About the challenges of porting Dead Cells to mobile platforms

Original author: Laura Saada
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Laura Saada, chief producer at Playdigious, shared a story about the process of porting Dead Cells to mobile platforms.

Warning questions: yes, Dead Cells will be a premium mobile game. The game is paid on PC, on consoles, this will remain on mobile phones.

A year ago, Motion Twin (developers of Dead Cells ) entrusted Playdigious with the task of porting Dead Cells to mobile devices and gave them complete freedom of action. It was a big day for Playdigious, because Dead Cells won many prestigious awards, received amazing coverage and, of course, liked the players .

When playdigiousstarted working on Dead Cells , they could not even imagine what problems they would face. However, the team had experience porting complex projects. They previously worked on Shiro Games' Evoland 2 , a challenging RPG with an average travel time of 20 hours. Even its developers did not believe that this is possible on mobile devices because of the complexity of the game .

But the guys came to success!

How to transfer a reactive, action-packed, game-oriented game with a controller tear, to mobile devices and tablets with one touch screen?

1. The first prototype

To get started, you had to make sure if mobile devices even pulled the game . The first assembly, without controls or anything else, was created simply to check the performance and see if there are any technical obstacles. Spoiler: There were none.

Switch version of the game was also in the plans. It’s important to understand that today's mobile devices are much more powerful than many people think. Obviously, on the technical side, there are some additional restrictions, such as a variety of devices (especially Android models), texture optimization, and the use of RAM, not to mention the different versions of the OS. About Android with their fragmentation and the huge difference between the GPU on different models is not even worth talking about. However, in general, modern mobile devices are very close to the Nintendo Switch in technical specifications. So if you are planning a Switch version of the game, look at mobile devices to get started.

As noted earlier, there were no insurmountable technical obstacles (we are not talking about Haxe / Heaps, because this is not the path of the author of the original article). It was not easy - on the contrary, the task was damn difficult, but not impossible. Porting a game, in particular to mobile phones, is not trivial. Unfortunately, Dead Cells will not be supported on "old" devices, but (thanks to QA) the guys are sure that the game can work without problems on all supported devices.

2. Look at the original controls (feel the pain)

We all know that the mobile port will never be the same as on the original platform (PC or console). For Dead Cells, the main task was to take all the controls and find a way to make them enjoyable on a mobile phone.

3. Let's start by moving

After checking the first prototype, I had to think about UX and throw in a few layouts and tests. Where to begin?

In Dead Cells, one of the key features is movement. The player should easily move, run, crouch and jump. This question has been worked out by the team in past games.

Moving left and right did not cause problems: you can use the virtual floating panel. Today, the accuracy of such a solution is much better than in the past, and many mobile games use it. Players are already used to this, and Playdigious could twist this decision.

Jumping and dodging is much more complicated. Both are vital in Dead Cells and are used constantly.

How to provide convenient controls for this?

The first option was a single sliding button for both actions . This would allow to perform both actions without unnecessary gestures. But ...

It didn’t work. It was a nightmare to play - low accuracy and constant inaccuracies in recognition. Not suitable!

Start over. One button for jumping and one for dodging . With proper positioning, this could be a good solution. But still, there are so many buttons on the screen, so the guys tried other options.

We got rid of the dodge button and decided to use the swipe on the right side of the screen to dodge. And it worked!

Swipe-to-Dodge is a great idea, but not for all team members. This is a completely different way of playing, and they were not happy with everything. Thus, by default, they left the option with two buttons.

4. We can move! What's next?

Let's talk about what comes next:

  • use of skills;
  • use of weapons and potions;
  • how to get through the door without breaking it;
  • how to talk with characters;
  • How to pick up items or interact with things, etc.

Skills and weapons . The Jump and Dodge buttons worked well, let's repeat! The task was to find the correct location of the virtual buttons. The team watched how other successful games, such as Fortnite and Lineage 2, cope with this to better understand the habits of the players. How do they move? How do they jump? How do they handle an interface with a lot of buttons? Thanks to tests of other games, the team decided that everything was fine with their control.

Menu buttons and potions (and homunculus, only shhh! This will appear later in the game). On PC, you just need to press “Esc” to open the settings menu; on consoles, you click Start or Options. But on mobile you need something on the screen to open the menu. For a long time, the menu was directly on the HP panel, and the developers got used to it. This was not the first time a similar solution was used in a mobile game. And there was confidence that it would work.

