In an age where most big games ship on multiple platforms, it was a Sony exclusive that took home the grand prize at last week’s Game Developers Choice awards, not to mention the DICE Awards a month prior.
God of War? Uncharted? Nope: an 18-person game called Journey, the sort of artsy passion project that a few years ago would have been doomed to cult-classic obscurity. And don’t think Sony hasn’t noticed. Indie games aren’t just an amusing side business anymore — in some cases, they’re getting more attention and sales than the “mainstream” triple-A productions.
There’s a war brewing for the hearts and minds of the videogame industry’s independent developers. The weird thing is, Xbox doesn’t seem interested in fighting it.
Indies were once a fringe group of rogue developers who were often happy to get any sort of attention from a console manufacturer like Sony or Microsoft, but today they’re an industry force that will help shape the next generation of games and gaming machines.
A recent survey showed that 53 percent of developers self-identify as independent, and Sony is angling to get as many of them on PlayStation devices as possible. And to hear the developers tell it, the reason they’re flocking to PlayStation is due as much to what Sony does right as to what Xbox maker Microsoft is doing wrong.
“Microsoft treats independent developers very badly,” said Jonathon Blow, creator of the breakout indie success Braid. Blow appeared at Sony’s recent PlayStation 4 announcement event to show his new game The Witness. He said in an email that Microsoft’s stance on relations with independent developers is to “put you through as much pain as you will endure in order to extract whatever [they] feel like this week.”
When Wired forwarded some of the scalding statements from indies about their experiences working with Microsoft, a spokesperson sent back a brief emailed response: “We’re invested in helping developers realize their visions on Xbox by ensuring they have the tools they need to be successful and by using their feedback to continually make refinements on our platforms,” it read in part.
Ironically, it was Microsoft that originally set the stage for smaller, independent productions to appear on its Xbox 360 by establishing the Xbox Live Arcade service and relentlessly promoting these inexpensive digital releases. If you had an indie game, releasing it on Live Arcade was like premiering your play on Broadway. But that’s all begun to change, and Microsoft may be letting a key competitive advantage slip away as Sony’s reputation as an indie-friendly company continues to grow.
Brian Provinciano, creator of the old-school parody game Retro City Rampage, tells horror stories about his experience with Microsoft. He says the Xbox maker canceled the release of his game on Live Arcade after he spoke out publicly about the inefficiencies of the process. Microsoft, he says, forced him to resubmit the game through the arduous approvals process and go through an extra six months of negotiations that required him to submit the game through an outside publisher to get it released.
And when the game did come out, he says Microsoft made an expensive mistake: “Someone made a mistake and released it on XBLA for $10 instead of $15, so most of the copies sold earned one-third less off the top,” he said in an email.
While Provinciano was busy dealing with stress and red tape at Microsoft, he was getting the star treatment from Sony.
“Sony’s been incredibly supportive and promoted the game very well,” said Provinciano. “It’s received a generous amount of promotion at no cost to me, from [advertisements] on the PS Store to events such as E3 and even having it playable on kiosks at every Walmart, Best Buy, GameStop, Target and Future Shop across North America.”
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected this to happen,” he said.
Sony appears to be seizing on Microsoft’s bad reputation among indie developers as an opportunity to lure new games onto its platforms and establish the PlayStation Network as the new place to be for unique independent games. It’s becoming the anti-Microsoft, something it seemed to be stressing in its PlayStation 4 announcement. Provinciano said that working with Sony felt like a “coffee shop chat” as opposed to the “intimidating corporate vibe” of Xbox.
At the Game Developers Conference, Sony hosted an event called PlayStation Indie Arcade, showing off indie games like Hotline Miami and Thomas Was Alone. It also hosted a presentation called “The State of Indie Development on PlayStation Network,” and announced that it will be supporting the Unity engine on PlayStation 4. Unity is a brand of game development software that has gained widespread appeal for its ease of use and low cost, both of which make it very popular with indies on a shoestring budget.
