If you’re a PC gamer, you’ve probably experienced this situation before: you wait months or years for an exciting new game to jump from major consoles to the PC, only to find out that the ported game is a buggy, broken mess.
It’s one of the bigger downsides of using a more powerful, flexible platform—at some point, a developer or publisher is going to ignore all that power and flexibility, and just dump a load of steaming code on Steam and call it a day.
But why does this happen? Even mid-range gaming PCs should be able to play more or less every console release flawlessly, at least according to their specifications. It turns out that PC port disasters like Batman: Arkham Knight and the original Dark Souls are the result of complex and sometimes overlapping issues. Let’s dive in.
Multi-Platform Development Is Often Outsourced to Secondary Developers
These days most medium to large games have both a developer, which handles the vast majority of the digital production, and a publisher, which handles more or less everything else, like distribution, advertising, negotiation for IP and asset licenses, and I’m boring you already aren’t I?
Developers are the smaller part of this equation, and often they simply don’t have the resources to handle every aspect of production. So parts of the game will be outsourced by the publisher to other, secondary developers: the lackluster boss battles in Deus Ex: Human Revolution are a good example.
Porting a game to another platform is often the responsibility of one of these third-party developers, especially when the publisher wants a simultaneous release on consoles and PCs. The original developer will work with a target for one system, the third-party dev will build the game for other systems concurrently, and hopefully everything will work out close enough to release day that everyone can play it at the same time. Of course, this doesn’t always go smoothly: it’s common to see a cross-platform release delayed by several months on the PC (or other consoles, to be fair).
It’s also sadly common to see the PC port get stiffed in this exchange. Between the various issues below and the simple expedient of another team working on a project that’s been primarily created by someone else, PC ports often fall into the cracks of the corporate world and get released with major problems that aren’t present or noticeable on the console release.
PC Hardware and User Interface Design Is a Moving Target
The great thing about developing for a game console is that everyone has the same thing. Obviously there are multiple consoles competing at any given time (and now multiple iterations of the same console), but the appeal of tens of millions of customers with more or less identical hardware is impossible to overstate.
Then you move your game over to the PC, and between processors, motherboards, RAM, hard drives, GPUs, and monitors, there are literally millions of possible hardware combinations you have to build for. Those things are streamlined by using established graphics engines and working with GPU designers for optimal drivers, but it’s still a gigantic headache when you’re used to working with a more or less static hardware target. The temptation to cut corners is understandable, but frustrating. This shift to PC development can cause all kinds of problems, including but not limited to:
- Resolution and framerate restrictions
- Sound issues
- Poor HD textures
- Slowdown with advanced visual effects
- Online multiplayer problems
The problems aren’t limited to hardware, either. Interfaces designed for a game controller are generally less efficient when shifted to a mouse and keyboard, causing frustration for players who want to take advantage of custom controls. This is a common source of anxiety for Bethesda RPGs; the Skyrim user mod SkyUI attempts to fix it. Borderlands is a pretty good example of this as well, though with a happier ending. Gearbox decided to fix most of the control problems of the PC version (and a bunch of other minor issues, too) once the sequel came around.
Budget and Time Constraints Tax Publishers
This sort of builds on the issues above, but developers and publishers are businesses like any other, and it is their wont to pinch a nickel until the buffalo screams. In other words, if there’s a shortcut they can take to getting a game out, they’ll take it more often than we as gamers would like them to.
Again, this problem can be exacerbated by a multi-platform release, but it’s often visible on less timely releases as well. For example, the yearly PC release of Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer has a nasty habit of lagging behind the console versions by a couple of years when it comes to graphics tech and esoteric features. Koei Tecmo’s Dead or Alive 5: Last Round came to PC months late and lacking the more advanced features of the PS4 version… oh, and online multiplayer. (That’s sort of a big deal for a fighting game.) It took several more months for the company to patch online services in. Koei Tecmo seems to have problems with PC ports in general: the Steam version of Nioh is the latest major release to have lackluster performance on PC, even lacking mouse support.
Extra DRM for PC Ports Can Bog Down Performance and Accessibility
It’s an unfortunate reality that the PC platform is more susceptible to piracy than consoles, if only because games released on Windows are easy targets for less scrupulous players. In response publishers (especially big ones) tend to go overboard on digital rights management (DRM). Ubisoft is a particularly egregious example: for a few years all of its major releases were saddled with DRM that forced an online connection to constantly check the player’s credentials. That’s on top of the more subtle DRM built into Steam purchases, and linking accounts with Ubisoft’s mandatory Uplay system.
Naturally, things didn’t turn out well. Players of major franchises like Assassin’s Creed complained that Ubisoft’s DRM servers were constantly cutting out, interrupting the flow of gameplay or simply not letting them play the game at all. That’s on top of the more practical problem that it makes these games impossible to play without an Internet connection. Thankfully that overbearing approach to piracy prevention seems to have gone out of vogue (mostly because it doesn’t work), but it’s been replaced with the more advanced Denuvo system, which uses cryptographic sequences to verify gamers’ rights to play the games they own. This cryptology-based verification can allegedly slow down games and create excessive reading and writing to hard drives and SSDs, though the creator of the Denuvo system denies this.
Sometimes Developers and Publishers Just Don’t Care
Some games just sell better on consoles, especially third-person action games, sports games, and racing games. That’s a fact that’s hard to ignore. Take Warner Bros. mega-hit Batman: Arkham City from 2011. The PC version sold just half a million units worldwide according to VGChartz, as opposed to 5.5 million and 4.7 million on the PS3 and Xbox 360, respectively. The PC version is an afterthought, ported only if the publisher is sure that it will make enough money to justify the extra cost of development. Is it any wonder that the following entry in the series, Arkham Origins, launched with several game-breaking bugs on the PC release? Even more infuriating, developer WB Montreal later announced that they had ceased work on patching errors in the full game so that they could focus on upcoming DLC.
Let that sink in: Warner Bros. told players they wouldn’t fix the game because they were too busy making more of the game for players to buy. Reception was less than rosy.
It’s not a problem exclusive to new releases, either. When I bought the Steam version of Crazy Taxi in a fit of nostalgia, I found that the 17-year-old game first released in the arcade and on the Dreamcast was unaccountably hard to control. It turned out that the third-party PC developer had failed to program analog controls for the driving game…and I’ll remind you that analog control was a feature included in the Dreamcast version way back in 2000. I had to manually adjust the controller system with a third-party program to get it to work right. To add insult to injury, SEGA stripped out the licensed locations like Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Tower Records, replacing them with generic (free) versions. Even worse, the original punk rock soundtrack from Bad Religion and The Offspring had been replaced with cheaper, lesser-known bands, more or less ruining the nostalgic trip I was looking for. I had to track down the original tracks and modify the game files just to get the right music. Any fan of the original game can tell you these aesthetic touches are essential to the experience, but SEGA just couldn’t be bothered to spend the money and time to get it right.
All these elements combine to make PC ports a constant source of frustration for dedicated players. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it doesn’t seem to be going away, either: every year at least one or two major releases comes to the PC, often late, with big game-breaking bugs or missing features. The only advice I can give is to be especially wary of multi-platform releases, and be sure to read the reviews and resist the urge to pre-order.