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Virtuos: The Code Behind Remakes, Remasters & Adaptations

The Virtuos team told us about developing video game remakes, remasters, and adaptations and explained how the production process differs from creating brand-new, original titles from scratch.

2023 may very well be known as the year of remakes, remasters, and adaptations. With these games accounting for 9 out of 10 of the most highly rated games between March and June – and three of the top 10 releases of the year – we can expect this trend to ramp up this year. But what goes into developing these games, and how are these distinct from creating a brand new, original title from scratch?

To find out more, we speak to several leaders from Virtuos: Christophe Gandon, Managing Director of the Western Region; Domenico Albani, Technical Director at Virtuos Labs – Lyon ; Alex Murphy, Senior Producer, Nicolas Roginski, Design Director, and Lisa Jaugey, Game Designer, all three work at Virtuos Paris.

Why is game porting so important these days?

Christophe Gandon: Before delving into the heart of the matter, it seems important to redefine what we refer to as 'porting.' The term can encompass three major types of projects, each with its own distinct challenges. In the minds of many, porting – or adaptation – means making a game available on all possible platforms. Nowadays, straightforward adaptations are quite rare. In most cases, we are talking about adaptations, which involve adjusting elements such as UI/UX, resolution, or haptic controls, to the specificities of each platform.

Adaptation projects are usually also tied to simultaneous shipping (sim-ship). This means we usually adapt one unreleased game for other platforms, while the core team focuses their efforts on the lead version, so everything can ship on the same day. 

Then there’s remastering. That’s when we work on older games and invest more time and resources to enhance and adapt graphic assets to today's standards. For example, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City were originally released in 2009 and 2011, and both titles have been remastered by Virtuos. We used Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) so fans can experience improved graphics, as well as upgraded models, environments, lighting, effects, and shaders. The remastered versions were released in 2016 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One under the name of Batman: Return to Arkham. You can see a comparison of the original versus the remaster here:

Another example is the Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age remaster we worked on. Our teams have produced the full adaptation for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. We’ve improved textures and meshes for characters and environment. We’ve also worked on the post-processing and the rendering. For the PlayStation 4, we implemented specific features such as Playgo and Trophy system. You can also watch a comparison of the original versus the remaster here:

Finally, the pinnacle of adaptations is a remake. This is a much more ambitious project in terms of scope, quality, and challenges, involving tweaking and modernizing various elements of the game, such as art, UI/UX, gameplay, audio, and control while respecting the original work.

Due to the inherent costs of remakes, these projects are often reserved for video game masterpieces, which makes these endeavors particularly special. Although arduous and challenging, the process is extremely exciting and rewarding. It’s a joy to bring renewed acclaim to masterpieces released more than 10 years ago, allowing fans to immerse themselves in the adventure once again, and expanding the game's impact by making it accessible to a new audience who are accustomed to current trends.

Virtuos is supporting Konami in its development of Metal Gear Solid Δ: Snake Eater, the remake of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Alex Murphy: Seeing games that are stranded on old machines or inaccessible on modern platforms is such a heartbreaking and unfair affair.

To me, remasters and remakes are something every publisher should be considering. While our industry is not great at preservation or enabling long-term access to legacy titles, we have improved a lot in the last few years. That said, we still have a long way to go. 

Take, for instance, game remakes where developers cleaned up the game mechanics to make them more appealing to modern audiences. Demon’s Souls, Spyro the Dragon, and Final Fantasy VII were classic games that were only playable on old machines and in need of adaptation. The remake of these games, including a face (and gameplay) lift, has re-ignited their developers’ passion for these historic series. The huge sales that accompanied their release showed that publishers are leaving money on tables when they’re not investing in their back catalogs.

Nicolas Roginski: I agree with Alex. Remakes and remasters are very important because they give the opportunity for both old and new audiences to play games in a more convenient and modern way. The games industry has been creating and releasing new games for a while, without looking in the rearview mirror. Now we have the right tools and technology to reimagine countless classics and put them in the best possible light for a new audience.

We are now able to enhance the player’s experience in many ways – in terms of FPS, save system, screen resolution, animation quality, gameplay, and game content. 

Christophe Gandon: Nicolas is right. The market is bigger nowadays, and its continued growth means that a modern adaptation can be played by more people with more diverse profiles than in the earliest days.

Remakes and remasters are the best way to bring classics and masterpieces to the hands of new audiences. According to Newzoo, the number of players worldwide will reach US$3.38 billion in 2023, representing a growth of +6.3% year-on-year (YoY). In the same year, revenues of US$184 billion will be generated by the global games market, which is a +0.6% YoY growth despite the current dynamic macroeconomic factors. The industry is expected to continue stabilizing post-pandemic and is projected to generate an annual revenue of US$205.7B in 2026.

