Is The PS Vita a Viable Platform For Indies?
Icon Games, Bloober, Honeyslug and Four Door Lemon give an insider's take on developing for PlayStation's new handheld
Sony's track record for supporting indie development is mixed, boasting some notable successes on the PlayStation Network Store, and some that stumbled from the start, like the downloadable Minis for PSP and PlayStation 3. Which approach will it take with the new PlayStation Vita, a machine that some would argue already faces a battle for survival in an iOS dominated market?
The answer will be found amongst the booming independent development scene, which has snaked its way into every viable platform on the market looking for outlets that will accept a new breed of experimental, left-field, single-minded and funky game play.
Ricky Haggett and Dick Hogg from Honeyslug admit to being "bewildered" by the machine at first, even after they were specifically approached by their account manager at Sony (Honeyslug had previously created the charming Kahoots Mini for PS3) and attended a special Sony developer's presentation in London. They eventually settled on a game, Frobisher Says, that used all the available inputs, from smile detection to the back touch pads and cameras.
I believe Sony's communication at the moment is the best of all the console makers
Piotr Bielatowicz, Bloober
Haggett points out that despite early confusion over who the system was aimed at, the team chose its battles, made the most of the available sample code and that actually, none of the mechanics meant tricky months of prototyping.
"When you look back now it seems quite crazy really that we decided that, a) we're making a game for new hardware, which is a notoriously difficult thing, and b) we decided to get an unnecessarily large number of artists involved with making it," adds Hogg.
"So we made a lot more work for ourselves than we needed to, but it worked out really well."
Jakob Opoń, game play programmer for Bloober, said that the architecture of the machine was actually familiar, because when making A-Men he found it was "the same, but twice as powerful hardware as iPad 2."
"Developers are more familiar with the possibilities, and it's easier to just jump into the system and do something new. We came up with our engine in about three months."
All the developers we spoke to mentioned how much they loved the dual analogue sticks, with Icon head of development Richard Hill-Whittall, currently working on Build'nRace Extreme and Pub Games for Vita, even going as far as to say it was the system's strongest feature.
So, across the board, people are happy with the hardware. A bit smitten even. Tech specialists Digital Foundry backed up that viewpoint recently, with an in-depth examination of the hardware and its capabilities.
"Sony has created a fully-fledged gaming platform here, giving handheld developers access to much the same tools and technologies that are used to build games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3," says the report.
"Simple comparisons from a technological standpoint with iOS and Android aren't really valid - Vita combines a high level of power with direct access to the hardware and an enviable range of games creation software, meaning that the games are a good generation ahead what can be achieved on other mobile platforms."
But what about the processes, paperwork and support to back up the inpressive tech? When asked about working with Sony, and their relationships in terms of creative control and support, the developers were almost all as enthusiastic in their praise. Almost.
"In terms of the pre-launch experiences we've had with other hardware it's been the easiest to deal with," says Simon Barratt, whose team at Four Door Lemon has created augmented reality title Table Football for Vita and previously worked on PC, PSP, PS2 and DS and Wii.
"The R&D team and all the guys we've dealt with from Europe to America have been very eager to talk to us and help us out. The fact that they're open to indies, it's been a great experience."
Bloober vice-president Piotr Bielatowicz thinks this relationship specifically changed with the departure of Ken Kutaragi, and is now better than Microsoft or Nintendo.
"Previously, we had the best technology but you were on your own in the development. Now, they are organising seminars for programmers, for designers. I believe their communication at the moment is the best of all the console makers."
I never got the sense that anyone at Sony was focused on a particular demographic and wanted to target [our game] towards that.
Ricky Haggett, Honeyslug
Honeyslug too clearly has a great relationship with Sony, who never questioned any of its creative decisions on what was a unique game.
"I never got the sense that anyone at Sony was focused on a particular demographic and wanted to target Frobisher towards that," says Haggett.
In fact, the only time someone did step in was during the marketing for the game. In a live action video created by Hogg, Sony stepped in and stated that all the people actually playing with the Vita had to be male, aged between 23 and 33.
Bielatowicz adds that Sony indicated to them that traditional gamers were the target market.
"Yeah, they did, and they changed sometimes, but it's just what the price indicates. It is a minimum £250 device that's for games only - it's going to be bought by hardcore players, not by casual ones."
It's not surprising. Sony recently revealed its very specific demographic for the machine, males who own a PlayStation 3, are aged between 20 and 30 and play eight hours of games a week - but pressure on developers to create games for just these customers seems to have been at most minimal.
