How video games are ported between platforms

While some media sees a multitude of competing formats swiftly whittled down to one or maybe two options that then dominate the market, it seems that the number of formats or platforms on which we enjoy video games has increased over their 50-year history. From the arcade machines of yore to cloud computing and mobile gaming, no one platform has ever succeeded in conquering all others for long.

Adapting to change

The pace of technology means new platforms are constantly coming to the fore, while others cede ground or are outmoded. At the same time, premium games and game franchises from companies like Rockstar maintain their popularity by adapting to new platforms as it becomes necessary or profitable. The process of converting a video game designed for one platform to work on another is known as porting.

What is porting?

In software engineering, porting means adapting software to a different computer environment with a minimum of coding rewrites. Strictly speaking, most game conversions don’t involve porting as such, but the term is commonly used whenever a game for one platform is remade in near-identical form for another.

Arcade conversions

The first porting examples came when arcade games were recreated for home consoles like the Atari 2600. Developers would aim to create a port that was ¬†arcade accurate.” Still, in practice, there were usually significant differences when an arcade game was remade for the then-inferior home console format. Limited memory and other technical specs meant that gameplay, graphics, sound, etc., were often markedly inferior, while many arcade game features would be dropped altogether. One notorious example was the Atari version of Pac-Man in 1982.

From console to mobile

Arcade-perfect porting only became possible with the mid-nineties’ generation of consoles. By this time, porting was less about arcade conversions and more about creating versions of popular games for the different consoles or moving from console to PC. In more recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of online games like new jackpot slots, as well as the biggest console and PC games being ported to mobile.

Game engines

Porting is much easier and more reliable than it once was. There are more gaming platforms than ever, but the underlying technology is now similar. Games are usually created with future porting in mind, using a multi-platform game engine so that it can be reworked with minimal effort. Nevertheless, if a port isn’t done correctly, all kinds of bugs can develop.

The PC problem

PC gamers often complain about console ports that just replicate the console game without being optimized for a PC’s greater processing power and performance potential. These lazy ports can seem dull and sluggish on PC, even though they’re just as good as the console original.

A good port should make full use of the technological capabilities of the new platform. Sometimes, new enhancements can improve a game. Developers should resist the temptation to make too many improvements as the new game should still be as close to the original as possible.

Porting a game is like translating a book from one language to another. Using a different technological language can mean that a literal translation can lose some of the original spirit or feel. Artistic judgment is required to stay true to the original game while making it work as well as possible in a different setting.