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'Evolving every day' - Sony's approach to working with indies
'Evolving every day' - Sony's approach to working with indies Exclusive
September 7, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Sony has earned a reputation for funding daring indie games -- especially lately. Dyad and Papo & Yo, in particular, have picked up plaudits in recent weeks. Of course, this is not an accident, says Sony's Adam Boyes.

Boyes is the vice president of publisher and developer relations for SCEA. Installed in his job for around four months, he's heading up the company's push to find indies -- and fund them -- via its Pub Fund initiative.

While that's not the only part of his job, which also includes overseeing relationships with the U.S. triple-A publishing industry and external developers of all sizes around the globe, Boyes considers indies an important part of the Sony landscape.

"Weíre always looking for things that people wouldnít be able to do normally. Like, really art-house stuff," says Boyes. "We really want to feature them, and have an artful platform for people to put content out on."

As a gamer, he says, "Iím fine with paying $10, $15, $20 for something and realizing the creator has put their heart and soul into something." That, essentially, is what Boyes looks for.

"If itís awesome, thatís sort of the first qualifier," he says. "If itís something that really sets itself apart from what else is out there," that "always stacks higher."

How it Works

Once Sony gets interested in a game -- which could be all-new, or could have appeared on other platforms before, though that isn't as attractive to the Pub Fund team -- the first step is to get the developer licensed by Sony. Unlike with Xbox Live Arcade, licensed indie developers can self-publish on Sony platforms.

Rather than a publishing relationship, "Pub Fund is more of an incentive," says Boyes. "Itís kind of like a grant to get people that are interested in getting on the platform." Sony does not function as a publisher in the Pub Fund scenario; it simply funds the projects Boyes and his team believe in.

"So, we find a developer, we find a project, they pitch it to us, we say, 'Hey, we like it.' And then we pay them upon completion, advanced against the royalties," says Boyes.

Developers, in fact, are responsible for securing their own funding until the project is completed. Sony pays when the master version of the game is submitted.

"Why we really like the model [is] because, basically, once we recoup, we go to the traditional model that they would be getting with their self-publishing," says Boyes. He notes that since it's not a publishing model, Sony does not make any claims on developers' IP, either.

The Financing Question

Of course, since Sony doesn't pay until completion, developers are responsible for their own funding up to that point. "Iíve heard stories of teams taking that to, basically, the local banks, and getting that money advanced against that," says Boyes.

The company is also willing to work with developers who got going with Kickstarter -- "if a game gets Kickstartered, chances are people are excited about it," says Boyes -- or who self-funded their whole project but just need help at the end. "As a matter of fact, I had a meeting this morning where there was a team of guys that had self-funded for two years," he says.

Boyes was frank about what sort of funding developers might expect from the company. "What we usually say is $500,000, U.S., is sort of the ceiling. We have the ability to go over, but really thatís the top one."

But the company, he says, is "hands-off" during development. "We see a concept, we believe in the developer, and then basically we check in once in a while, but thereís no heavy, hands-on interaction with them. It allows them to take their own journey," he says. There are no deadlines set by Sony, either, as it pays upon completion.

What Sony Does

Sony will also work with Pub Fund developers to get them dev kits. "Our group works very closely with them to make sure they get all the stuff that they need," he says. It's worth noting also, that while Pub Fund is an SCEA initiative run out of California, Boyes' team works with developers around the globe, including the UK's Hello Games (Joe Danger).

Sony also worked on co-marketing with Canada's ][ Games on Dyad, inviting Shawn McGrath to repeatedly post to Sony's official blog. The game was also mentioned at Sony's E3 press conference, Boyes notes.

"We try to make the whole entire pathway easy for them and support [Pub Fund developers] in any way we can," says Boyes. "...thereís a myriad of things that we bring to the table to make it just more than a game on the platform, and really feature it."

Boyes recently instituted a policy that waives patch fees for Pub Fund developers, recognizing that indies don't have the deep pockets of major publishers. "I think you guys will see a lot of really exciting announcements over the coming six months about different evolving policies that make things easier for our partners. Self-publishing was step one. Then waiving patch fees for our Pub Fund partners," says Boyes.

"Itís important to us because developers are the gas in the engine, and thatís the important part we need to focus on: make their lives easier. Because, like I said before, thereís a lot of options these days, and we need to make sure that weíre evolving every day."

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Hugh Osborne
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Unfortunately, what happens is, the developer gets to alpha/beta stage having invested in the product then Sony turns round and demands changes before they hand out any money (It's an incentive?). By that point, the developer is in trouble, struggling to make ends meet while they try to implement incoherent design changes.

