Four things we've learned from the Digital Foundry developer series
Indie developers share their challenges of working on different hardware
Over the past year, Digital Foundry has conducted a series of videos, in association with Barclays, that looked at the journeys four developers went on when making their games. These include Phigames which is making the new-gen hacking adventure Recompile, Moon Studios behind the critically Ori series, a Microsoft IP that's been faithfully ported to Nintendo Switch, as well as very old-school developers Bitmap Bureau and Big Evil Corporation, which have made new games for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.
The idea behind this series was to tell new and interesting stories about video games, their creators, and the ways in which these projects were made. The videos also focused on the kind of challenges that are not so often talked about.
Here's just a few things we learned from these videos, from what it's like porting a game to PS5, the challenge of making a game for hardware it wasn't intended for, to just what motivates someone to develop games on old tech.
Recompile was surprisingly easy to port to next-gen
Phigames has been developing Recompile for PC after years of prototyping, but when it came to considering console ports, the switch to the latest version of Unity, with access to its new High Definition Render Pipeline (HDPR), meant the studio decided to make it purely for the latest consoles. The arrival of PS5 dev kits in 2020 took the project to a parallel multi-platform development environment, which surprisingly came with no hitches.
"I was astonished when I first got this game running on the PS5, because I couldn't believe all of it just worked. We needed optimisation on 4K to make it run quicker, but we had a running game with working inputs and audio immediately," explains porting programmer Alex Rose.
"There's always a hurdle when you first port a game -- your first 30 builds are not going to run, there's a black screen, or the controller won't work. Normally, you'll spend the next 20 builds cutting everything out of your game until you have nothing, get that to run, and then slowly build up on top until you realise what's wrong. But here, the first build was just beautiful. We got the UI up and we had it running in 4K in such high detail on the screen, and then suddenly it was like, okay, this is a next-gen title now."
Rose does concede the ease he's found with porting does come down to using Unity where it's almost literally just a click of a button. "It's been a pretty streamlined porting experience for next-gen," he continues. "You're not having to learn a new website, you're not having to learn new tools, it's largely the same stuff but just more advanced and with more options available."
Ori and the Will of the Wisps team was sceptical it would run on Switch
While the focus of Digital Foundry's video with Moon Studios' co-founder and lead engineer Gennadiy Korol was on the challenge of bringing Ori and the Will of the Wisps to Xbox Series X/S, it was also a chance to learn a little more about the miraculous Switch port, which an earlier Digital Foundry video had dubbed the 'impossible' port.
For comparison, Korol likened the Series X port as "almost like a dessert", while the Switch port was like eating broccoli, "even though that was really fun and cool in its own way, it was super hard. That was rough."
"We didn't even know that we could do it until super late when it really came together," he says. "We had people in the team that said, 'this is not going to ever run on the Switch at 60[FPS], it's just not going to happen'."
Proving to people that a Switch port of Ori and the Will of the Wisps could be done therefore required handling it incrementally, beginning with justy getting a single scene to run at 60FPS. "We can go, 'Look, we can make that one scene, so wait, maybe we can make all the rest'," Korol adds. "People were still like, 'Nah, this is just one example, and you're taking a simple example'. So, you gotta keep pushing."
Bitmap Bureau's retro games journey started at a game jam
The first video of this series looked at the developers who shook off bleeding edge hardware for something distinctly old-school. While retro-inspired indies are all the rage, Bitmap Bureau took it one step further by actually making its debut game Xeno Crisis run on a cartridge for the 16-bit Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.
Why did the studio's co-founders, technical director Matt Cope and design director Mike Tucker, decide to take this unusual approach? It all began with a game jam. "We quite like going to game jams and Mike had been to quite a number and done quite well, then finally tempted me along to one," said Cope. "I didn't really fancy doing anything normal, so I just said, 'let's create a Mega Drive game'."
To do this, they used an Everdrive cartridge, a flash cart often used to play Genesis/Mega Drive ROMs loaded from an SD card. They downloaded SGDK, a free and open source Mega Drive development kit used by the homebrewing community.
"We gave it a go over 48 hours, and it was a bit crazy, but we managed to achieve the first level of a game," Cope explains. "We're quite proud of it, it was quite impressive to see it running on real hardware. Then I guess it was over the few months that came after that we just kept niggling like, why don't we try this for real? This could be really good fun."
Big Evil Corp didn't want to do a Kickstarter at first
While Bitmap Bureau banked on having the Genesis/Mega Drive community to support Xeno Crisis through Kickstarter, Big Evil Corporation's Matt Phillips was more reluctant with going the crowdfunding route for his 2D platforming adventure Tanglewood.
"It didn't even cross my mind, but I had a lot of friends egging me on saying this could go somewhere and I should start taking this seriously," he explained. Phillips attempted the more conventional routes of trying to secure funding by talking to publishers, but it didn't go anywhere. However, the hassle of running a Kickstarter campaign was a strong deterrent.
"It was going to be a massive job, and it was also going to be my life for the next couple of years, essentially a pre-order system where I kind of owe people a game," he said.
Nevertheless, he conceded that making that promise with funds from the backers would act as an incentive to actually get the game finished. "So it turned out to be the right tool for the job in the end. I had a couple of people help me set up the page, try to get my wording right, and then I sat and downed half a bottle of whiskey before I hit that button because I couldn't do it.