As claims go, Sony’s comment that the PS3 is ‘future proof’ is a bold one, but not that high a concept. Forward investment has always been in its blood – just ask SCEE Liverpool.
Based in the UK’s North West, it’s an integral part of Sony’s recently formed WorldWide Studios (WWS), yet its roots lie further back and its history interwoven with the growth of the development scene in that region and beyond. Without it there would arguably be none of the UK’s current independent studio heroes such as Bizarre Creations, Traveller’s Tales, or Evolution (not to mention many others, of course, like SN Systems).
That heritage is still of importance amongst the staff.
Michael Denny, whose role as VP of Sony WWS Europe gives him joint responsibility for the European operation, and managing remit over SCEE Liverpool Studio, External Development Studio and Amsterdam’s Guerrilla Games, joined in 1995.
Director of the internal studio Clemens Wangerin joined at the same time, while John Rostron, now director of the External Development Studio, started his career in games as a salesman for the then publisher’s PsyQ SDK.
But this trio is not obsessed with the past. Far from it, in fact, as in separate conversations with Develop each repeats a particular word that embodies the plan behind the PlayStation family of hardware and its place amongst an audience to whom the internet is akin to running water. The word: relevance.
A RELEVANT ISSUE
Denny used the word regularly in his keynote during 2006’s London Games Summit, wherein he urged the industry to understand that the hit-driven market was being joined by the ultra-niche (a topic highlighted by Wired editor Chris Anderson’s economics book The Long Tail) and that Web 2.0 functions gain traction not just through their useful connectedness, but through consumer empowerment.
“We need to come up with relevant content. We need to extend our offerings and create active communities of loyal consumers,” he said then.
Is that still the case six months later, now that the PlayStation 3 has finally made it to consumers’ hands?
“Absolutely,” he explains: “We see the future as being about network and being about communities. To that end we see that all games, whether they are launched on disc or electronically, need to create a community and have active community websites and extra content. It’s a natural and organic way forward. Consumers have already shown us this is what they want – choice not only on how they play and interact with products but how they purchase and consume them.”
Backing up a console with an internet connection doesn’t just please a new audience, it keeps the current one happy. The use of networking guarantees a back-and-forth transaction between both consumer and console, content maker and content user – something to be developed further beyond the free online play and PlayStation Store already available.
While some aspects of Sony’s wider online vision are still under wraps – Denny says “Watch this space” when pressed about the phrase ‘Creative Gameplay’ which he also introduced last September – a quick tour of the internal team’s recent softography proves that a large chunk of R&D for online has already been done with games they have produced and finished.
The games in question, PSP’s WipEout Pure and PS3 racer F1 Championship Edition visually milk their host hardware for all their worth, but have unique ideas on how networking can empower players.
F1 has approached online play with a consumer-friendly late-join system that lets players enter a Grand Prix at any point during a lengthy run of laps – there’s none of the usual hanging around in a lobby to connect to a game – while WipEout Pure is the only PSP game to have successfully pioneered and then maintained downloadable content.
WipEout Pure specifically reveals a number of ways studios will have to adapt to constantly updated or released content, says studio head Wangerin.
“When we set out to create Pure we knew that as long as we approached the development correctly we would succeed,” he says. The approach being: “To make it very data driven and to be sure that it will look for data whether it is on the UMD or the Memory Stick.”
Eventually, the team created as much content for download as on the shipped UMD. A different production model meant “the art team essentially kept going, and continued working on new levels and ships as if the games hadn’t come out – but they knew the tools much better by then and were familiar with the hardware.”
Wangerin adds: “The downloadable content, purely from a qualitative point of view, probably ended up more polished than what we originally shipped.”
The strategy paid off. According to Metacritic, Pure’s only behind Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Lumines in the all-time PSP rankings. 800,000 pieces of content were downloaded for free, while the game was the first PSP title to reach million-selling Platinum status.
“For us, it has shown how much choice you can give a consumer from a content point of view and how relevant that can be,” says Wangerin. “When you buy music online you can buy single tracks – that kind of principle is relevant here and will play a part in our thinking. Being able to cater to a much finer resolution of gamers’ tastes and maybe create more byte-sized or customisable gaming is a massive advantage,” he says, adding that there’s a unique self-fulfilling prophecy of popularity that having add-on content has brought.
“Downloadable content helped keep the game on the shelf and encouraged people to not trade the game in,” he reckons. So why haven’t we seen third parties harness this proven approach?
“It helps that it was a bespoke PSP title, an exclusive – which seems to be a challenge for big crossplatform publishers to comprehend; other games have failed to seize the potential of the machine. Plus we knew from the start we were going to do it, and it was part of the team’s philosophy and production pipeline. Nothing was an afterthought.”
THE WINNING FORMULA
Straight after Pure the team turned its attentions to its 2006 slate of Formula One games for PS2, PSP and PS3, following a more traditional pattern for production.
But Wangerin is sure that with the Pure experience under their belts, the team is now “beyond the notion of ‘here’s the planning, now lets go to alpha, beta, master, and then move on to the next part’ – our plans include a period post-master now where new ideas are being built and packaged up for release.”
The approach will presumably replicate itself for the next PSP instalment of WipEout and its PS3 debut.
Wangerin can’t say much about either game yet, aside from acknowledge their existence, but providing “Sixaxis controls, maybe online multiplayer and downloadable content” to the latter, on a machine he says in fact “has a learning curve a lot easier than the vector units on the PS2” is what excites him.
And with one PS3 title already in the can, “the challenge for us now is to stay ahead of the curve”.
Having to hop between the three different PlayStation formats is also a daily duty for John Rostron and the External Development team – although none of the large-scale production work is done in house, of course, given their unique position.