No problem for Sony who just turn around and drop the project if it takes too long. They haven't paid anything so who cares? And another small company goes bust.

Aaron San Filippo
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Are you speaking from experience, or is there a particular project you can reference where this happened?

Hugh Osborne
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Sorry, I am speaking from experience but I can't give a reference.

Even so, you can see that though Sony's plans to help small 'art-house' developers might be commendable, there is no risk taken on their part until the game is complete. The developer meanwhile, having perhaps gone to the bank for funding as mentioned above, run the risk of being left in debt.

Duong Nguyen
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I've heard this was the case with most publishers they would only front after a "prototype" has been done ( to their liking in fine print ) on the companies dime and many a times this was a strategic move to weaken the company for a take-over or force them into a more desperate negotiation position. The bad old days, these days you just go indie, self publish, or kickstarter or some other source.

John Woznack
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This is the typical M.O. of all publishers. (And yes, I'm speaking from experience.)

If you approach a publisher with just a game idea, you probably won't even get in the door.

If you approach a publisher with a game prototype, you might get to meet with some intern.

If you approach a publisher with a finished game, you'll get to pitch it to them, at which point they'll probably explain how surprisingly similar your game is to one they're just about to release.

If you approach a publisher with a game that's mostly done, that's when the publisher will sit up and take an interest. Here's why:

1. They figure that most of the "hard work" is already done (game design, engine, art, etc.) so they won't have to pay for that.

2. They figure that since you approached them, ostensibly asking for money and/or a publishing channel, you're weak but desperate, therefore you can be easily manipulated.

3. They figure that for pennies on the dollar, they can "take you under their wing" and help "guide you to completing a AAA game".

Once the publisher feels you "qualify", they'll offer you a "contract". Here's where the fun really begins!

The contract is specifically and carefully designed to:

1. Pay you a starving wage that's just enough money to keep you alive, but not enough for you to actually make any profit. Payment is conditional upon "acceptance" of each "milestone". These "milestones" are typically spelled out in vague words that have a wide latitude of interpretation intentionally inserted into them. (Also note I said "acceptance", not "completion".)

2. Give the publisher the "right" to amend, modify, adjust, attach, remove, or otherwise change just about everything IN the contract whenever they feel like it. And believe me, the FIRST thing they WILL change will be every milestone's description/qualification. (Usually that happens 5 days before each milestone is due.)

3. Strip away as many rights to your work and IP as possible, just in case your stupid game idea actually turns into the mega-hit of the decade.

4. Give the publisher every possible excuse known to mankind to not pay you the large $$$ when your game outsells every game ever published. (Remember, the publisher took a "big risk" giving you "advances" on the "profits". They get to fill their astronomically large and empty bank accounts FIRST.)

5. Prevent you from finding a better deal with another publisher.

Adam Bishop
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If this is true then it's pretty lousy behaviour on Sony's part, but at the same time developers ought to be getting guarantees in writing. Before entering into any kind of funding agreement with a large company like Sony you should be consulting a lawyer.

E McNeill
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Is there any evidence of this? I don't know the examples you might be thinking of.

John Woznack
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@Adam: It's not just Sony. I've had the "pleasure" of working with numerous publishers, big and small, and IMHO they all do these things to the small developers. (Some are a little bit smoother and smile more than others.)

Now, just so everyone understands, publishers aren't the only ones I blame here. Developers (indie or otherwise) who sign such horrible contracts are equally guilty. They're guilty of being that naive, trusting, gullible, stupid, or just plain desperate. As Jane Castle pointed out, in today's modern world, publishers are really not necessary (unless you WANT to get onto a console). Indies have lots of ways to get their product to the market. Hell, even id Software proved that with Wolfenstein 3D back in 1992! (Shareware for heaven's sake!)

@E McNeill: Evidence? What, you want to see the actual contracts? While I would dearly love to scan and publish every one that I've worked under, I'm sure that anyone you ask in the industry will agree with me that THAT isn't going to happen. Why would any developer risk destroying whatever relationship they've got with their publisher(s) by showing the world the terrible contract they signed? You're just going to have to believe me when I tell you that yes, I've actually read the contracts the companies that I've worked for have signed in the past. (Ask around - maybe you can sweet-talk some developers into slipping a copy of their publishing contracts under the table for you to read.)

Now it's true that once a developer earns a solid reputation for creating wildly successful video games, publishing contract terms quickly turn in favor of the developer. (But not always. Just ask Vince and Jason about that.)

I'd like to end with a comment about article here by Christian. Did anyone notice this line?

"Of course, since Sony doesn't pay until completion, developers are responsible for their own funding up to that point."

