Sony on how to create an indie paradise: “Don’t be jerks”

PS4

Rarely has a videogame executive enjoyed such an honest moment of joy on stage as Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America. He delivered the news at E3 that PlayStation 4 will permit used game sales and retail for $100 less than its rival, Xbox One. This sucker punch was aimed at Microsoft’s hardware plans, but it was when Sony called a clutch of indie game makers to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena stage that the publisher started a fight on the software front. “We absolutely love scouring the Earth for inspirational indie developers,” said Adam Boyes, VP of thirdparty relations at SCE, while the eight creators played their games in a semi-circle of giant screens, front and centre of Sony’s next-generation presentation. “We’re developing the world’s best indie game portfolio across all the PlayStation platforms, and giving developers the ability to self-publish their games.”

This commitment to the independent game development scene is arguably in Sony’s DNA. Following the launch of the original PlayStation in Japan, Sony ran numerous programs to aid startup Japanese development studios. Many professional developers cut their teeth on Sony’s Net Yaroze consumer development kit for PlayStation, and the company has continued to invest in new talent with ongoing student competitions and its so-called ‘pub fund’ for original independent IP such as 2012’s Dyad. But that support has traditionally taken place backstage; Sony’s bold, brash pledge to indies was on parade at E3. So does this showboating represent a true sharpening of commitment, or is indie support merely another tick on the company’s marketing plan?

“We’ve been fairly indie-friendly for a while now on paper, allowing self-publishing on PSN for more than five years,” says Nick Suttner, account support manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America, who describes his job as ‘helping cool indie games come to PlayStation platforms’.

”In the beginning, we did a pretty poor job at explaining this, so we’ve spent the last 18 months putting the message out there that we’re a very open, easy platform holder to work with. At the same time, we’ve examined the process through the eyes of an indie, eliminating every roadblock and fee that we can along the way. The indie PSN content and announcements you’ve seen so far this year are a direct reflection of those efforts. We’ve discovered the big secret behind indies wanting to work with you is this: don’t be jerks.”

Shahid Ahmad runs the strategic content team at Sony’s London offices, a group dedicated to finding new games and talent for PS Vita. This small team has been responsible for signing big-hitting indie games such as Hotline Miami, Super Crate Box, Velocity Ultra and Spelunky. While Ahmad agrees that the fragmentation of larger development studios has placed a greater need on publishers to engage with indies, he denies that this is a new stance for Sony. “We are the platform that brought you everything from Vib-Ribbon to Journey,” he says. “That’s PlayStation. We’ve always done that. We have always engaged with a wide variety of partners, but since the potential partner space has exploded, and since indies are making some of the most interesting content, we think there’s tremendous benefit to the whole ecosystem if we work out better ways of engaging with them. So we try to act as the advocate of our customers and, while trying to please them, we always try to push the needle a little further so that new forms can be encouraged and flower.”

Suttner agrees that an injection of indie talent is critical to maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem. “It’s a benefit to both Sony and gamers to make our platforms an easy place to bring rad games to. Without indies, the breadth of creativity and innovation on PSN would shrink drastically, and that’s really important to the culture of PlayStation – you see it all the time in our firstparty titles such as Journey and Hohokum – and fostering that creative spirit on a wider platform level can only help us. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship between Sony and indies, with players reaping the rewards. Everyone wins.”

“We feel like kids in a sweetshop,” Ahmad says. “Right now, we see probably the most dramatic rise in creativity the industry has seen since the early 1980s. New subgenres are being born. This is actually a tremendous opportunity not just to inject enormous creativity into our platforms, but also to offer a stable environment for our partners, be they indie or large, traditional publishers. A varied and interesting platform is better for everyone; for customers, for partners large and small – and for us.”

Mike Bithell is creator of the BAFTA award-winning Thomas Was Alone, a game that recently made its debut on PSN. For Bithell, Sony’s indie support is more than mere rhetoric. “As a platform holder, they get it,” he says. “They’re working to strip away the barriers for indies to get on to their system. People think the biggest block to getting onto console is a secret handshake or some coding voodoo, but the biggest challenge is bureaucracy. The strategic development team at Sony seems to get this, and does everything it can to help people like me get our games out.”

Without this elimination of barriers to indie publishing on consoles, indie developers might reasonably opt for the largely friction-free PC as their lead platform. But for Bithell, releasing on PSN has brought his game to a far wider audience, proving that having a presence on mainstream consoles is not only worthwhile but also a key aspect to successful business as an indie. “Before launching Thomas Was Alone on Vita and PS3, I assumed a gamer was a gamer was a gamer. It’s easy to do if you’re a developer. I own every console, but that’s not most players. Even though the game was well known at this point among PC gamers it was unheard of on console, and we had to start from nothing, marketing-wise. These are different audiences, and that was reflected in the sales. There’s no cannibalisation; the arc is very similar. If you’re not on consoles, you’re depriving a whole audience of your work and, less nobly, you’re depriving yourself of the money they’d happily spend.”

Discoverability is a key issue on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with many indie devs feeling that their games haven’t been given sufficient profile on each console’s respective store. The risk with opening the doors to self-publishing on PlayStation 4 is the signal-to-noise ratio brought about by the glut of content for consumers to wade through, an ongoing problem on Apple’s App Store and Steam’s Greenlight program.

For Suttner, working with Sony doesn’t mean that indie devs can ignore the pressing need to market their game. That responsibility principally rests with the studio, no matter how much support a platform holder offers them. “PR in particular is a pretty important thing to indies, and you really need to find time to do it – or find money to pay someone else to,” he says. “With so many games and so many platforms competing for everyone’s time, indies need to find the line of communication to their potential audience. Nothing is sadder than a game someone spent five years working on not finding an audience because the developer didn’t spend any of that time getting people excited about it.”

Suttner’s work has supported titles such as Guacamelee! and Sportsfriends, and for him the lines between indie and mainstream games are dissipating. “The fact you’re independent doesn’t really mean much, in the best possible way – you’ll be featured on our digital storefronts alongside everything else, as has been the case for a while. I think what indie games will really accomplish in terms of affecting the mainstream, both developers and gamers, is showing that there’s an audience for an infinite range of human experiences and that games can be about love, or loss, or luchadores.”

If every new generation of competing console hardware is framed as a war, then, with regard to support of indies, Sony has taken a great deal of ground from Microsoft recently. Though that company has recently moved to address perceptions that it is anti-indie, reversing opinions will take a great deal of effort.

The value of those relationships appears critical in inspiring indie devs to work alongside Sony, where releasing a new title remains more complicated than self-publishing on PC. “I think indies are moving to Sony’s platforms for one simple reason: because they asked us,” Bithell says. “It’s that simple, really. Sony has reached out to a tonne of developers, and they’ve not stopped announcing new devs coming to their platforms. They also listen to us: the most common question I’m asked on visits to Sony is: ‘What’s cool? What’s about to be awesome?’ They’re checking out half-finished games by unproven devs, and that’s amazing. This proactive approach gives them an edge.”

Indeed, the perception is that Sony is an avid supporter of new, potentially unrefined talent. “Our biggest success by far has been getting the industry – including press, but particularly the indie community – so firmly behind PlayStation,” says Ahmad. “It gave us extraordinary momentum going into E3. The excitement was palpable. A year ago, I wanted the best version of a game to be on Vita. This year, I’m hearing people say ‘it’s best on Vita’. If anything is a success, it’s that.”