The Problem With PC Port Video Games
There’s always things in games that will annoy people. Sometimes it’s matters of gender politics. Sometimes it’s a matter of anticipated games being exclusive to certain consoles. For me right now, it’s the fact that Overwatch’s character “Tracer” has THE WORST ENGLISH ACCENT I HAVE EVER HEARD. Seriously, that’s what Americans think me and my countrymen sound like?! Forget all this squabbling about Tracer’s backside and whether she’s being over-sexualised, I’m still waiting for her to break into a Mary Poppins song and “starht sellin’ appels onna streets ov’ ol’ Lundun tahwn.”
… But I’m not bitter, really.
And on the subject of annoyance, it’s also true that Quantum Break is getting a lot of attention in the news. From those I’ve talked to, it’s somewhat fun to play, not that I’d know. My preferred platform is the PC, and those same people say that Quantum Break and PCs go together like crocodiles and unsupervised toddlers.
To put it simply, the PC version of Quantum Break is fraught with technical problems, but this isn’t exactly a rare thing. Horrible ports have been a source of outrage for almost as long as computer games have existed. People were getting sniffy in 1983 that the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man wasn’t as good as the arcade version – no, seriously, that was a major blow for Atari at the time.
But it does seem to be a one-way problem, especially these days. Whenever something goes from computer to console, it’s usually pretty smooth sailing. A couple of minor glitches may occur, but they get patched out soon and it’s rarely anything more than that.
But when a video game goes from console to computer, the result is often a nightmare. Do you remember what happened to Dark Souls? Borderlands? Call Of Duty: Black Ops III? Need For Speed: The Run? Enslaved: Odyssey To The West? Resident Evil 4? Watch_Dogs? Grand Theft Auto IV? Batman: Arkham Knight? XCOM 2? It’s a real problem, and some of those were good games, too. I love Dark Souls, I enjoyed Borderlands and XCOM 2. And Watch_Dogs… Um… Is also on the list. Good for it. Can somebody give it a participation award? No, don’t look it in the eye, just pat it on the head and let’s move on.
These awful video game PC ports aren’t made out of spite, though. There are legitimate reasons that games turn out like this, but let’s be clear on one thing – “reasons” does not mean “excuses.” Whatever problems, setbacks or hitches developers and publishers have along the way, there’s no justification for selling a product that doesn’t work. Let’s all just agree on that, here and now.
But why does it happen at all? Well, there’s a bunch of things that cause it, but let’s start with the simplest one.
THESE GAMES ARE MADE FOR CONSOLES FIRST
The infamous explanation behind the appalling Arkham Knight port was that the developers were trained how to program games onto console hardware, not onto PC. I don’t know much about programming, but apparently coding a game for the living room is very different to coding it for the study. They’re very different machines at a core level and have to be treated as such.
There’s not much that can be done about that, but the trouble arises when this is handled poorly or hastily. According to rumours, whilst Rocksteady were beavering away on Arkham Knight on the PS4 and Xbox One, Warner Bros took that code and gave it to the developers “Iron Galaxy” to convert into something that would work on Steam.
Yet the credits of Arkham Knight acknowledge ONLY twelve people for that job, on a game that spans dozens of gigabytes, which is… Not much at all. Certain sources have also made the claim that these dozen people had only eight weeks to do this mammoth task. Considering that brief time-span, we were lucky that any computers didn’t just self-destruct upon installation.
Oh, and speaking of time…
THE GAMES MUST BE READY FOR LAUNCH DAY
There’s a lot of publishers who would rather do anything than miss the launch date. All that advertising, all that hype, all that attention and built-up suspense is focused on a single day, or maybe a week at most if you’re something big, like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V.
So the PC port HAS to be ready for that day, or else they don’t have that media hype to back it up and boost sales. If the PC game version comes out a few months later than its console brethren, it tends to be less successful than if it had been out on time.
Thus, some publishers would rather have the game on the shelves than wait for basic functionality. I’m not saying all of them think like this, but we know from history that some of them do. After all, with the number of people who preorder,they can potentially sell millions of copies before anybody even knows if the game works.
So the rubbish version of the video game is often a calculated risk rather than a mistake, because remember – there’s no way a publisher can’t know what it is they’re selling. And even if they did, that’s not the consumer’s problem. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
COMPUTERS ARE A CODING NIGHTMARE
Here’s the thing – when you code a video game for a console, you know exactly what you’re dealing with. There’s no difference between one PS4 and another, bar how many times it’s been accidentally knocked over, or hacked for your private details through the Playstation Network. The same thing goes for the Xbox One.
