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Will PlayStation Mobile be Xbox Live Indie Games all over again?
Will PlayStation Mobile be Xbox Live Indie Games all over again? Exclusive
July 26, 2012 | By Mike Rose

Back when Sony's PlayStation Suite was first detailed, it quickly became clear that it had quite the resemblance to a certain other digital platform -- one that has its share of, ahem, problems.

Sony's initiative, now known as PlayStation Mobile, is an exciting prospect that will allow any developer to register, pay $99 a year for a publisher license, and then develop and release as many games as they desire via the PlayStation Store, as long as said titles keep to the relatively lax service guidelines.

It just so happens that Xbox Live Indie Games, Microsoft's equivalent service for the Xbox 360, also has the exact same yearly membership fee, and features very similar standards in terms of what content can be submitted and how the process of development and submission is tackled.

The open-endedness of Xbox Live Indie Games has proven to be quite the double-edged sword, especially when paired alongside the poor discoverability of games on the service. Allowing any developer to produce games for the service meant that XBLIG quickly filled up with sub-par Xbox Live avatar games, and games with names like Try Not To Fart.

Even now, nearly four years after its original launch, XBLIG's top lists are filled to the brim with avatar games and Minecraft clones, with all the original, innovative titles that deserve recognition pushed well below the top list threshold.

As a result, launching a game on the service that isn't a Minecraft clone or the like is by and large a huge waste of your time, with minimal sales, as has been noted by numerous ex-XBLIG devs.

When the PlayStation Mobile SDK open beta launched in April and more details of the service came through, showing even more similarities to XBLIG, I became intrigued with why Sony would choose to emulate a dying, never-really-successful platform. The fact that PlayStation Mobile is multi-platform is obviously going to be a key plus point over XBLIG, yet it's difficult to see exactly why Sony believes it can succeed where Microsoft failed.

It appeared that Sony wasn't 100 percent sure how it was going to pull this off either, as Jack Buser, senior director of PlayStation Digital Platforms, told me, "We've seen what has happened on competing platforms and are dedicated to delivering a better experience through PlayStation. While we don't have a specific announcement at this time, we are well aware of the issue."

Minis begat Mobile

At the Develop conference in Brighton last week, I was given the chance to once again probe a Sony representative on how PSM is going to outsmart XBLIG.

Agostino Simonetta, European development account manager at SCEE, gave a talk on how developers will be able to take full advantage of PlayStation Mobile, detailing specifications for the platform and explaining that "it's an opportunity for developers to be creative [and] come up with something in the spirit of PlayStation."

PlayStation Mobile is a C# platform that runs code on a virtual machine, providing direct binary compatibility across a range of devices. The single code base means that you code the game once, and it can then be released for the PS Vita and all PlayStation-certified tablets and smartphones.

It struck me how often Simonetta described the company's "detached approach" to the platform as "lightweight," from the content guidelines to what will be seen as acceptable quality in the PlayStation Mobile store.

He noted, in particular, that as long as a game's content follows the "acceptable terms" laid out by Sony, then it will be allowed on PlayStation Mobile. Basic checks will be made when a game is submitted and a couple of days of QA will be provided, but essentially Sony "won't check the quality of the content." It is a "self service, single global submission publishing process," he added.

With XBLIG, and soon PlayStation Mobile, the content published via this channel is given its own special area on the store -- away from the publisher-vetted content. This area on Xbox 360 hasn't exactly been highlighted very well and has caused numerous outcries from involved indie devs, and it's difficult to see how this will prove any different on PlayStation Network.

psm.jpgHowever, Simonetta assured Develop conference attendees that PlayStation Mobile's dedicated "application store" will be promoted in the same way as existing PSN content, and will even work to highlight specific genres that you wouldn't usually find on PSN, such as casual games and non-game applications.

When I questioned Simonetta regarding how PlayStation is hoping to out-do XBLIG and solve many of the problems that Microsoft's platform faced, he referred me to the company's work with the PS Minis platform.

PS Minis launched in 2009 for PSP and PlayStation 3, and provided smaller developers with an easier way to approach Sony and get their games on PlayStation platforms. A $1,500 development kit is still needed to create PS Minis titles, and developers still need to gain approval from Sony to launch a game, but in comparison to publishing through Sony, it's a rather open platform.

