Planet Moon adopts PSP-only agenda

Armed and Dangerous, Giants: Citizen Kabuto shop says sayonara to PC, Xbox, PS2--devotes itself to the PSP exclusively.

At E3 this year, word spread that Planet Moon Studios, developer of the comical (if not slightly twisted) Armed and Dangerous, was shopping both products and a new strategy on the show floor. One of the games, we learned, was a third-person action game for the PSP that carried the working title "Infected." The new strategy: that the development studio was leaving the high-pressure, high-priced, and cutthroat competitive turf of PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox development for the unproven terrain of PSP development.

GameSpot made contact with Planet Moon staffers who confirmed the new modus operandi--in spite of there being no confirmed PSP price point, no confirmed launch date, nor a proven demographic (how could there be, given that the device is still in development) for the product.

In conversations with Planet Moon producer Aaron Loeb, the position of the company was put in greater context. "The current market is hard on creativity," Loeb said, "be it original titles or titles that depart too far from the beaten path, but the PSP will enable a developer like us to make cutting-edge games quickly, alleviating the challenge all small developers currently face.”

Loeb knows a thing or two about those challenges. He says that while sales of Armed and Dangerous were "fine" on the Xbox, "the PC version died a very hard death since last Christmas. Generally, when you release a multiplatform game, one of your platforms is expected to be kind of the safety net, and PC was our safety net. So that was harsh."

So is it possible to make an “original” game anymore? It's a question Loeb and his colleagues have asked themselves over and over. "For very sensible economic reasons, most console developers and publishers are gravitating toward licenses or franchises. Games take longer to develop and cost a lot more money than they used to, so it’s important to 'mitigate risk' any way you can."

As far as how that reality affects Planet Moon, Loeb said that it is "very possible for a small company like Planet Moon to spend two to three years working on one game that does acceptable business but isn’t a huge hit. The end result is that the company sees no profits, doesn’t expand, and starts the process all over again, hoping to hit the jackpot this time around. All small developers face this conundrum, and it’s one of the reasons why most developers have multiple teams. As a single-team developer, you spend two years on one 'at bat,' and if you strike out, you have nothing to show corporately for two years of work."

The difference with PSP, Loeb says, is that “Sony has already made it clear to the industry that it wants new ideas on the PSP. This is not only good for Planet Moon, but also good for the industry and good for gamers.”

We spoke with Loeb this week and asked him to elaborate on the new strategy.

GameSpot: There are no sales, there’s no installed base, and there’s no price point; there's not even a release date on the product.

Aaron Loeb: And more, there’s not yet a complete consensus among publishers as to exactly how the business is going to work.

GS: So how can you be so sure of your move?

AL: When you looked at the PSP, before E3, you had this notion of what the PSP might be, right? When you got to E3, and you actually got to look at it and hold it in your hands. The reaction with everybody I talked to at E3 was 'Wow, this thing is cool. I want to own it.' As a company dedicated to making highly creative games, we are convinced this is the right platform at the right time.

And when somebody’s done that good a job of just the physical form factor of the thing--and has connected with people in the games industry, who are generally 18- to 34-year-old men and women, you get a pretty good idea of who the consumer is and how big the market could be.

GS: It just feels cavalier to base the company's future on a toy.

AL: This is not a thing for kids to play with on the school yard--which is I think the history of portables. PSP is targeted towards a group that has not had a portable before. A lot of gamers love portables, and a lot of gamers play Game Boy on the plane, waiting in line at the movie theater, or waiting for their planes. The best games on the Game Boy are just brilliant, but they aren’t actually for us adults. The PSP is clearly going to be for grown-ups.

GS: There's still no data, Aaron. No data.

AL: Even without any data it’s extremely exciting to just be a part of something totally new. We have tried to do new things. We want to do new and creative things, and the PSP absolutely seems like a terrific space for that.

GS: How did you make a decision like this?

AL: A decision like this is based on what’s happened in the past with new platforms and new generations. And the way it works historically is that there will be a group of developers and publishers who get in early in the life of a platform and then have a real presence on that platform for its entire life--often five years. And those can be five very good years if you got in at the right time and got in with the right games.

GS: It's a gamble.

