Sony's Strengthening Relationship With Independent Developers

Four indie studios examine their place in the changing games industry and how Sony has built such a strong relationship with the smallest teams.

'

"We wouldn't have set out initially to just make a game for the Vita." Alex Neuse, co-founder of Gaijin Games, cannot spend money needlessly. The continued existence of his independent studio depends on the choices that Neuse and his team make, so to pour resources into a handheld system whose sales have been a constant disappointment is risky. And yet, Bit.Trip Presents…Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is currently being ported to the Vita. Worry? Regret? Panic? None of these emotions are even hinted at as the gregarious spokesman details how such a decision took place. He's realistic. "The investment that we're putting in to bring it to the Vita is small enough so that even with modest sales we'll do fine."

The Vita is undergoing a revolution that is a sharp contrast from how it was marketed during its prerelease hype. Dreams of becoming a portable console have slowly dissipated as a new focus has taken root. Now, instead of flashy, high-budget games serving as the foundation for a diverse library, it's the wealth of indie hits that have urged the struggling system onward. "We can help the Vita, and the Vita is a great platform for us to be on," said Derek Yu, founder of Mossmouth and creator of Spelunky. "It obviously matters to us how many people own a Vita, but at the same time, Sony has made it so easy for us to put our games on the system, and they've gone out of their way to promote indies. It just feels like a really good fit all the way around."

"Sony has made it so easy for us to put our games on the system, and they've gone out of their way to promote indies."

For Yu, the intrinsic appeal of having a pick-up-and-play adventure like Spelunky on a handheld made it an obvious choice to port over. Some developers gravitate toward the Vita's other strengths. Tyrone Rodriguez, produce at Nicalis and developer of Aban Hawkins & the 1,001 Spikes and Legend of Raven, is enamored by the hardware. "Once you see something running on it, the screen is incredible. If you put this screen next to anything, even a $4,000 TV, this is better, because it's OLED, and most developers are techies." Neuse had a similar feeling. "As far as indie developers go, it's a great fit. The hardware is good; it's got a great screen. I think Spelunky looks really good on it. And cross play." Clearly, Sony has constructed something that catches the fancy of those who like state-of-the-art technology.

It's using that technology well that has caused growing pains. Much of the Vita's catalog features games that have already appeared on consoles, the PC, or mobile devices. Runner 2 and Spelunky have been devoured by people on a variety of different systems, so it's hardly a coup that the Vita receives even more ports. How can a system be successful if its identity is merely recycling previously released content? "The games that I play on PC are now coming to the handheld I have in my pocket that I bring with me when I travel," said Mel Kirk, vice president of Zen Studios and designer of KickBeat. "I don't think it hurts the Vita. It shows that people want to play games wherever they are." Although the occasional exclusive does still appear on the Vita (Tearaway and Valhalla Knights 3 are two such upcoming games), the system houses a veritable greatest-hits lineup of recent indie games.

As Sony lures indie developers to its handheld, it's slowly providing a worthy alternative to the ubiquitous smartphones that so many people spend their gaming time using. One of the strength of those platforms is the variety of affordable games in their stores, and the Vita is mirroring that philosophy. It may be sacrilegious to even hint that console manufacturers are squaring off against the mobile realm, but people have limited time and money, so it's important that Sony is making the Vita appealing to people outside of its core demographic. Plus, as a dedicated gaming platform, it has major advantages over devices limited to touch-screen controls. Rodriguez said, "I still think there's going to be a number of players who are going to buy this machine because it's a better experience than pulling out my iPhone and not knowing where I'm pushing."

"The games that I play on PC are now coming to the handheld I have in my pocket that I bring with me when I travel."

Sony has tried to forge healthy relationships with designers who make games with just a small team of people and an even smaller budget. But even though Sony has been actively courting these studios, it's still up to the creators to devise a business model that they can succeed with. Rodriguez believes that developers have no reason to fear bringing their games to a platform with a small user base if they do so with their eyes open. "A big part of the problem is not so much the platforms, but that developers are considering themselves developers and not publishers." Any developers that aren't prepared to make their throats sore shouting about their games are opening themselves up to failure. Rodriguez believes an audience will form once your message is heard. "If you make a good game, wherever it's at, people will play it."

