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Living the Dream: Arcen Games and the Indie Recipe, Pt 1.

Saturday, 4 August 2012 07:51 GMT By Brenna Hillier

How do a couple of bright sparks with a liking for gaming grow into a team of full-time indie developers? Jamie Dalzell talks to Chris Park of AI War and A Valley Without Wind developer Arcen Games.

“If it wasn’t for Steam I would probably still be working in business software, occasionally working on hobbyist game development projects. At best I might be half-time in each job, but that would be tough to sustain in the long term. Once we got on Steam, suddenly Pablo and I were able to quit the day jobs and do this fulltime.”

“You know the story about how they boil live lobsters, right?”

I’ve just asked Arcen Games’ founder Chris Park what it’s like to finally move from videogame idea to videogame production, and his response surprises me. I ponder what a crustacean and boiling water have to do with game development.

The creation process draws many similarities to cooks in kitchens, it seems, as Chris would inform me: if the mainstream kitchen is one of Gordon Ramsay hurling expletives in every direction, the indie kitchen is a quiet place that we all have at home, where groups of one, two, sometimes ten, work away far from prying eyes.

In this indie kitchen they tweak the recipe not by diluting it with water, but by pouring their own personalities into their game, until they look into that pot and see themselves reflected in the lid, keeping their project under wraps.

Chris Park is a developer who began in that kitchen, messing with videogame mods, trying his hand with experimental ingredients. From Neverwinter Nights campaigns through to Counter-Strike levels. His videogame kitchen was one strewn with tools of the trade, from notepads to PC monitors full of code, and then, one day, he had more than just a twisted dish, but a meal he thought others might enjoy.

In many ways he was already an indie developer, but from that moment on Chris threw open the doors and invited others in to try his speciality. His team’s latest dish? A Valley Without Wind.

Rustic Beginnings

If Arcen Games could now be considered a commercial kitchen, what with all six members of its team , then it’s one that started from humble beginnings. Just a test-kitchen of one.

“I’ve been doing hobbyist game development, modding, level design, and so forth since the early 90s,” says Chris. “I never really viewed it as a viable career, though, so I went into business software instead. But I kept working on game stuff during off-hours as a hobby.”

What Chris refers to as “game stuff”, others know as AI War: Fleet Command, a game he had been working on since November of 08. In many ways, AI War was the typical indie game, before “indie” was seen as an art project or a time-bending platformer: it was rustic, it was raw, it was a game defined by an overall genre of “Strategy Game” but it was an amalgamation of many ideas. A melting pot of game design from a single man, with a single, personal, vision.

Even as far back as 2009, AI War was still very much a work in progress, and when Chris found one day that his work had cumulated in a product others might be interested in, he ramped up his efforts to find those final ingredients.

This is AI War, where it all started for Arcen.

“In 2009 I realized I had a game worth selling. I then contracted an awesome composer, Pablo Vega, to do the score for the game.” he continues.

From there Chris could only rely on personal funds to drag the game over the finish line, to the point where he was searching the internet for freeware art and sound assets.

“AI War started off small and then really started to snowball, winding up on Steam and doing really well on Metacritic. As that game first started making money, I reinvested that into hiring an actual artist to do better art for that game.”

“[If it wasn’t for Steam] I would probably still be working in business software, occasionally working on hobbyist game development projects. At best I might be half-time in each job, but that would be tough to sustain in the long term.”

“Once we got on Steam, suddenly Pablo and I were able to quit the day jobs and do this fulltime.”

An Indie Valley Without Wind?

The team’s third, and latest, game, A Valley Without Wind, was announced in 2010, but the opportunity to bring that game to life wasn’t always a certainty.

By the time AI War had found its way to Steam, and from the team’s continued expansions and updates, Chris could devote his attention to game development, slowly but surely bolstering that kitchen of designers, but the team’s second game, Tidalis, almost heralded their closure before they’d ever really begun.

“[Before AVWW] we had just had to shrink some because our second game Tidalis had flopped financially despite having great reviews. So we were a smaller team of just Pablo, myself, and Keith, and Keith was part-time in those days,” says Chris.

