Friday, 18 October 2013

Different format, same game…

Or, when did competing systems start to run the same software?

If, like me, you are old enough to remember the 8Bit console and home-computer era  you will no doubt remember the slew of arcade game conversions, which steadily began to appear for practically every known 8Bit format. 
These various implementations were often rather interesting to say the least...

Some were remarkably good, others simply awful, but they all had their own very unique take on their parent game. 
This was largely due to the limitations and eccentricities of the various, and varied, hardware platforms of the time. But a not inconsequential part of the success, or failure, of these conversions was also down to the programming teams responsible for re-writing the parent, arcade cabinet, game for the home hardware.

 Both conversions and original games produced for multiple platforms during the 8, 16, and to a certain extent the 32Bit era were often all very different in their look, feel and playability. I'm not saying this was a good or bad thing, it’s just a fact. Sometimes the games shone on a particular platform, other times all the versions were equally as good or bad as each other. But they were invariably distinct, with the platform running the game being clearly obvious: except perhaps between a hand full of 8Bit Atari and Commodore 64 titles, but there are generally always some exceptions to most rules.

  There was a time when the PC lagged  behind its 8Bit contemporaries.     

The big change seemed to come with the 64Bit consoles, the post-PlayStation, and PS1, era where the modern gaming age as we now know it became firmly entrenched in general western culture. This was the time of the mighty Sony PS2 and its ill-fated cousin the Sega Dreamcast. If you looked at many of the cross-platform games available for these machines without seeing the hardware you could be forgiven for not knowing what hardware was actually running any given game, a situation that didn't particularly change when Microsoft and Nintendo both released their latest consoles into this generation. And by the advent of the next generation of consoles, the PS3 and Xbox 360, it was commonplace of multi-platform game to run of the same basic code base; which was invariably written on PC hardware anyway, and ported…

And here we come to the pivotal point, games software stopped being written ether directly on and for specific systems; or on emulators for those systems, by small groups or individuals; and started being written for the mass consumer market from a central development environment, by a large development team, and ported to the relevant platforms. If these approaches sound at all similar, be assured they are fundamentally not. I’ve worked both on individual programming projects and as part of commercial development teams (not for games programs, but I've heard that games development is worse than the general applications market) and the similarities are non-existent.

Now, I'm not saying that the old way of doing things is best and the new way is wrong. Both approaches have their merits and shortfalls. In the time of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and all the rest of the 8Bit systems it made economic and commercial sense for a lot of programs to be written using the actual hardware they were being designed to run on. In some cases it was the only option, but later it became easier, cheaper and more convenient to use slightly better systems with emulators and cross compilers to produce the code for these 8Bit home micros.

By the time computer gaming really became the norm all mainstream development had migrated to proper professional games development teams, not just programmer-developers but teams of artists, designers, producers, and musicians, as well as the more traditional programming staff. And without this type of development we couldn't have the massive industry, or the very complex and visually stunning games we have today. Personally I think it’s just a bit unfortunate that the personality all those disparate 8 and 16Bit systems displayed has been lost.

Today a multi-platform game on the PS3 and 360, or PS4 and Xbox One will invariably look pretty much identical to its rival’s version, and there are very good reasons for this. 

The general development code, graphics etc. are produced centrally for all the end systems, and later ported to run on the specific hardware. Sometime a game is written with a specific platform in mind and later ported to another, sometimes not. Sometime it is produced more generically and made to work on the relevant platforms once the main development has been completed. So you pretty much are running the same code and seeing the same visuals for a current blockbuster game on any modern platform.

In contrast just take a look at BombJack for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, and compare this with any big-budget mainstream game for the PS3 and 360. 

Because the 8 and 16Bit hardware platforms were dictating the nature of the ‘ports’ most home computer versions all looked fairly unique, while modern systems are now powerful enough to abstract the actual hardware out of the equation to a large degree, and pretty much show you any screen display layout they want to. 
Again I'm by no means saying this is a bad thing, but I do think the choice of system doesn't really come down to specifications any more, but more down to personal choice for a lot of people. 
Up to the 32Bit era a lot of decisions were much more specification driven for much more people, although there have always been fans since the Atari VCS, Colecovision, and Intellivision arguments. So nothing much changes there.


  1. The first time I noticed the post-PSOne was like this, was when I played Sonic Adventure 2: Battle and then the original Sonic Adventure 2. The first one, was one of the best gamecube titles and was pretty promoted back in those days. I really liked the game. But a couple of years later, a friend who owns a Dreamcast borrowed me Sonic Adventure 2. I was amazaed how similar they looked (aside from the new Gamecube features: The differences where minimal! All the differences in the game were generated by producers decisions, not because of the porting (how to forget Killer Instinct SNES port, one of the best efforts of arcade porting EVER).

    After that, all the ports started to look like the same to me. Each time I played a game of those consoles (I never bought my own console since PSOne), I felt like it didn't matter what platform I was using. It was neat, but the formula started to be: Xbox and Sony realease almost the same games, then nintendo release the enhanced version but uncomfortable playability (in the Wii era).

    Well, like you said, IDK if it's worse or better, just different.

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