Adopting the mentality of a publisher is not easy for some developers, who entered this industry because they have a passion for designing, not signing papers. The business and creative sides of the industry stand in sharp contrast to each other, and trying to balance both still serves as an impediment for prospective developers. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have made strides to be more welcoming, but they're not quite as accessible as they need to be. "Honestly, with all three of the parties, their processes are bonkers. It's like trying to navigate a maze with a blindfold on while being punched in the stomach by a minotaur. Sony is no exception," Neuse said. That isn't an isolated feeling, either. "I feel [Sony] could streamline their process. That's the biggest barrier," said Yu.

Still, Sony is at least trying to make it easier for indie developers to focus on making games rather than navigating contracts. "The more streamlined the process is, the better. As far as I can tell, it's going to get a lot better with the next generation," said Yu. "I think that platform holders are very conscious of the fact, particularly with indie developers. The more paperwork and formalities you have to go through, the less time you can spend working on your game." For some developers, that change has been felt strongly already. "Sony has evolved into this totally amazing company that embraces indie development and embraced this idea of KickBeat, which everyone else thought we were totally insane for trying to make," said Kirk.

Rodriguez, whose company has developed games for both Sony and Nintendo, was very outspoken in where his allegiance lies. "We only want to work with people who are easy to deal with--at the most basic level, having a very symbiotic, equal-footing relationship. And I don't feel that Microsoft necessarily does that." He continued, "For the 360, they did a lot of things that were not in favor of the developer and are entirely favorable to Microsoft at all times." He contrasts Microsoft's approach to that of Sony's and Nintendo's. "They're both on top of it and very nice and very accepting of developers wanting to put content on their machines." And as he looks toward the future, he doesn't see why he should consider Microsoft's console when there are so many other options. "Why would you need the Xbox One if you can go PS4, Vita, Wii U, 3DS, and Steam?"

"Why would you need the Xbox One if you can go PS4, Vita, Wii U, 3DS, and Steam?"

Kirk believes that Sony has learned from its past mistakes. "PS3 kind of missed, and they realized that some things had to change culturally with developers, where this industry is going with indie development, so they embraced all that." And there may be some truth in that sentiment. The arrogant "work more hours to buy one" Sony from years ago has been replaced by one that proudly touts smaller developers, putting Jonathon Blow onstage to show off The Witness during the PlayStation 4 reveal. Yu also feels that working with Sony has been a pleasant experience. "They got their indie strategy figured out, and they've got people that work there who understand indie developers." He added, "You feel a mutual love and respect."

The difference between the console makers is not that one is evil while the others are good. Rather, it's in the structure of how they function. "[Microsoft] is very compartmentalized. The guys that we have contact with can't necessarily talk to marketing or publishing to get things done, whereas Sony and Nintendo are a bit more integrated," said Andrew Hynek, vice president of technology at Gaijin Games. His coworker, Neuse, continued the thought. "Microsoft is the most closed, Nintendo is sort of the most open, but you don't feel like the right hand is talking to the left hand, and Sony is in the middle somewhere." Rodriguez said the difference between companies is in how they draw up a contract. "A lot of people in business think, 'If I screw you, then I'm a really good businessman.' But to me, if we both walk away from negotiations equally happy, then we both did a good job."

Happiness is a continual theme in the indie developer scene. "We can make what we want and do what we want whenever we want," Kirk explained. That freedom is a sharp contrast to what big publishers have to contend with, where factors outside of the core creative team dictate what's developed. "The innovation and the unique experiences will come from the indie level," Kirk believes, because of the flexibility inherent in forging your own path. Reaching a niche audience is not a negative for developers that work with modest budgets. "Smaller companies can make an actual business model off of moderate sales," said Neuse. And there's a definite appeal to focusing on creating something special rather than finances. "At the end of the day, I don't think those guys in those expensive suits are happy with how much money they make. They're always looking for more," said Kirk.

"Microsoft is the most closed, Nintendo is sort of the most open, but you don't feel like the right hand is talking to the left hand, and Sony is in the middle somewhere."

Despite not having deep pockets and household name recognition, indie developers have definite advantages over the biggest publishers. Pouring tens of millions into game development and hoping to sell millions at retail is a risky proposition, and small developers don't have to contend with those dangers. Kirk said, "We don't need to sell a million units. We're not going to be crying to the bank if we only sell 500K units." Some developers wonder if the big-budget games can even thrive with their current business model. "Is the AAA sustainable? Probably not. Is AA sustainable? Maybe. Is single A? For sure," said Rodriguez. And he wasn't alone in holding that belief; Kirk echoed the same sentiment. "The AAA model is not sustainable in this day and age. It's not." Kirk continued, "The boards of directors and shareholders, they are completely wishing for unrealistic returns on their investment. It's too expensive."

