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The challenges of porting a PC game to iPad

By on September 18, 2012

This is a guest post by Paul Taylor of Mode 7 games, where he shares some of the challenges of porting a PC game to iPad, and discusses the difficultly of choosing the right price point on mobile platforms.


The PC is undeniably a great place to start out as an indie dev. Its open nature, coupled with a vast pre-existing knowledge base, make it an ideal platform to create and market innovative titles.

However, once a game is successful on PC and Mac, the demand for versions on other platforms can suddenly go through the roof. This is something we experienced with Frozen Synapse: our most frequent community request was for an iPad version.


We’re currently a couple of months away from beta, so I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the trials and tribulations we’ve encountered so far, as well as our plans for release.

The Decision

Making the choice to port a game is always difficult, especially in a small team. There have been quite a few cases of indie game ports performing badly; also, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of effort which a solid port requires.

I feel it’s never worth it for an indie game to be ported poorly: indies rely on their reputation and sacrificing your integrity in exchange for a quick buck is never wise! Also, such Faustian activities probably won’t work: the age of quick and dirty porting in general is mostly over. I don’t think of Frozen Synapse iPad as “just a port” – it has to be a good product in its own right.

Frozen Synapse’s turn-based nature, coupled with an increasing demand for deeper iPad games made us believe that there could be an opportunity here. If we can bring the game to the iPad in a way that will encourage both the existing community and new players to purchase, then it can well be worthwhile.

Setting the Waypoints

The game would need an entirely new interface with some significant testing and iteration, but the cross-platform nature of the Torque engine would mean that a lot of the lower level issues were taken care of. Developing completely new technology for a port can be extremely risky, so this was a weight off our minds.

When we realised that we could do something high quality on the iPad, it was time to figure out how to structure the project. We decided to divide the work between an in-house coder and a trusted freelancer. This would mean that we could work on the interface in detail while the bulk of the coding work took place outside the company, leaving us free to move on with a new title.

Touch and Go

Initially, we were uncertain that the game’s complex UI would be a good fit for a tablet. One thing I would caution developers against is this kind of presupposition: the iPad is actually an extremely flexible platform which lends itself to creative user interfaces. It’s important to truly familiarise yourself with a device before making this type of decision.

I was clear from the outset that I wanted map control and unit selection to be “always on”. Choosing what to filter from the interface and place behind modifiers was extremely challenging, but allowing the player to pinch-zoom and scroll around the map easily, as well as tapping on units to select them, was a big priority.

Here’s a video which shows off most of our significant interface decisions:

Overall, I am happy with progress on this aspect: I’ve personally played multiplayer matches on the iPad now without too much difficulty. The real acid test will be during beta when we get a much wider range of feedback on our choices.
Frozen Synapse is a game where precision matters a lot, so my emphasis was on allowing the player to choose exactly what they are using the touchscreen for at any given time, rather than making every option available simultaneously. This is the best way of avoiding conflicts, but it can also lead to some problems with hunting for the correct button or modifier – I’m hoping to balance this out soon.

Further Challenges

The game needed some significant optimisations, particularly on the AI calculations and also on how backgrounds were rendered in levels. Luckily, the ability to tweak the AI had already been put in place during development: adding options which allow your game to scale performance-wise can pay massive dividends during a porting process.
It’s fair to say that, as ever, we underestimated the complexity of getting the game to work fully on the iPad – delving so deeply into the UI code brought its fair share of issues, leading to a much longer development time than anticipated – however, these are all things that we will be able to work through – we are still committed to completing the project.

The Money Question

Obviously releasing on a new platform caused us to revisit our strategy for how to monetise the game. As ever, free-to-play and microtransactions were discussed. However, after looking at many successful free-to-play based iOS titles we were once again unable to come up with any kind of satisfactory F2P structure for Frozen Synapse.

For us, the game is too reliant on giving the user unfettered access to a large number of options, as well as keeping tight core mechanics. Adding large numbers of unit types or any kind of stats-based upgrades would simply break the game. I definitely think that a similar game could work with that kind of payment model, but it wouldn’t be Frozen Synapse. It is still difficult (though I believe not impossible) to make a fully free-to-play game work without nagging the player at annoying times, and there is still a lot to be proven here.

Our current strategy is to aim for a price point which reflects both the somewhat novelty-based aspect of the iOS market, but is also above the bargain basement pricing that many apps and games adopt.

Stop the Press

It can difficult to talk about something while it’s in development in a meaningful way, especially when the bulk of the work left to do on it is somewhat un-sexy programming. No, I’m not implying that sexy programming exists…at least I hope not. I can tell I’m digging myself a hole here…

What I’m trying to express here is that it can be a challenge to find PR points throughout a development cycle which consists mostly of adapting existing work. However, a bit of creative thinking here can be helpful. The video which I posted above proved to be a good asset and serve to remind people that work is still going on. The community obviously want to know a release date, which is probably why many developers constantly mention dates they know are unattainable just to keep people’s interest! We’re holding off on that until we can commit to something that will actually be hit.

By starting to be more open about the development process at this point, I hope we can reassure people that we are getting towards a beta and still trying to do the best we can for the game.

Final Thoughts

Frozen Synapse on iPad will mark the first time we’ve brought a game to a second platform. We feel very strongly that the iPad is an incredible device which still has a vast unexplored potential for strategic gaming, and that a turn-based title will be filling a valid niche. By respecting customers and making something which lives up to our desktop version, we hope that we’ll get the initial traction that every iOS title needs.

The desktop gaming audience has really embraced the game; we’re hoping that tablet gamers will also get behind it!
Also, if the iPad version goes well, we are keen to explore getting the game onto other devices, including iPhone. Our policy on Android is still the same as it has ever been: if there is a viable way of getting it done, then we will take it.

About Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is managing director of indie studio Mode 7 games. Tweet him at @mode7games