But every computer is a big, boxy, virus-infected snowflake, completely different to the one next to it. What brand of graphics card are you using, and how much memory does it have? Do you have 2GB of RAM, or are you sporting something larger? What drivers do you have installed? What about the processor or motherboard? What operating system? Does it have good ventilation? And does sir prefer one olive or two in his martini?
The upshot of this is that what works for one computer might not work for another. We’ve all seen comments where half the users are doing fine, whilst the rest can barely get the game started. Check out the Just Cause 3 Steam page if you don’t believe me, where the upper-class NVidia-users are laughing as they look down on the urchins and peasants who’re trying to make do with AMD. Seriously, it’s one bad comment away from breaking out into a civil war.
PIRATES AREN’T WORTH THE EFFORT
It’s hard to say exactly how much in profits is lost through online piracy each year. Some researchers have claimed that the effect is huge, others say it’s negligible. Of course, nobody can be completely certain, as records on this sort of thing don’t tend to be kept much. Damn thieves; it’s bad enough that they cut into the developer’s living wage, the least they could do is keep some documentation of what they’ve stolen.
But regardless of whether the audience is Baptists or Blackbeards, some publishers still think that a great deal of cash goes down the drain this way. In fact, one study claimed that half of all games distributed on the Internet are done through seedy, back-alley means, with none of that money going to the creators. And if that’s true, that’s a hell of a lot of wasted effort.
So, the creators often reason, why bother? Why put the effort in if we won’t get rewarded for it? Why fix out the kinks if we won’t get paid? Why labour on projects that don’t pay for themselves? The PC port can be a token gesture, put out to appease that market and then ignored, regardless of what’s wrong with it.
Of course, that’s not going to help matters, and there is something painfully cyclical to all this. PC ports are rubbish, so people don’t want to pay and pirate them instead. And because people pirate them, any future PC ports end up being rubbish too. Doesn’t give you much faith in the species, does it?
WHO’S GOING TO STOP US?
Did you know that all the major consoles have a quality assurance department, one that regulates whatever games are sold on them? Well, regulates them to a certain degree. It doesn’t stop the boring, the badly written, or the downright stupid, as we’ve all found out at some point or another. But it does stop games that aren’t functional, that are poor on a technical level (with the occasional entry like Aliens: Colonial Marines slipping through the net).
But the PC doesn’t have that blessing. Publishers with their own distribution software can put up what they want without issues, like EA’s Origins, or Ubisoft’s Uplay. But even Steam is infamously lax with its QA department, which raises the question – what’s going to force developers to try harder? Well, artistic pride and a decent work ethic, but not everyone has that. Games that would’ve been sent back on any other platform can get through onto Steam and other services without issue – and as we know, there are always some people who are looking for an easy buck.
LESS MONEY, MO’ PROBLEMS
Yes, the esteemed Mister B.I.G. wasn’t always right on this issue, and sometimes the answer is as simple – and as boring – as money troubles. As is well-known, any project can be done cheaply, quickly, or competently, but you can only ever pick two of those. You can’t have all three. And sadly, some developers are going to pick the first two over the last one every time. When a crappy PC port video game is made, people sometimes wonder how it passed beyond the notice of everybody involved. How did they miss something so obvious?
Well… They didn’t miss it. Not always, at least. Many people working in QA departments have been questioned on their failings, especially when something really unplayable makes it onto the market. How did you not notice that it was a glitchy mess? How could you be so blind?
To which they reply: “we did notice. But nobody cared.” This is an expensive process, the longer it goes on, the more it costs, and before too long those in charge will just cut off the funding and declare the whole thing finished, even if it’s nowhere near that. On some occasions this is a choice they’re forced into, where there really is no money left and they can’t afford to keep refining all that data without some sales to bring in income. Other times, it’s a much more cynical attempt to measure quality versus profit. What can we get away with on the market? Can we put out a half-baked product without losing too many customers? Usually, the answer is yes, because everybody preorders for some absurd reason. Tell me, strange people, do you buy houses that you haven’t seen, too?
So, there we have it. A list of the main reasons why PC ports can have more bugs than the average insectarium. But remember, this isn’t fixed. If we as customers refuse to buy games like these, then it will change. If we tell these companies that they can’t have our money until they finish the project, they’ll leap to it. They’ll find a way, their survival depends on it.
So don’t put up with your PC port video games being second-class, because you don’t have to. This revolution starts at home, and all you need to do is speak with your wallets.