What Sony has been doing right is ensuring developers can spend less time navigating application processes and more time focused on their games. It's through this philosophy that Sony has been able to court so many up-and-coming developers, and turn the Vita into a platform bursting with games that are as diverse as they are affordable. As Sony has announced new versions of the Vita and further possibilities with its connected future with the PlayStation 4, it's clear that it hasn't given up on the struggling handheld just yet. It's putting a lot of faith in the indie community to spur sales going forward, and only time will tell how sound that strategy is. For now, we can just enjoy games born of the love of this industry. "It's more about the heart and the passion that goes into the game than the marketing," As Kirk poignantly noted.

'

Written By

Want the latest news about Spelunky?

Spelunky

Spelunky

Follow

Discussion

152 comments
bjornborgue
bjornborgue

"Sony has been able to court so many up-and-coming developers, and turn the Vita into a platform bursting with games that are as diverse as they are affordable"

Oh COME ON!

cougar3429
cougar3429

Dear Sony, I have waited to preorder my PS4 for one simple reason. There's a rumor that a PS4/Vita package may come out at $499. To quote Jean-Luc Picard, "Make it so."

PancakePuncher
PancakePuncher

why not strengthen the relationship with capcom instead

jophy
jophy

Sony has santa monica, suckerpunch, media molecule, naughty dog etc, and now they have indies support. I think what sony done really well is give consumer choice. they pump out exclusives after exclusives, new IP , different genres for consumers to choose.

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

I am all for indie games, but lets not get carried away. I enjoy indie games as a side dish of sorts, my main gaming will always be the big publisher block busters.

Icepick_Trotter
Icepick_Trotter

Oh, yeah. I know how Sony's "indie relationships" work.

They're the "Buy this small indie studio cheap and have them make games only for us. Even the ones that were coming to other platforms like the Unfinished Swan so other people can't play them" kind of relationships.

jflkdjs
jflkdjs

I lLOVE my PS Vita :)

amir_g_m
amir_g_m

I'm sorry to talk this over and over again

But I don't find the smart step in cooperating with Indie developrers

I own a PS Vita to play more titles like God Of War, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasym Jak& Dexter and more... not this stupid games that looks like angry birds 

If so, then it should be for free or 2-3$ not more!

I am so disappointed by Sony, my PS Vita is sad too :( it has only 3-4 good games

Uncharted, Gravity Rush, Ragnarok Odyssey and Persona 4 Golden


what is it with the Indies every now and then you guys write and support Indies?

it's PS Vita we are talking, not iPhones and Galaxy

WiiUxboxOnefan
WiiUxboxOnefan

If you want a proper gaming console I guess it's down to the Wii U and or Xbx One but if you want another ouya PS4 is for you.

Senor_Kami
Senor_Kami

I'd rather hear about a strengthening relationship with AAA studios than a bunch of indies making NES-quality titles in 2013.

jhonMalcovich
jhonMalcovich

The article´s title should be Sony selectively picking Indie developers to fill up psn+ emptiness for next gen with less money than compared to AAA exclusive investments.

Ladiesman17
Ladiesman17

man..... indie games on PSN blows..... (at least from sales standpoint)... the problem is not comes from Devs or Sony but from Consumers behavior... only few PS Consumers that could appreciate indie games (but majority of them are not) not mention Sony urge for always asking them being exclusives. it put Developers at difficult position and unnecessary risk.

only Journey that decent on that platform, others.. comes from Sony own studio,,, and it's not an indie (Knack, Tearaway, etc.)

Guacamelee, Papo & Yo, Thatgamecompany (Journey, Flower Devs), Joe Danger, PixelJunk,,, (real indie) those guys already jump ship to PC, at the end of the days, Consumers that decide, not Sony or Developers.... and at this point Consumers demand on PlayStation platform are weak.... 

thettt
thettt

well done sony

microsoft learn from them now!!!!!

franzito
franzito

Well, let's think how Journey had quite a breakthrough on PS3. No wonder they want to keep indie devs close: they can offer refreshing IPs that big studios have been failling miserably to come up with.