To this day, Tidalis is still one of Arcen’s highest rated games, but the release of their own rendition of a match-3 puzzle game – despite being praised by critics as an interesting take on the burgeoning “genre” – almost sunk the team.

“It seems to me that reviews are no longer the driving force behind game sales that they might once have been,” Chris offers. “At least if you’re already established and getting coverage at all, I mean.”

And this is Tidalis, which … not so much.

With the team smaller than it once was, Chris turned his attention to his ideas for A Valley Without Wind, returning to the familiar, and more manageable, territory of procedural content and their signature style of zany, freeware art.

“We figured that this [A Valley Without Wind] could be somewhat of a smaller project. And in fact the early prototypes did move ridiculously fast,” says Chris.

“But then AI War kept having surges of income for us, and we wound up with some windfalls that let us expand the scope of the game rather substantially. Things we might have had to do in post-release content or expansions we instead focused on during the game’s 1.0 phase.”

“Erik joined shortly after we started work on the project in order to take over PR so that I wouldn’t have to spend time on that, and also so that he could help out on some various development-oriented work such as map design or bits of writing. At a later point Keith came on fulltime (him already having been the only other programmer/designer other than myself). Then during our private alpha of the game, right before we opened the game in a beta form, we brought on Josh to handle support and QA, and he turned out also to be quite useful for a lot of development-related things such as map design and some art-related work.”

Steam, and the continued support the team were showing for their previous game, AI War, ensured that they were not only able to make a start on A Valley Without Wind, but also expand both in scope and in team size.

Arcen decided the time was right to turn up the gas, and begin work on A Valley Without Wind.

It was time to cook those lobsters.

“You know the story about how they boil live lobsters, right?” asks Chris, and now, I think, I finally catch his drift.

“Put them in cool water, then turn up the temperature gradually so that eventually they get cooked without ever realizing to jump out of the water? Going from idea to finished concept is very much like that, in any creative endeavor.”

“Arcen titles rarely come from any one idea,” Chris continues. “Rather, I always feel like they must be the intersection of several great ideas before the game has any chance of being great.”

“Sometimes I’d be reading previews about a game and getting really excited, then play the final product and realized I’d misunderstood what they were going for. And sometimes I thought my original conception of their idea was cooler, and I’d mentally file that away.”

“All my life I’ve been a gamer, and that involves a lot of looking at what other people actually make as well as what you think they were going to make. So sometimes I’d be reading previews about a game and getting really excited, then play the final product and realized I’d misunderstood what they were going for. And sometimes I thought my original conception of their idea was cooler, and I’d mentally file that away. I think that all game designers do this, unconsciously or not. It certainly was unconscious for me.”

For Chris, A Valley Without Wind came about from a desire to construct a large, procedural world, where interesting things could happen, and players could feel as if they were intrepid adventurers, in what would ultimately become an amalgamation of a side-scrolling RPG filled with crafting and exploration. Yet as Chris describes, the design process is an ever changing one, and with the help of some Google-fu, you can still find the remnants of AVWW in its original form: a top-down, isometric game that resembles the final product in nothing more than its art style. The recipe changed.

“We didn’t even know it [AVWW] was going to be a sidescroller at first,” says Chris, “but that was one of many things that evolved along the way as we prototyped and saw what worked and what didn’t, and ultimately what felt most fun to us.”

“Originally the game was top-down and included EXP and levels and a different style of focus on NPCs. It was a lot more traditional hack-and-slash dungeon crawler in a lot of respects, and now that doesn’t even really describe the game at all.”

Like many who involve themselves in a creative endeavour, Chris echoes many of our thoughts, in that the original idea isn’t always the best. It’s the spark that lights a bigger fire.

“At the start you are very excited and the world seems full of possibility. You can literally do anything, because you have a pretty blank slate at that point. You have ideas you think are better than others, but you’re hopefully open to trying things a few different ways and seeing what works best. Ultimately the final way that things get implemented won’t look like anything you started with in your mind, but that’s okay because otherwise it wouldn’t be all that creative in the first place – anything you can think of right from the start of the project can’t possibly be that creative.”

“Each day you sit down and work on different bits and pieces of this idea,” he continues, “and gradually the excitement fades and is replaced by just lots of hard work and tough choices: it’s not always clear what the best path is.”

