EXCLUSIVE: Sony's new PSP dev plans in-depth

The Go Team

If there’s one challenge Sony has faced during the latest hardware generation it’s developer support.

While Planet PlayStation hasn’t exactly struggled, developers have had tough choices on what platform to make games for. Microsoft has comfortably become market leader on next-gen, Nintendo can do whatever the hell it wants and hits the jackpot every time, and even Apple pretty much subverted the entire business model for handheld games creation and distribution. And often, developers have bet against PlayStation; outside of specific exclusives Sony has had to sign or develop itself, there’s certainly a contrast between the situation on PS3 today and PS2’s embarrassment of riches.

For PSP specifically, the situation is arguably worse – it’s sold an impressive 50m units, but software support is thin on the ground; Sony has even claimed that piracy has harmed the format’s commercial performance.

Sony is prepared to fight and change this, however. At E3, it took the boldest step any format holder has made so far into digital distribution by confirming the October release of PSPgo, which has no optical media drive – games must be downloaded for it.

Apple’s activity aside for one moment, it’s arguably a flashpoint in the traditional relationship games platform holders and their content creators have with retail, the primary source of their revenues. Now games for Sony’s handheld can be sold both on disc for older models or digitally for newer ones ­– and the emphasis is on the latter.

But simply introducing new hardware isn’t enough to restimulate interest in a platform from both consumers and the industry. It needs content, and fast. And while there’s always a chicken and egg scenario when it comes to launch games for new hardware and the consumers that play and pay for them, Sony’s answer is this: don’t just expect developers to step up.

Instead find newer, younger and digitally-focused teams, let them make what they want, simplify the submission and QA process for these titles, then release them in a specially branded area of the PlayStation Store at ‘aggressive’ (read: low) price points.

In other words: copy all the good things Apple has brought to the table with its iPhone and App Store, and then apply that to its own hardware.

Disclaimer: Sony doesn’t like the iPhone comparison. Its execs and spokespeople say the company isn’t worried by the platform and its cheap development tools and almost-barrierless distribution pipe, isn’t responding to Apple’s new grip on developer mindshare, and is confident a games-only focus will keep it on course. Yeah, it has to say that.

What it will admit, however, is the speed with which that company has found its niche, how transformative digital distribution is being to consumer tastes and behaviour, and how Sony is now prepared to harness these things and catch up.

Zeno Colaço, head of developer relations at Sony Europe, is a 16 year veteran of SCEE, one of its longest-serving employees – he’s also the man leading this new charge.

He tells Develop: “One of the things that has been exciting in my time at Sony is the big shift changes we have seen – the latest is that consumers have been consuming digital content in a totally different way.”

Back when the PSP first arrived in late 2005, “we didn’t have other devices in the market”. The slick device effectively arrived in a vacuum where no one knew what would happen next – namely that first the DS would surprise everyone by outselling the PSP, and then that Apple would swagger in with its one-size-fits all smartphone and wow developers. These things were a bit of a rude awakening for Sony, no doubt.

“Sony’s been working very hard to find our position in that and bring top-end gaming to not just the consumers who were there for the launch of PSP, but extending to an audience that is changing how it consumes entertainment and applications.”

Colaço says the PSPgo and Sony’s extension into the market of digital content is designed to match those consumer expectations: “But it’s not as if we haven’t embarked on this road already over the last few years.”

He’s not wrong. PlayStation 3 might have the smaller installed base of the current consoles, but its PlayStation Network has long strived to push the envelope digitally. A mix of its internally developed games have either debuted simultaneously online and at retail (GT5 Prologue) or franchises have gone online-only (WipEout).

But in an age where Apple can boast hundreds of thousands of SDK downloads, 50,000 applications on its store and one billion app downloads, the format-holder seems to be finally acknowledging what can be done.
Which brings us to that new initiative to reinvigorate development for the PSP.

Or, in Sony-speak, a bid to ‘widen the content experience’. Explains Colaço: “We’re introducing new initiatives for the PSP which take it beyond traditional gaming, but still includes elements from gaming, and also includes new developers.”

So the PSP is no longer just for ‘traditional’ games developers.

“To help that along the way there has been the significant drop of price for development,” adds Colaço. Announced at E3, the drop is definitely as significant as he says, down a massive 80 per cent – in Europe that means down from €5,000 to €1,200. (Apple might boast a ‘$99 SDK’ but that doesn’t include the $599 minimum spend on a Mac to code on, a $200 iPhone or iPod Touch, and any other supplementary tools or software you want to use.) “That’s a significant entry point for developers making additional content,” adds Colaço.

