Developers share advice on bringing video games to multiple platforms and how they overcome the biggest challenges.
The wider your customer base, the more chance you have of turning a profit with your product. When it comes to games that means developing for multiple platforms, such as games consoles, PC, mobiles, and other devices.
But catering to the litany of different hardware devices, digital storefronts, and controllers presents many challenges for games developers. We spoke to several teams about the hurdles of multiformat development and how they overcome them.
“One of the biggest challenges is adapting the game controls and user interface to work across a variety of platforms,” says Gordon Moran, art director for IronOak Games, the Canadian studio behind console and PC RPG For the King.
“Games are consumed differently on PCs versus consoles, including, but not limited to, the input device – keyboard versus gamepad, screen resolutions, and even the distance from the screen. All of which play an important role in how content is presented to the user, and ultimately how the user experience is designed.
“Planning which platforms you wish to target early on in a game’s development is a necessity. For instance, when developing a game for PC, early consideration for how the game will work with a controller, as well as mouse and keyboard, will save countless hours when porting the game over to consoles, and could avoid expensive and lengthy user interface redesigns.”
Moran highlights perhaps the biggest difference between games and other entertainment mediums when it comes to bringing content to market. Because of their unique control interface and display varieties, the process of bringing a game to other platforms inherently requires reengineering it as if it were made for each unique platform in the first place.
Case in point, the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo’s hybrid console has been a humongous hit with consumers, selling more than 68 million units worldwide to date. But Nintendo’s console darling can present many challenges for developers, as Chris Coales – external producer at Worms and Overcooked publisher Team17 – explains.
“The truth is that it’s a brilliant console, and probably the one that I play most as a gamer,” he says. “However, you can take a game that runs perfectly on PC and the other consoles, put it on Switch, and suddenly find a number of challenges to overcome. For example, longer loading times and crashes or soft-locks caused by memory overuse.
“Where possible, it’s always best to start with Switch. But where the Switch conversion comes later, it’s important to test it before any other platform, and set clear performance targets early on. This gives programmers and artists something to work towards, forestalling any nasty surprises later in the development process.”
Tools for the Job
Ensuring that players have a good experience on whatever platform they choose to play on is fundamental. This is where technology comes in. Specifically, middleware and tools.
There are many software tools that ease the process of porting games to different platforms, but chief among them are the game engines Unreal by Fortnite maker Epic Games and Unity by Unity Technologies. These all-in-one toolsets have made developing on multiple platforms vastly more accessible to a wider range of games development teams.
Howard Tsao is team lead and producer at Guns of Icarus developer Muse Games in New York, and has brought the studio’s games to PC, PS4, Switch, mobile, and web browsers.
Tsao says: “The only reason we can develop on this many platforms with a team of our size at all is because of our engine, Unity. While it’s far from a one-click solution for developing on a platform, maintaining a single codebase, and then developing the pieces we need for every specific platform, simply wouldn’t be possible for us without the tools Unity provides.”
Tequila Works, a boutique studio based in Madrid known for eye-catching indie titles like Rime, The Sexy Brutale and Google Stadia launch title Gylt, also says middleware is essential to them.
“We rely on industry technical standards, such as Unreal Engine, Umbra or Simplygon,” says Tequila Works founder, CEO and creative director Raúl Rubio Munárriz. “This makes multiplatform development far more straightforward, as those tools offer broad flexibility and support. It also means you depend on a third-party for that, and their time to integrate it with others as new versions are released.”
Adam Fletcher, CTO of Tonic Games – the British development group which includes Fall Guys creator Mediatonic – says their studios also leverage engines, like Unity and Unreal, which “massively reduces” their overheads for supporting multiple platforms.
“It’s far from free though – engines probably get you 80% of the way there, but there’s still a huge amount of work in that final 20%,” he explains.
“The main hurdle is really time, which means we have to be strategic about where we focus the finite resources that we have available. Ultimately, we want to reach as wide an audience as possible, but each additional platform creates additional work, both in terms of initially developing for that platform, but also ongoing overhead for every new feature and update.”
Those features and updates could be anything from new gameplay content, to audiovisual enhancements, to leveraging a platform’s user interface in new ways. In our connected world, consumers have become used to accessing new entertainment, regularly, regardless of their region or language.
And this increases pressure on developers yet again. Alexander Prokhorov, studio head of Allods Team – part of the Russian studio collective My.Games – knows this all too well. His studio develops online games that attract some 25 million players, including Warface for PS4 and Xbox One.
He says: “The gaming audience is very socially active. A player expects that changes and updates to the game occur simultaneously on all platforms where the game is released. Players don’t like it when a part of the audience, depending on the platform, receives content of different quality or at different times. So, it is important to support all platforms equally.”
