You have a ton of games that you enjoy playing on your console or computer and you would love to be able to take them with you and play them on your smartphone or tablet. And you’re probably not alone in thinking this, as this question comes up again and again on forums like Reddit, Quora and even on LinusTechTips. So there is a market out there looking to play their favorite games on the go. So why don’t developers port their console and PC games to mobile?
Your Answer Upfront:
Developers avoid porting their games to mobile platforms due to the insane effort required in adapting the games for said platforms. From re-designing core mechanics, to adapting the entire User Interface, changing the control scheme and modifying visual assets in order to fit the game in a lot less RAM, developers have a lot of things working against them in the porting process. And even if the port is completed, their return of investment might be hampered by piracy.
What does porting a game mean?
Porting a game means converting the entire game project (source code, assets) to work on a platform it wasn’t designed to run on. It requires adapting the source code of the game to compile (and run) on the new platform, re-designing or adapting the control scheme and modifying the underlining assets (textures, models, animations).
Take one of my Steam games for example, Space Mercs. If I were to port the game to mobile, I would have to make some very big changes to the game. It is designed to run on computers using a keyboard and a gamepad. I could compile it for mobile but you won’t be able to steer the ship and shoot enemies – which is 90% of what the game is.
To get it to run on mobile I would need to:
- Add on-screen controls for the game that would convert touch inputs to normal PC inputs (Virtual Joystick that would pretend to be a real gamepad/controller)
- Re-implement all the menus and UI’s in the game in order for them to be navigable on a small screen
- Tweak the AI in order to make it easier for mobile gameplay. Right now enemies are flying fast and have high accuracy. Imagine how hard it is to track an enemy flying at high speeds when a big part of the screen is being obstructed by your fingers.
- Update textures and mesh details, lowering their resolution in order to fit everything in memory.
- Tweak the lights and shader settings.
- Update the code for the shaders in order to work on mobile platforms (especially for the volumetric fog for the nebulas).
Is porting a game easy?
A common misconception started rearing it’s head lately due to the wide usage and adoption of engines like Unity and Unreal. Since documentation and tutorials for these two engines are so widespread, non-game developers (aka regular players) started discovering them and came to a wrong understanding: Porting your game to other platforms means just clicking an option and building the game for that platform.
This can’t be further away from the truth.
As mentioned above, building the game for another platform is “easy” when using something like Unity and Unreal. But building a game means just getting it to compile and run on another platform. This does not entail making it playable. And, sometimes, the building part won’t even work straight out of the box.
Take Unity as an example (since I’m most familiar with it). When it builds a game, it goes through all of the shaders and tries to compile them to a format that the target platform understands. But if the shader is using specific code not available on that platform? The build fails. So the 1 click export is a myth that only applies to barebone, standard games made with Unity, mostly tutorial games or very, very simple games that don’t do anything special.
Porting a game isn’t easy, it takes a lot of effort to get the game to be playable. Developers need to update the code, update the shaders, adapt (and sometimes, completely re-design) the control scheme, update the levels, maps and AI to take the new platform into account, change and tweak the difficulty curve and a lot more. In some cases, porting a game to mobile is akin to making the entire game from scratch.
Why don’t developers port their console and PC games to mobile?
Let’s get into the meat of the subject. Why don’t developers port their games to mobile? Getting the game on as many platforms as possible surely means more money for the developer or publisher. Right?
Well, there are a ton of reason why this wouldn’t be the case. Let’s start with factors related to the way the game is designed and how it plays and then move onto more technical factors.
Game Design Constraints
If the game was designed initially to be played on a computer, adapting it for mobile would require a lot of effort. From tweaking the difficulty to the way the player interacts with the world. If the game was designed for high resolution screens and has a lot of stats displayed at once, on mobile, especially small screen smartphones, the entire interface needs to be updated. From the way the interface navigation flows to how many windows can be opened at once.
On a phone or tablet screen space is a limited resource. If your game requires 20 different buttons, you can’t just fill the screen with on-screen buttons and expect to have any area free for the player to look at. The control scheme needs to be streamlined and simplified, the amount of buttons used reduced, which alters the design of the game that leads to altered gameplay mechanics.
Games nowadays look great. Everything from rocks and trees to the armor on the enemies looks great and has a lot of details. The average gaming computer nowadays has about 16 GB of RAM, with people moving to 32 GB being more and more common.
Phones currently, on average, have about 4GB of RAM. So you can’t expect to fit the same amount of textures at the same resolution as a PC game. The lower the resolution, the less good a game looks. Here’s an example from an asset I’m using for a possible BSG – Dragon Battle Update. On the left side, you have the original horse model with a 1024×1024 texture resolution. On the right, you have the same horse model at 128×128 resolution. The difference in size for both RAM and space on disk is huge. 1024 resolution takes 60 times as much memory.
So imagine a complex game like Far Cry 6 being ported to mobile – just how many textures need to be adapted and downscaled just to get the game to fit on a mid tier phone. And then, think about how ugly the game would look like. So, it’s not about just downscaling the resolution, but the time it takes to do that in order to make the game still look good and visually appealing.
Sometimes it’s all about the tools and software you are using. Many games use different middleware software in their games. From physics engines to shader tools, to animation systems and particle engines. If the tool the game’s reliant on doesn’t work or isn’t available for mobile it can hinder and outright stop the port from happening.
Take my Space Mercs case from earlier – to port the game to mobile I would have to re-write all the shaders I’m using for the nebulae which, is no easy task. The amount of time required to pull that off makes porting the game be a no-go for me.
Last, but not least, we also have piracy as an example, especially on Android.
Take Alien Isolation which recently got ported to mobile by the lovely fellows over at Feral Interactive. The game sold, as of May 2015, 2.1 million copies according to Wikipedia (just imagine what the number is today in 2022).
A fellow game dev with a few games on the Play Store once told me that, after releasing their game, they sold about 1000 copies on the Play Store in the first month and they had about 20K active installs. For every copy sold, they had 19 copies pirated. I haven’t reached out to the developer for permission to quote him, but I will and if he’s okay with that, I’ll update the article with a link to the game in question.
But yeah – piracy is a big deal and a big deterrent to porting games to mobile platforms.
Think of it this way – if it costs you $100k to port the game to mobile and the game ends up netting only $80K in revenue? It’s possible. Part of why a lot of games use a ton of ads and in-app purchases. So what if the game gets pirated? They’ll still make money from displaying ads.
A lot of AAA PC & console devs don’t want to damage their brands with ads so, they just won’t do any ports to mobile.
Where To Next?
I believe that you might be interested in more articles on game monetisation. So if you want to stick around, you can check out “How Do Free Mobile Games Make money“, “Why Do Mobile Games Have Fake Ads” and “Why Do Mobile Games Have In-App Purchases“.
There’s also a monster post (about 4000 words) that answers the question: “How Hard Is It To Make A Mobile Game“. It goes in depth with actual examples on how Experience, Resources and Financials affect the difficulty of developing and releasing new mobile games!
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