It’s been a while since we posted on here and while I’m not quite ready to reveal the details of our current projects, I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the processes involved in bringing Japanese console titles to PC and Steam. Before we start though, I’d recommend reading this interview with DigitallyDownloaded.net from a couple of years ago, in which we discussed some of the issues involved in bringing Japanese console games to Europe. While obviously it’s not all directly applicable to PC conversions, there are some parts that still hold true. Also, if you’re observant you may even spot us beginning to float the idea of bringing games to Steam. :)
The game evaluation process in particular remains largely unchanged, since we’re still looking at the Japanese original console versions of the games. There is however an additional step, as not only do we take a look to see how good the game is for our intended market, we also try to identify the main technical challenges that will be involved in porting that particular game to PC (ie whether it uses middleware, online play, has an adaptable control system, whether it needs text and audio localisation to English etc). Not that I’m involved in this particular aspect - I leave that to the developers. While I do have a computer science A-Level, my technical knowledge probably isn’t up to examining source code. :)
Getting hold of the Japanese source code itself can also be an added complication. Not only have we had potential licensing deals come to a dead-end because the complete source code is unavailable (there was this one visual novel I was quite keen on…), but some companies can also be understandably reluctant to share source code when working with us for the first time. When they do agree to share it, it represents a huge gesture of trust from them which we truly appreciate! :)
Of course it’s not until we’ve agreed all the finer terms of a licensing deal and put a contract in place, that the “fun” really starts. It’s worth noting that there are only a few people in our team involved with preparing games for release (we’re quite a small organisation actually), which means many of us are involved at several points throughout the entire evaluation and development process. The actual conversion from console to PC for all our games are handled by our sister developer, Laughing Jackal. This is a major difference between console and PC, as when we release games on console & handheld, the coding is mostly handled by the original Japanese developer.
While the clever boffins at Laughing Jackal get to grips with the source code, the rest of the team looks at the console version of the game to work out what will need to be changed or added to the PC version. This obviously includes a changed front-end menu system, brand new mouse/keyboard controls and all the graphics options that are expected for PC releases. It also includes adding things like a quit-to-desktop option, increasing the number of save slots and including Steam features such as Cloud Saving.
During this period we also re-render any in-game movies for the PC and decide what new artwork will be required for the front-end or ingame. Usually this is limited to new options and menus for the features being added to the PC version, but sometimes this can be more involved and may include upscaled graphics and models to suit higher resolutions. For example, while porting Elminage Gothic not only did we include the higher resolution monster artwork we were sent from Japan, but our developer actually redrew all the dungeon backgrounds with more detail, as the original art was designed for display on the PSP.
At some point, after what I can only imagine are a combination of source code library re-writing and bizarre magic rituals performed by the developer, the 1st playable build will be ready. This can take anything from two to four months to arrive depending on the complexity of the original source code and whether any third party middleware licenses need to be secured. I’m only glossing over this process as I don’t understand it myself, but our coders really do deserve some serious acknowledgement for their sheer braininess – well done chaps! :) Generally the 1st playable will be missing features such as movies and mouse and keyboard control icons, as well as the changes we’ve requested. It will also usually have crashes that you can’t avoid within the 1st half hour or so, and saving may have a few issues.
After some serious testing and bug fixing, within the first few new builds, saving is usually fixed and the point in which the game crashes is gradually pushed back until we can start fully testing the game in its entirety. At this point our list of bugs starts building up drastically and the developer will begin addressing these problems in order of urgency while at the same time trying to add all the features we requested earlier into the game if possible. It’s a very busy time, and can cause a lot of frustration as some bugs can leave everyone scratching their heads wondering what’s causing them, and some new builds push the game development forwards while others can introduce new problems and take us back a step or two.
One of the biggest advantages of releasing games on console is that the game only has to run on one target system, which can sometimes be a difficult proposition in itself. This, to put it mildly though, is very much not the case on PC!
