Around this time last year, Sony's PlayStation 4 appeared to have two big advantages over Microsoft and the Xbox One heading in to the holiday console launches. The PS4 was cheaper, and appeared to be the destination of choice for indie developers looking for a footing in the console marketplace. Microsoft has already followed on price, and speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 this month, Sony Worldwide Studios America software product development head Scott Rohde acknowledged there was nothing to prevent anyone from copying Sony's indie strategy as well.
"Sure, it could be replicated by someone else, but it can't be replicated in a corporate-style way," Rohde said. "It's not something you put on your business plan and say 'Let's go make this happen.' It's because the people--Shahid, Adam Boyes, Nick Suttner, Brian Silva, myself, Shu Yoshida--there's a genuine love there, and people feel that."
Rohde called it a "two-way love affair," and said Sony and indie developers have been seeking each other out for some time. He pointed to the reaction Sony's team received from hungry indie developers at this year's Game Developers Conference as evidence of that affinity.
"In the past there might have been some people who were more inclined toward the corporate side of business who would manage [indie] relationships."
"Whenever folks from any of the Worldwide Studios America team would show up at any room, any event, whatever, the quote they used was they felt like the prettiest girl in the room," Rohde said. "When the PlayStation guy would walk in the room, the indies would flock to them, because there's a genuine love there and they want to be part of that."
It's a dramatic turnaround from the early days of the PlayStation Network, when self-publishing for developers was neither common nor easy. As for what changed that, it wasn't so much a change of heart as a change of bodies.
"To be quite frank, within the SCEA walls, there's been some turnover of staff. In the past there might have been some people who were more inclined toward the corporate side of business who would manage those relationships," Rohde said.
The change can be seen in the San Mateo offices where the people responsible for those relationships sit. The working environment has undergone a distinct change in vibe over the years, according to Rohde.
"There are just toys everywhere and everyone's talking about games non-stop," he said. "You're not having people showing you spreadsheets and talking about business plans. They're talking about the latest game they saw, whether it's on mobile or Steam or anywhere. They're talking about what they saw and why it's great. The transformation you're referring to can definitely be associated with a new group of people who is now responsible for building up those relationships. And both sides have seen the value, so we'll just continue to grow those relationships."
Indies are also playing a big part in Sony's plans for the PlayStation Vita, which is helpful, because Rohde's comments didn't inspire much hope for many more high-profile portable titles like Sony's launch title Uncharted: Golden Abyss. Instead, he pointed to upcoming releases like the Japanese imports Freedom Wars and Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines.
"We have tried very hard when we put out a game like Helldivers, Hohokum or something like that, we also want to bring it to Vita. In the past, in the PSP era, we would just bring it to PS3..."
"Those are big games," Rohde said. "There's a bigger appetite for those games, perhaps, in Japan. But some of those games are also very appropriate in the Western market as well. I think Vita is a key component of that whole PlayStation ecosystem. There's a huge hunger for all the indie games you mentioned. We have tried very hard when we put out a game like Helldivers, Hohokum or something like that, we also want to bring it to Vita. In the past, in the PSP era, we would just bring it to PS3, but now we make a concerted effort to get many of those games onto Vita as well."
Rohde deferred to Sony sales and marketing when asked about the plan to turn around retailer support for the system, but he did note that there has been an increasing trend on all platforms for players to download games rather than buy physical copies at stores. As for PlayStation TV--the streaming box released in Japan as Vita TV because it plays the system's games--Rohde stopped short of suggesting it's $99 North American release this fall would be reason enough for Sony to devote more resources to the portable platform.
"Just like any new business--and PlayStation TV is a new business for us--we'll see what the reception is and act accordingly," Rohde said.
Moving back to the PS4, Rohde reflected on the first wave of titles for the system, and what Sony had learned from them. He singled out Infamous Second Son for particular praise, and said he expects to see what developers learned there pushed further with The Order and ultimately Uncharted 4.
"What you can do in terms of performance capture with the facials on characters in this generation, you can bring out emotion and it can be very believable," Rohde said. "Of course, it could in the past. I think it was very believable in a game like The Last of Us. But it took a lot more to squeeze that horsepower out. It took a lot of TLC to make that happen on the last generation. I think with new performance capture techniques, it will be easier to capture what we're seeing on the motion capture stage and getting that into a believable state the end gamer will appreciate."
He pointed specifically to the scene in Infamous: Second Son where protagonist Delsin first discovers his powers.
"All the different parts of the world just adopt new technology at different rates. We don't know how long the PS3 tail will last."
"In previous generations, it was a little tougher when you couldn't quite relate to that character," Rohde said. "It felt a little more like a mannequin, it was more of a generic performance capture or not quite believable because the fidelity wasn't there. But if you go back to that specific moment in Second Son and you see genuine fear in his eyes and the expression on his face, that to me is something we know we want to do more and more of going forward in the PS4 generation."
Of course, the PS3 generation isn't quite over yet. As Rohde noted, Sony has sold more than 80 million of the systems worldwide and counting. And despite what Activision might be seeing in the market, Rohde wasn't convinced the legacy system's days were numbered.
"People are still buying PS3s," Rohde said. "All the different parts of the world just adopt new technology at different rates. We don't know how long the PS3 tail will last. We don't know how it will be compared to the PS2. The PS2 lasted very deep into the PS3 cycle. There was a broad price difference between PS3 launch and PS2 end of life. We don't know where all this is going to go, but we will continue to support the PS3 through first and third parties as long as there is a good business there for us."