Thursday, January 29, 2015

On lazily porting console games to PC

The notebook in which I do three pages daily of brain dump is elsewhere. I took it out of my bag along with my school notebooks.

So another post.

The console vs. PC debate will probably never be resolved and I have no intention of wading into it. That said, there is something that I've been noticing on some PC games I've played lately that is directly related to consoles and PCs.

In theory, a console is just a PC that's been stripped of everything that doesn't improve gaming, and been given really good versions of what does involve gaming. So in theory a console is basically a gaming PC, at a price you could never buy a gaming PC for, that can't do much besides game.

(Also they tend to be standardized and non-upgradable while gaming PCs tend to be customized and totally upgradable, but that is neither here nor there.)

Continuing in the land of theory, there shouldn't really be inherent differences between console games and PC games because a console is, at heart, a personal computer that's had all the non-gaming crap ripped out.

In practice it doesn't work that way.


I played games on my parents' Commodore 64 and their TI, but what really made me a gamer was Dark Forces. It was a Star Wars first person shooter. It's base geometry was what's called 2.5D: a 2D map that's extruded straight up for the third dimension. So the floor-plan can be as complex as you like, but all the walls are completely vertical, floor and ceiling completely level, and only one of each.

It was innovative in that it was able to combine the 2.5-D units into an environment that was actually 3D. The walls were still all vertical, the floors and ceilings all completely level, but there were multiple floor and ceiling levels meaning that sometimes you'd be on the ground but in a firefight with someone on the second floor.  It couldn't produce a slope, but a staircase (including several spiral staircases) was well within its abilities.  For 1995 that was really something. Twenty years later it's no big deal.

All of that is beside the point

It had ten weapons. The sequel, Jedi Knight, had ten weapons. Why? Weapons were mapped to the number keys:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 0 gets you slots for ten weapons, each a keystroke away. The sequel's sequel and its sequel put the explosives under the “-” key and thus had 11 weapon keys.

Interface dictated design.

Legendary has four weapons, though you can switch what the four weapons happen to be. The Tomb Raider reboot (2013) has four weapons.

Why? They use the directional pad (up, down, left, right) to select weapons. Four “buttons” means four weapons. Interface dictates design.

What I note about these games, however, isn't in the number of weapons they give you.

It's how games that had to make sacrifices in controls to work with a standard console controller don't get optimized for a PC interface.

Consider just Tomb Raider (2013). It's a pretty complex game and there are a lot of ways you can interact. However it's also a console game made with a console controller in mind.

As such sometimes when you want to shove an object you end up attacking it with an ax instead.

That might not be the best example.

The Square/X button on consoles, which on PC is represented (by default) as E is used to:
1 Push buttons or otherwise interact with technology.
2 Pick things up
3 Use the climbing ax to climb
4 Use the climbing ax as a prybar
5 Use the climbing ax to break shit
6 Light your torch
7 Use your torch to light shit on fire
8 Reload your weapon (on PC this is, mercifully, changed to a new button)

Note that a completely different key is used to use the climbing ax as a melee weapon. This makes sense because … Jasper?

Even with reload switched to a new button this means that sometimes on PC you're trying to quietly pick something up as you sneak by enemies in the dark and you end up accidentally lighting your torch. Do you know how bad of an idea that is when you're trying to sneak?

A recent commercial claimed a human eye can detect the light of a single candle at a distance of 10 miles. This is wrong -- well, not wrong.  Misleading.  It's misleading.  A human eye acclimated to darkness could detect the light of a single candle at a distance of 30 miles if there were an unobstructed line of sight, however this is of largely academic concern as the horizon is 3 miles away on a level surface.

The point is, lighting a torch while trying to sneak through a dark place is a BAD IDEA.

If Tomb Raider had been a PC game then in all likelihood the button described would only be for "use" and "pick up". (This is since picking up is how you use pick-up-able things, so both functions fall under the umbrella of "use" and thus it makes intuitive sense to put them together.)

The ax and the torch would probably be equipped via dedicated keys, like the weapons. You'd never pull either out by accident.

Lighting stuff with the torch would be done using primary fire button.  Attacking things with the ax would be accomplished the same way.  Prying with the ax would be secondary fire (all the weapons in the game have a secondary fire) and breaking probably would too since it's more a prying motion than a striking one.

Following the logic above, beginning a climb with the ax could be put under primary fire since it's more of a striking motion than a prying one, but it could also have a key dedicated specifically to it since it's different enough from the other functions of the ax to arguably merit one and it's something you might want to do quickly when another weapon is equipped.