“The key thing is not to be designing from a position of fear. That leads to very conservative, derivative games.”

“The key thing is not to be designing from a position of fear. That leads to very conservative, derivative games. You must start from the assumption that “if I can make something that I feel is fine and good and that I love, at least some others will also love it.” And that has to be enough. If you’re trying to trend-follow in order to be the next Minecraft, I suppose that could conceivably work, but even there the game has to come from the heart rather than from a feeling of need for acceptance.”

And in many ways, while that lobster of a game idea cooked away, the team were cooking themselves. Under the pressure of a game that was shifting shape and form so quickly, as they distilled that idea down to its core.

“That’s the trap of game development: you’re being boiled like the lobster, and all those ideas you were excited about and, which seemed new and interested at the start of the project, now seem ordinary to you by the end.”

“Think of how you feel about Ocarina of Time now, if you’ve played it, versus how you felt when you first played it. Of course you play the ocarina like that. Of course you Z target like this. Etc, etc. These ideas seem obvious to you because you’re so familiar with them by now, a decade and a half later.”

“As a game developer, it’s like compressing that decade and a half into months or just a few years. You’re focused more intensely on the game than even the most devoted hardcore fan ever will. By the end of the project, all of your innovative ideas seem obvious to you, because you’ve been accustomed to them “for so long,” however long it has actually been. But the players – well, for good and for ill they are just now coming to meet those innovations for the first time.”

“If you’ve introduced those ideas properly then they are delighting in the innovations just as you originally did. If you’ve not done it right, then the learning curve is frustrating and jagged, and players feel confused and don’t find it as fun as they would if they understood it better. So for us, the biggest thing we keep thinking about is if we’re being clear to the player, and communicating ideas to them effectively. Ideally through as little text as possible, and instead helping players to have those flashes of insight for themselves.”

Turne in tomorrow for the second half of the journey, where we discuss what it means to be indie and what the last few years have taught Arcen.

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2 Comments

  1. Pytox

    Interesting interview :)

    #1 3 years ago
  2. OlderGamer

    AVWW is an amazing game, one of my recent favs. A great example of why I play indie/ Nice to hear a small dev priase its release platform(Steam) rather then condem it.

    #2 3 years ago

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  • Life is Strange launch trailer and final dev diary released

    With the first episode of Life is Strange releasing tomorrow, Dontnod Entertainment has released the last developer diary for the title as well as the launch trailer. Titled Creating Arcadia Bay, the video provides more information on the licensed soundtrack as well as the voice actors behind Max and Chloe. It also touches upon how […]

  • LEGO Jurassic World and LEGO Marvel’s Avengers out this year

    LEGO Jurassic World and LEGO Marvel’s Avengers have been announced by Warner Bros., the former was outed by Toys R Us and then teased at the end of LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham, if you recall. LEGO Jurassic World encompasses all four Jurassic Park films and will be made available in June for 3DS, PC, […]

  • Pokemon, Super Smash Bros. top Nintendo’s million units sales list for Q3

    Nintendo has posted a list of titles which have sold millions of units as part of its quarter three earnings release. Global unit sales of 3DS titles for the nine months ending December 31, 2014: Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire: 9.35 million (life-to-date, same) Super Smash Bros.: 6.19 million (life-to-date, same) Tomodachi Life: 2.11 […]

  • How to take a screenshot on Xbox One: a lesson in frustration

    Trying to do just one simple thing seems to have 360 steps with Microsoft – why is the Xbox One’s functionality such a car crash? “The Xbox One’s definition of usability is in fact the exact opposite – this is a console designed to make life inconvenient for its players unless they sign up for […]

  • Game of Thrones’ Westeros is being made in Minecraft by 125 people

    WesterosCraft, the project dedicated to creating the entirety of Game of Thrones’ Westros has resurfaced. There are more than a few ambitious Minecraft projects, but hardly any as impressive as WesterosCraft. We first came across it all the way back in January 2013, but it looks much better now. “I would say the world is […]

