A lot has been written about PlayStation's remarkable journey over the last few years.
It has turned PS3 into a winner after a tumultuous launch, and has seemingly denied Xbox an easy win on the start of the next generation.
But its real victory lately has been reengaging with the people making games for its platforms, not the platforms themselves.
At Gamescom, the firm spent 90 minutes building up to the PS4 release date by talking about 15 smaller indie games coming to PS3, Vita and PS4. No Uncharted 4, no VR headset. The focus was largely on games that were built outside of its empire of 14 internal studios.
Of course this is testament to the huge share of attention indie games are getting these days, and Sony's the first to admit this sudden wave of talent has taken it by surprise.
After E3, the firm wasn't planning to flex its development support muscle so prominently in Cologne, explains studios boss Shuhei Yoshida.
As soon as E3 ended we started planning for Gamescom's conference, but because we had a huge indie section at E3 I was not expecting we would have as much new games as we showed,” he admits. But working with indies… well, they are so fast! We cannot anticipate everything because of how fast they move.”
"The immediacy and the quickness of these
teams is incredible – some of them are just
one person. They don't have to go through
all the approvals or presentations we do.
They just make things. That's the difference
between them and us."
Shuhei Yoshida - president, SCE Worldwide Studios
The wider step-change in the industry, with the ‘middle' of games crumbling away to form a swathe of smaller studios (almost all of them opting for open platforms and their big digital stores like iOS or Steam) has prompted deep changes at PlayStation. Concept approval is gone, plus it is actively inviting indies to port PC hits to its platforms (and footing the bill). Plus, even if Sony always did work with outside studios, it has been more prolific in terms of its portfolio and PR to prove it.
It's all for a good reason: fact is those teams can easily go elsewhere (and have previously) if PlayStation isn't open for them.
Says Yoshida: We are trying to make our platform more accessible because those studios have choices, right? If we make things difficult they can go elsewhere and find another place to put their games. The immediacy and the quickness of these teams is incredible – some of them are just one person. They don't have to go through all the approvals or presentations we do. They just make things. That's the difference between them and us.
Nothing has changed in terms of our mindset – we have worked with small companies to release games like Sound Shapes, Unfinished Swan, Flow and Journey in the past. But what changed was that whole boom of indies. Many of them are experienced developers and many have years of experience. There are just more great guys making more interesting things than before.”
A lot has also been written about PlayStation's remarkable Journey (upper case J). It's this game Yoshida points to when we ask if these games actually make any material commercial difference.
At the crux of platform holders' new-found love of upstart microstudios is the contradiction of a big guy/little guy relationship. The people in charge of things like PlayStation and Xbox love the giant third-party publishers because they create games of such ferocious popcorn munching scale that they promote a platform (and pay handsome licence fees) as much as anything. Can an brainy indie game be a system seller too?
I think Journey is a system seller in terms of the impact it makes,” says Yoshida. It may not be that people buy a PS3 to play Journey, but they hear about other people playing it. It proves the breadth of the platform, and I think it proves to non-gamers how broad games can be. That's a wonderful thing.”
Investing in indies is also an investment in the future of industry talent. Some of these up and coming microstudios of today may become the Rockstars of tomorrow.
Some of the studios want to stay small and want to make the titles they want,” says Yoshida. But some will want to grow and try triple-A, he adds, but if a company is small it has relative control over the destiny of their title. But when they become larger they need someone to fund it, and that's where they give up some of their freedoms.”
On the eve of a release like Grand Theft Auto V – purportedly developed by a team in the four-digits, and a budget with around eight zeroes at the end – it's worth understanding how the industry landscape has been redrawn around the evergreen blockbusters.
Development has polarised now. Our bigger
teams are getting bigger and we are not doing
many mid-sized games any more. So we are
either working on larger projects, or very small
ones – many of the latter. I think that trend will
continue because people like the big budget,
huge experiences. And I love them too."
Shuhei Yoshida - president, SCE Worldwide Studios
And this is being reflected inside Sony's studios, says Yoshida.
Development has polarised now,” he says. Our bigger teams are getting bigger and we are not doing many mid-sized games any more. So we are either working on larger projects, or very small ones – many of the latter. I think that trend will continue because people like the big budget, huge experiences. And I love them too. So maybe we may not be able to make more of these in terms of numbers but there is always a demand for the ‘wow factor'.
That's where there are some relations between the larger triple-A games and the indie boom because consumers are always wanting something new.”
But the real reason indie titles have become so important is not just for their sales potential, but their meaning, says Yoshida.
It's without question that the indie games on the market today tackle areas that big box game publishers just won't touch, be that a contentious topic or theme, or a genre considered too niche for a triple-A gamble.
Yoshida says that by promoting games like this – many of them are timed exclusives to PlayStation, with IP kept by the studios – elicits a different feeling from an audience spoon-fed Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed.
If we are just doing big budget triple-A sequels the industry doesn't have a bright future. We need new ideas to be tried out. And while of course the big teams are trying new ideas too, the amount of resources needed and the financial risk is so large that they have to set a certain limit on that. That's where the indies come in.”