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How PlayLink opens PS4 to mobile developers

Wish Studios CEO Caspar Field talks us through the opportunities offered by PlayStation's new mobile-to-console range

This article was first printed in the GamesIndustry.biz Mobile Newsletter. To receive these special emails, sign up here.

E3 has once again come and gone and, as always, it was largely dominated by console and PC games.

That's okay, of course. The weekly rollout of dozens of innovative new mobile titles means that the market doesn't necessarily need some grand yearly showcase to tell consumers what's currently in development - PR cycles for smartphone games are much shorter, particularly when it comes to launch.

But there was one announcement that will almost certainly be of interest to mobile developers.

Sony unveiled a new range of games called PlayLink, which transform smartphones and tablets into controllers for the PS4. Each of these games is built around multiplayer experiences, with players inputting actions using smart devices.

Examples ranged from mini-game collections and quiz titles to high-end crime thriller Hidden Agenda, developed by Until Dawn studio Supermassive Games. This title essentially works as a choose-your-own-adventure, where players vote on the next decision via the free PlayLink app and the majority see their choice played out.

Sony only revealed a handful of PlayLink games at E3, but promised there are several in development from other partners. While not explicitly stated, it was easy to get the sense that the company hopes to create a platform for mobile-controlled console experiences for which other developers can build new games. Certainly, the platform holder has already confirmed a number of studios around the world - not just internal teams - are already working on PlayLink outings.

One such outfit is UK independent developer Wish Studio, which is actually taking the lead with PlayLink by launching the range's first title: social quiz affair That's You! The game sees groups of up to five people answering questions about their fellow players, even using their phones to take and manipulate pictures of them.

caspar

Caspar Field, Wish Studios

Wish's involvement began when the team was working with Sony XDev and challenged to "redefine social gaming for a new generation". Given the co-founders' experience working on PS2 hit Buzz!, this was a challenge the studio tackled with gusto and PlayLink quickly took shape.

"Part of the conversation [with XDev] included this idea of using phones as controllers, about the incredible potential for local multiplayer gaming, with a personal, private, touch-screen interface," CEO Caspar Field tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Early prototypes immediately proved it was the right way to go. The very combination of console-plus-mobile has forced us to bring fresh ideas - this is a whole new paradigm. It's been a lot of fun exploring it."

He continues: "When we started out working on PlayLink, we sat down and said to ourselves, 'What does this mean, what do these devices do?' And so we looked at the cameras, the touch-screen, at drawing with your finger, at typing information, and at the incredible potential of a private, secret display. By connecting all that to the PS4, putting that at the heart of the experience, we could deliver a totally new way to play. The big thing was then to weave all that together, to make a cohesive experience rather than a collection of disparate mini-games, and I truly believe that we massively succeed in that with our first title, That's You!"

Even with the support of Sony, it's safe to assume connecting mobile devices to a console game would be a significant technical challenge. The open nature of PC makes this far more feasible, and there are in fact a handful of indie developers working on similar concepts - most notably, Flying Helmet Games' Eon Altar, an RPG that uses your smartphone as a character sheet and delivers objectives and agendas specific to each player.

But Field believes that it's actually much easier and more practical to build such an offering around a console like PlayStation 4.

"The huge advantage of console is that it's a fixed target, a stable system, and having that solid variable in the mix when you're developing network code is a big plus," he says. "It's been a big tech effort, with a huge amount of traditional, automated, and beta testing. And I'm not just saying this to curry favour with Sony, but honestly I think that it takes a visionary publisher to make something like PlayLink happen. You look at the PlayLink booth at E3 and it's fantastic - this is a big deal."

That's You uses your phone's camera and touch screen to enable players to mock their friends in a comical quiz game

That's You uses your phone's camera and touch screen to enable players to mock their friends in a comical quiz game

While the PS4 boasts Bluetooth capabilities, PlayLink actually connects the console to smart devices via Wi-Fi. Field says this is a "low-friction" solution that plays into the ubiquity of not only homes with Wi-Fi routers, but also friends, family members and other guests that access them when visiting.

"The second question people usually ask when they come to my house - after 'can I have a cup of tea?' - is 'what's your Wi-Fi password?' So our users are already connected. They're already on the network," he says. "All they have to do is install the app and away they go. In case people have their PS4s wired or in a room with poor wi-fi, we worked with the PlayStation OS team to enable a feature where you can use your PS4 as a Wi-Fi hotspot."

So why should mobile developers care about a console product? As mentioned, PlayStation isn't building this as a short-term fad - global marketing boss Jim Ryan told us at E3 that he's already in conversation with numerous third-party developers and a hefty promotional push is planned for the first few games. Beyond that, Sony will need more content to maintain the new brand's momentum.

It's no secret the mobile market is a crowded one, but countless studios - particular new and smaller devs - no doubt use it as a low-cost way to build up experience before moving onto other platforms. That experience will be coveted by not only PlayStation, but also developers working on PlayLink titles. Wish Studios even brought in talented mobile devs to help a console-centric team engage with smart devices - and with much of PlayLink's activity revolving around the app content, it's not hard to understand why.

"It's been well-documented that devs going console-to-mobile took a big shift of mindset," Field reflects. "At Wish, we brought in mobile specialists to help us deal with that, helping us think about app design.

"For devs that have only ever been mobile, I'd guess that the leap back to console would also take a big shift of mindset - especially if they've only worked with the free-to-start business model. You have a whole different pattern of design and play session to think about on console, and successfully designing for local multiplayer is a big challenge."

Knowledge is Power, another Wish-developed PlayLink title, is due for release later this year

Knowledge is Power, another Wish-developed PlayLink title, is due for release later this year

PlayLink could serve as a route for mobile devs into another, much more engaged market: console owners. And while both Apple and Google are pushing their platforms further and further, with the former in particular in the habit of dropping support for older devices, Sony is keen to ensure PlayLink is available to as wide an audience as possible, freeing devs from the pressure of optimising for the newest smartphones.

"It's precisely because there are so many smart devices out there that PlayLink makes sense," Field says. "That's the basis of the whole thing, and it's a very open, accessible approach. iOS or Android, phone or tablet, just jump on the Wi-Fi... It's for all your devices. That's You! runs on my old iPad 2. We want as many players as possible to participate."

Field also hopes PlayLink will become an example of how mobile and console developers can work together to build new experiences, and encourages studios to give the new range a look when the first title launches this July.

"The four PlayLink titles - That's You!, Knowledge is Power, Frantics and Hidden Agenda - show the breadth of experiences that mobiles-plus-console can offer," he says. "And we're just getting started. The advantages, in terms of the creative possibilities that the combination offers, and the easy accessibility it brings to local multiplayer gaming, are huge. I hope others out there in the industry see this and get involved."

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