  • Dying Light exploit gives you unlimited money and items

    Dying Light has been out for just over a day and an infinite money and item exploit is already out there. A simple exploit has been discovered in Dying Light that lets you duplicate weapons, all of which you can sell for profit. Win/ win. YouTuber PowerPyx lays out the steps in the handy video […]

  • Sunset Overdrive concept art is as jovial as the game itself

    Sunset Overdrive is a colourful game which is partly due to its concept art. The concept art featured below is created by Vaughan Ling, one of the concept artsists who worked on Sunset Overdrive. Anyone who’s played the game will immediately recognise the locations, weapons, character designs and general atmosphere of the game through these. […]

  • Get an extended look at the PS4 version of Project CARS

    The PlayStation 4 version of Project CARS has been shown in 1080p 60fps. The video below is captured by racing game enthusiasts Team VVV from a preview build. You can see different racing disciplines being demonstrated here, on different circuits. The game’s impressive visuals get even better when the weather gets worse.

  • Battle Pod is the Star Wars arcade game you’ve waited your whole life for

    Star Wars: Battle Pod is an arcade game that lets you replay the battles of the original trilogy, and features an incredible cockpit. If you’ve never played a game at an arcade before, Star Wars: Battle Pod will definitely be the one to change your mind. It’s an arcade cabinet out of a classic Star […]

  • CoD Exo Zombies: how to unlock the Ride of the Valkyries Easter egg

    To no one’s surprise, Exo Zombies mode in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare has some Easter eggs. The first Exo Zombies Easter egg, of surely many more to come, has been discovered. It’s a musical one that involves Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. How you unlock it is not as convoluted as you might […]

  • Dying Light is sub-1080p on Xbox One, full 1080p on PS4 – report

    Early analysis of Dying Light on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One has revealed a few technical details about both ports. Digital Foundry has produced some analysis of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One ports of Dying Light based on some early testing. Both versions manage a solid 30 frames-per-second, only dipping below that in […]

  • Battlefield 4 Second Assault DLC free to all EA Access members

    EA is offering Battlefield 4′s Second Assault expansion free to anyone with an active EA Access subscription. Anyone with an active subscription to EA Access can download the Second Assault expansion pack for Battlefield 4 starting January 29 and through February 28, free of charge. All you need to do is find it on the […]

  • The Witcher 3 is getting optimised, but no visual downgrade

    The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is in the final stages of development and developer CD Projekt RED is making sure optimisation work doesn’t impact the game’s visuals. The Witcher 3 art producer, Michal Stec, spoke to Eternity in an interview and was asked whether the team will downgrade the visuals to get better performance. “No. […]

  • Can’t download Dying Light on PS4? Here’s a fix

    If you’ve bought Dying Light on PS4 and you’re having trouble downloading it, you’re not alone. Here’s how to beat the bug. Techland’s Dying Light is stumbling out of the blocks a little this week, with many PS4 users experiencing problems with their full-game downloads. A bug’s to blame. Your console thinks you’ve already installed […]

  • What The Witcher 3 owes to Skyrim – and how it surpasses it

    The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt owes more than a nod to Bethesda’s Skyrim. I went to see The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and had a great time. I went in a fan of the books but not very experienced with the first two games. I came out with The Witcher 3 top of my gaming […]

  • Dragon’s Dogma Online has great monsters

    Dragon’s Dogma Online looks pretty rad – an undesirable quality in a game unlikely to come west, from our perspective. The first Dragon’s Dogma trailer was released this afternoon; admire its beauty below. The free to play online RPG was announced for PC, PlayStation 3 and PS4 overnight, but Capcom doesn’t intend to bring it […]

  • Xenoblade Chronicles X map about five times the size of last game’s

    Xenoblade Chronicles X is not a small game. This week’s Famitsu has a feature on Xenoblade Chronicles X giving some details on Monolith Soft’s next RPG and first Wii U game. According to Siliconera‘s translation of reports on the feature, the game’s map is about five times the size of that in Xenoblade Chronicles. The […]

  • Take on Mars expected to hit beta in April

    Take on Mars, the space sim from Bohemia Interactive will soon be reader for wider consumption. According to a new Take on Mars development roadmap, the sim will go into beta at the start of April, with full release expected in June. The project is currently available via Steam early Access, but between now and […]

  • Can you guess the next Mortal Kombat X character reveal from this fatality audio clip?

