Port of call: Bastion’s studio director explains how the game is special on iOS, PC, and Xbox 360
Everybody hates ports. That was the opening sentiment from Amir Rao, director of Supergiant Games creators of Bastion. “Developers hate working on ports because they tend to be creatively uninteresting, platforms hate receiving ports because they tend to be inferior versions of products, and fans especially hate ports because often the thing they’re given is some pale version of whatever the first version was,” he told the audience.
Yet, Bastion has appeared on the Xbox 360, PC, and iOS, and it earned high marks and impressive sales every time it re-emerged. Obviously people didn’t hate this port. So what’s going on? Rao said his studio’s secret to success was to treat the port like you would the original creation.
Give it to the core team, make it their only work to focus on, and don’t think about re-creating old controls, but look instead to what makes each platform unique and make the game work with each one’s unique advantages.
“The design process at Supergiant Games is not really inspiration-driven. I’m often asked about the narration in the game. People go, ‘Where did you come up with the idea to have a fully-reactive narrator?’ Like we had somehow invented narration in games,” he said. “Our process was more problem-solving oriented. What we were trying to do with narration is solve the problem of trying to tell a story at the pace of the player, and narration was a sort of natural way to do that.”
Rao said narration was emblematic of the team’s problem-solving process. “You identify a problem, you come up with what the conventional solution is, you try some other solutions, and you can always resolve to the conventional solution.” He explained that the process used to solve the issue of narration was the same they used for porting the game from platform to platform. The iOS version was the trickiest.
“Our design problem that we thought we were trying to solve was how do we take a game that used almost every face button on a game pad and translate that to a touch interface?” he asked. “The conventional solutions we looked at were deeply unsatisfying to us. The conventional solution to a third-person isometric game on a lot of tablet devices is virtual game pads, where you have a representation of a stick, a representation of all the buttons you would see on a game pad, you have the entire HUD spread across the device.”
Rao said that version of the game didn’t feel natural, and the control scheme was scrapped for one that’s unique to iOS devices. Once the team stopped focusing on replicating and started thinking of ways they could bring unique features to a touch-capable device, they were much happier with the product. The whole process left Rao thinking.
The religion of multi-platformism
“It makes me wonder if the future of multi-platform design is interface agnostic,” he told the audience. “We can simplify things on ourselves by making designs which are super simplified and they’re just gonna work on every interface that we put them on. But when I think about that, and I try to think about what that really means, I tend to come up with lowest common denominator designs. Things I don’t think platforms want, and things I don’t think people want.”
It’s not a future Rao seemed to want either, and his studio’s work on Bastion is proof that it needn’t be that way. “To me, what seems more likely is the future of multi-platform design is more interface elastic,” he said. “Which is to say that what’s good about your game, and what feels great about your game, is actually different on every platform.”
Rao explained that he could love the rumble feedback on Xbox, the precision on PC, and the sense of movement on an iOS device, all without being contradictory, because each version was unique unto itself.
“It can be really, really futile and frustrating as a fan – and I feel this personally – when a game that you really want to play comes out somewhere else. I think you can make a whole business model essentially just trying to give your fans what they request,” he told the audience. “But what they don’t want, and what they don’t mean, is they want a bad version of your game.”