Publishers R.E. PC Ports; When You Pay Peanuts, You’ll Get Monkeys!

In shocking news, another PC Port farmed out to a small outfit has turned out to be pants!


 

It seems the most obvious truth possible; you get what you pay for.

The past few days, Bandai-Namco released a long-awaited port of Tales of Symphonia – a GameCube game from 2003, which was later downscaled to the PlayStation 2. It’s one of the more highly-regarded entries to the Tales Of series, and it’s been long enough that you’d expect that any PC Port of a game from twelve years ago would run super-fast on any modern gaming rig. You’d expect that, of course, but as we’ve come to see of publishers of late – you’d be dead wrong. Tales of Symphonia launched with a cavalcade of issues, running at a restricted 720p and at thirty frames a second, denoting that the quality of the game was more akin to the PlayStation 2 version than the GameCube version (which ran at 60 frames a second!). That is, of course, if you could get it running at all – crashes, menu glitches and a whole host of graphical problems have been frustrating buyers of this game. And I do echo much of the sentiment, of course – it’s a twelve year old game, for crying out loud! How in the lowest chambers of Hell can you possibly screw this up?

Well, it turns out that Bandai-Namco farmed out the port to Other Ocean Inc., who are the ones who famously botched the PS4 port of Super Street Fighter 4.

But perhaps the big shocker is that this was likely done to cut costs – Other Ocean sound like the masters of the quick and dirty hand job, highly anticipated but ultimately an unfulfilling experience for the one parting with the cash. It doesn’t matter the overall quality or standard of the end result; just as long as you can pull it in on time and preferably under budget if not within budget, that’s fine! Just hash one out, get it on Steam and other digital distribution networks and have it rake in money as fast as possible. I mean, what could possibly go wrong with this scenario now that users of Steam in particular have access to refunds?

Furthermore, Peter “Durante” Thoman – the man behind such infamous hack-fixes like DSFix, which upscaled the basic port of Dark Souls – has gone on record to suggest that it took him all of 14 minutes to undo the locked resolution, and after fixing things like broken menus, filtering and downsampling, his total investment – including compiling and releasing the unofficial fix – took less than two hours. One man tinkering away in the program files managed to do in a couple of hours what a whole porting department couldn’t do in several months, if not a year or two.

But this isn’t perplexing to me at all. If you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys.

There are certain times when cutting costs isn’t a huge issue – a bar of soap, a bog roll or two and such forth. Indeed, in my holiday plans this year cutting costs meant an easier time for me – an £80 return trip on a bus with ONE change each way in London (taking 14 hours each way) versus a 13 hour each way trip on a train costing almost £325, with each trip requiring a total of nine changes. Such a thing isn’t exactly difficult – you’ll be wasting a whole day on the journey anyway, so what’s an extra hour when it simplifies the whole process and cuts out the best part of £250 (which can be spent on food and fun at the event!)? Such occasions require that kind of lateral thought process – you have to consider the alternatives and research what it will entail before coming to a conclusion, and a trip from Cornwall to Lincoln (UK) from my position is 311 miles each way. Whatever transportation I choose, it’s going to take me a whole day and I’m going to be uncomfortable.

Of course, in some situations you do need to spend the extra money. There’s no point just getting the cheapest handy-man to knock a hole in your door for a catflap. If they mess it up, and it gets draughty and the rain starts seeping in, you’ll invariably have to pay money to another handy-man to come out and fix the bodge-job. Why pay for TWO instances for the same darn thing when it only requires it done once, and done well? For that, you look for recommendations. People with a lot of them and higher standards will obviously charge a premium for their services – but that extra comes with peace of mind, and in some instances a direct line to them and free call-outs should their work not meet their own high standards. And it will always come in at less than two separate call-outs.

Video game ports should always fall into the latter category for me.

You’re talking about a commercial product that will be downloaded by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. In an ideal situation, scale that up to MILLIONS of people. A product that will be reviewed, critiqued and ultimately used as a marker of where your company is sitting in the grand scheme of the current games market. You’re only as good as your last game they say, so you do need to make sure that if your last game was a port that it was done as well as possible by highly-skilled, highly-professional individuals with a proven track record of getting it right. But instead, for years now video game publishers have deigned in their quest to drive down the costs of their budget to farm out ports – particularly PC ports in the last few years – to cheaper, smaller outfits who can come in at a fraction of the cost of more reliable outfits.