Buzz, Pursuit Force, MotorStorm, Go! Sudoku, Killzone – the team has produced a diverse, successful line-up, and is looking after some key upcoming titles for all three formats (only a few of which have been formally announced, such as the sequel to Pursuit Force, upcoming PS3 Killzone and the as-yet-unnamed and unseen game from start-up Media Molecule). The team’s also keenly hunting for EDI titles to be sold via the PlayStation Store.
With so many proven successes what’s their secret?
“The games with the massive design documents tend to be the weaker ones,” says Rostron, explaining that since he took over the team two years ago after a stint away from Liverpool working for EA, he has focused on introducing “processes focused on what you are going to build and how you are going to visualise it.”
Rostron uses, as an example, Buzz’ transformation from a game starring an alien talking gibberish to its clearer quiz show concept – an idea whittled out by the External Development team, developer Relentless, and studio Sleepy Dog which supplied the questions.
“It sounds like simple advice, but I see so many companies making mistakes with feature sets as long as your arm – you can’t convey that in a sentence. So unless it’s a statement that sums the game up, or a visual representation like the MotorStorm movie, it won’t work,” Rostron says.
“So our producers have to work with the developers to understand what the single message the game will be that you can then convey to everyoneinvolved with the project – both within the team and external to it.”
And by that he means the marketing and PR teams as well as development: “This means we can then deliver with clarity on what we have promised.”
Another key to a successful relationship is to reign in any preciousness.
“I don’t think we’re too dictatorial about things – we just want to be clear on what the message of a game is. We can’t go in with our size 12s on and kick the game in – you won’t keep the respect of the team, and unless your developer partner buys into the concept it’s worthless.”
Gaining such clarity and forming such a strong relationship between the independent and in-house development camps has evidently beneficial.
The Buzz franchise has shifted over four million discs in Europe during its first year alone, and the range has diversified, too, with four versions already available, another seven in the works, and a version also commissioned by the Department of Education.
“We never expected it to be a massive number one hit, but we expected it to be a franchise that would continue through the life of the PlayStation,” he says, pointing out that the software’s real killer app, the buzzers, are what sells it because consumers understand the concept “and its relevance” instantly.
So “great ideas can come from anywhere, but the secret is knowing what idea is a great one. You can get great design documents, but I think the ones that really work best are the ones that are really short and concise and can convey the message quickly.”
This couldn’t be more true when it comes to hunting for games (and, the team says, non-game content) for Sony’s e-Distribution Initiative (eDI). A number of eDI titles make up the 34 games the External Development team is currently looking after – and something that network delivery itself aids, advocating more clarified easy-to-grasp game experiences by its very nature.
Rostron’s clear that the PlayStation approach is vastly different to its contemporaries: “We don’t want to churn out a series of arcade games or titles you can freely get on the web. What I like is that you get to see a broad range of titles, and we’re on the look out for something that’s new or innovative.”
“Games are fundamentally good when you’ve got very little,” says Rostron, explaining that out of the huge number of pitches the team gets already, they’ve found a number that were designed for disc-based release “but you wouldn’t want to spend £10 million on, yet you could spend much less on and still get a rewarding downloadable game.”
And by that same regard, the team has also had pitches that could do with “the time, money and drive” to make them fit better as Blu-Ray-delivered experiences than downloaded ones.
This multi-format point is something Denny is keen to stress and something all three of the SCEE Liverpool men want other studios to note.
While much has been written about the roll out of the PS3, the fact remains that throughout Sony still has the world’s best-selling home console and has introduced a strong contender in the portable space.
All this proves is the wider issue over why platform-specific titles are so keenly chased by format holders – the PlayStation family of hardware benefits those who tailor make experiences for it, says Denny.
“We have three formats that are all separate and independent and have specific content. We want bespoke titles for each of those formats and titles that are relevant to each format,” he says. So in a wider industry sense, how do they make sure the three don’t bleed into one and are seen as for their specific strengths?
The answer is to lead by example, says Denny: “As Sony WorldWide Studios we want to put a marker down for other studios to show that you can’t write a generic next-gen game any more – you need to design and optimise specifically for PS3.”
He suggests that F1 and MotorStorm may be useful reference points for other PS3 launch titles.
“It leaves us with a broad range of developers we can talk to for a diverse range of content. This very much still includes PS2, which is still our (and the industry’s) biggest format. The games that are still being made for it will go on and on. And in relation to PSP and PS3 – I don’t look at what we do as ‘just games’ any more, there are other applications that will be relevant. Consequently, we need to cast our net widely, also looking outside of the industry for creative inspiration.
“The beauty of having multi-platform is that it gives you freedom to look at different developers to expand the portfolio. The same goes for eDI games, which can be different in format to big budget games. Now you can have a start-up company that can make PlayStation 3 games – that would have been unthinkable before.
“So there are now many ways for developers to do business, and I think PlayStation caters to all of them.”
It’s always dangerous to try and predict the future. But when the industry is built on cycles, you can’t help but see history repeating itself at SCEE Liverpool.
During the launch of the original PlayStation, the team put together bestselling launch titles WipEout and Destruction Derby via its internal and external development teams. It’s done the same again for the PlayStation 3, in the form of F1 Championship Edition and Evolution’s MotorStorm.
Plus, with the aforementioned studios like Traveller’s Tales, Bizarre Creations and the like so well established after their beginnings with Sony, it’s hard not to see the same golden touch already helping the industry’s newest stars. Relentless, Ninja Theory, Media Molecule, Sumo Digital, FreeStyle Games, and the others counted as its development partners, have all benefited of late.
Yet, SCEE Liverpool’s activity goes beyond simply doing what it has always done best: with the added promises offered by the PlayStation Network, and provided the company lives up to them, what Sony could give back to the games industry should mean the best is still to come.