AL: But it's a gamble everyone takes. It of course seems now, looking back, like a no-brainer that the PS2 was going to be huge. At the time it was not. It certainly didn’t seem like a no-brainer to us in the press--where I worked in 2000. It didn’t seem like a no-brainer to many of the developers and publishers that we talked to. So one had to take the risk; one had to take the gamble.

You were looking at a new platform that required you to change the entire paradigm of how you developed games. You were going to need a bigger staff. You were going to need people who were able to understand a very different architecture in terms of engineering. You were going to need a lot more artists. That was a big investment. It was a scary investment, but you just had to take the gamble, and you took it because if you did it right you were going to have five or six years of strong presence on the platform. And it has really paid off for the people who took that gamble.

In terms of the PSP, we’re looking at this thing, we believe in the platform, we think it’s got great technology, we think Sony’s made a lot of fantastic decisions in terms of what it’s going to include.

Backing up, we looked at it like this: Sony has now managed to twice launch the world’s most successful console, right? So when they say ‘We’re going to launch a portable platform that’s different from anything that’s come before, and it will be like this,” our assessment is that they’re going to make the right decisions to make that happen. Of course it is a gamble, but you have to take the gamble or you might just as well go home.

GS: What kind of games are you going to make?

AL: The entire gameplay paradigm is going to be different. If you look at the way people play with their Game Boys now, especially in our age group, they don’t usually say, “Yeah, I’m going to sit down and play Pokémon Ruby for the next five hours,” or “I’m going to sit down and play Tony Hawk for the Game Boy until I complete it." Right? But we do that with console games. When I bought Halo, I sat down and played it until I finished it. I got the most recent Metal Gear and played it until I couldn’t even stay awake anymore.

On the PSP you’re going to want to create games that people want to keep coming back to over and over and over again, right? It’s about having games that are satisfying for 15 minutes or even two hours if they want to play for two hours, but that people don’t get sick of, that they just want to keep playing and playing and playing at various moments. And even more importantly, that they can stop playing for two weeks, two months, and come back to without going, “What was I doing? What was going on?” And that really requires a different way of thinking about this stuff

Right now, the biggest games on consoles and PCs are ones that definitely have a continuity that you can lose track of, be it KOTOR, which is obvious because it has a big continuity that you could easily lose track of, or be it Need for Speed Underground. You could go away from that game for two months and then just completely forget about where you were and what you were trying to accomplish.

GS: What games do you see working on the PSP?

AL: Games that focus on opportunity gameplay. Games that are really fun to play right away. You get them immediately, they’re cool, you play them for 15 minutes, and you’ve got a very satisfying experience. They’re games that at their base, as part of their DNA, have use of Wi-Fi, have connectibility with other people

GS: Without actually having the hardware, how can you approach development?

AL: In general what manufacturers say is, use the highest-end PC you can find, use those specs, and when we get you more details you’ll figure out where you have to pare things away, where you have added headroom that you didn’t think you had or where you’ve got less headroom than you thought you did. And what surprises me, because I think from a nontechnical point of view that that would panic engineers, is working with engineers who’ve been doing this stuff for years. They go, “Oh yeah, of course, that’s the way you do it.” They don’t sweat that at all.

GS: What’s the communication from Sony been like? How much information do they give you? How much support do they give you now?

AL: Sony is giving great information via Sony Computer Entertainment America. I do think a lot of the decisions are still being made, so there’s some key questions a lot of people have that Sony just can’t answer yet.

GS: What can’t they answer?

AL: Sony has not yet answered for everybody exactly how the business is going to work for the PSP.

GS: But some big payers are on board...

AL: I mean, when Electronic Arts says they’re going to back something, everybody pays attention. No matter how much anybody would like to say that it doesn’t matter what EA thinks, that news is encouraging to the whole industry.

GS: When was the decision made internally at Planet Moon to do this?

AL: The decision was made in theory about two months ago--and that’s when we started going through the process to be certified as developers. The decision was made in earnest at E3. We came to E3 saying we’re going to be PSP developers, and that’s what we talked to publishers about. It felt like a gamble walking into E3, but looking at the PSP and holding it and talking to people about it and understanding it, we’re not nervous anymore.

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