The end results? Batman: Arkham Knight on PC for example, a port so poorly made and optimised for the platform that it can never be fixed, so they simply stopped. Because they don’t have enough money to pay someone more professional and skilled in this department to come in and correct someone else’s bodge-job!

Between us, I think the advent of the Internet in our games consoles and on Steam has created a state of inertia in this regard; there’s a belief that any game can be patched up post-launch, but it neglects to point out the obvious issue that such patches are not free – you require more time and professional talent to come in or remain on and repair problems, coupled with the poor public relations that will dampen consumer confidence in your product from the outset as well as any additional costs imposed by the platform itself in terms of pushing new patches through its network and its overall bandwidth costs.

Fixing a video game post-launch is, today, neither the cheap nor the easy option – it’s an increasingly complex, increasingly fraught situation that only serves to damage your product in the end.

Take a look at a game like The Elder Scrolls Online – a game which never really got fixed and ended up going from a premium subscription-based product to a one-off free-to-play affair. Zenimax Media cannot undo what has already been done in this regard; it happened, and the net result is that it enjoys a far smaller share of the market as well as the continued stigma of what happened during and after its launch window. It could have been better – and as someone who was in the beta for it, the number of users reporting a range of problems was enormous. But they decided it was good enough – which, we now know, it really wasn’t.

As it stands this far into 2016, there is now an expectation that video games WORK – especially on launch. The market is not in the same rude health that we experienced at the turn of the decade, and the novelty of patching your game on the fly has worn off and now just seems like an annoying inconvenience. Now, more than any other time in the market, it is becoming important for any new game or any new port of a game to sail out of the doors and be prepared to fly almost instantaneously. Such expectations have come alongside increasing costs, additional costs for downloadable extras and microtransactions and a general mistrust that has fostered inside the gaming community for anyone attempting to cut corners. If we’re going to pay for a £50/$60 title, or even a £30/$40 remake/update of an older game we could find for a couple of notes/coins in the bottom of a bargain bin now, we want to know that our game is worth the money we’re paying, and that the development or porting process was done to a higher standard.

A little extra spent during this process pays dividends in the long run – and as Durante himself has pointed out, the reality is well-made ports and updates for older games DO sell well, compared to their cheaply-made competitors. It’s why Tecmo-Koei has remarkably little success on the PC front; they have a long history of knocking out poorly-optimised and badly-crafted PC versions of their video games, and the end result is that when a new game appears with their moniker on the front, we already sort of know what to expect – which tends to mean we look elsewhere to spend our disposable income.

Of course, as I said, this also means you require less manpower and overheads on a project past its launch which also tends to reduce the costs involved. The longer it takes and the more work needed on a game, the more expensive the repair job becomes – which seems ludicrous when basic logic dictates that you invest in getting it done properly the first time around, where there would be no need for these additional running costs and overheads just to repair something which could and should have been done right the first time!

This will require a wholesale new attitude from various publishers; spending money to make money. It’s true that budgets in the gaming sphere have skyrocketed during the last ten years, and I do feel for the industry on this front. The increase in resolution, the additional space and the higher graphical fidelity expected in games today all add onto other increasing expenses and overheads and it isn’t the prettiest or indeed healthiest of pictures to portray. But a little additional investment at the early stage of a port by investing in studios with a proven and solid track record of this sort of thing pays off in the end, because ultimately a poorly-made port will always cost more in the long run – both in the process of fixing it, and in a very public way by denting confidence in your product. The industry needs to invest in its future; which means investing in its products, and not being satisfied with “good enough”. Because “good enough” in so many instances just isn’t good enough. Not any more.

We expect better from everyone and anyone releasing games today. And when the likes of Durante can improve or fix such glaring issues with your game in a couple of hours, what does this say of the “outfit” who spent the best part of their working day on porting the game? Whose livelihoods depend on this to get paid?

I shudder to think.

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