Something is wrong with Shuhei Yoshida, president of SCE Worldwide Studios. All the rumpled indie developers on Sony’s Boeing 777, which has been idling for hours on a Dubai runway, notice as soon as he finally emerges from his private cabin. Beneath his usual fawn blazer he wears a new-looking M83 tee instead of his standard Oxford shirt. His elegant silver glasses have been replaced by chunky hipster frames. His sensible haircut is bizarrely pomaded upwards at the back, and a wallet chain swings from the belt loop of what are clearly women’s jeans. A faded nightclub stamp is visible on the back of his hand.
The game designers are on the plane as part of Sony’s new initiative to entice indie developers away from Steam and Ouya. One-hundred-and-fifty devs were invited to spend seven days on a junket with Yoshida, stopping at Hard Rock Cafes in seven different countries for reasons that remain entirely unclear. But what indie developer could pass up a week of global wining and dining on Sony’s tab while getting an inside track on the latest indie-friendly initiatives? Remembering their good fortune, the passengers shake off their shock at Yoshida’s appearance and start a tentative round of applause. This is cut short when Yoshida suddenly darts down the aisle shouting “YOLO!”, wantonly pouring cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon around as the developers frantically scrabble for their plastic cups.
Back at the head of the aisle, Yoshida turns to face the baffled developers. He’s now radiating his usual refreshing candour and good humour. After some warm, polished introductory remarks, he segues into his prepared spiel for the gathered developers, who are picking suspiciously at the vegan meals they’ve just been served. Yoshida turns on a laptop projector and pulls up a slideshow. The first slide looks like the wiring diagram for an immensely complicated machine. But the developers, knowing better, groan in recognition – it’s a flow chart depicting Sony’s developer submissions process, with its 666 labyrinthine steps. Many of them are arbitrary, some seem deliberately cruel, and more than a few are potentially fatal.
Pausing dramatically, Yoshida draws an organic Natural American Spirit cigarette from inside his jacket and casually sticks it in the corner of his mouth, but backwards. Lighting the filter and inhaling deeply, he coughs violently, turning red. Still, he manages two more determined drags. The developers look on in horror as the stench of burnt cellulose fills the plane. Once Yoshida’s coughing fit passes, he chokes out a sigh of relief and presses on. Until recently, he admits, indie developers who wanted to get their games on PSN or Vita had to jump through all sorts of hoops, including relinquishing creative control, washing Yoshida’s Lotus 2-Eleven Roadster and maybe even drinking noxious cocktails of condiments (“because it’s funny,” according to company policy). A wrong move in the submissions process could even land a developer in gruesome experiments with the PlayStation Move and tank controls.
Yoshida says that he randomly ran into a certain hot young developer – who spent five years making a celebrated indie game where you stare at a motionless glowing orb as a metaphor for time or love or something – at a “musical concert by the American five-piece indie rock group Deerhunter, who have described themselves as ambient punk, though they incorporate a wide range of genres”. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s reading from a Wikipedia printout. At the back of the plane, an embarrassed-looking young man self-consciously crosses his arms over the Deerhunter logo on his shirt. According to Yoshida, the developer had confided that the main reason he wouldn’t make games for Sony was that he didn’t want to die. The president pauses significantly, rubbing his neck and smearing the tribal tattoo that’s plainly been drawn on in Sharpie. “Our submissions process was literally killing game designers,” he says reflectively. “That got to me.” Then he pulls up the next slide, which elicits a chorus of gasps.
Titled Sony’s New Indie Submissions Process, the slide displays a giant smiley emoticon ringed with talking points such as ‘One Step!’ and ‘Non-Lethal!’ alongside more obscure items such as ‘No Baby Blood!’ and ‘Seapunk!’. Yoshida explains that as of now indie developers who want to release games with Sony simply have to “come chill at my house and listen to phonograph records of dubstep music”. If Yoshida likes your haircut, Sony will take care of the rest. In addition, he says, Sony will no longer charge exorbitant sums for dev kits, patches, basic logons, and the privilege of not wearing a proprietary electro-convulsive monitory collar. Instead, developers will receive the basic tools they need for free and pursue their visions without fear of corporate meddling or reprisal by way of a remotely triggered incapacitating shock. Finally, Yoshida says, Sony contracts need no longer be signed in babies’ blood; the blood of any mammal will do. The president disappears into his cabin, not to be seen again for the rest of the junket, as the indie developers open their veins.
Illustration: Marsh Davies