In fact, we are in the golden age of remasters and remakes today. If you wish to find out more about the remarkable successes that developers have achieved with them, you can download our whitepaper here.

What are the most common challenges clients face with adaptations, remasters, or remakes?

Domenico Albani: The most common reason publishers or developers come to us for an adaptation is that they have strong expertise on one single platform. If they develop their titles on PC, they may require help and additional skills to ship on consoles as it may be their first console title. This means they are not used to console constraints either in terms of API, screen resolution, performance, and memory which are huge challenges for console adaptations, or simply in terms of the standards imposed by manufacturers. In other words, technical requirement checks are onerous.

Virtuos is an expert in these fields. Studios and publishers working with us can benefit from our knowledge and experience in anticipating workload and budgets, implementing platform-specific features (like haptic controller features), and optimizations. There is a good chance that our teams will produce a better adaptation within a shorter timeline, as opposed to learning it the hard way themselves. After all, Virtuos teams are highly autonomous. Starting from the game source and the mandate, we are able to unroll all the development steps up to title first-party submission. Entrusting these to Virtuos relieves them not only of development but also of organization, tracking, management, and more.

For instance, Virtuos has supported 2K and Firaxis in their adaptation of Marvel’s Midnight Suns to several platforms. Virtuos’ teams from China and France worked on optimization and bug fixing for the PS5, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Series S versions. Virtuos Shanghai helped with the PlayStation 4 (PS4), PlayStation 5 (PS5), and Xbox One platforms, while Virtuos’ Dublin studio – Black Shamrock – assisted with development for the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S. Additionally, Virtuos studios in Vietnam and Los Angeles – Sparx* and CounterPunch –  who collaborated with Firaxis to produce 39 minutes of cutscenes for the game’s main campaign, and 69 minutes of cinematics for the game’s DLCs.  

I would say the biggest challenge is when we need to work on the Switch adaptation of a resource-intensive PC game, or PlayStation 4/Xbox One games. That’s what we did with Dying Light and Nier: Automata The End of YoRHa.

Christophe Gandon: The goal is to provide our partners with the opportunity to simultaneously release all versions of their game. With Virtuos adapting the lead version for other platforms, our partners can launch their game on all possible platforms on the same day, maximizing the impact of their marketing efforts on sales.

One significant challenge is establishing and maintaining a close relationship between Virtuos’ teams and the in-house team on our partner’s side. The versions we produce for consoles or mobiles must be updated to the status of the lead version. As a result, our teams need to anticipate potential issues that may arise later when a new build of the lead version is in progress.

To mitigate this risk, one approach is to assist the in-house team in optimizing the lead version in real time. For instance, this approach was employed with Gundam Evolution. The lead version from Bandai Namco was on PC, and Virtuos worked closely with the in-house team to support them on the lead PC version while concurrently adapting the console version. This allowed gamers to play on their preferred platform on the same release date.

Nicolas Roginski: Another challenge, especially for remakes, is that the owners of the intellectual property (IP) or the original developers tend to be extremely cautious with their own creations. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially when dealing with masterpieces. Hence, it becomes challenging for them to maintain the necessary distance and take the risk of redesigning the mechanics and contents of the original game.

Plus, the original team might also be busy with a new project. In the worst-case scenario, the original team has moved to another company. In that case, the IP owner may have an inaccurate vision of their own game.

It is imperative that our team approaches masterpieces with the utmost humility. This design exercise is exceptionally challenging, and one of the most demanding. Yet, it is very stimulating and engaging.

For teams working on a remake, the challenge is to fully grasp the initial vision and thoroughly understand its intrinsic qualities. Once we've accomplished this, we can take a step back to contextualize our insights within modern standards and define how we can enhance the experience for today's audience. The key lies in striking the right balance: preserving the core mechanics to ensure the essence of the original work remains intact while daring to take the necessary risks to infuse a more modern flair.

Do you consider an adaptation a new game? Can you walk us through what the adaptation process and timeframe look like?

Alex Murphy: Fundamentally, an adaptation is a new game since it will be on a new platform and each platform has its own challenges. Adapting one game from PC VR to PSVR 2, or even Meta Quest 2, will involve substantial changes and additions to the game in order for it to run optimally on said platform.

As for the timeframe, it really depends on whether we are referring to an adaptation or remaster. If we are just moving from one current-generation platform to another, such as the Xbox Series X to PS5, the timeline can be quite short since they are similar in terms of their technical makeup.

When we work on a remaster, such as PS3 games that need to be released on PS5, we’ll add visual or gameplay enhancements. Hence, the process will take much longer. The key is to understand what the client expects so we can come up with a realistic development time frame.  

