How the Vita led PlayStation's fight for relevance
The first time I met Shahid Ahmad, we were on a train about to depart from Chicago’s Union Station to head to Emeryville, California for the inaugural make-a-game-on-a-train event, Train Jam. I was there to observe, report
, and eat the huge bag of raw almonds that I brought. He was there to make a video game, along with a few dozen indie devs.
Ahmad doesn't actually make
games for a living anymore -- Train Jam was something to reacquaint himself with his own game development roots. His day job is business development for PlayStation, working mainly on PS Vita-related initiatives. Over the course of the last couple of years, he's given the handheld an identity, making it a must-have for people who want to play indie games on the go.
The Vita is a device worth paying attention to, because in some ways it has been a testbed for PlayStation 4 biz dev policies and practices, which have lately been about lowering the barriers for game development and distribution. The way Ahmad deals with developers on Vita -- making development and distribution friendlier -- reflects a broader strategy at PlayStation.
“That’s an interesting way of putting it, [a ‘testbed,’] and probably not a million miles away from the truth,” he told me at GDC last week.
Game consoles of both the handheld and stationary variety have all kinds of pressure coming down on them from newer more agile platforms that aren't bound by dedicated hardware. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo still have their loyal fanbases, but other platforms are vying for players’ time and money.
"If we’re not careful, we’re going to become irrelevant. There’s going to be a generation of developers who feel that PlayStation is really not important to them."
And competition isn’t just about consumers’ time and money — it’s also about the mindshare among the content creators, i.e. game developers. For Ahmad, Sony’s fight for relevance in such market upheaval begins with the people who make games.
“I came to GDC two years ago, and I brought a Vita with me,” Ahmad said. “I went to the IGF [Independent Games Festival] Pavilion and I showed it to a few of the developers, and a couple of them didn’t even know what the Vita was, which was really scary.
“If this generation of developers, who are really capable in targeting other platforms — at that time it was mostly PC for the indies — if we’re not careful, we’re going to become irrelevant,” he said. “There’s going to be a generation of developers who feel that PlayStation is really not important to them. They have a choice — a massive choice of platforms they can target.”
He said he went back to Sony and explained the experience to his management team, outlining what needed to be done to fix the situation, which needed to be turned around fast.
“We need to first of all communicate that we are a lot more open," he told them. "At that time, we were beginning to open up, but we weren’t communicating it very widely." Sony also needed to not only bring down the barriers of development and distribution, but also proactively help developers come on board to PlayStation, he said.
The results, not just on Ahmad’s part but on PlayStation’s part overall, were obvious at E3 2013, when small teams and their games, from Young Horses’ Octodad
to Supergiant’s Transistor
, were shown right alongside triple-A games like Beyond
and Infamous Second Son
As many developers realize, the trend towards more openness is being adopted to varying degrees at Microsoft and Nintendo as well. ID@Xbox is the self-publishing initiative on Xbox One, and Nintendo has allowed for self-publishing on eShop for years. The widely-used Unity engine is native on all three platforms for easier porting, Sony recently announced Game Maker support and now offers its Authoring Tools Framework for free. Microsoft also has its game creation-focused Project Spark.
"Our philosophy with these games is ‘support, steer, don’t interfere.'"
But as far as the console space goes, it's been Sony that's been shouting the loudest and longest about making its platforms friendlier for smaller development teams. PlayStation has embraced that identity and is winning the PR battle both with consumers and, it seems, developers.
“The rules are now significantly relaxed,” he said regarding getting a game on PlayStation. Concept submissions, for example, are out the window. “At the moment, there is a simple checkbox system, and you just fill in the checkboxes, and basically you’re good to go. It’s a very, very simple system. It’s not really gating as such. If you want to self-publish on PlayStation, it’s really straightforward. There’s nothing stopping you.”
Sony does add support to games that it finds particularly compelling. This support can come in the form of loaner dev kits, Unity licenses, funding, storefront and PlayStation blog promotions. “Vita’s probably our easiest system to make games for. It’s really easy to use," he said. "I’ve got no issues with [developers’] technical competence on the system. It’s a really relaxed process.”
Ahmad’s guidelines these days are to support developers in important ways, but basically to get out of the way, when it comes to the creative process. “Our philosophy with these games is ‘support, steer, don’t interfere,'” Ahmad said. “Give them as much space as possible to experiment, and gently steer developers away from potential trouble spots. Really, [we’re about] educating developers in the ways of our audience, what our audience expects, what PlayStation fans like, what they don’t like, but respecting the vision of the game, and making sure the vision comes through.
“It’s not a typical publisher-type relationship where the publisher is the client and the publisher says ‘you gotta do this, you gotta do that, you gotta do this otherwise you ain’t gonna make the payments.’ It’s nothing like that at all.”
"For some developers we’ve worked with, and still work with, it’s very important to them that we don’t become too open, and for other developers, they want us to be more open. So there is this tension."
While PlayStation and its competitors are making strides in simply becoming less invasive to creatives, they still rely on selling specialized hardware that cost hundreds of dollars, and they are still closed platforms. These traits limit the audience, as well as the kinds of developers and games that can get onto those platforms.
The question is, particularly with Valve poised to make Steam an open, user-curated system, how open is Sony really willing to make the PlayStation ecosystem?
“It really depends on a number of factors,” he replied. “For some developers we’ve worked with, and still work with, it’s very important to them that we don’t become too
open, and for other developers, they want us to be more
open. So there is this tension.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s a huge danger of [a deluge of PlayStation games hitting the store] in any case, because console development brings with it its own set of challenges," he said. "But ... [more openness] is still under discussion.”
Repositioning PlayStation as an developer-friendly brand has been key to the platform’s identity thus far, and will likely continue. While Ahmad’s “baby” has been the Vita in recent years, he’s beginning to work more with PS4, he said, giving more credence to the idea that Vita is a testbed for wider PlayStation platform strategies.
"I consider the independent space to be where the lifeblood of creativity is right now."
Being around Ahmad during the Train Jam showed me that he actually does care about not just games, but game development. He had holed up in a tiny cabin on a train for two-and-a-half days, not striking development deals, but coding an original, inspired game from scratch. He wanted to get back in touch with his inner game developer, the one who made games in assembly in the 1980s. That passion is hard to fake, and should be encouraging to developers who want to work with PlayStation. Console makers will live or die by the amount of recognition and support that they give to the people who are actually making the games.
“What [the Train Jam] did do was leave me with a more profound respect for independent game developers — how amazingly capable they are, how creative they are under pressure, how well they deliver — their excitement," he said. “It was just insane the amount of creativity there. I consider the independent space to be where the lifeblood of creativity is right now.”