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15 Years Later: How Sony's Net Yaroze Kickstarted Indie Console Development
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15 Years Later: How Sony's Net Yaroze Kickstarted Indie Console Development


April 26, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

The international success of Net Yaroze raises an interesting point, since Sarah Bennett, product manager for Net Yaroze in the UK, was quoted as saying there were "several thousand" users worldwide. This would imply there were thousands of projects in development -- far more than were revealed to the public on the OPSM demo discs.

Holman expands on this. "Sarah was right; we certainly sold around 1,000 Net Yarozes [in Europe], with more being sold in Japan. U.S. was similar to our numbers. Although they were as cheap as we could make them, they were relatively expensive, and so people bought them specifically to work on projects -- so probably thousands of projects!"

Dr Henry Fortuna, one of those involved with the Net Yaroze course at Abertay, reveals how little the public actually saw. "There were some impressive demos produced but these were mainly internal to Abertay." Professor Marshal added: "We didn't start making them more widely available until we launched the Dare to be Digital competition for student teams to develop prototype games."

"I don't think we'll ever know exactly how many Net Yaroze games there were," says Smudged Cat's Johnston. "There were so many made that never saw the light of day because they could only be played by the Yaroze community -- decent games that never made it to OPSM cover discs."

Sony produced various promotional discs with Net Yaroze games, but in Europe the monthly demo on OPSM was the only regular way for non-members to access the games. Between issues 26 and 108 of OPSM there were at least 37 different games given out. While there were lengthy periods without Net Yaroze games on the demos, this was down to the whim of changing editors.

Ryan Butt explains that, as editor, he had access to everything. "We had full control of what went on the disc. We had a database of Net Yaroze titles and provided Sony with a list of what we wanted. Later in OPSM's life, the new demos dried up so we chose from the existing. Yaroze games were small and acted as good space fillers, bumping up the 'number flash' of featured games. It made sense to pack as much on as possible."

Even with the database, though, what was available to OPSM's editors was limited by the suitability of certain games. Johnston has an amusing anecdote: "There was certainly a bit of discussion, and some changes had to be made before the game was actually deemed ready for a cover disc. They didn't just go ahead without asking. I remember putting a picture of my face on the title screen of TimeSlip because I thought I'd try to grab a bit of fame. I was politely told that wasn't really suitable!"

The difficulty of getting a completed game noticed outside the boundaries of the community was mentioned by all those interviewed. When asked about the Net Yaroze's main shortcoming, Matt James sums it up neatly: "Distribution. Once you made a game there wasn't a way to get it to players without a Yaroze. In the UK there was a chance you could get the game on the OPSM disc, but it wasn't guaranteed."

Robert Swan agrees. "Progress was far slower than with things like XBLIG today. Not being able to release our games for others to play was a frequent frustration." He also highlights problems regarding some people's expectations: "It was common that people bought one and posted on the newsgroups disappointed they needed to program. While SCEE helped where they could, we generally weren't very good programmers and didn't even ask for help constructively!"

James Rutherford, meanwhile, mentions other limitations. "I was disheartened to find that some stuff I wanted to do just wasn't possible with the Yaroze libraries, particularly multitap support -- I wanted to write four-player games!"

The technical limitations of the Net Yaroze kit are well documented. Data couldn't be continuously streamed from the host computer or CD, meaning the entire game had to fit into roughly 3.5mb. "The connection with the PC was the biggest slowdown," says Charles Chapman. "It was over a serial cable, so was very slow. The other limitation was that your entire game had to fit into main memory. This wasn't so bad, as the type of games people were making were pretty small, but it did mean that the scope was limited."

Professor Marshall talks of other limitations, detailing in one example how it encouraged students to question whether simulated realism was actually preferable to faking something, which required less system resources and would be good enough for games.

"The Yaroze was a compromise," he says, "but it was close enough to the experience of console development. It didn't have the luxury of vast memory like in a PC environment. If students wanted to do something spectacular they had to work [within] the constraints of processor speed and it forced them to optimize code. Yaroze was also great for learning about host and target programming. In terms of preparing them for jobs, it was the only way to get console experience."

In spite of the steep learning curve, technical limitations, and difficulty of getting a good game out there, the tangible benefits of being an active Net Yaroze member outweighed everything else. For those who got involved, having a completed project proved invaluable on a resume. Landing a spot on the OPSM demo was even better, since it could be taken to interviews as part of a portfolio.

In cases where a project wasn't on the demo, Rutherford devised a workaround. "I'm sure my job placement was [due to] my experience with Yaroze. I went to my friend Nick Ferguson's flat to make a VHS demo tape of my stuff -- him simultaneously pressing record on the video recorder and CD player, with me playing the game. I also had the first version of Snowball Fight on a CD that could be played in a consumer PlayStation. SCEE burnt some as promo items, which helped a lot."


Snowball Fight

Nick Ferguson was also a prolific contributor to the Net Yaroze scene, getting involved after seeing Rutherford's work. "Hardcore programming was never going to be my strength, but the experience of working with Yaroze definitely helped me get my first job," explains Ferguson, who later went on to work for Electronic Arts and is now at Microsoft Studios.

According to Matt James, Net Yaroze also helped build contacts. "I basically walked into PlayStation contracting by knowing enough from a year or so Yaroze work. The private community had a few professional games coders active on the newsgroups. It was an entry into a closed professional world -- who to contact and how."

"At the time there were nearly zero courses teaching games development and information on homebrew for consoles was minimal, so we were pretty appealing to games companies," says Swan.

Like everyone else, he also says it landed him employment. "On the newsgroups the most vocal and productive consisted of roughly 10, all of which are now in games. I got my first job at SCEE directly through the staff I met via Net Yaroze. My first job was working on the PocketStation, which I was saved from by its non-release! I stayed there until The Getaway debacle four years later, which turned me off the 'large team and the sky's the limit' mentality."


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