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.

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"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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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