Note: when you think through UX = NEVER think of a player in. And please do more playtests. Playtests showed the team where they were wrong. Placing the menus on the HP panel was not enough, you need an icon for the Menu! And they added it.

Interaction. How should players control the passage through the doors, talk to the characters, pick up items, weapons, etc.? How should all these different actions work on a mobile phone? Playdigious did not want to add too many things to the screen and make the player understand all this. One button will be enough, so they did just that: they added a new “Interact” button. Finding the right visual asset for this was no easy task, but with the right icon and some visual signs and feedback, this button has become very easy to understand and use.

For all these buttons, many layouts and tweaks were involved, but thanks to some tests, they managed to get something pleasant. In addition, from the very beginning they had the idea of ​​letting the players choose how they want to play, so the developers integrated some functions inspired by Evoland 2 ... But we will come back to this later. At that time, Laura still thought that there were a lot of buttons in the game, but during the game itself she did not pay attention to it and simply enjoyed the process.

5. How the hell should we put all these buttons?

Ok, let's remember everything that needs to be placed on one small screen:

  • Floating panel (on the left of the screen - there is no discussion here, as players are used to it).
  • Leap and Evasion.
  • Skills and Weapons.
  • Potion.
  • Menu.
  • Interaction.
  • + all interfaces that are already on other platforms: Health Bar, Gold & Cell Number, Card, Timer, etc.

It was important to adapt to small screens and a completely different way of playing : to hold the device with both hands, sometimes on the go.

This required some hard work on the interfaces.

Developers simply could not save the existing interface; everything was at the bottom of the screen, but it doesn’t work very well on mobile devices, since players would block everything with their fingers.

In the end, they all shoveled; the health bar has moved to the upper left corner of the screen along with Gold and Cells. The map moved to the upper right corner along with the Timer and Keys.

This left a lot of space below - and that was where the controls were located. The pad area is on the left, and the other controls are on the right, with a few exceptions for the Potion and Homunculus button behind the HP panel.

6. Give players freedom

It’s hard to make the game perfect for everyone. Even inside the office. Everyone had their own ways of playing.

What can be done about this? Do the same thing that they did with Evoland 2 , and what Laura had expected to start from the very beginning: give the player freedom.

You can translate it like this: give players the opportunity to customize controls and experience to suit their needs and.

Since the layout of the buttons was really confusing, Playdigious implemented what they call custom controls : in Settings, you can move and resize buttons as you wish.

Also, remember the Swipe test for Evasionwhich we set aside for later? Surprise! He is back. Not available by default, certainly on as an option . Players just need to activate it in the settings!

Another frequently requested setting is a fixed pad. An idea that came after a lot of playtests and past experience of mobile games. 80 percent of players prefer floating pad, and 20 percent - fixed . So, as in Swipney for Evasion, now the player can activate this parameter in Settings.

7. New game mode with automated actions

At the suggestion of Motion Twin, the Playdigious team also added a new game mode so that these new controls do not affect the main game experience too much.

The idea was to help players familiar with Dead Cells switch to the mobile version and possibly attract new players. Playdigious called it Auto Attack. As the name implies, a main attack (melee attack) automatically hits nearby enemies.

Forward to conclusions

To summarize, now we have:

  • User interface specifically for mobile devices (and tablets).
  • Two game modes: original and auto-attack.
  • Customization options for controls.
  • Ability to Swipe to Evade instead of a button.
  • Option for fixed pad.
  • Support for external controller (MFi and Bluetooth).

All this so that the game is as close as possible to the original on the PC and consoles.

When porting the game to mobile phones (or the console, or somewhere else), you must make some concessions. You must make the controls and interfaces suitable for the target platform. But you can also change some functions to reveal the potential of the platform.

For Playdigious and Dead Cells, the difficulty was to translate all the controls to the touch screen (and on mobile devices, the controls often represent a user interface). They knew that there was no ideal solution for everyone, so in the early stages they decided to provide the ability to customize controls.

Porting a game, any game is not an easy task. You will have to live with a bunch of limitations of the original platform, and therefore many developers are often scared to talk about it. But this is not impossible. Many games are nonportable, but during the porting process, some developers may find new ways to play the game, and for some the porting process will be so easy that you ask yourself: “Why wasn’t our game on this platform before ?!”

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