They may be called "Minis," but Sony Computer Entertainment's new bite-sized digital distribution initiative for the Sony PSP is a big deal for game developers, particularly small teams.
Gamasutra spoke with PSP Minis developers Subatomic Studios (Fieldrunners), Mountain Sheep (Minigore), Creat Studios (Alien Havoc), and Solus Games (Funky Punch) about their firsthand experiences on Sony's new initiative, where it succeeds, and where it needs work in this early stage.
"Developing for the PSP is definitely more serious business and not for casual non-developers," said Sergei Gourski, co-founder of Subatomic Studios, developer of the App Store hit Fieldrunners. "Having game development experience is a must. You have to invest some money into dev kits and into getting ratings for your game. The costs of ratings such us ESRB is significantly more then we had realized."
The costs of creating a game for PSP Minis as opposed to iPhone and iPod Touch is apparent when comparing prices across the two platforms. Fieldrunners, for instance, launched at $4.99 last year on the App Store, and currently sells for $2.99 on Apple's service. On the PlayStation Store, the game currently sells for $6.99.
Kimmo Vihola, CEO of Minigore developer Mountain Sheep, is another PSP Minis developer (and developer of the UMD-based PSP game Super Hind) who has also found previous success on iPhone's App Store. The cartoony shooter Minigore, released this summer by publisher Chillingo, was able to surpass 100,000 unit sales just a few weeks after its late July release. Vihola, who has already looked into HD versions of Minigore for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, sees the Minis program as yet another revenue opportunity for small developers.
There Are Too Many Apps For That
"Now, I think Minis is a brilliant idea and exactly the kind of thing the PSP needs to make it a really appealing platform," Vihola said. With experience now with Apple's App Store and Sony's PSP Minis, Vihola is able to compare and criticize the services. For instance, he believes the high-volume App Store -- which has become home to 85,000 free and paid apps since its launch in summer 2008 -- is clinching to hold itself together.
"The QA process is much more predictable with Sony and their turnaround times are awesome," Vihola said. Sony recently stated that the approval process for PSP Minis is typically only three to five days.
"The App Store, on the other hand, sees many more new applications a day going through their pipeline," Vihola added. "So many, in fact, that their process is starting to crack from the seams. With approval times varying from a couple of days to up to six weeks, not getting your submission through can cost you a lot of time."
"We had this happen with Minigore's Episode 2, which we now expect to go through after two rejections and almost two months in the system," he said. "Apple should consider changing their process such that re-submissions take a priority over new submissions."
"We are already a licensed developer for the PSP so we didn't have to jump through any hoops to get into the Minis. I'd imagine the sign-up is fairly similar for both Apple and Sony -- with the notable exception you need to be a business entity to develop for the Minis," Vihola said.
There are other notable differences between PSP Mini and App Store game guidelines. Sony's program is focused more on single-player experiences -- this is in tune with the current policy that PSP Minis are restricted from online and wireless multiplayer gameplay. By nixing those features, Sony believes it can keep QA turnarounds to a minimum.
But already, Mountain Sheep -- and probably other Minis developers -- are trying to find a way around that policy. "We are working on co-op multiplayer for the iPhone version [of Minigore], and we would love to be able to add that to Minigore PSP. Currently Sony doesn't allow it, but I'm hoping we will find a common ground, and Minigore will be one of the first Minis titles to utilize that when [the game] comes out later this year."
Improving The Storefront
The Minis store is brand new, and is a barebones click-here-to-buy kind of shopping experience. Vihola hopes that the Minis digital storefront will eventually add support for screenshots, videos, user reviews, background downloading and resuming of interrupted downloads. "That stuff is really crucial for the user experience. Requiring the system to be updated to latest version to access the store can also be a little distracting at times," he said. "When you want to access the store, you don't want to be waiting until the battery charges and an update is installed."
Solus Games is a one-man game development operation owned and run by Richard Stenson. He has released five games on the App Store, and with the Minis port of the iPhone game Funky Punch, he's part of the Minis debut lineup. "With all new platforms, there are a few extra hurdles to cross initially," he said of the Minis submission process. "Most notably, early on for the App Store was the adventure game of just trying to get the code signing and certificates in place so that I can build and run. That of course now has improved greatly one year later and I would expect the PSP process to improve as well."
"That said, obviously the approach Apple and Sony have taken is quite different and which is right, if there is a 'right' approach, remains to be seen."
The 100-person Creat Studios, which is the only developer here that has not developed for the App Store, launched Alien Havoc at the debut of the PSP Minis program last week. "The Minis program has been a great experience," said Alien Havoc creator John "Linoleum" Manuelian. "Development is smooth and easy in most cases, as a number of submission requirement checks are streamlined to save time." Creat plans to release three Minis games this year.
Services like the App Store, PSP Minis, DSiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Store, and WiiWare send a message that the small teams on the fringe of the billions-dollar video gaming industry are an important piece of the market, both in terms of commercial viability and innovation.
While the PSP Minis program is immature in some areas, developers can still appreciate the opportunity to further build their businesses. Stenson, the one-man development team of Solus, said, "All I know is five to seven years ago the idea of publishing a game I produced completely myself on two multi-million selling platforms and one of them carrying the name 'PlayStation' was only a pipe dream. Now that is a reality and for that I am very grateful."