The cross-gen games conundrum

The cross-gen games conundrum
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

April 24th 2014 at 11:20AM

Develop probes what challenges developing games for old and new hardware presents for games studios

Respawn's debut title Titanfall was released on both Xbox 360 and Xbox One, as well as PC. The team behind the 360 version, Bluepoint Games, has a healthy track record of quality ports behind it, including the Ico and God of War collections for PS3. But that won’t stop critics and players from delivering a harsh verdict if it fails to stack up to its bigger brothers.

“It’s not easy. There’s so much going on that it is really difficult to move from one console to the other,” Abbie Heppe, community manager for Respawn, told our sister brand MCV at Titanfall’s UK launch party last month. “When you are creating a game covering the current-gen it is never easy to then build it for a console a generation behind.”

Heppe’s comments reflect some of the tension at the heart of this issue. As we bed into the new era of consoles, the challenges of cross-generation games development are becoming more pronounced.

MIND ON MULTIPLATFORM

Cross-gen games are those being created for at least one current-gen (PS4 or Xbox One) and one last-gen system (PS3, 360). The received wisdom is that, depending on the system, games will either have the same core mechanics with a few aesthetic touches or be stripped of features and left to lag behind their current-gen counterparts.

Techland development director Pawel Zawodny tells Develop that multiplatform game creation is a “frame of mind”, which is reflected in your work manner.

“In other words, you need to do certain things five times because you have five platforms, simultaneously thinking about all of them as a whole. It means a much longer development time and a requirement for greater team sizes,” he says.

Zawodny and his team are working on the upcoming first-person survival horror game Dying Light for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One and 360. When it comes to experimenting with what PS4 and Xbox One are capable of, Zawodny says problems start when a game reaches a stage where every new idea is grounded in the capabilities of new systems.

“It makes you impatient to implement bright ideas that will revolutionise the whole industry,” he says. “How unfair is that? At some point, you can’t go forward if you don’t cut something out of the past-gen version. So the challenge isn’t about making nice-looking graphics on older hardware. It’s actually how to make the next-gen version richer without compromising other ones.”

BACK AND FORTH

New consoles are about more than better performance, of course. Players expect devs to make use of the Aladdin’s cave of new features available, such as video streaming, cross-platform play and cloud connectivity.

Denmark studio Press Play kept its concessions between versions minimal in bringing Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (see Develop #146) to both Xbox One and 360.

“Luckily, Max is not relying on any of the Xbox One’s core features like the new Kinect. For us, the main impact has been added production time in maintaining two versions,” explains creative director Mikkel Thorsted.
The process of ‘porting’ is nowhere near as simple as some assume. He says delivering Max to both Xboxes involved bouncing the game back-and-forth between the two.

“First we forward-ported our original 360 version,” Thorsted says. “This was pretty straight forward as we didn’t have to focus on hardware limitations. Our biggest challenge was getting Unity, the game engine we used for Max, to support Xbox One.

“After having done the forward-porting, we back-ported the vastly improved game to 360. Since we had been doing a lot of work with porting already we had a pretty good idea of what was needed to get the game running on 360. First we made a couple of hard but necessary decisions. We chose to lower our framerate from 60 to 30, as well as the resolution to 720p and the texture sizes where possible. We also made all cutscenes into videos instead of in-game renders.”

PARTIAL TO PLATFORM-AGNOSTIC TOOLS

Excluding the need for the Press Play team to get their heads around new Xbox One features like hero stats, help apps and DVR, its cross-gen project was relatively hassle-free thanks to the game’s foundation in Unity.

Nicoll Hunt of indie developer I Fight Bears says such flexibility is becoming a deciding factor for studios targeting multiple platforms: “One of Unity’s greatest strengths is its platform agnostic approach, meaning developers can, to a large degree, not worry so much about the technicalities of porting.”

He adds that in the wake of Microsoft ending its support for XNA, the technology for indie games on the 360, indies will largely have to “start from scratch” to bring their 360 games to Xbox One. With complications such as that it seems apt that developers gravitate toward platform-agnostic development game engines and tools.
Even with the difficulties discussed above, the conversation about cross-gen games and development is riddled with pejorative connotations. Just look at the reactions to Battlefield 4 when it arrived last November in time for Sony and Microsoft’s new boxes.

“Having worked with teams who have shipped old and current-gen games at the same time, I feel really bad for them when I see the vitriol online about how the next-gen versions are not ‘next-gen enough’,” says Thomas Puha, director of developer relations of Umbra Software, which specialises in interactive visibility tools.



“The fact that teams were even able to put out current and next-gen versions of a game at launch was an incredible feat. Everything comes online so late with the new consoles that it’s a real struggle to get things done.”

Of course, the argument from vocal, early adopters is that that “struggle” should be devoted to current-gen development. For instance, Tom Clancy’s The Division is being made by Ubisoft Massive and Reflections using the studio’s specially designed Snowdrop engine.

Rodrigo Cortes, brand art director on The Division says by only developing on new-gen consoles and PC, the team is able to maximise and optimise its features to deliver “new levels of experience that only a true next-gen engine can achieve”. So is the last generation holding back games development?

Techland senior engine programmer Tomasz Szalkowski doesn’t agree, explaining that “engines and other tools will eventually reach the ‘tweaked for next-gen’ level in an evolutionary way.”

Hunt also disagrees, saying it’s the astronomical budgets that are holding back the full potential of the new consoles: “As it stands, the cost of building these games, compared to the potential user base, means it often doesn’t make financial sense to build exclusively for the latest generation. This will change as tools improve and more players migrate to the latest consoles.”

On the other hand, Robert Karp of the Fyzz Facility, maker of Backgammon Blitz, says: “Last generation consoles allow developers to be a little more risky and try things that are a bit outside of the box due to the huge install base. While, at the same time, if every developer stopped making games for last-gen consoles and moved onto the new generation, then there’d be many more games.”

A NECESSARY STEP

Time, development know-how and possible market reach appear to be the driving forces behind the wave of cross-gen titles currently in production. And while the quality bar for such games, particularly the last-gen versions, will inevitably be debated and scrutinised, developers see this as a process that will only make them better at what they do.

There was a consensus from Techland, Press Play, I Fight Bears, Mobile Media and Umbra that ‘porting’ games at the start of a new console generation is an important learning curve for developers, helping teams to, as Hunt says, “get a grounding in the new technology without risking the future of the entire studio”.

Games development has always involved making tough compromises hinged on commercial or creative demands. The nature of today’s hyper-connected audience makes cross-gen development a heavy burden, but one that looks destined to be, as Szalkowski claims, “a necessary step to make future current-gen games even better”.