great example of the inverse of what Larian did is how Demiurge Studios retooled the interface of the original Mass Effect for the PC port.

One of the best older PC-to-console ports I’ve seen might be the NES version of the original Elite. The computer versions of that game have some pretty complex key bindings but the NES version manages to put all those functions in a menu on the HUD you scroll through with the Select button. It’s actually one of the best versions of the game overall. Thinking about it makes me curious about how the console version of Elite Dangerous works. I’ve been told that game has way too many functions for a standard controller.

As time goes on we’re going to see more semi-big hits that started out on PC coming to consoles like DayZThe Long Dark, or ARK: Survival Evolved. Each one is probably going to have its own challenges with UI, but I hope at least some of them pay attention to Larian’s approach with Original Sin.

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