Back when PS Minis launched, Sony's Zeno Calaco told Develop, "There are dangers in having total open access; having six thousand applications where probably only thirty are discovered by the consumer. Some of the developers working on the App Store and PSP Minis tell us that they prefer our approach because they get more visibility."

Compare that to the outline for PlayStation Mobile, and it seems that Sony has at least partly changed its mind on that front, and opted to lower the barrier of entry further.

"We're still supporting the Minis platform," Simonetta told me. "I think we have shown with this platform our dedication to the indie community over the years. We're still supporting it there. PS Minis has been a core part of the PSP platform, and it's been promoted heavily on the store."

"So why would we get into something like this knowing that maybe we were going to no longer support [PS Minis]? ... We've been very supportive of the same kind of developers for the last three years. You talk to developers that engage with us, and their feelings [about PS Minis] are great."

"It's not like everything is always perfect," he admitted, "but I think we have shown it to be competitive, and I think we have shown that on PSN as well. We are a platform that allows any [developer] to publish on PSN."

psm2.jpgThrough PS Minis, Simonetta reasons, Sony has proved that it can be supportive of the indie community, and is engaged with indie developers. "One thing you can be sure of is our commitment," he said.

I wasn't entirely convinced, and questioned Simonetta on how exactly Sony plans to solve many of the problems that XBLIG faced -- in particular, how will PlayStation Mobile will solve the issue of discoverability that plagues the Xbox indie store.

"It's a problem that any platform, or indeed any retail channel, has," he answered. "It's all about keeping all the content fresh, finding many ways to bring that to the forefront of the store. It's about being innovative in the way users [get to the content]."

"Discoverability is hard -- it's a challenge for everybody," he added. "I think we have done a decent job so far." Unfortunately, he was not willing to give any details regarding the ins and outs of how PlayStation Mobile plans to actually tackle this common issue.

If Sony can successfully nurture a thriving community for PlayStation Mobile, attract a host of great indie titles, and bring these titles to a good portion of its PSN audience, then PlayStation Mobile could potentially spell great things for both the PlayStation brand and the PS Vita.

That's an ideal scenario. For now, however, it's difficult to see anything to suggest that this won't be yet another low-barrier platform that flounders at the might of Apple's App Store.

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Lee Fieber
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I hope they get it right--these are questions that need to be asked. Great article!

Luke Quinn
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Sounds like it might be worth slapping a few titles onto it during the launch period and then walking away once the flood starts...
As the author pointed out, this all seems rather familiar and I think with the OUYA coming out they really have to have some concrete plans to fix the discoverability issues if they want to woo indies.
On the up-side, it uses C# which I love. :D

James Marsden
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As a PlayStation Minis developer/publisher, I can at least speak of our own positive experience releasing small and high quality titles on the minis platform.

We've found that by showing our games to Sony, and explaining our marketing goals, we've previously been given front of store banner promotion, PS3 XMB promotion, expo video promotion, PlayStation Blog promotion, PlayStation Facebook Page promotion, Twitter, YouTube and of course There's probably more.

These are all official channels with large followings that are available to a PS minis developer/publisher. That's many more options available for finding some warming eyeball rays than you can get on the AppStore.

As a result, we've found that if we make a good game, it will get noticed, and will sell.

That's minis - hopefully some of the benefits I've mentioned above will become available to developer/publishers making quality games on PSM too.

That would be good.

Michael K
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MS learnt that they won't get most of the developers with just C#, I'm happy to see C++ support coming to Win Phone 8. And Sony falls into the same trap that MS did. Somehow it's beyond my comprehension why companies on purpose limit the development audience.
Nothing against c#. But you get away with c++ on all homebrew platforms: android, iOS, bada, even RIM learnt the lesson, why don't they just create a platform and let everyone decide which language they want to choose.
And no, security is not a valid excuse, NaCl showcases it's possible to run any binary in a secure fashion and I also wouldn't mind submitting llvm intermediate binaries, just in case they'd one day decide to use something else than ARM.

