High-risk, high-reward: Sony’s play for the indie win

By Nathan Grayson
21 December 2011 14:58 GMT

While other console-makers treat indie developers like second-class citizens, Sony’s making a real push to give exposure to the best out there. But is it enough, or is it too late? Nathan Grayson ventured to Fantastic Arcade in Austin to find out.

Fantastic Arcade 2011

Fantastic Fest is the “largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world”, held in Austin, Texas, in late September.

The Fantastic Arcade, run as a free public showcase as part of the festival, had 20 independent games on show this year.

As the event’s Presenting Sponsor, Sony held several special events throughout the showcase.

The Arcade was curated by IGF chairman, Offworld founder and former games writer Brandon Boyer; Cinemad’s Mike Plante; and Eddo Stern, of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts’s Interactive Media Division.

Other featured games include Fez; Deep Sea; Insanely Twsited Shadow Planet; Owlboy; Octodad; and Skulls of the Shogun.

I almost felt bad for Starhawk during Fantastic Fest, an annual celebration of all things indie that takes place in Austin, Texas at the end of September. Don’t get me wrong: The game is fine. It just looked so… lonely. I’d occasionally throw it a glance from across the bustling Fantastic Arcade, only to see its default attract mode screen displaying a Glowy Eyed Space Marine main character idly tossing a stone up and down, eagerly hoping that some kind soul would finally send him into action.

Honestly, it set the scene all too well. Sony was out in full force, but eerily accurate Nathan Drake models or ill-advised Sackboy cross-promotions were absent. Instead, PlayStation Indies were the focus, with crisscrossing lines excitedly shuffling toward the likes of Journey, Papo & Yo, PixelJunk 4am, Retro/Grade, Eufloria, and Closure.

“It’s so great to have people all dressed up in their Friday night finery come in, have a cocktail, and then turn to their girlfriend and say, ‘Did you see that?’ And she’s playing a different game, like ‘I’m playing with somebody else!'” says Robin Hunicke of thatgamecompany, the makers of Journey.

“And you think, ‘Wow, they’re going to walk away from this and have a discussion about videogames that they were totally not expecting to have.’ And that’s letting the game speak for itself. It’s the best way–in my opinion–to talk about something like Journey.”

This is Sony’s side of Fantastic Arcade in a nutshell. Again, it was an oddly fitting scene. Two things in this world never sleep: gamers and bars. So the Highball in Austin was alive with this perpetual energy, much of which came straight from, well, oddball indie games.

“Sony was more aligned with our sensibilities this year,” Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League told me.

“Last year, it was a bit of a mixed focus between indie and some big titles [Microsoft] wanted to get out there since they were at a gaming event. That just wasn’t a priority for Sony. What they wanted to showcase was a few of their indie projects. We will always be aligned with the indie world. That’s what we’re about as an event.”

Independents’ Day
This indie push from Sony comes at an interesting time, too. Microsoft’s indie games channel seems to be under a near-constant barrage of barbed words from developers and fans, and XBLA proper requires shouting your love for a publisher from the mountaintops–mountains of certification paperwork, that is. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s indie selection is something of a mythical creature. Sony’s not perfect, obviously, but at least with its highly publicized $20 million indie-focused Pub Fund, it’s trying.

“I’m always looking for something challenging,” SCEA Manager of Developer Relations Ted Regulski said.

Watch on YouTube

Pat waxes lyrical on his Journey taster.

“And not challenging in the difficulty sense, but challenging in the sense of a topic, gameplay style, or subject matter that really hasn’t been breached before. Something a traditional third-party publisher would probably shy away from—like, ‘Ehhhh, I don’t know if there’s a market for that.’

“And if we think there could be a market for it, we’re happy to support them, help them get licensed, get them dev kits, and walk them through the process of getting their game on PlayStation. Especially with Pub Fund–that’s really where we’re looking for those challenging new experiences that are unique to the platform.”

Sony’s putting a lot on the line for these folks: time, reputation, and millions of dollars. I can understand, then, why it’d be tempting for Sony to yank the wheel from indie developers’ hands and plot a course for the closest mainstream-friendly payday it can find. But that absolutely isn’t the case.

“We are an officially licensed PlayStation publisher, so we have final say on our game,” says Matt Gilgenbach, the cofounder of Retro/Grade developer 24 Caret Games.

“Unless Sony says, ‘No, there’s no way we want the Retro/Grade sex minigame on our platform’ or whatever, we can put whatever we want in the game. They can recommend ‘Hey, we don’t think this is a good idea’ or ‘We don’t think this is good for our audience,’ but we have final say. It’s really great. No one can tell me to put Lady Gaga music in the game.”

Watch on YouTube

Retro/Grade – shooter rhythm action.

