Since the reveal of the PlayStation 4 back in February when both big publishers and smaller indie games got to share the stage, Sony has been winning over indies left, right and centre.
Past experiences on consoles have slowly turned some developers to mobile platforms, where restrictions are kept to a minimum and hold little-to-no red tape preventing game creators from updating their titles and crafting experiences how they want to.
Sony, much like its rival Microsoft, is realising the importance of supporting the up-and-coming wave of bedroom coders and microstudios where much of the innovation in today’s industry is emerging from.
Proof of this is through its plans to allow indie developers to self-publish on the PS4, as well as its recently announced quarterly indie developer events in London.
But how exactly will this work? Is it all talk and publicity chasing and no clear, effective plan? Develop sat down with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe senior account manager Agostino Simonetta to discuss the process, and how it plans to solve the issues of discoverability that come with such an open marketplace.
One-week concept phase
In the past, Sony used a two-stage process, which required developers to first submit their concept for a game, and then a subsequent alpha phase, both of which would be reviewed.
Simonetta says the console giant has learnt lessons from its mistakes and successes in the past when it comes to the indie scene, but insists the firm has been supporting small developers for years through schemes such as PS Minis and already allowing for self-publishing.
There are also a number of tools developers can take advantage of when developing for the PS4, such as Unity and the open source tool PhyreEngine, which has been used on more than 100 games.
He admits however that Sony has realised its old submission phase was creating a blockade and a big obstacle for developers, so it chose to finesse its approach to make sure this entire process was more developer-friendly. To do this, it cut this part of the process in half.
“Now there is a single stage, a concept phase,” says Simonetta.
“Developers can do it even before they write a line of code. They can send it in [Their concept] and then within a week they get a response from us. Going through the process is very straightforward.
“We have a new system for that. We are looking at end-to-end. It’s not just the actual policies, it’s actually also the tools or the system the developer used to go through the entire process, and it’s a very fast process now. What we call now a GPP process is a week, and after you are out and you can immediately start marketing your product, which wasn’t the case in the past.
"So developers now immediately have the security that the title is going on, going all the way to when they get into QA. And actually we are looking at all the other things that they have to do, such as submit data or anything companies have to do to publish.”
Adding Sony is trying to remove “all of the possible barriers” to submissions and self-publishing, Simonetta says one of the main reasons for keeping this stage was perhaps a selfish one, but one that could help indies with big ideas get noticed. That is, to spot good upcoming titles early on.
From here, he explains Sony can then work with developers from day one on their titles, plan a potential relationship between console manufacturer and developer, and work on co-marketing and promotional opportunities.
But this doesn’t mean developers will lose control of their games. As he said at last month’s Develop Confernece, indies will retain control over their product, development, revenues and release date.
Beyond the concept phase and before the final approval process, developers will be able to get feedback on their title throughout the development period. Simonetta explains this service will be completely free and optional, but if indies choose to, they can receive advice on development, such how they can take advantage of the controller and online features, as well as providing design suggestions. This can be done multiple times during the creation of the game, and all advice can be ignored if it does not fit in with the developer’s own vision.
“The important thing is as a developer you have the right to completely disregard our comments,” he explains.
“So what we’re seeing is a lot of developers ask for our feedback, and some developers implement it as well. The fact it is not mandatory to change anything has actually created a better atmosphere. They appreciate the feedback, and they have the freedom to do what they like.”
He adds: “And the same applies to the technical side. So the R&D group, they are there to support developers. If developers want tot send their code in because they are struggling with a bug related to the platform, or optimisation, or they want some advice, they can do that.
“We often send engineers in, because sometimes it’s best to have an engineer on-site to be able to see a few programmers face-to-face. You don’t need to be a big publisher to get that; any company can get that. We do it with companies of any size.”
Having passed the concept stage and developed your game, the final step before the title can be released is the formal QA phase. Here, Sony ensures the code is clean and the game is playable for PS4 users.
Simonetta says Sony is yet to finalise its plans for the quality assurance process, and was unable to provide answers to how long this phase might take, and how stringent the guidelines would be for final submissions.
And what about the required PS4 development kits? Microsoft recently shook up the console space with the announcement that each Xbox One at retail could be used as a development kit, although it hasn’t explained how this will work, and the costs that may lie behind it.
Sony itself has yet to set a price for PS4 development kits, says Simonetta. He assures us however that they will be cheaper than PS3 devkits at launch, which cost in the region of 20,000 euros.
When further pushed on how affordable they will be for indies, he responded with “we will try our best”.
Discoverability and equality of opportunity
Beyond the development phase, one of the major concerns for big and small developers alike is discoverability. With well over 850,000 apps on the App Store causing difficulties for many developers looking to get noticed on iOS, how does Sony plan to offer fair promotional opportunities to indie developers? And how will it ensure there is enough freedom for developers to easily release their games, but also keep the PlayStation Store free from filling up with ‘low quality’ titles that can infuriate both developers and consumers alike?
Rather than leaving indies to fend for themselves, Simonetta states that Sony support will come from a variety of areas, including social networks, the PlayStation Blog and a special section for indie games.
He assures developers that this additional indie area is just that, a place for certain types of consumers to find that kind of content. Indie titles will still be available on the main marketplace, and won’t be segregated off from their triple-A counterparts.
“Discoverability is an interesting challenge on any platform,” he says.
“Finding content, the same as in retail, you have so much shelf space. But the approach that PlayStation takes is that discoverability doesn’t just happen on the store. Compared to some of our competitors, we take a very proactive approach to push content across our digital channels.
“The PlayStation Blog, where we tend to announce content first, from first-party or third-party, is followed by the kind of consumers that will like to find this content, and the PlayStation Blog is an amazing channel because all the major websites follow it. So effectively we are taking a slightly different approach where it’s not just the store that is the key to discovering content, it is the entire spectrum of media that we provide access for a developer to. So the twitter, the community, Facebook, the blog.”
Developers will also be able to work with Sony on promotions, such as for a price-drop, while the electronics giant may even approach indies itself for promotional opportunities if it is excited by a game’s concept and execution, bringing the early concept phase and release process full circle.
Simonetta stresses that Sony is keen to bring “equality of opportunity” and a “level playing field” to all developers through its various promotional channels and the store. He highlighted how the indie sections are currently used on Vita and PS3, stating there is a constant refresh of which titles are promoted every one or two weeks, all part of Sony’s on-going attempts “to give visibility to as many developers as possible.”
And the plans Sony has in store for the PS4 so far appear to be working, Simonetta says he and a colleague who has been with Sony with ten years have "never seen anything like" the number of indie developers registering to create content for the PS4.
"The environment is right, we have the right proposition and all of this is coming together, and that’s why we’re seeing the wind behind us at the moment," he says.
"The moment is right and we have now made the right decisions. It’s great to see developers actually supporting us."
Some serious questions remain though for self-publishing on the PS4, and those are some the real costs of developing for the platform. But with time still left for Sony to show its full hand, and the fact the company is taking self-publishing seriously by creating a community and working on discoverability both in and outside of the PlayStation marketplace, the future of indie development on console looks positive.