Marvin Hawkins
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I think discovery is just a problem that comes with 'democratizing' game development. I personally think that it is great to have all of these different outlets. I have yet to release a game for money, so my opinion is based on that. But when I first started years ago, NONE of this existed. Steam itself was still seen as a nuisance, and not the great platform it is today. Unfortunately, you will have a lot of crap spring up. That's what happens when you let anyone make a game. I think it's great that anyone can make a game, but some people will be out to make a quick buck and churn out what some would view as trash. It will probably happen on any platform. This isn't really a Xblig or PSN issue. Look at the Android market. I think that with all of these different content platforms, the winner will be the people who get out there and talk up their game. Cream rises to the top after all..

Cordero W
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It's funny that this came up, since me and a friend are going to be releasing a 2d platformer we've worked on for a year onto the Xbox Indie Platform. But we're planning to port our game to the phone and as a stand-alone PC release sometime after its release, so we're not that disappointed in the state of XBLIG. Still, it's something to worry about, and only furthers my claim that I'm better off trying to form a community during the development of a game to keep the hype and word of mouth rather than depend on a competitive distribution engine.

Luke Quinn
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Personally, I think you're better off doing it the other way around.
The game will have a better chance on PC and then it will receive more attention on XBLIG if it is a 'hit PC title' that you can cross market to get more attention.
Seriously, XBLIG is a void that will swallow your poor little game and convince you that people actually WANT to buy shovelware.

k s
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Sony hasn't ever really made me feel like they care about us developers so I'm not confident about this new platform, plus the rep wouldn't answer some key questions.

Ben Rice
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I don't have personal experience with Sony, but from everything I've heard (including this comment section) Sony is extremely accommodating to developers.

Dave Ingram
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I see a huge gap in the discoverability issue that could be pretty easy to solve. The way I see it, as long as platforms like PS Mobile and XBLIG have a solid function to search by title or developer, discoverability should not be an issue.

Although indie dev companies tend to be very lean, they are still businesses, and marketing has always been a burden placed much more heavily on producers than marketplaces. If an indie game developer does a good job at marketing its titles outside of an indie games platform (on the web, in indie games publications, and though social media, for example), they should be able to excite players about a game before the players even approach the platform.

The discoverability issue stems from the assumption that all players approach a platform saying "I'm going to search these listings and find a game that appeals to me." While that is often true, indie devs can create an alternative situation in which players approach the platform saying "I heard about this great game online, and I'm going to run a search for the title." If an indie games dev begins to gain a solid reputation, I can see still more scenarios where gamers approach the platform saying "I wonder what ABC Dev has published recently. I'm going to run a search for the dev."

Solid off-platform marketing can nullify the issue of games being hidden among 6,000 other titles, because none of the others mean anything to a gamer who is searching for a specific title.

E Zachary Knight
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You are right. Outside marketing and brand loyalty are important even for a dev. The question is though, how do they find out about your game/brand in the first place?

I think Netflix has solved the discoverability problem fairly well. They run a number of calculations based on what movies/shows you have rated. They are constantly asking for information on your general tastes and preferences. They monitor the shows and movies you have watched. They use all that information to build up a profile of you. Then they take that profile and cross compare to other users profiles and see what they have watched that maybe you haven't and then recommend it to you.

I have NEVER seen anything like that in the games industry and we need it badly.

Luke Quinn
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You are 100% spot on and that is evident by how so many XBLIG games feature a comprehensive 'other titles' section reminiscent of the early 90s PC market, before the web.
The ability to see all of the titles produced by your favourite developer means that you are more likely to find another game that suits you, meaning that devs have a vested interest in making good games as each is an advert for the next.
Also @ Zach - Showing customers a list of games they might actually buy...? You're crazy. How could that possibly be a good business strategy? :D

Samuel Batista
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I think what Zackary describes is exactly what Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo (not to mention Apple and Google, which are ahead of the curve) should be preparing to do right about now. The success of OUYA and the obscene success of Apple, makes it clear that the next company to come out on top is going to have to sell more content, for more people, made by a lot more people. Shovelware and the problem of discoverability are issues that will be solved with more intuitive and feature filled interfaces, as well as large amounts of data on what things you spend money on.

You think the next Xbox won't be competing against OUYA? They will be a different pricepoints for sure, but both will be creating an ecosystem of content where as many people as possible can create and make money off of the public. I think everyone can make an app or a little game, but expect to see indies struggle to be mainstream while giants like Microsoft and EA and Activision dominate the masses.