LJNkickstarter
LJNkickstarter

Will Indie games helps ps vita sales? Seems kinda but hope sony will deliver more AAA games for it, Since im picky when it comes to Indie games.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

"Honestly, with all three of the parties, their processes are bonkers. It's like trying to navigate a maze with a blindfold on while being punched in the stomach by a minotaur. Sony is no exception,"

lol

Mar_Sama
Mar_Sama

Great Article Tom. I think that if Sony would support Indies Strongly from the start of the Vita, than the Ouya would have maybe never been made. Sony shot itself in the foot with the PS3 and the "work more to buy one" is an abysmal statement that should never been loudly said or even thought. Some of the Gaming Companies forget, that it's Games they talk about. Nobody would say "work longer to buy one" about Monopoly, D&D or Magic the Gathering.

fzzywarbles
fzzywarbles

Great article! Though I haven't had a console in some time now I do remember Sony having some great indie content. The nightmare Microsoft made for independent developers in the last console generation is rather disgusting and that's why when I owned a console it was a Sony product. Still have no plans to buy a next gen console since I get my fill on PC, it is still good to see a major console developer promoting independent development and overall creative ideas so much!

FrankZoex2
FrankZoex2

Interesting, well researched article but quoting devs who have never worked with MS putting down their practices is a bit strange.

A side point, MS is trying to integrate their businesses more so the problems with compartmentalized business spaces may be getting better but in the end any company who tries to make it easier for the game devs is going to be popular with game devs - common sense.

denhoffi
denhoffi

I really liked this article, it was very informative and nice to see what indie developers think. However I have to disagree with those devs on one point and that is their opinion about AAAs, of course they want to point out their advantages over the AAA games, and there are undoubtedly a few but I think they are painting the picture of the AAA games a little to dark. Of course there is a risk in developing and producing big games but we need companies that take those risks because we need those games. I couldn't imagine gaming without franchises like Uncharted, God of War, Halo, AC, Mass Effect and GTA or games like The Last of Us, these are essential to the gaming experience in my opinion. I love indies and i have played a few of those mentioned in the article and they were a lot of fun (especially Spelunky) but they can't replace the big games.

video_gamer13
video_gamer13

Keep blabbering like what you're saying is actually going to make some kind of difference, meanwhile the rest of us will do the talking with our wallets...


You can hate all you want, you can love all you want, but your words don't mean shit, your money however does mean something, will you buy? Or will you boycott? The choice is yours.

Snaptrap
Snaptrap

Smart. It's about time someone looked to acquiring some fresh blood rather than continue to use these rundown producers from the 80's and 90's.

Ayato_Kamina_1
Ayato_Kamina_1

Great games don't have to have AAA budgets. Indies have more creative freedom because of their lower operating costs, meaning they can push the boat out and do more innovative games. If these games succeed they might get picked up by bigger devs, the guys involved will be more desired for better paying jobs etc.

Everyone wins with a thriving Indie scene.The AAA game model will only be employed by the big companies with franchises that are proven winners. Even then you won't see much innovation because they are scared to deviate from their tried and tested formula.

lion2447
lion2447

@WiiUxboxOnefan I see you opened up your account today, all just to rant about one choice of console(s) over another.  This was and still is a good decision by Sony, as all games came from developers who have started from small studios.  Look at the early generations of games.  Do you think they had multi-million dollar budgets to bring a game to market?  Frankly, the indie developers seem to be the only developers bringing new ideas to the market instead of the cookie-cutter games we've seen from big developers as of late.

NeonNinja
NeonNinja

@Senor_Kami  

That's really dumb.  How much stronger of a bond do you want them to have with AAA studios when all of the games are available on the system?

And if you're going into the realm of third party exclusives you aren't taking into account the cost of those AAA titles over the cost of an indie title.

WiiUxboxOnefan
WiiUxboxOnefan

@Senor_Kami So true Wii U and Xbox One have better aaa games at the moment and Wii U also has very strong indie support.

jophy
jophy

@jhonMalcovich sony don't need invest in AAA exclusives. they have santa monica, media molecule, suckerpunch, naughty dog under their belt constantly pumping AAA games out. with more new studios that made puppeteer etc... sony is on a roll

SkyAboveThePort
SkyAboveThePort

@Mar_Sama "work more to buy one" is no better or worse than "you're holding it wrong" or "deal with it." THe point is, Sony apparently learned their lesson, Apple and Microsoft? Maybe not so much.

