Is PS4′s audience ready for free-to-play indie titles? Early bird developers say yes

The relatively small number of AAA launch titles is giving early indie games a chance to capture their own PS4 fanbases

Free-to-play games have walked a difficult line on PC and mobile devices. On the one hand, they’re a positive extension of the demo concept of yore – a chance for players to try out a new title without having to stump up cash for something which may, ultimately, disappoint. On the other, some publishers have come under fire for artificially padding their games with XP grinding, with progression technically possible through play alone, but games tacitly encouraging players to speed their advancement through micro-transactions. ‘Free-to-play’ has become synonymous for many with ‘fee-to-pay’, and while games like Hawken and League of Legends show how to do it right, you only need to flick through the Apple and Android ‘Free’ Games sections for examples of titles that are more money hungry than they first let on.

Now, free-to-play has come to PS4, with games like Digital Extremes’ Warframe and Gaijin’s War Thunder (no relation) available to players through the PSN Store. And with comparatively few offerings available to PS4 players at launch, they’re not just the vanguard of the free-to-play model, but also champions of Sony’s much vaunted indie focus. Is the PS4′s audience ready for an avalanche of independent, middle-budget titles? The answer, if the first few weeks’ reception is anything to go by, seems to be that they are.

“I hate to sound like a shill,” says Digital Extremes’ Steve Sinclair, “but Warframe definitely [surpassed expectations], especially considering how early we are. Now the pressure is on to really bang out the updates and growth on PS4 and make sure those players feel part of the larger Warframe whole. We don’t want them thinking they’re sitting at the kids table – they deserve more.”

“We’re glad that SCE is continuing its strategy of allowing self-publishing on the PSN,” says War Thunder developer Anton Yudintsev. “It’s something that benefits both developers and the platform-holder.”

With big name launch titles like Driveclub and Watch Dogs delayed until next year, indie games have filled the hole in the PS4′s launch line-up. For Sinclair, the lack of big-budget competition is a chance for indies to introduce themselves to console players and turn them on to the idea of smaller, more experimental gaming experiences.

“For the smaller indie titles with reasonable budgets, the audience is there,” he says. “The competitive landscape is intensifying and the barriers are falling away for independent teams to get on the platform.”

Gaijin’s Anton Yudintsev agrees. “Right now it’s the best time than ever to have your game available on new consoles,” he says. “The launch line-up is very small, so if you make an original, exclusive title, like War Thunder, you’ll have a guaranteed interest from all early adopters of the new console.

“Being an MMO is even better,” he adds. “Players will hungrily consume every other launch title in a couple of weeks, but an online game will go on and on. Of course, the catch is that your game must be good – console gamers are accustomed to high standards of quality, and you can only make a proper first impression once.”

For Warframe developer Steve Sinclair, how profitable the indie scene on PS4 will be depend on Sony’s ability to effectively curate the PSN Store

Both Warframe and War Thunder are enjoying the advantage of the first movers. But as Sony continues to nurture its image as the home of console indie games, its challenge won’t be attracting new developers, but ensuring new games don’t get lost among thousands of other competing titles. As with established indie platforms like Steam and the App Store, the golden age of PS4 indies as novelties won’t last forever.

“There is some caution there, because the end-point is that great games will become buried in the noise and success will hinge on the curators of the Store,” says Sinclair. “It’s a bit of a crappy comparison, but humour me: [take] Apple’s App Store vs. Netflix. The App Store is a peephole into [its staffers'] taste. iTunes even has a ‘what we’re listening to’ [section]. What? Who are these tastemakers? Now [take] Netflix, which isn’t perfect, but damn – if you dig Mockbusters then here’s Sharknado too! You can see how it’s trying really damn hard to adapt to my tastes. Maybe this will be part of the solution as the thundering herd of titles comes.”

As with any system of games distribution, as the number of titles available grows, curation and word-of-mouth will play steadily bigger parts in deciding which games sink and which float. But as more and more independent games compete for visibility on the PSN Store, the option to try without parting with cash will, ironically, become a more important selling point than ever.