But as we've seen, the gaming audience is massive, and developers themselves look to purchase and create games that are a bit more "grown up". And games made on smaller budgets can do very well by being dedicated to a small niche audience.

Jeremy Reaban
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I think the main problem with Playstation Mobile is that there really isn't much of a userbase. They run on Vita and a handful of certified tablets, which I can't imagine is a base of more than a million or so.

By contrast, Minis run on the PSP, PS3, and Vita (at least in Europe for the last one, Vita support can take a month or more after release in NA)

And of course, that's the problem with Sony in general - an idea that one region or part of the company comes up with isn't promoted or supported by more than a half-assed manner by other divisions.

Kenneth Blaney
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Was XBLIG a failure? I through the premise was to give bedroom programmers the ability to create games on their xBox 360s with a small ability to monetize and distribute. If this same thing is just Sony's way of saying, "Hey look, we KNOW you want to make your own stuff... we saw what happened with the PSP and the PS3. So how about we just sell you the ability to make stuff?" to try to reduce early attacks on the system, then it might accomplish just that.

Lance McKee
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Personally I think XBLIG is great at what it does. After working for 7 years in the industry and dealing with the frustrations that come along with it, I finally decided to shift over to a more stable line of work. It's nice to have something around that can allow me to develop my own games on the side of a full-time career and hopefully bring in a few thousand dollars of spending money.

The one game I've put up so far made quite a bit more than I expected, and now over a year later I'm still getting consistent 70-100 sales per month, which results in about $150 per quarter for me. Obviously not something to live off of but that wasn't the goal. Mostly it's been nice to provide a game that people seem to be enjoying.

From the other end of it, I go to the XBLIG portion of the Game Marketplace once or twice a week and see what new titles have been put up over the past few days. It's easy to download the ones I want to try and occasionally I like one enough to purchase it (Miner: Dig Deep, Escape Goat, Bloody Checkers, etc.). The Top Downloads filter seems useless to me, but the top rated list (overall or by genre) are very useful.

This is in contrast to titles put up on Apple's and Android's marketplaces by friends of mine and by a company I worked for recently, all of which made somewhere between $5 and $1000 total. I also tried out some indie game portals for browser-based games and have seen my game for those generate about $0.20 so far (it's been about 3 months).

So personally I love having XBLIG around and am very excited to see that Sony is going to try a similar concept, even though both companies probably get very little benefit from it.

Thomas Steinke
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I don't know why there is a perception that XBLIG has "Failed" for some reason. XBLIG is one of, if not the best Indie platform to be on. As one of the most successful XBLIGs dev I offer a counter point to this common misconception.

Maurício Gomes
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Yay, now I can make indie games for my Xperia Play!!! =D

Oh, but now I am making touchscreen-only games, damnit :( ( I am making 'point and click' adventures... so controller is kinda 'pointless' )

Dave Voyles
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I want to support Sony in their ventures, especially as they push things like the Indie Pub Fund, which is excellent, but they are a complete branding mess.

I mean look at the number of brands that you've listed right here. As a journalist and developer I have NO CLUE of what to make of it.

PSP, Vita, PSN, SEN, PS Mobile, Indie Pub Fund, PS3, Xperia Play, PS Minis, PS Store

Those are just a few examples. How do I explain to a someone who doesn't work in the industry on a 24/7 basis? Even someone who does is left in the dark.

Keith Thomson
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PSP is a handheld gaming system.
Vita is a handheld gaming system.
PSN is Playstation network, a store and online gaming platform.
SEN is Sony Entertainment Network, which is PSN + Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited, and an online photo storage site.
PS Mobile is their new initiative to allow cross platform development of games at a very inexpensive rate between PS Vita, a subset of Android devices, and possibly PC.
Indie Pub Fund is money set aside by Sony for encouraging and publicizing indie games on Sony platforms.
PS3 is a home game system.
Xperia Play is a cell phone with a game controller built in.
PS Minis is a collection of inexpensive games sold by Sony with lower barriers to entry compared to development of traditional games.
PS Store is part of PSN where they sell games, videos, and music.
Most of this can be quickly found with web searches.