Hill-Whittall had a slightly different relationship with Sony, and his experiences prove that despite positive steps to provide support and creative freedom it's all not hugs and happiness. While he praises the team at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and says they're great to work with, he's concerned by the company's concept approval process, something that didn't exist for PS3 Minis. He fears it could stifle creativity on the platform.
In the past he's blogged about the trouble this caused Icon while working on the platform, and he's no less frank now. He points out that if Sony is concerned about the commitment and quality of developers, the costs for localisation and metadata are enough to put off all but the most dedicated content providers.
"I don't think they need to worry too much about concept approvals when someone's got to put up a few hundred or a couple of thousand [pounds] in advance to just get things out there. Unless someone is quite serious about it and is doing what you think is more of a quality title, they're not going to do it. So I think that's covered quite nicely by that, which is why I don't understand why they're being as cautious as they are."
If they don't open the approvals process up, it potentially could go the way that PSP went.
Richard Hill-Whittall, Icon
"That's why I was surprised they weren't opening up the approvals process more, because thing opens up a lot of potential. But if they don't take advantage of that and open it up, as far as I was concerned it potentially would go the way that PSP went."
He places some of the blame at the feet of the separate territories within Sony Computer Entertainment, with each having slightly different expectations of the system. It's hard to see Sony ever letting go enough to become like the App Store, a place so flooded with content it can be hard to separate the gold from the rocks, but that open nature is exactly what lets beautiful games like Orbital and Eufloria exist.
The warning seemed especially important, because when discussing Vita's future, all of the developers felt that software was absolutely key to its survival.
"Software will be the thing that keeps driving people to it," says Barratt.
"The PSP obviously suffered a lot with piracy and then the third parties quickly evaporated, which left it as an unviable platform for everyone."
He points to LittleBigPlanet and Mortal Kombat as examples of strong franchises headed for the machine in its first year, and suggests that's what Sony needs to keep gamers and developers returning to the machine.
"Obviously people have various concerns over the pricing but pricing can be adjusted if it needs to be. They need to be dynamic, as flexible as they can be, and keep producing good software."
Both Haggett and Hogg, who have experience creating iOS titles, want Sony to look beyond the triple-A blockbusters and towards smaller, more creative developers. Developers that want the openness of the iOS market but with the more core controls of a dedicated gaming machine.
"I don't think those people with a PS3 who inevitably are going to be the initial target audience for the Vita are going to be swayed in earth shatteringly large numbers that they need to play Uncharted on a tiny little screen when they've already played it on a giant TV," says Haggett.
He uses the higher end of the iPad market as an example, games like Eufloira and Machinarium. Games that are beautiful and can be sold for £3. He also points out that it was a fairly innovative title, LocoRoco, that became a flagship for the original PSP, as much as any of the hardcore games.
Sony should think of it as an iPad with rear touch and control sticks rather than a PS3 in your hands.
Ricky Haggett, Honeyslug
"Sony should think of it as an iPad with rear touch and control sticks", he says. "Rather than a PS3 in your hands."
Hill-Whitall argues they should cover both bases, to reflect the visual prowess of the machine as well as its less traditional inputs.
"You can get some amazing triple-A content on that, but also because of the different inputs and the power that it's got you could have some really incredibly good indie stuff that up to now you haven't really seen."
Pricing is an issue too, with some of the developers unsure of where their game would be pitched or how Sony's prices would compare to the bargain basement of iOS or Android.
"The price sweet-point will probably be lower than XBLA or PSN, because it is being compared to iOS and Android," suggests Bielatowicz.
"I don't think it will go free-to-play or those kinds of games, but it will probably be more like $10."
While Barratt argues that, actually, Sony are in a position to set levels to be whatever they want.
"That's one of the advantages of digital, prices can change a lot. And with retail not involved there's more of a margin to do offers and provide extra value to everyone."
So the news from the factory floor seems to be largely positive. Not only has Sony created a piece of kit that's keeping even the most tech hungry developers happy, but they're offering the right sort of support to make creating software for it fairly straightforward.
What's important now is that Sony finds away to build on that, namely by letting down the drawbridge and making sure that the concept approvals process, if it has to be there, isn't going to put off indie developers with limited cashflow and time pressures, from creating stand out content. Because while it might be the Uncharteds and the Wipeouts that will appear on the advertising, it will be the independent developers who'll need to supply the wealth of titles to keep a content hungry audience satisfied.