Now For Something Completely Different
Sony’s hands-off approach shows, too. Retro/Grade’s a sidescrolling space shooter… in reverse. The end credits roll backward, the final boss unexplodes, and then you start playing. It’s also, er, a rhythm game with optional Guitar Hero/Rock Band guitar support. It makes a whole lot more sense when you’re saving the universe from yourself, er, yourself, but for now, here’s the takeaway point: You pilot a rocket ship with a freaking guitar.

Journey, meanwhile, is a complete change in direction from Retro/Grade’s rainbow-tossed-in-a-blender explosion of colors and sounds. In a world full of games that start screaming “Hey, listen!” if you stop for more than three seconds, Journey makes a slow, contemplative pace its selling point. You simply wander through a giant, mysterious desert and attempt to uncover its secrets. You don’t fight some sand-caked baddy every step of the way – or ever, for that matter. ADD-riddled button mashers need not apply. But Journey–like most indies–isn’t aiming for the coveted “lowest common denominator.” It assumes that your brain actually wants to do a little heavy lifting.

And then there’s Papo & Yo, which is a wonderfully whimsical metaphor for… a father-son relationship tainted by alcohol abuse. It takes the form of a platform puzzler with a glorious sense of scale. One puzzle saw me lifting cardboard boxes to move entire houses. It was damn cool. Let’s also not forget Closure, which is a minimalistic, monochromatic puzzler that centers on manipulating light in haunting, nearly pitch-black environments. Oh, and there’s also Pixeljunk 4am, which Q-Games enthusiastically admits is barely even a game, positioning it more as a Move-based DJ tool.

Watch on YouTube

Papo & Yo teaser, cued for gameplay footage.

The point is, these aren’t Sony’s games. They are the insanely fearless, fearlessly insane babies of their creators. Sony’s job, meanwhile, is to take care of everything else.

“Sony is great in the support they provide those indie projects,” Q-Games’ Rowan Parker says.

“They help you with testing. They help you with getting through production. If you’ve got any questions on hardware, [they answer them]. So you’ve got this little satellite team of five or six, but you can touch bases with Sony and have this massive network of PR and marketing.

“There’s no catch from the indie’s point-of-view,” Parker fires back when I ask if indies were getting shafted in some other way.

“I mean, if they’ve got a good product or a good game, someone is going to pick them up at some point, right? So from Sony’s point of view, better it’s them than someone else. Of course it’s in Sony’s best interest to have good products on PSN. Better yet, they’re exclusive. If they just let them sit, Xbox or someone else will pick them up.”

Ulterior Motives
To Sony, then, this isn’t a preposterously generous charity. Rather, it’s business. It’s Sony’s high-risk, high-reward route to staying a few steps ahead of the curve.

“At the end of the day, we’re a platform holder,” SCEA’s Regulski candidly says. “We want to sell hardware. That’s why I like Retro/Grade. A reverse shooter that’s really a rhythm game? What? And Closure’s a game about moving light and making a world. That, to me, sounds stunning. Just amazing.

“That’s why we chose those guys. They’re different, a bit more challenging, and something you’re not really going to see anywhere else.”

“That’s why we chose those guys. They’re different, a bit more challenging, and something you’re not really going to see anywhere else.”

Regulski admits that no company is perfect, Sony included–and he ‘fesses up to this multiple times. Sony’s indie program is definitely making its way into success story territory, but there are still a few large stumbling blocks that need to be bulldozed before the indie floodgates can really open.

Foremost, there’s the issue of development difficulty. If other platforms’ innards resemble those of the poor red-nosed chap from Operation, then the PS3 is like maneuvering around an actual human being’s still-beating heart. Depending on whom you talk to, that complexity–both in terms of hardware and certification processes–might even make Xbox or PC better than PS3. And the indie developers I spoke with didn’t outright deny that. Things are, however, improving on that end–even if only by baby steps.

“Well, everyone could do everything better,” Retro/Grade’s Gilgenbach begins.

“If I had to say something–and this criticism isn’t specific to Sony–there’s a huge list of requirements from the platform holder in order to get a game onto a console. I mean, a lot of them are to create consistent experiences and stuff like that. Really, though, when you have a small team, it ends up being a lot of work. I think a lot of indies are going to Steam and iOS as their first choice just because of the low barrier for entry.

“Another thing is that it can be tough to do something at a low price point or free-to-play or you have a lot of updates. The fact that these certification processes are slow and there’s tons to do, I think that limits independent developers. It’d be nice if it were a little more open.”

Indie development is an ongoing process. Like Gilgenbach says, everyone could do everything better. Regulski, though, won’t let setbacks deter him. He’s playing for keeps.

“Moving forward, I definitely would like to have PSN be the place for indie games,” Regulski unflinchingly declares. “At the end of the day, we want to see all these companies succeed.

“And so, by the time they’re releasing their first game, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s talk about the second game and get them rolling on their next thing.’ So it’s about trying to get people knowledgeable about the hardware and get them comfortable with our process. And hopefully by then, they’ll have a nice working relationship with us and we move on to the next project and the next project. Just keep moving forward.”


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