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X Marks the Spot

Sony XDev's John Rostron discusses the evolution of the European games development scene

Sony's XDev team works with all its European external development partners, funding and managing titles for Sony platforms, and as helped to deliver work from Quantic Dream, Media Molecule, Sumo Digital, Ninja Theory and Relentless Software. As such, it has real insight into the evolution of European development culture, seeing first hand the downsizing of larger teams and the rise of the smaller, more nimble micro studio.

In this exclusive interview with, senior director of XDev Studio Europe John Rostron discusses working with some of the most respected game developers in Europe, their influence on the creation of the PlayStation Vita, how Sony is learning from the freemium market, and how the economy has create new opportunities for talented UK developers. Can you begin with an overview of the XDev group and its role within Sony Worldwide Studios?
John Rostron

We look after every studio that isn't part of the internal group... and Media Molecule. They're an internal studio but we treat them very much like a separate entity. Basically people come to us with a pitch, or they want to set up a company, we like your idea and we invest in your company. Over a period of months we work on whatever that title will be and help bring it out. Media Molecule, Relentless Software, Supermassive Games - they were all start-ups. Supermassive was started by Pete Samuels who was at EA, and we said "look, we've got some ideas for motion games" but we couldn't find the team to do them. We had the idea but we didn't have good enough pitches back from developers. We invested in his company and he's up to 70-plus people now.

I've been at Sony for seven years and when I joined it wasn't that sort of place, it was very difficult to do things like that back then. But after the success of things like Buzz we thought "we can really go for this". Luckily Michael (Denny, head of Worldwide Studios Europe) comes from external development and he has an understanding of what it takes to get a start up off the ground and delivering what it is that a company actually wants. Prior to that we didn't have a defined way of working with an external studio and making it work for both of us. But over the past five years externally developed games are absolutely as important to Sony as the internal projects. That's a huge thing for us. How often to do you get pitched to, how many ideas are you considering a month?
John Rostron

The stream of games pitches that we get is almost constant, especially with the proliferation of handhelds. Everybody's got a great idea. If you went back three years ago it was more of a trickle, maybe two or three a month. Now it's a hundred a month, easily. What's the ratio between developers coming to you with a pitch and Sony putting out the call that you've got a project and you want to work with an external development team on it?

The stream of games pitches that we get is almost constant, especially with the proliferation of handhelds... it's a hundred a month, easily

John Rostron

When we've got a new peripheral or when there's a new platform or a new space that we want to get into, that's when there will be a lot of internal brainstorming - about 26 producers - coming up with lots of ideas. The latest focus has been the idea of augmented reality. Novarama came up with this neat technology - having built Invisibles - it inspired us to get some ideas together. Sony embraced that innovation. We put out a call saying this is what the tech will do, we went to about 10 teams and asked them to pitch to us, let's see what will work and what won't as fun games. So we started about seven games just after E3 which we've been working on which will hopefully go out globally. Do you have that capability to just give out technology for external developers to play around with, experiment and feedback on?
John Rostron

If it's technology that we've developed with a team, we've funded and we own, then yes, we can do that as long as everyone agrees. Quite often if they come up with something special then there might be a royalty attached. It tends to be the teams that we have an exclusive relationship with that we can share that deep information with. If it's an external team that's working with a lot of different publishers then it becomes more tricky. PlayStation Vita is the big push for Sony at the moment, how has the feedback from external studios been and how long have they been working with PS Vita kits?
John Rostron

Maybe about two years. But the internal group, the production teams, some of those have been there from the start. This is the very first time that we've had a console and been really involved in its design. Right from the beginning. Shuhei Yoshida has said this to us before, that it was a really big deal for the hardware team in Japan to work hand in hand with the software developers across the globe.
John Rostron

It can be a bit laborious at times but at the end of the day we know if we get it right we're publishing on a platform that is actually awesome. It's a real incentive for us to work with those guys. Seeing some of the engineers from internal studios going to work with the teams in Japan on a ground level, and being able to feed into that, is fantastic.

The external teams loved the Vita. I'm a massive Apple fan, I've got an iPhone and iPad, and in the early days, trying to break into that market, potentially, when the Vita was very early on and we didn't quite know whether it was going to be a phone, we didn't know the final hardware platform, it was difficult. Now we know it's an out-and-out gaming machine with social connectivity, and that's been defined. With the Vita there's twin thumb sticks, you can't get that sort of responsiveness from a touch screen, so the gaming experiences will be deeper, absolutely. That's one of the things we've seen from external devs. A lot of the guys were surprised at how good it is. It's partly a communication message as well, right? Everyone is cynical of a dedicated games handheld in today's mobile and portable market, but once you get hands-on with the Vita you realise what it is, what it's for.
John Rostron

A lot of our early prototypes were on PSPs and it didn't work because there were no dual thumb sticks. We had bits of hardware where we had almost a DualShock controller augmented onto a PSP and you still don't get it, so you're trusting that it's going to come together. In early 2010, just before E3, we began getting units, maybe linked to another machine in order to work properly, but still a prototype without the proper screen, but we realised it was going to work. It must be tricky getting the message across to external teams when they're working on unfinished hardware.
John Rostron

But because we've been through this process a number of times - we went through this on PlayStation 3 - you're always working with half speed hardware and we just have to get over it. More often than not we'll be giving them a very decent piece of hardware that they love working on. And that's great to see. A lot of developers get very excited to be working on new hardware that's not finished. A lot of them hit the metal, they go straight to the chip, they love doing that. On occasion some of them can come back with thoughts and ideas about how we can improve something, especially now that we're more involved in the initial designs.

Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.
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