There is obviously a massive array of different setups possible on PC, any of which can cause problems for a game or piece of software. Fortunately though, the Steam service provides a brilliant way to offer our game to a wide selection of people to test out before it is ready for release, and so once most of the roughest edges have been smoothed down we run a closed beta. Typically we invite about 100 people to test and provide feedback on the game, report bugs and offer any suggestions they may come up with. This has proved invaluable in terms of trying to isolate compatibility issues, especially since we specialise in JRPGs which take dozens of hours to complete. In the past, bug reporting has mostly been done via the forum, but now we’re looking to use bug tracking software, which will make it a lot easier for our Senior Producer Al & I to draw the developer’s attention to bugs, as currently we have to painstakingly transfer them all from the forum to our reporting system.
While this is going on, the rest of the team will be handling the other practicalities of releasing a game on Steam, such as organising the new artwork required for the game, providing the information and description for the Steam listing and putting together artwork for the Steam Trading Cards, backgrounds and achievements. On some titles this will be done close to the release date for the game, but if the development proves to be more challenging, such as it was with Way of the Samurai 4, then these can all be submitted a long time before the game is released.
In addition to this, we like to keep our Japanese partners up to date with our PC builds to make sure they’re happy with the job we’re doing. Also, since they know their games better than anyone, it gives them the chance to point out any mistakes we may have made in terms of game play or graphics. Some of our Japanese clients like to be very much involved in every element of the development process, while others just need to check in with us from time to time to make sure we’re on schedule. They all however need to sign off on the final master, so that can be a tense time while we wait for feedback :)
Of course our partners in Japan are very busy people, who may be working on several new titles while we are beavering away converting an older game from their catalogue, but in addition to providing us with a game’s assets and source code they’re always available to answer questions if we do run into trouble, and are always very helpful in supplying us with any missing assets.
When all the ‘known’ bugs have been fixed and the release has been approved by our partners in Japan, we then finalise our release date, price, launch discount and pre-order period after liaising with our very helpful Steam contacts (thanks guys! :)) In general, the game will be released within 2-3 weeks of it reaching master, after which we usually have to work like maniacs in support of the release as our coders try to resolve any new bugs that we’ve missed and get a patch out asap. It’s great fun really :)
To give you an example of how it works when things go very smoothly, we’re currently in the early stages of our next, unannounced port, for which we received the 1st playable build in August. While we’ve had a few crash problems, our coder seems to be over the worst of them for the moment and the game now already features PC & mouse controls, cloud saving, Steam achievements and resolution options. While we’ve still got to add the movies into the game, and a few visual effects, the game is nearly ready for beta and we hope to be able to announce it soon and open the beta with the 1st wave of testers very soon after that – so watch this space! :)
Of course we can’t just focus on one project at a time. Like most localisers and conversion teams, we need to keep a steady stream of releases and as such we’re continually in the process of evaluating quite a large number of cool new Japanese titles. It’s all very exciting, and there are several games in our possession that I’d personally love to do & I know Al has his favourites among them too. At this point, I should also say that while we deal with some Japanese companies directly, we also have some invaluable agents that work with us in Japan helping to introduce us to new companies to find games. They are an incredibly important part of what we do, especially helping us with communications as our Japanese isn’t up to much, so a huge thanks to them ;)
That’s a brief overview of how it all works, but if anyone has any questions I’d be happy to try and answer them in the comments, or if there are enough maybe expand them into a new blog in the near future.
Moving on to other news, I’m delighted to say that Laughing Jackal’s excellent firefighting action roguelike, Flame Over, now has a PS4 release date. If you want to play this fantastic squirt-em-up on your PS4 then it will be released on the 15th/16th September on PSN. You can check out the latest Laughing Jackal blog for more details, or if you’d prefer to check it out on Steam then you can view the games Store page here.
That’s all from me. I’ll be back next week, but until then why not follow us on our Twitter and Facebook pages, our Youtube Channel and our Google + account, where we’ll be posting all the latest news from Ghostlight? You can also follow me on Twitter for a more personal take on all things Ghostlight.
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