Porting a game might sound not very exciting to a developer's ears. However, as the title of this article hints, in a tribute to Sid Meier's definition of gameplay, the process can be fun.
In May 2006, Monte Cristo decided to port the PC action RPG Silverfall to the PSP. Of course, there would be technical challenges. For example, one single character texture of the PC version equals the total memory we have on the PSP! But there would be design challenges too.
One of the first to come to mind was controls. As you probably have already noticed, there is no mouse on the PSP. We had to change the whole system to allow for direct control, that is to say you don't click on a location to get your character there but move by yourself with the stick. You don't click on a monster to fight, you actually input the moves you want to make. We are not the first RPG on console to have made the transition - Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance did it, for example. But this small change in the controls would lead to more, as in a butterfly effect. The camera is consequently behind your character, with two different positions: the first one is a quite classical top down view, reminiscent of isometric games; the second is a more third-person view as if you were in an action game... which incidentally gives you a much better view of how great your character looks!
The other obvious difference is the HUD. There is a glaring difference between a 1024x768 screen and a 480x272 PSP screen. It's simply not possible to convey the same amount of information to the player. We spent a lot of time thinking about the organisation of the interface, ergonomics, and amount of data that can be displayed. But despite its limitations, the 9/16 format offers nice horizontal possibilities (designers, you can get your HUD laid!).
That said, porting the game asked more than these two changes. Having already dealt with licenses (Pop Star Academy for the PS2, The Terminator, South Park for mobiles), our foremost task was to define what the core of the PC game was to see how we could adapt it to the PSP.
So, what is Silverfall PC? An action RPG, aka hack 'n' slash, set in a pre-industrial-medieval fantasy world where Good, Evil, Technology and Nature are at war.
The universe of Nelwë, mixing familiar fantasy archetypes with the fresh Nature / Technology confrontation was to be kept, all the more so as it defines a large part of the gameplay through available quests depending on which side you align yourself with. The environments, character equipment and gear all show this difference and are visually superb. We even wanted to expand the role this feature played in the game. This meant that we could keep the existing quests, which worked well as they are sometimes tongue in cheek and often epic.
Another distinctive feature of Silverfall is the high level of freedom for character customization and that was one strong point we wanted to continue also. We would keep the four playable races (human, elf, goblin, troll), the three skill trees (combat, magic, tech/nature path) split into eight different branches, and the possibility to buy back skill points in case the player wanted to experiment with different character builds.
The companion system, the vast open levels, and the specific look and feel of the game (using outlines on characters for a kind of cell shading effect) round out what makes Silverfall PC unique. These three features were the most problematic for us. Each of them is very resource demanding.
So we went back to the basics. Silverfall is above all a hack 'n' slash. We had to focus on monsters and the way you get rid of them, on character development, on items, and on this so-difficult-to-catch-and-give-birth-to 'feeling of power'. It was decided to get rid of companions and have more enemies on screen instead. But to keep the tactical feeling a companion system provides, we decided to have very specific skills. The player is required to think through the moves they will use in combat, much like in Magic: the Gathering. Chained actions are at the core of the system.
What's more, we are working on the PSP, a great machine that displays bright detailed 3D. Our artists managed to build a coloured and unique look and feel without outlining the models. Textures from the PC version were redone, reduced and enhanced. As a joke, we had Disney's colour scheme (and more precisely Kingdom Hearts) as a reference. The issue of visual look and feel was sorted.
Finally, the PSP is above all a console - and a portable one. Action is needed, in manageable chunks that provide quick bursts of fun, so we could say goodbye to the open environments! We didn't want you to be lost in a middle of a level, not knowing what to do or where to go. Our levels are not linear but you will always know what to do and where to go thanks to the quest log and the navigation points that appear on the level map. The game is conceptually divided into 10 minute sessions which brings lots of rewards through combat and collection. This however doesn't infringe on the length of the game, which will last about 20 hours... if you don't go PvP or coop with some of your friends, and if you don't play the game again because you want to build a new mighty character!