    Mortal Kombat X will have at least one very liquid-sounding fatality. NetherRealm is revealing Mortal Kombat X’s cats one character at a time, and has promised a new reveal during a community Twitch stream tomorrow. It also provided the following teaser video – it’s audio only, and apparently taken from a fatality sequence. What’s your […]

  • Nintendo Creators Program now recruiting YouTubers – PewDiePie, others weigh-in

    Nintendo has opened a Creators Program designed to ensure creators get a slice of ad revenue from videos featuring Nintendo assets, and some prominent YouTubers aren’t pleased with the company. Update “What Nintendo are missing out on completely is the free exposure and publicity that they get from YouTube,” wrote Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie) on his […]

  • Xbox Live issues under investigation

    Can’t sign into Xbox Live? Microsoft is on the case. Xbox 360 and Xbox One users report being unable to sign in to Xbox Live. Microsoft is already aware of and working on the problem. “Our team is hard at work right now trying to get this resolved. Thank you for staying patient while we […]

  • Make money from your non-Valve mods with Steam Workshop

    Valve has opened the money-making side of Steam Workshop to third-party titles, giving enterprising modders more ways to make money. Steam now hosts curated Workshops for Dungeon Defenders: Eternity and Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, the first non-Valve games to support the scheme. What that means is that community members can create, vote on and eventually even […]

  • Check out DmC: Devil May Cry’s new manual lock-on

    DmC: Devil may Cry developer Ninja Theory has released a video showing off the new, controversial lock-on mode. The new manual lock-on is causing quite a stir, although its reception is probably better than the white-wigged Dante who makes fans even more upset than the original makeover. “The primary purpose of this video is to […]

  • Dragon Quest Heroes looks pretty fun

    Dragon Quest Heroes is yet another Omega Force take on an existing property – like Hyrule Warriors or the One Piece games. And it looks pretty sweet. We haven’t heard much from Dragon Quest Heroes here in the west because it hasn’t been confirmed for release outside Japan. This isn’t terribly surprising as we still […]

  • Square Enix to reveal new PS4 game this weekend

    Square Enix is doing something pretty mysterious right now. The Final Fantasy publisher is teasing something called Project Code Z. The project, which Square Enix is tweeting about in Japanese, English and German, is due for reveal at Tokaigi 2015 on Saturday. It’s a PS4 game, but that’s all we know. There’s a website you […]

  • Tetris has crowned its first known western Grand Master

    Tetris fans have a new western champion. Tetris is one of those gaming obsessions that goes much deeper than you might expect. For example, did you know that some versions of the game assess your performance and over you the chance to become a “grand master”? Turns out that’s a thing, and according to Polygon […]

  • Ken Levine’s next game teased as “sci-fi-ish” small, open-world RPG

    A series of tweets from BioShock creator Ken Levine has shed a sliver of light upon his next project. According to Levine he and his team are considering something a bit sci-fi and contemplating first-person mode. The team is developing the game for PC with a large in scope, expandable, systems-based narrative where more can […]

  • Become a lynx in new Shelter 2 trailer

    Shelter 2 casts players in the role of a lynx, which makes for quite a different experience to the badger of the first game. The first Shelter game had you evading predators, but in the second, you becomes one yourself. That doesn’t mean there are no dangers to face, of course. Judging by the trailer […]

  • Why King of Fighters 13 isn’t coming back to Evo

    Evo, the premiere western fighting game tournament, has dropped support for a few previously favoured titles. King of Fighters 13 had a loyal following, but isn’t featured in the Evo 2015 line-up. “Many things go into what games makes it to Evo, but the most obvious one is, ‘Is the community playing this game?’” Evo […]

  • An average Evolve match takes less than ten minutes

    Evolve players are pretty quick at hunting each other down. Evolve developer Turtle Rock has released an infographic brimming with statistics garnered from its recent beta test. One of the key takeaways is that all three monsters, and all four classes, are working as intended – their performance in game matches Turtle Rock’s designs. If […]

