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Rise of the console indie: Bithell on PS4, Sony’s change in attitude & more

Wednesday, 12th February 2014 12:10 GMT By Dave Cook

Thomas Was Alone and Volume creator Mike Bithell continues his chat with VG247′s Dave Cook, turning to Sony’s indie stance, PS4′s performance in that area so far, and more.

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Following on from my Volume interview with Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell, we steered our discussion to Sony’s handling of indie talent on PS4.

On the surface it’s clear to see that the company is trying to open its doors to new studios and projects beyond the triple-a pack, but how does that work in practice? How did Sony get to this point today, and how does it talk business with indies in real terms?

Bithell’s debut Thomas was Alone started life on Steam before being ported to PS3 and PS Vita by Curve Studios. It is now considered a true darling of the indie circuit, with scores of awards and strong sales. While that success may have secured Bithell’s livelihood as an indie studio, he is by no means ‘EA’ material.

“Don’t treat us like EA; we have different ways of doing things. It’s cool and that seems to be a growing power in the company. That’s how they’re talking to us, because they’ve learnt that’s how we do business. Long may it continue.”

“Don’t treat us like EA,” Bithell said of the indie circuit as a whole during our discussion. During the chat I recalled this heated interview I conducted with Nuclear Throne developer Vlambeer last year, in which Rami Ismail shared his first-hand knowledge of how Sony and Microsoft have worked with indies in the past. Neither party came out spotless.

At the time Ismail recalled how he signed Vlambeer’s game Luftrausers to Sony, “We were in a bar with [PlayStation UK's indie boss Shahid Ahmad] and he basically wrote the contract on a coaster and said, ‘So what do you need, and what do you want?’ We discussed it, and within a week we had everything we needed to start developing.

“We got the contract the day after we got the hardware, not the other way round like ‘sign this and then…’ No, this was just he trusted us, we trusted them. Done. That’s the way we want to work, because that’s the way indies work. It’s a trust thing. We help each other because we trust each other.

“It’s not a contract thing, although we still sign contracts to be sure. But, this is how business is done in this age, it’s not trying to screw each other over. It’s trying to be a convenience to one another and help each other out. That’s how the best things happen.”

Nuclear_Throne

Bithell echoed this sentiment almost to the letter when I told him the story above. He replied, “That’s how it’s working now because that’s how indies do work. I think that’s what Sony realised.

“They have Shahid in the UK, but also people in the US and all over the world who understand how we do things. They understand, ‘yeah, an indies going to want to meet in a bar, they’re not going to go to a massively expensive restaurant to have dinner with you.’

“Don’t treat us like EA; we have different ways of doing things. It’s cool and that seems to be a growing power in the company. That’s how they’re talking to us, because they’ve learnt that’s how we do business. Long may it continue.”

Just a few weeks ago our freelancer John Robertson interviewed Roll7; the indie developer of PS Vita’s wonderful OlliOlli. The studio told him, “Sony told us we weren’t asking them for enough money,” and added, “they said they liked what we pitched, but it wasn’t going to work with the amount of money we asked for.

“I think the story everyone misses with PS4 is that it wasn’t PS4; this is [PS] Vita policy. That’s the really interesting part, that essentially Sony found themselves in a position last year – or the year before even – where the Vita wasn’t selling and where they had no games.”

“That’s not usually how it works, you usually get asked to do even more than you’ve pitched and then get hammered down on the price.”

That certainly sounds like a fresh approach from Sony, and likewise; before the turn of the year I interviewed Contrast developer Compulsion Games, which launched its puzzle-platformer on PS4 here in the UK. The game was released free on PS Plus, giving it the kind of console exposure indies could only dream of say; five years ago.

During the discussion Compulsion developer Guillaume Provost recalled how he and Sony first crossed paths at PAX East and within a very short time his team had PS4 dev kits for free and a guaranteed spot on PSN. That Sony was actively roaming the show floor looking for talent is telling, and shows a real pro-active approach to snapping up new IP.

“I think there was a realisation at Sony,” Provost told me at the time, “that if they wanted to capture independent developers they needed to break down the perceived barriers of entry. I think that the decision for Sony to come out and proactively seek out developers and engage them in conversation comes from the fact that it’s been, traditionally, a big hurdle to get on console.

“You have to go through several layers of approval and typically it’s been a pretty complicated process. A lot of developers were basically self-publishing on Steam, or on platforms where they felt there was less red tape.”