Speaking about his own experience with post-launch updates, Team17’s Coales says a staggered release can be beneficial. The Stir of Dawn update for Blasphemous earlier in the year debuted first in certain territories on Steam, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.
“[This] raised questions from a lot of players on the other platforms,” he says. “However, it meant that we could fix some bugs that had slipped through and launch a ‘perfect’ version of the update on all the remaining platforms.”
In order to achieve consistency during development and updates, Moran says it’s important that developers maintain build parity as much as possible: “Unless you deem it necessary, avoid branching your builds. Easier said than done, this takes some clever implementations to get right, but will pay off in the long run by making it much less time consuming to maintain parity.”
Of course, every game is different. That’s why overcoming the challenges of developing on multiple platforms frequently comes down to having the time to do adequate quality assurance and testing.
“One of the biggest hurdles becomes the amount of platforms on which to test,” says Ubisoft Quebec’s Marc-Alexis Côté, senior producer of Immortals Fenyx Rising and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. “This can become very stressful in the final stretch of producing a game, when you need to test every change on all platforms. We are also starting to support cross-progression, so every new platform adds complexity.
“On Immortals Fenyx Rising, a lot of engineering focus was put around making the Anvil engine that we share with Assassin’s Creed more scalable, meaning that it can support a wider range of platforms than before. With the multiplication of platforms to support in this cross-gen era, we have also come to understand how beneficial it is to automate tests where we can.”
Testing games is arduous, often requiring the same actions are repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. This is why automation is being leveraged by many software companies, both large and small.
Jon Wingrove is programmer and technical director at Runner Duck Games, the four-person indie studio in Manchester behind playful real-time strategy game Bomber Crew. This released for PC, Mac and Linux in 2017 and consoles in 2018. The team has just released its follow-up, Space Crew, and Wingrove says they have turned to automation to help with their workflow.
“We’ve set up a good automated build delivery system, so that our changes are delivered to QA for all platforms, without too much manual process,” he says.
Runner Duck, IronOak and Muse Games all work closely with the British games publisher Curve Digital. On the issue of testing, Tsao says the publisher’s support has been a big help: “With QA, we are fortunate to be working with Curve and Testronic, and they have done a lot of the heavy lifting for us in terms of testing.”
Which Platforms are best to Target First?
By now, the complexities of bringing games to PC, consoles, mobile, and other platforms should be getting more transparent. With so many variables at play, what platforms are best for developers to target first?
“Traditionally the weakest and lowest, and then you scale up on the more powerful ones. You almost never do it the other way around unless there’s an exclusive with a specific platform,” says Tequila Works’s Rubio Munárriz.
Team17’s Coales agrees: “The rule of thumb is to always start with the least powerful platform first – which tends to be mobile or Switch. Taking games not intended for Switch and trying to cram them on there can be a massive endeavour, so if it’s a target platform, then it’s best to start with it. This way developers can keep parity across all platforms and put the requisite focus on performance from the get-go, rather than desperately rushing to sort it out later.”
However, other developers prefer to focus on the PC. “Generally, we start with PC, because it’s quick to iterate and easy to test on – good for generally putting things together,” says Wingrove. “Then for the other side of things, we look at Switch. It’s less powerful as it’s handheld, so it makes a good choice for figuring out where we may need to optimise.”
And Tsao agrees: “I think targeting the PC is still the more optimal way to start. It is faster to iterate and build for during development and prototyping, and it is the easiest to distribute builds across the team and to playtesters as well.”
There are occasions when timed exclusives and strategic partnerships can result in big pay offs, though. One such case is Fall Guys, which was given away free to PlayStation Plus subscribers. We spoke to the developers about the making of this game earlier this year.
“I don’t think there’s a single correct answer to this question,” Fletcher argues. “I think it really varies depending on the type of game and target audience. Fall Guys massively benefited from being featured on PlayStation Plus during its launch month and gave us a massive audience overnight, which was critical for a 60-player game.”
Support schemes and incentives by platform holders, such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, offer another avenue to market for a segment of developers. But Rubio Munárriz cautions that any deal with a platform holder or store owner needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“Some partners may not be the best fit for your project in terms of strategy, culture, or marketing,” he says. “Money is always nice if you are an indie, but some doors may close others, and seeing the bigger picture is critical for survival.”
This has been a brief look into the risks and rewards of developing multiformat games. In summary, any studio embarking on multiformat development should invest in middleware and carefully consider the strengths of their team and the time available to them.
Games can find an audience on many platforms. But getting them there in the first place will take just as much perspiration as it does planning.