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 makersPiotr 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.