The rise of small portable app platforms has brought a wealth of opportunity for small indies. But even though Sony hasn't spoken much about its once-touted PSP Minis platform in months, one UK studio feels strongly that doing downloadables for portable gaming hardware is a much better proposition for indies than iOS.
33-year-old James Marsden has been running Futurlab since 2003, but it hasn't always been easy going. The fine arts graduate initally reckoned the best way to parlay his skills into a career in games was to start doing Flash games -- to the point where he relocated his entire life to Brighton, only to fail to find work with the studios that most excited him in the area of England known as "Silicon Beach."
Instead he worked at a web tech startup until, as he tells Gamasutra, his boss took a holiday -- and never came back. Marsden was left with little else but a client base he could leverage to start his own company. Thus Futurlab was born "by accident, with a friend from school and a friend from university," says Marsden.
The company started out trying to convince high street estate agents that games might be an engaging addition to their web presence -- no dice. After a few years' trying, Marsden realized the only way to realize his dream of making a game his own way was to make it off his own back: "No one was going to pay me to do it," he reflects ruefully.
He pored through Flash tutorials, built an engine with the help of a hodgepodge of white papers, and the "pretty slick" result caught the attention of the BBC in 2005. Through an agency, Futurlab did some games for the network for a couple of years, and used the experience as leverage to pitch an idea to Sony -- and begin a relationship with the company.
Although alternate-reality games are now commonplace strategy for everything from geolocation games to marketing campaigns, back in 2003 it was still a relatively new idea. Sony deferred on Futurlab's first pitch, but later looked the studio up when it was time to make what Marsden describes as an "ARG-esque" marketing campaign for Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain.
"We spent nine months working on that, and then it got canned, which was utterly gutting," says Marsden.
But by this point, the studio had been around long enough to make friends with fellow UK studio Relentless, makers of the Buzz! franchise. After a collaboration with Relentless also got canned, the company kicked in some support for Futurlab in creating a simple concept on its own: Futurlab's first self-published game would be Coconut Dodge, for PSN platforms.
Yet even with good reviews, Coconut Dodge didn't sell. A lucky viral video that got some mainstream press did catch the attention of Electronic Arts, who signed up an iOS version of the game "without ever asking us how many sales we had," laughs Marsden.
As it turns out, this wasn't much of an opportunity for Futurlab. "If we'd published it by ourselves, we'd be an indie that gets good reviews, self-publishes... is worth looking at," Marsden said. "But with EA, it kind of works against us," as people wondered why the massive publisher would bother with this tiny game. The fact Coconut Dodge wasn't uniquely suited to the touch platform didn't help, either.
The result? "We sold more copies of Coconut Dodge on PSN with me doing the marketing than EA managed to do on iOS, which is nuts," Marsden says. For him, the lesson is that iOS is a major gamble: "If you're an indie, luck plays such a huge role that it's not worth trying," he believes.
Thus far, the team had learned that things go right when they're in charge of themselves. Futurlab set to work on Velocity, a marriage of Marsden's passion for music software with a popular Coconut Dodge mode that resulted in a retro shooter for the PSN Minis program. The game received excellent reviews from indie sites and mainstream publications alike -- Edge magazine called it "simply unmissable."
Going with Minis allowed it to reach more than 100,000 users -- not gangbuster numbers, but much better than Coconut Dodge did on iOS, and the additional opportunity to reach more eyeballs through a promotional package with PSN's Plus program. Even though Minis launched on PSP late in the system's twilight years, and the PSPGo seems likely to prove a blip on history's radar, it was the right placement for Velocity.
"Sony's really open for independent developers to come and publish on its platform, and I think they're probably the only platform holder that's really giving developers this window of opportunity," Marsden believes. "The way we see it is we want to make proper, immersive gaming experiences. We dont want to make iOS distract-em-ups. For us to do that as a newbie is really tough: we're going up against the studios that have been established for 10, 15 years."
"For us to go in and make a title that kind of punches above its weight in that arena, we've only really got Minis as an option," he says. For the platform to truly thrive, it needs highly-rated killer apps -- and Sony seems to know this, too. At E3 worldwide studios boss Shuhei Yoshida emphasized to us the importance of the indie community to the health of its digital initiatives.
Making explosive, innovative titles can bring success on any platform, Marsden believes, and there's just so much more room to shape the field for indies on PlayStation network than there is on iOS in his view.
"Doing guerilla marketing to sing the indie success story has been our strategy," he adds -- adding the caveat that indies should be careful to note that controversial comments drive press much more readily than positive reviews or a story of dogged stick-to-it.
For example, when he made comments to the effect that trophies and multiplayer networking were necessary to help the Minis platform continue to thrive in the Vita age, many mainstream websites branded him as a vocal critic of Sony's downloadable platforms, when in fact he saw himself as a believer.
"I think the Vita is a great platform for indies," Marsden asserts. "It frustrates me that iOS is the flame the moths are flying towards -- ultimately they are doomed unless they've got enormous resources for visibility. Even though you might not win big on Minis, you're pretty much guaranteed to make some sales. This, for me, is a better first step for people getting started."