So, in a nutshell, Sony's new "indie" approach is: If we like you, we'll give you a dev kit and wait here while you scrounge for money and finish the game. Now go get coding kid!

Alex Nichiporchik
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Panic football I smell?

Craig Page
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Does Pub Fund really exist? I see no links to it in the story, and googling it leads to more gaming news sites...

Christian Nutt
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Yes, it really exists. It funded Dyad, as discussed. Though it is strange there's no convenient link for it.

Liam McMahon
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What ever happened to the GameDay series....A once flagship first party developing team, gone 3rd party, gone away, with a strategic alliance with EA and its monopoly on football. From experience, I was a lead.

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I'm impressed. Sony's taking a proactive approach in getting unique indie games on their platform. They're also going above and beyond by offering an advance against royalties. That's practically unheard of, right? Most of the time it's the dev spending a great deal towards the platform holder. Advances have to be "paid back" by sales revenue of course, but it's still generous.

Jose Striedinger
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Guys, can someone tell me just HOW is this proccess to developer for the PS3. I mean I can write some code in XNA and try it on a xbox360's the thing with PlaySation.

I can't find any info AT ALL. Thanks!

Jeremy Reaban
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But does it actually help Sony? As I've said before, Sony really needs a few Michael Bays, not dozens of Woody Allens.

And look at probably their biggest hit, Journey - they heavily promoted that, only to have the company start developing for other platforms (and key people leave to start companies on other platforms).

And for all this, which is the console that has gotten Minecraft? The 360, where it's sold millions.

Ron Dippold
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At this point in the cycle the only thing I turn the PS3 on for are the PSN indie games (Dyad, Journey) or year old exclusives that I'm finally getting around to playing (infamous 2).

Yes, I do think it's a big help since games like Unfinished Swan are all they've got to hold on to till the PS4 gets here. Unless Last Guardian ever comes out!

Former exclusive partners may leave, but Sony does a really good job of nurturing strange innovative devs as long as they're willing to surrender their IP.

Michael K
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Friend of mine had a similar experience like Hugh Osborne. He said it all wouldn't have been a problem, if Sony had not requested a lot of changes to already 'completed' parts of the game. That just gets you out of the schedule and into trouble.

It would be 'funding' if you'd be paid for the development cycle, all Sony does is actually buying exclusive platform rights, it seems.

Jane Castle
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The solution I think is not to deal with the console manufacturers in general if you are an indie. The story keeps getting repeated over and over as to how publishers\console manufacturers deal with independent developers.

Matthew Dickinson
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Marvin Papin
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"Itís important to us because developers are the gas in the engine"

That made me laugh a lot, because if he speak about exhaust gas, we have to get rid of them as fast as possible while limiting the potential polution... just funny.

On another hand, i think publisher largely earn to let guys develop the project themselves, without pushing them to modify part (read John Woznack post above). Indeed, if developers already have a good idea and a good "form", "shape" of their games, they know what's good for their games and how does the game can please the player. "Inciting" them bring them to make modification in contrary to the overall experience and give something less memorable or too much "rough". And if it's somethin like "it must look like a fps, with blood, skill, CoD", we can probably do without.

Ideas shouldn't come from a business-man who barely know how is made a game and why it works.

Video games comes like footbal (european) these days, break the leg of an opponent to win and get more money.

Luke S
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I just realised... "Kickstartered" is actually the correct past perfect tense.

Uggggghh. /facedesk

Brad Borne
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Not much of a 'fund' if they don't pay until you're finished. We're indies, we're broke by nature :P

I have far less use for a large chunk of money AFTER completing a game than when I'm trying to get it made, I'd rather be making royalties at that point. Especially digitally, when there's a fraction of the upfront cost to distribute and almost zero need for a publisher (besides for PR and exposure, that is).

Diana Hsu
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Unless an indie developer is desperate to get onto console, I can't see anyone taking this offer. PC, mobile, etc., have made it more than possible to avoid this kind of deal. In addition, because the publishers know you have other options, indies tend to have a bit more leverage when it comes to negotiating publishing deals for non-console games (if you want and/or feel that you need a publisher).

tony oakden
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I don't understand why I would take up this offer? Why would I sign anything until that the game is finished? If I can get the money to make the game and Sony are not contractually obligated to take it why not develop it interdependently, get it finished and then approach Sony? What do I gain (except maybe a devkit which I could probably manage without anyway) from signing early? By signing the contract I appear to be reducing my options not opening them up.

Strange. Maybe I'm missing something though. If Sony really want developers to commit to developing for their platforms then I think they need to pay something up front. Otherwise I'm going to continue developing cross platform.