Not just any port in a storm
The indie explosion means boom time for porting house Abstraction Games
Abstraction Games has a lot on its hands these days. The Dutch studio only has a staff of 11 full-time developers with five extra freelancers, but it currently has about 30 projects in the works. That workload becomes only slightly less ludicrous when one considers that Abstraction specializes in bringing ports of popular games to new platforms. Though it has handled some very successful properties - Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Hotline Miami, Gone Home, Duke Nukem - Abstraction's history of imitative hits springs from one original failure.
In 2007, Abstraction Games, Inc. co-founders Ralph Egas and Erik Bastianen had not yet incorporated. Abstraction was a side project, something they did in their spare time away from their day jobs, Bastianen at PlayLogic and Egas juggling freelancing gigs.
"I wanted to become an entrepreneur because I was having a hard time working with corporate direction," Egas told GamesIndustry.biz. "I didn't agree most of the time, so at some point you're going to say to yourself, 'Now's the time to start doing things as you see fit, in your own way.'"
"The stuff we do, in its own right, is a creative process...It takes more than just being a very good programmer to be able to do a port."
That independent spirit was Egas' motivation to get into freelancing in the first place, and then to start his own company, but he doesn't seem to see irony in building a company to do things his own way, and then devoting that company to faithfully replicating games other people have already made their own way.
"I don't see it that way because it doesn't feel like replicating at all," Egas said. "The stuff we do, in its own right, is a creative process. The end product mimics the original, so we are not designing games that much. But we're designing UI changes, and even looking at code - you have to be very creative to come up with new ways of doing things, because the old methodology that worked in the original title might not work on the target platform...It's a very creative process. It takes more than just being a very good programmer to be able to do a port."
Abstraction didn't start as a port house. Its first released game, the 2008 WiiWare puzzler Potpourrii, was an original intellectual property. But it was also a flop. Fortunately, it was a flop with an intriguing art style that caught the eye of people at mobile publisher Chillingo. They asked Abstraction to bring Potpourii to iOS, and even though it didn't fare much better on the mobile platform, the fact that the studio turned around the game in about two weeks "struck a chord," Egas said.
Chillingo fed Abstraction a few more projects. Some were abandoned before completion. Others, like Sneezies, made it to release but similarly failed to set the sales charts aflame.
"Then came Angry Birds," Egas recalled. "We got that deal because they knew we could deliver."
Chillingo had asked Abstraction to handle porting Angry Birds to Sony's PlayStation minis platform, making it available to new audiences on the PlayStation 3 and PSP. Abstraction did its part, making Angry Birds run on both platforms despite significant hurdles. For instance, the studio didn't have a PS3 dev kit, making the porting process for that platform like "playing blind chess," according to Egas. But before the ports could be released, Abstraction received word that a dispute between Angry Birds publisher Chillingo and developer Rovio was going to keep the games from ever being released. While the studio had contracted for the project with Chillingo, it ultimately appealed to Rovio to work something out so the game could see release. In the end, the parties worked out a deal that would see the minis versions of Angry Birds available for a four-month window.
"With all the indie devs out there, they are the most awesome, creative guys out there. They do this amazing stuff, but they don't spend a lot of time on refactoring their code."
Abstraction's Angry Birds launched in the first week of January 2011. It was the company's biggest release to date, and the longer it was available, the more sales were ramping up. Under the deal Abstraction struck with Chillingo and Rovio, it would have to be pulled down at the end of April, but it never made it that far. On April 21, Sony pulled its PlayStation Network (including its digital storefront) offline, telling users it might be "a full day or two" before it came back. The outage was actually a response to a hack in which personal information from the PSN's user base of 75 million players had been stolen, and it would be several weeks before Sony restored service. Egas believes missing out on the last 10 days or so of the deal cost Abstraction between $50,000 and $100,000 in lost royalties.
Even with the exposure that Angry Birds afforded the studio, Egas said it was still tough going. The burgeoning indie scene was producing plenty of demand for ports, but Egas initially had trouble getting traction in the space.
"In the indie spaces, it's a tight network of people that communicate and share stuff," Egas said. "And we're a strange sort of party as veteran developers who try to approach this from a business side of things. While we are very open and we don't have stupidly high rates, we don't belong to that scene that much. "
However, that outsider status has been changing. Last year, Abstraction's PlayStation 3 and PS Vita ports of Dennaton's indie hit Hotline Miami drew raves. The PS3 port actually carries a higher Metacritic score than the PC original, while the Vita version equals its predecessor.
"There's a tidal wave of new requests coming in because of the success with Hotline Miami and now Rogue Legacy," Egas said. "With all the indie devs out there, they are the most awesome, creative guys out there. They do this amazing stuff, but they don't spend a lot of time on refactoring their code. As it goes, the code becomes sloppy. That's not their core business, but it's our core business, right? We make the code work. We refactor everything until the performance is good and we can create maintainable code. That's what we do."
But it's not just about slavishly replicating the same experience on a new system. Abstraction likes to refer to its products not as ports, but adaptations.
"What we try to do is keep the game itself, the game behavior, the basic rules in the game, to keep that intact completely by replacing the I/O underneath it," Egas said. "Then there's tailoring, because if you have a straight-forward port, that's great. And you know for sure the game is going to run exactly the same on any target platform. But then, the target platform is different, and customers expect different features or different way of doing things. So you need to go out and change or add some features to make it seem like the game was designed with the target platform in mind."
"There are so many things going on and a year from now, things will be totally different again. So you have to constantly innovate in a business sense."
Word of mouth has spread since Hotline Miami, and Abstraction has found itself with a full slate of titles. It's handling Hotline Miami 2 for Sony systems and desktops, Awesomenauts for Xbox One, Gone Home on consoles, A Boy and His Blob for PC and PS3, Duke Nukem 3D Megaton for Sony platforms, and plenty more. Egas said the work load is likely to lighten up a bit in the future, as the multitude of projects has created a multitude of project management responsibilities. Going forward, he would like to focus on bigger projects, and ones that would keep the team working for longer periods of time. They're even talking with AAA publishers for potential work, although Egas doesn't expect the company to stop working with indies anytime soon.
"There's nothing set in stone yet, but we have a concept where we're going to help indie developers by providing them tools to do a lot of the stuff themselves," Egas said, "incorporating our technology into their original games which would make the work less hard for us, keeping costs even lower, while we're making money with a discounted business model."
That sort of adaptation is necessary for Abstraction to keep up with the industry, Egas said, and it's possible, perhaps even likely, the studio's future will be very different from its recent past. For example, Abstraction recently struck a publishing deal that will see it return to developing its own original titles. Whether or not that endeavor proves any more fruitful the second time around, Egas knows it will just be another step in an ongoing evolution for the company, not a final destination.
"The industry is constantly changing," Egas said. "There are so many things going on and a year from now, things will be totally different again. So you have to constantly innovate in a business sense. It's not just using new technology, but treating your business in a different way and trying to have all kinds of feelers out there. That's the biggest challenge for any company, especially in the game industry, but it's also the most fun part of doing business in the games industry, at least the way I see it."