  • Super Mario Amiibo can be pre-ordered on Nintendo UK, Mario and Peach sold out

    The latest set of Amiibo in the Super Mario series is now available for pre-purchase through the Nintendo UK Store. Each of the following sports a red base and will run you £10.99: Bowser, Luigi, Mario, Peach, Toad and Yoshi. It looks like Peach and Mario are both sold out, though. All six can be […]

  • The Music of League of Legends Vol. 1 free to download now

    League of Legends has excellent music, and now you can have it too. The Music of League of Legends Vol. 1 collects 15 tracks from the MOBA’s history, and is available for free. You can grab the music from iTunes, Google Play or via direct download. Tere’s an example track below to get you in […]

  • Super Bowl 49 update arrives on Madden NFL Mobile

    With Super Bowl 49 occurring this coming Sunday, February 1, EA Sports has updated Madden NFL Mobile with new feature enhancements and Super Bowl-themed Live Events. Updates include: League vs League Tournaments Obstacle Course Super Bowl Bonus Players Tom Brady and Richard Sherman Super Bowl Legends Super Bowl Moments Upgraded Auction House The Super Bowl […]

  • See Super Smash Bros.’ unused custom moves

    Super Smash Bros. was originally intended to have 16 custom moves per character. The final version of Super Smash Bros. only features 12 custom moves per fighter, but Nintendo left animations for some of the cut moves in place. A Youtuber called RED has dug these cut mvoes out of the brawler’s code, and displayed […]

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt contains 16 hours of sex scene mo-cap data

    Sex is nothing new to the The Witcher games, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is no exception. In fact, it contains 16 hours of sex scene motion capture data. Giggity. There’s a reason for the bedroom dalliances though, as Geralt is a flesh and blood human, or a modified human at any rate, with […]

  • Here’s the launch trailer for Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Remastered

    A launch trailer for Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy Remastered has been released after an Amazon listing was revealed for it over the weekend. Key upgrades include: High-definition Graphics — All of the in-game textures have been meticulously recreated in HD for mobile and desktop. Widescreen Support – A true widescreen (not cropped) view strengthens the game’s […]

  • The open beta for Battlefield Hardline will be dated tomorrow

    The exact dates as well as more information on the Battlefield Hardline open beta will be shared tomorrow. This is according to the latest blog post from developer Visceral Games. “We’ll share the exact dates and info on the Battlefield Hardline open beta tomorrow,” wrote Visceral boss Steve Papoutsis. “Stay tuned, thanks again, and keep […]

  • Upcoming Hearthstone patch to apply balance change to Undertaker

    An upcoming Hearthstone patch will apply a balance change to the Undertaker card, Blizzard has announced. After the release of Goblins vs Gnomes, Blizzard said it kept an “eye on the state of game balance” as more matches were played using the additional cards. Released with The Curse of Naxxramas, Undertaker is considered an overly […]

  • February Games with Gold offers up Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

    The free games on offer in February via Xbox Live Games with Gold have been announced. Xbox Live Gold members on Xbox One can download #IDARB during February. Xbox 360 users can grab Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons from February 1-15, when it will be replaced by Sniper Elite V2 from February 16 -28. […]

  • Kinguin blames unidentified Russian for deactivated Far Cry 4 keys

    Third-party game key seller Kinguin is issuing refunds to those who found their games deactivated through Ubisoft’s Uplay service. Customers which purchased keys for Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, The Crew and Watch Dogs are affected. Kinguin said 4,600 customer tickets were submitted over the last 72 hours and 35 out of 3,400 of […]

  • Video Unlimited to be re-branded as PlayStation Video starting in February

    Like Music Unlimited, Sony’s Video Unlimited service is being replaced and re-branded PlayStation Video. PlayStation Video will become part of PlayStation Network to streamline digital services for the over 64 million PSN users. PlayStation Video and PlayStation Music will be added to PSN which is already a destination point for the PlayStation Store, PlayStation Plus, […]

  • Spotify arrives on PlayStation Music this spring, Music Unlimited closing

    Spotify will launch on PlayStation Network this spring as part of a new music destination called PlayStation Music. PlayStation Music is a replacement for Music Unlimited, and those with a PSN account can link to Spotify which can be used just for music, or when playing games on PlayStation 4. Existing playlists from current Spotify […]