PC adaptations have a bad reputation in general. What are some factors for a successful adaptation from one platform to another?

Alex Murphy: PC is a difficult platform in general to develop on. Modern games are so complicated as everyone has different PC builds and audience expectations evolve every year. Hence, it is easily the most challenging type of adaptation. There are two key things to take note of with a PC adaptation, be it a remaster or remake:

  1. Thorough QA and compatibility testing are crucial. Test the game on a variety of PC hardware, across different brands of every PC component like CPUs and GPUs to really understand what the issues are in the game. One way is simply getting bodies in chairs to test the game constantly and report issues with a strong bug-tracking system. This can be complemented by automation as well.
  2. Benchmark the results and integrate them into the core production. It may sound simple, but if there are increased expectations for features, conduct research and understand what these are. Shader compilation stutter is a big concern at the moment, so plan ahead and schedule dedicated development time in advance to avoid it. Upscales and performance modes are another key concern, and all these must be integrated into the workflow during the core development of the game. From day one, you need to keep in mind the results of adapting your game to PC. 

Domenico Albani: Consoles have the advantage of fixed hardware; all users share the same configuration, so adapted games can be optimized accordingly. The software functions are repeatable and predictable.

On the other hand, every PC has a unique configuration due to numerous factors. Not only does each piece of hardware – CPU, GPU, RAM, input devices, screens, audio, storage – vary in power and features, but their firmware, the operating system itself, and other applications also differ, including anti-virus, firewall, video capture, and anti-piracy software. The level of complexity is exponential and the chances of problems in some configurations are exponential too. Hence, shipping a quality game title may require more attention on PC, with concerns like implementation, testing, and debugging across a large spectrum.

But let’s put aside bugs. Power also varies. Is the CPU fast? Maybe, but the GPU could be weak. Or is it the disc that is slow? On PC, a title may also have a lot more to do with scalability. That’s why PC settings are often so numerous.

So, we get the picture: it is more work to adapt to PC than consoles (i.e. more time in development equals more money spent) and to adapt titles to be highly compatible with most existing PC hardware. At some point, companies have to strike a balance between a costly, never-ending PC development, and a need to ship the title in a specific financial quarter. They have to make a painful choice of settling for “good enough” quality. This choice is sometimes drastic and may not be to everyone’s taste.

Conversely, what are some key factors for a successful PC to console or handheld platform? 

Alex Murphy: The main thing to look for, when going from PC to console/handheld, is understanding how the PC version was made and what strategy you will implement in production to convert the game to a lower-spec platform. Some key considerations are memory and performance targets. Modern PC games can demand large amounts of RAM with SSDs, and a multitude of other high-performance hardware, to make the game run optimally. However, consoles and handhelds are closed ecosystems so it is important to consider, from a technical perspective, how we will move the games to these lower-spec platforms.

For example, we have done VR ports that require us to completely rebuild all game visuals, since the assets for the PC version were too heavy for the lower spec VR platform to handle whilst maintaining optimal performance, and the heavier PC assets required much memory. However, the key to this is to plan your strategy from day one. Re-doing all of the art is expensive and you don’t want to come to this realization too late in development!

Lisa Jaugey: Another challenge is to implement, in the smartest way possible, the key features available on console or handheld platforms. For example, we can use different vibration settings to create memorable haptic profiles for each weapon of an FPS game, with the PS5 DualSense controller, which may not have been planned on a PC version.

UI/UX is also a big challenge for a successful PC-to-console or handheld adaptation. Console or mobile adaptations require big adjustments for menu navigation. Going through multiple lists with a controller may be tiresome, so it's important to find a more user-friendly solution. For example, on PC, it’s convenient to have a cursor for exploring a map, whereas on consoles, controlling a cursor and a camera at the same time with a controller might be repulsive to some gamers. Sometimes, less is more.

Finally, it is important to note that console players are used to certain accessibility standards nowadays, which differ from PC standards. This means that when adapting a game to console, we need to carefully consider how the experience could be affected by modern player expectations.

What is the level of code alteration you must do when adapting a game to a new platform? Do modern engines allow you to make changes more easily? Do you need to remodel entire assets? What about materials and shaders?

Alex Murphy: Your code strategy depends on what engine you are working from and what platform you will release the adaptation, remaster, or remake. UE3 to UE4, for instance, will be straightforward. However, migrating from an outdated proprietary game engine to UE5 presents a big challenge that could necessitate a complete code rewrite.

Going from PS3 to PS5 can be difficult as well because of the PS3’s famous “Cell processer”, but Xbox One to Xbox Series X can be very easy. It is really about the scope of the project. 