And likely there would be more user-usable weapons. Enemies use machetes, swords, and pikes. Perhaps you might be able to use some of those. But that's not the thing. The thing is how shoddy the ports of console games to PC really are.

A native PC game wouldn't bind eight functions with no common element to a single key.  Of the eight functions 1 and 2 can be argued to go together, 4 and 5 can be argued to go together, and that's about it.

Now the way that, for example, the game manged to avoid, say, 6 (lighting your torch so you can see) and 7 (lighting the place on fire) getting confused is fairly good and intuitive.  It's certainly much better than it managed to avoid confusing 2 (picking something up) and 6 (broadcasting your position to every enemy with functional eyes.)  But even though that particular thing worked it's still a work around.  There's a desire to do more things than there are buttons to do them, so a way needs to be figured out to use the same button to do different things.

When that fails it fails spectacularly, when it works it's nice, but in both cases it's because there's a limitation: too few buttons for the functions you want to preform.

That's not the case on PC.

The keyboard I'm using now, though on a laptop, is pretty complete.  It's a got a distinct number pad and everything.  But even if we ignore that and look just at the main typing keys there are sixty.  It is difficult to imagine a console game that has more than 60 distinct functions, so there is no reason that a console game ported to PC should have disjoint functions bound to a single key.  Leaving keys doing septuple detail is just lazy, shoddy work.  Though an eighth of a point to Slytherin for making it so it wasn't octuple.

Tomb Raider actually does deserve some credit for making the port to PC actually make use of parts of what makes PCs PCs.  It then loses all of that credit because it turns out that the work was just the ground work for “The Definitive Edition” which will never be released on PC anyway. So the work that was done wasn't to make it work well on a PC, it was a test-bed for a special edition on "next-gen" consoles.

(A name, by the way, that will sound very silly one generation of consoles into the future.)

Legendary, on the other hand, was ported over to PC with so little checking to see if things worked that the devs didn't notice a fatal flaw that made it impossible to complete the game. When it was brought to their attention the developers announced that they had no intention of fixing it.

Most things fall somewhere between the two, but it's worth noting that both, and so many others, are done with the assumption that the only thing that needs to be done by way of adjusting the interface is to make keyboard keys stand-ins for console buttons. That makes no sense for so many reasons.

Already described is the fact that the constraints on console controllers re:number of buttons utterly fail to apply to PCs so there's no reason to employ the same workarounds and hacks.

You don't need to have one button do twelve things.  You don't need to have a button do one thing if pressed and held, another if pressed and released, another if pressed twice in rapid succession, and another if ...

Another concern is that you simply don't interact with a keyboard the same way you do with a console controller. I defy you to try to use a keyboard by holding it in your hands with your thumbs on top and your fingers underneath while playing a game where people are shooting at you, things are trying to eat you, or both.

Console controllers are made to quickly switch between a tiny handful of buttons.  Keyboards are made to have buttons for almost everything you'll ever need to do while pressing at most two keys and usually just one.  Getting optimal gameplay out of these two things requires different strategies.

When games are ported that never seems to be taken into account.


Just random ramblings of a person without a notebook.


  1. You're right, though. There's definitely a lot of things that can be done to make console-to-PC ports better when the producers care enough to make them happen.

  2. In the early 2000s, I think there was defined market segmentation - PC gamers were (believed to be) older and more willing to learn complex games. They also bought fewer games and played them for longer; the idea of a game that you'd finish in N hours and then never touch again was completely foreign at least in the circles I moved in. Because of that, it wasn't expected that you'd do a straight port of a game, because the target market would have bought it on the original platform - if it was a complicated game it would be written for the PC and might eventually get a cut-down console version, while a simple game would be written for consoles and die there.

    (If you were really lucky, a PC game might get ported to the Mac a few years later.)

    I'm assuming they don't even let you re-bind the different functions, which used to be such a standard part of PC gaming that it was usually the first bit of user interface that got written.

    1. Button re-binding is, and hopefully always will be, a thing. But that just shifts which button does seven things, it doesn't allow you to separate the seven things into different buttons.

    2. Well, that's just sloppy.

      But anyway, I think the game makers are still assuming that there are "console gamers" who want quick-and-easy and "PC gamers" who want complex and rewarding, but "PC gamers" are getting older and more demanding and in any case it's more work for less money producing games they like, so there's no point trying to satisfy them at all. Let them eat Steam. This is of course a vast oversimplification.