When Sony announced the PlayStation 4 on February 20th, it was amidst the sounds of explosions and dubstep. Games like Killzone: Shadow Fall, Destiny, and Watch Dogs were on display — titles made with big teams and even bigger budgets. But amongst all of the gunfire was an example of what seems to be a shift in Sony's priorities. Braid creator Jonathan Blow took the stage to show off The Witness, an upcoming indie adventure game. "I really don't know what I'm going to do to follow all those explosions," he said. While Blow was the lone indie developer on stage during the reveal, since that time Sony has made a concerted effort to emphasize its focus on indie games. New titles from notable developers are being announced on a seemingly regular basis; the question is, why? With the Vita struggling, the PS3 at the tail end of its life span, and the PS4 still a pretty big question mark, why are so many small developers choosing to launch on PlayStation platforms?
"We go out there to look for great content."
Once upon a time, getting a game on a device like the PS3 wasn't easy. During an indie-focused event at this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony's VP of developer and publisher relations Adam Boyes outlined just how frustrating the process was — at one point, publishing a game involved around 64 different steps. "It was pretty hard for developers to get on to the different PlayStation platforms," Boyes admitted. Things aren't that way any more. Sony has made it easier for creators to get their games on PlayStation platforms by allowing licensed developers to self-publish and set their own prices and release dates. The company even offers to waive things like patch fees if studios "ask nicely." We've heard stories of Sony providing studios with Vita development kits before a contract is even signed. Additionally, Sony recently announced support for the Unity game engine, a popular tool among smaller teams, which should make porting certain titles much easier. The company has also been financially supporting small developers through its Pub Fund initiative. It's not new — Pub Fund was announced in 2011 with the goal of investing $20 million in indie games over three years — but it's yet another reason some developers are choosing Sony.
But there's something else at play. It's not just that Sony is streamlining its process and offering up financial incentives to studios — it's also being very good at simply being open with developers and, perhaps more importantly, actively seeking out new and interesting experiences. "They're people who really get games, and get developers, and are as passionate as we are," Johann Sebastian Joust developer Douglas Wilson said at the same event. JS Joust, a game that uses PlayStation Move controllers but requires no screen, was part of the Sportsfriends collection, a Kickstarted-bundle of local multiplayer games that also received support from Pub Fund. It's about as far away from the high-octane action on display at the PS4 announcement as possible, and it's a game that is coming to PS3 simply because someone at Sony saw it and liked it. "We go out there to look for great content to partner on," added Boyes.
"They're people who really get games."
Divekick is a two-button fighting game that developer Iron Galaxy's Dave Lang calls "the most impossible game to pitch of all time." It may only use two buttons, but it has a surprising amount of strategic depth for fighting game aficionados. Despite the challenge, Divekick managed to surpass its $30,000 Kickstarter goal — but the crowd funding campaign was then cancelled when Iron Galaxy found a publisher. That turned out to be Sony and the Pub Fund program. "Without them there'd be no Divekick," says Lang, in spite of the Kickstarter success.
"The thing that strikes me most is how approachable people at Sony are," Honeyslug's Ricky Haggett said during a GDC panel a few days later. Honeyslug created Frobisher Says, a Warioware-style mini-game collection designed to show off the various features of the Vita's hardware — everything from facial recognition to the touch screen. It was commissioned by Sony as a sort of showcase app for the fledgling handheld. "Ultimately, when you work with a company, what that really means is working with a whole bunch of people," Haggett explained. "And I feel like the people who work at Sony are actually playing a whole lot of games, to the point where it doesn't feel like the 'I've got to sell my game to the publisher' type of arrangement. It's definitely the most approachable, friendly relationship that we've had with a publisher or company."
This shift at Sony — from an intimidating behemoth to a more approachable company — has lead to a surge in new indie releases for both PS3 and Vita. Games ranging from the hyper-violent Hotline Miami to pixelated horror title Lone Survivor have all made the jump to PlayStation devices after debuting on other platforms, and Sony has even managed to lure once Xbox-exclusive titles like Limbo and Spelunky. Of course, it's not just existing games, as new titles are also making their debut on PlayStation devices. Drinkbox Studios' stylish action game Guacamelee will be debuting on PS3 and Vita, as will Luftrausers, the next game from Ridiculous Fishing developer Vlambeer. Multiple other developers told us that Sony had approached them with interest about in-development projects. And in addition to The Witness, both Zombie Studios' Blacklight: Retribution and Lukewarm Media's Primal Carnage: Genesis have been announced as the first batch of self-published games on PS4. It seems now that when someone at Sony likes a game, they make sure it becomes a PlayStation game.
Even the much-maligned PlayStation Mobile platform appears to be improving. The relatively young initiative, which launched publicly last October, lets developers publish games on Vita and select "PlayStation certified" Android devices. It's the easiest way to get a game on a PlayStation device — it's an open platform, and you don't need to buy a dev kit. In theory this makes it a very appealing option for indie developers, but, much like Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie Games initiative, PS Mobile games are relegated to a separate section of the virtual store with little visibility or promotion.You can get your game on a console, but not many people will see it or buy it. But even here Sony is attempting to lure developers, though to a smaller degree — at Indiecade East in New York, the company held a PS Mobile game jam, with the winner receiving a promotional spot at Sony's E3 booth this year. During a GDC panel it was also hinted that more integration with the rest of the PlayStation Network may be coming at some point in the future. "There's a lot to come," said Sony's Shane Bettenhausen.
"There's a lot to come."
There are still issues, however. While the process of getting a game onto a PlayStation device has been streamlined, Sony is still a huge, multinational corporation. And a number of developers said that having to deal with the different regions is their biggest headache, a process that can delay games by months in some cases. But issues like these don't appear to be deterring many, if any, developers — and that's good news for Sony. While the biggest indie games aren't system sellers in the way that blockbusters like Halo or Metal Gear Solid, their influence is rising. At this year's Game Developers Choice Awards, for instance, thatgamecompany's Journey took away six awards, including game of the year. It also happens to be an independently developed game exclusive to the PS3. Indie games have also been huge catalysts for the rise of platforms like iPhone and Steam, and Sony is clearly trying to emulate that success. Hotline Miami won't save the Vita on its own, but a critical mass of interesting, unique, and exciting games could be just what the handheld needs.