Domenico Albani: Alex is right. The nature of the engine is a critical factor that determines code rewriting, if we take Unreal or Unity, Anvil, or Open 3D, which can support multiple platforms. If say, 95% of the code needs rewriting, including rendering, file system, inputs, networking, and scalability, there is 5% left for some gameplay/UX adjustments, and some localization specificities.

If the game is based on an engine that already manages the adaptation’s target platform(s), then the coding can be accomplished more quickly. On the flip side, the worst case is when the engine is dedicated to a unique platform, such as platform-exclusive titles. In that case, the implementation strategy is often based on wrapping and stubbing, instead of abstraction.

Christophe Gandon: Regarding assets, it will obviously depend on whether the project is an adaptation, remaster, or a remake. The scope will be bigger if we are working on a remaster or a remake.

When working on a remaster, we have developed an internal tool that helps our artists to upscale the majority of the legacy assets. The main benefit is that our artists can spend more time polishing the assets, which obviously increases the graphics quality of our remasters.

For remasters and remakeы, what are some of the biggest projects you have worked on, and what was your approach? 

Alex Murphy: The approach to every project is the same. On day one, you need to thoroughly understand (1) what the scope of the remaster is, (2) what the client expectations are, (3) what the player expectations are, and (4) what the industry is trending towards. Sometimes, I tell clients that what they want is not going to make the game successful, and we go back and forth until we decide on a scope of work. At the end of the day, we want to make great games that people will love, so making sure everyone is aligned on the goals of the project is key from day one. However, making games is an organic process with many people having an input over many years, but, if you are very clear on what you want, anything can be achieved!

Nicolas Roginski: We are working on a very big, unannounced project. Our approach for the design work of this remake is simple but challenging. It’s challenging, mainly because of players’ perception of their old memories. We tend to recollect things much better than they really were. Hence, if we deliver the reality of what gaming was like in the earlier days, there is a good chance that players will be disappointed because it won’t match the “feeling” of their memories.

To produce a quality remake, we aim at recreating the “feeling of the memory”, not the actual memory.
Our design approach at Virtuos is “Keep, Improve, Create”:

  • Keep what is core to the original vision and core memories players have of the original game
  • Improve what you need to modernize because standards have evolved
  • Create in the sense of what needs to be removed or added to surprise the player, and set a new standard for the genre, which has evolved over the years 

There has been a lot of talk about how AI or procedural tools can help with remastering material in older games. Do you have any experience with AI tools?  

Domenico Albani: Virtuos Lyon has extensive experience with this process in particular. We handled this for multiple titles and saw the evolution of techniques over the years. Public tools are evolving very quickly as the generative AI field is exploding. Nevertheless, most of the tools are conceived for standard 2D images like photos, drawings, and videos. Video game materials have specificities that require us to push techniques beyond basic 2D image upscaling. To name a few by order of complexity:

  • Transparency
  • Tiling
  • Atlasses/trimsheets
  • Normalization (normal maps)
  • PBR specific value ranges (e.g. metalness)
  • Original style conservation
  • Maps coherency (all maps of a single material must have matched generated details)

Handling these specificities required implementing our own pipeline. The point is to be able to mix and take advantage of the different AI tools, but also the tools we implement internally.

One of the challenges is the massive amount of assets a game contains. Depending on the volume and style of assets to upgrade, the necessary manual artistic workload like mesh sculpting and texture painting, for remastering may be very limited, to allow the AI to take charge of most of the work. But if AI does the job, it is essential to have technical artists upstream the finetuning of the pipeline, per asset. It is also essential to have downstream automated validation to catch as many upgrading defects as possible, or you may overburden the QA department.

Alex Murphy: Games will always be made by human developers, and AI should only be used to enhance our work and processes in a responsible manner, such as in 2D art creation. AI should not be a replacement for people, it should be a tool to help do what cannot be done reasonably by a human being.

Hence, I would only use AI if the task the task is tedious, basic, and repetitive or if can’t be done by a person, like with The Beatles using AI to enhance John Lennon’s old recordings. 

Nicolas Roginski: In the Design team, we do not use AI to create any content in our production. We can use it in pre-production as a draft, when we do visual research, or when we gather references, but that’s it. 

Apart from AI tools, what are some technical challenges that may soon be resolved to ease adaptations, remakes, and remasters?

Alex Murphy: The industry moving away from proprietary game engines will make future remakes and remasters easier. Proprietary engines can be very interesting to work on, but they are often built for a very particular purpose, and that usually does not work with future unknown platforms and technologies. In addition, hardware manufacturers are producing similar hardware that will make development easier. With Sony standardizing the technical strategy of PS4 such that it’s futureproof, this will ease game adaptations to Sony’s future platforms.

The Virtuos Team

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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