Indie games might also prove to be a get-out-of-jail-free card for Sony’s beleaguered handheld platform PlayStation Vita. Like the PSP before it, Sony positioned the high-powered Vita as a device that would put the big-budget console experience in the palm of your hand. But sluggish sales and close to zero buy-in from software makers painted a bleak picture. But where big publishers see a wasteland, indies see opportunity.
“I was surprised to see more players on PS Vita than PS3, and that has been pretty consistent since we launched,” said James Whitehead of indie developer Boss Baddie, which just released the Geometry Wars-styled, twin-stick shooter Big Sky Infinity for Sony machines in December. This is surprising because there are roughly 10 times as many PlayStation 3s as Vitas in consumers’ hands. But whereas PlayStation 3 owners are spoiled for choice, Vita players still need content, and indies are happy to fill the void. “It has been great for us; there are a couple of hundred thousand people playing it,” he said.
Indies are saying that the development processes for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita are highly similar, which allows them to implement attractive features like “cross-play, cross-buy,” which means players can often purchase a game once and play it on both systems.
“They built such a good development kit that [Retro City Rampage] was up and running [on Vita] within a day or so,” said Brian Provinciano. “I’ve worked on just about every console and handheld of the past decade. The PS Vita boasts the best development kit of them all.” Before Sony launched Vita, it loaned out development kits for free to indies. Console game development hardware can often cost thousands of dollars, putting it out of reach of many game creators.
“We do our best to empower developers across all of our platforms, to release their games when and how they want, and we’ve been working hard to take as many obstacles out of the path to release as possible,” says Nick Suttner, a Sony account supervisor who works with indie developers. “We allow developers to self-publish on our platforms; no slotting, no voting, or any of that rigmarole.”
The “slotting” that Suttner refers to is one of the most notorious roadblocks to getting one’s game on Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft will only release a certain number of games per week on Xbox Live Arcade, and many of these slots are given over to large publishers. No empty slot means you can’t release your game. That’s why Brian Provinciano had to go find a publisher with an open slot to get Retro City Rampage out on Xbox. Microsoft does have an “Indie Games” channel, but its lack of promotion of the service means that players utterly ignore it.
Sony’s self-publishing system isn’t quite as open as, say, the iOS App Store. It’s not just an open marketplace where any random person can upload anything they want. Sony’s still going out and developing relationships with each individual game creator, but it’s trying to make that process as easy and painless as possible. It even has a program called “Pub Fund” that acts as a sort of angel investment for promising indie games that need development cash but don’t want to sell out.
The power dynamic has shifted over the last generation: Sony’s process was originally predicated on the idea that developers desperately wanted to appear on PlayStation, and Sony could make elaborate demands of them with the ostensible goal of raising the quality bar of the PlayStation’s content library. But today, it’s Sony that needs indies; it must create a path of least resistance for them because they have other options if PlayStation proves too daunting.
Even Nintendo, who has historically been the most difficult company for indies to work with, is warming up. Provinciano said that the Wii U maker has recently thrown out its old rule that required independent developers to have an office space if they wanted to work with Nintendo. As garage developers that work out of their living rooms proliferate, the rule (designed to keep Nintendo’s trade secrets more secure) has become more of a barrier than a protection.
“Both Sony and Nintendo actively listen to feedback from developers and make improvements,” he said.
Wii U, launched last year, is in just as dire a situation as Vita. Publishers released a few games at launch but aren’t announcing many new Wii U products. So Nintendo is courting indies, giving them the sort of freedom over pricing, release dates and content approval that Sony is. What it doesn’t have yet are any successes to call its own, no Journeys on the horizon that might snag any Game of the Year honors.
But Sony’s and Nintendo’s respective wake-up calls haven’t seemed to change things with Xbox 360. With Microsoft’s console about to turn eight years old in November, everyone is expecting the announcement of a successor console very soon. If it doesn’t change its old ways with regard to how it approaches indie developers, the next Xbox might miss out on the games that will define the next generation.