Whatever you do, if you want to improve, you need to be flexible. The more bureaucracy a process involves, the more you'll go backwards. And as long as you feel you are not successful because of what others do, you'll never change yourself.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

@denhoffi AAA games have a place in the market and in gamers hearts and minds. But I do agree that the market is somewhat saturated. For every one of those AAA games you mentioned, there are other 5  AAA that failed to achieve their financial goals. From KoA, Max Payne 3, Dead Space 3, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Red Faction ( and pretty  much every THQ in the last years) , etc. So we need some balance. There are good AAA games that failed, simply because of market saturation. Wouldn't it be more intelligent to spread that investment into a hand full of  smaller/indy games?

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

@Sl4cka Dude, I don't have a great body or snazzy attitude to get girls. I use my hair to do all the work :\

denhoffi
denhoffi

@TigusVidiks I don't think you understood how my comment was meant, of course I want to have a healthy balance, and I think I made myself clear that I do play indies, like them and think they are a valuable part of the gaming community. What I just wanted to say is that we need AAA games because they define gaming and as much as I enjoy playing indies it doesn't compare (and can't replace) to the experiences that the big games deliver. Like you mentioned and the article as well, there is a risk with those games and the profitability but we need those companies to take those risks, i can't see a gaming future with just indies. As far as the games are concerned that you mentioned, a lot of those failed because of unrealistic sales predictions, that is the companies fault, and most of them did actually not that bad.

denhoffi
denhoffi

@TigusVidiks @denhoffi Yes nobody said we don't need them, but they say they are not sustainable, which means they don't see a future for them to which I strongly disagree. For the record I do agree that  there are differences between the types of development and both have their pros and cons (if you read my first comment again you see that i say that the indies certainly have some advantages over the AAAs), and I can understand why, for them, indies are the way to go.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

@denhoffi @TigusVidiks. You say you don't agree with what they say about AAA games because they are painting it too dark. But I don't see him or the devs in the article saying we don't need AAA. They do point out the differences between both types of development and make a good case about why indies are the most sensible option right now, for them.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

@niklev83 @TigusVidiks If you flood the market with AAA games, it doesn't matter how good they are, in the end. Among gamers, the ones that can actually buy all the AAA that come out are a small nich. I would like to have bought Diablo 3, Dead Space 3, Metro Last Light, or The Last of Us. But at 60 bucks per game, there is only so much money I can spend.

niklev83
niklev83

@TigusVidiks ....Developers shouldn't cut corners, and shouldn't be lazy! They should make their games the most accessible, the most enjoyable, and the most playable! And publishers need to do their jobs and publish the developers games with a lot of attention, to bring interest! Thats what the publishers are there for.

If people didn't buy their games "en masse" then it is only their fault, and no one else's (besides the greety gamers)... lol :)

niklev83
niklev83

@TigusVidiks @niklev83 ....I am indeed very sad that some of the studios you mentioned closed doors. But isn't the problem with "people" boycotting some of their releases??? .....Companies close doors because they aren't getting paid. And people fail to part with their cash out of greed. This is the "end" scenario of a dying Developer/Publisher.

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

@niklev83 @TigusVidiks
In the last years, historical studios and publishers  like THQ, Acclaim, Ascaron, Atari, Big Huge Games, Bizarre Creations, Bullfrog, Emsemble, 3D Realms, Codemasters, Kaos Studios, Midway, Rebellion, Sierra, etc. closed doors.
Just to cite a few. If that doesn't concern you and tell you that something needs to change,not much else I can tell you.

niklev83
niklev83

@TigusVidiks @niklev83 ....That's why we then, go out and buy our favorite games, support our favorite developers, as well as the publishers. And move our games to the top over all the others! ...and BINGO! We've got something there! :) Problem Solved! :)

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

@niklev83 @TigusVidiks the point is not what you or me like. Anyone rather have good , big quality games if given the chance. The point is that it's not sustainable and if it persists, more studios will close doors and then you will have neither AAA or small indies from those devs.

niklev83
niklev83

@TigusVidiks ...I don't care about "sustainable or not" .... I'd rather play Red Faction, (which is old by today's standards) rather than "a hand full of  smaller/indy games".

...btw, i care about indies, just not a whole bunch of crap games over a good "whole" game even if it's not as successful !!! 

...and business does not interest me, I could care less what their profits are unless I am playing a great game, that I bought brand new to support the developers that I do want to succeed. :)

TigusVidiks
TigusVidiks

@niklev83 @TigusVidiks @denhoffi if you actually research how many and which AAA games were profitable in the last few years, you'll be surprised. It's not sustainable.