“I think largely,” he concluded, “they’ve really succeeded in convincing the people I know, the independent developers that they were a platform that was a lot easier to get to.”

Contrast

I asked Bithell for his own experience of dealing with PS4′s indie quotient, and he asked me to consider where the policy came from precisely. “I think the story everyone misses with PS4 is that it wasn’t PS4; this is [PS] Vita policy. That’s the really interesting part, that essentially Sony found themselves in a position last year – or the year before even – where the Vita wasn’t selling and where they had no games.

“They found games in the indie scene; games like Thomas, games like Hotline Miami that were interesting, and they worked out a way to make those games come to the platform. It made them money. The guys making Vita within Sony and bringing those games across found that helped their platform, and that actually, suddenly, indie games were the main draw or one of the main draws for the Vita hardware.

“It was new information; a big deal and that’s never happened before. That’s new, that’s historical, that’s impressive. Then when it became time to talk about PS4; not only did they have experience working with indies on the Vita, and had seen what the kudos from working with these indies was, they already knew all of us, and could come into the conversation going, ‘so, do you want to make a PS4 game?’

“You’ve got all these big triple-a blockbuster games, but for the rest of the year it looks a bit cold, a bit empty and I think that’s where we can find an audience and spaces to kind of fill in those gaps, and be the games that help those platforms through the fallow months.”

“They had all these relationships in place, and they had that access to indies and the indie scene, that allowed them to do that quite easily.”

Indeed, PS Vita has proved to be an interesting test-case for Sony, a way of getting content on to the handheld when the bigger fish stopped biting. With Vita sales reportedly on the up thanks to the release of PS4, the gamble appears to have paid off.

Right now, Red Barrels’ Outlast is free on PS Plus; another indie game made by a small team and for a fraction of the budget spent on triple-a releases. You can be assured that many people who hadn’t heard of Outlast or its creators certainly have now. In a world where the glut of content on iTunes, Android and Steam Greenlight push too many games to the background, that exposure is worth its weight in gold.

But why now? Why are Sony and Microsoft eager to hoover up all the indie talent – aside from the kudos it brings from the community? Bithell suggested that because blockbuster games are becoming more expensive to develop there are simply less of them, and generally they release around spring and in the run up to Christmas. What is left to fill in the gaps? Indies could hold the answer.

I asked Bithell for his thoughts on how the landscape is changing between format-holder and indies. He replied, “I’m not sure. For a start; I’m not sure it was ever that bad. Behind the scenes certainly Sony has been doing loads for years and years. I know plenty of independent game developers who’ve been doing cool work with them for years, but I think they’ve opened that up.

“We make games, and we are making increasingly… I don’t think it’s silly to say there will be more successful indie games this year than there are successful triple-a games. That’s a given purely by numbers; it’s not a knock on triple-a, it’s just that there’s more of us.

Volume

“That’s interesting. When that happens that changes a lot. It means that we become a focus, I guess, for the platform. Every Christmas – if you’re Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo – you know you’ve got a Call of Duty, an Assassin’s Creed, you’ve maybe got a FIFA.

“You’ve got all these big triple-a blockbuster games, but for the rest of the year it looks a bit cold, a bit empty and I think that’s where we can find an audience and spaces to kind of fill in those gaps, and be the games that help those platforms through the fallow months.

“We’re the place they’re going to find the next Minecraft which is, of course, what they’re all chasing. They want the next Minecraft, and if they support all of us then one of us – accidentally – is going to actually make that.”

Sony and Microsoft would never come out and admit that they’re simply flinging indies at the money-wall until something sticks, but Bithell has a point. We’ve all seen what happens when games like Super Meat Boy, Braid, Limbo and indeed Thomas Was Alone strike it big. They become recognisable by name, just like the triple-a players. They win awards, get people thinking and challenging themselves, and they drive players to formats.

This is not a bad thing, but what’s important here is that indies are getting that initial chance to present themselves to the market. Should their games explode and earn success from then, well, that’s for the paying public and critics to decide. Thanks to the work Sony is doing on PS Vita and PS4, along with Microsoft’s ID@Xbox initiative, the odds have tipped significantly into the indies’ favour.

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1 Comments

  1. Tyrantsoul

    With game like Outlast,Contrast and Dont starve I think it was a great move on Sony’s part.Although I think it unfair just to class these games as filler titles.Outlast especially just deserves to be deemed a great horror game.

    #1 7 months ago

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