Plus, he says, by the end of 2009, the content pipeline for PSP will be ‘streamlined’. That includes “new processes and ways to bring product to market, digitally distributed through the PlayStation Network Store”. These titles will have their own dedicated place in the Store – “they will be described and placed differently to how you see current on the PSN today”.

Zeno Colaço, adds: “The two or three things that are very obvious [with the new pipeline] is that if the content is packaged as a smaller application then QA will be lighter. We are looking for the market to decide on what works and what doesn’t. So concept approval – which is a term I don’t like and we don’t use in Europe – we won’t have at all, globally. It’s about allowing the content find its own space because it’s the market embracing it.

"And there is a self-regulating aspect as it is still a professional environment, you still need a development kit and you still need to have investment and a team. But it can be a small team. We don’t see any of the restrictions on the disc-based space being in this space.”

All of that should make the PSP something that “evolves in line with the way consumers change the way they buy content.”

Sony spokespeople and execs paint this latest phase of PlayStation Portable’s lifespan as not being any great, sudden thing. Call it ‘a new initiative’ and they baulk. But clearly, things have changed. The devkit price drop from E3 is proof – as, more importantly, are the developers the company has on board to make these smaller titles for the PSP’s new digital lease of life.

“We’ve been working behind the scenes to have content available for launch,” explains Colaço. Sony has looked far and wide for partners, he says, and there’s a clutch of developers with previous publishing relationships with Sony, plus new developers, charged with creating content for the PSP.

These are a mix of the traditional and the unlikely: Subatomic, developer of the popular iPhone tower defence game Fieldrunners, is producing version of its game for the PSP; Funtank, owner of casual games site Candystand, is making the surprising switch from PC casual to handheld; Indian studio Gameshastra is working on ten downloadable titles; meanwhile Creat, already one of the more popular PSN publishers (even though it is an independent studio first and foremost) for PS3, is producing a raft of titles as well.

You can click here for specific profiles of these four, and they are just the tip of the iceberg: Colaço says that 50 European developers are working on games for PSPgo, with many more globally. “These studios are a true illustration of us saying that we are broadening the platform and introducing new forms of content, and proves that behind the scenes there is a representation of what we are doing,” he explains.

Sony and its new development partners plan to quickly gauge consumer reactions to their products and change things accordingly. Colaço says he expects the evolving nature of the PSP production pipeline means it will be vastly different in a year than it will be when the PSPgo arrives.

“As with all new things you shape the process along the way, and they’ve helped us define how we’re changing the distribution pipe. What’s also happening is that we are in a changing market, where we’ve had relatively small experience; we’re watching from the outside,” he adds, with the allusion to iPhone clear. That said, he points out that Sony isn’t completely dropping the barriers around PSP to turn it into a free-for-all: “This is very much a PlayStation experience and is all about its high values. It’s not content which is secondary – it’s about content that is important to the consumer and things they are looking to buy.”

And buy it they will – at least that’s the plan. Because this new kind of PSP content isn’t going be expensive. Even though it has no name yet, the area of the Store that hosts these games and applications will be “a place in the PlayStation world that has a different kind of content and entertainment – and perhaps a more aggressive price point to reflect the type of content you are getting,” says Colaço.

But still, the firm insists that this isn’t a major change to its strategy, more an evolution of what went before.

“This is not the start of a project, it’s an evolution to look at what other markets are doing and how consumers are changing. We’ve got a real international mix of developers working on games for PSPgo – and rightly so; digitally the barriers to entry are much lower. Not only are the pipelines reduced but the barriers to testing products are also much lower.”

He adds that a ‘managed process’ will dictate how the platform will keep opening up – suggesting that there will be even more to talk about, but Sony is being careful for now. (As this article is written there are rumours abound about more active pursuing of non-game apps, and even Sony’s plans to make a games-focused phone, too.)

Yet the widened remit means that more developers will be able to participate, he admits – a definite change from before.

Ultimately Colaço’s final words to us are the biggest confirmation – whether the format holder likes to admit it or not – that Sony has changed, has become smarter about the market around it, is now willing to play against rivals at their own game and be more aggressive around digital content.

“On PSP we are trying to reduce the barriers to entry some developers would have had in the physical goods route to market. We’re very excited about how existing developers on other PlayStation platforms will contribute to this and how those from other mobile platforms or even those who haven’t worked on the platform before will come to it.

“Things have changed now – the best products don’t necessarily have to come from a retail box.”

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