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As Vita sales lag, a new publisher goes all-in on the handheld

As Vita sales lag, a new publisher goes all-in on the handheld Exclusive

August 23, 2012 | By Mike Rose

August 23, 2012 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

There's doom and gloom surrounding the future of Sony's PlayStation Vita. But one new publisher has teamed up with talented indie developers who have faith in the handheld's potential. Gamasutra's Mike Rose reports.

Things aren't going well for Sony's PS Vita. The handheld sold just 400,000 units worldwide in the last quarter, while Sony president Shuhei Yoshida recently admitted that the company is having a difficult time getting third-party developers on board.

So you may well do a double-take if I were to tell you there's a new publisher on the block that is not only focused on bringing games to the Vita, but focused almost exclusively on publishing indie games for the handheld.

The Liverpool, UK-based Ripstone is doing just that. VooFoo Studios' Pure Chess for Vita and PlayStation 3 was released earlier this year through the Ripstone brand, and now the publisher has picked up more big names in the indie scene for releases later this year.

Big Sky Infinity is the next in the Big Sky procedurally-generated shooter series from Boss Baddie, while Knytt Underground continues Nifflas' much-loved Knytt stories. There's also Panic! on the way from new studio Thumbs Up -- all three titles are set to hit the Vita before the year is out, complete with PS3 cross-play.

"I'm a passionate hardcore gamer, and I love my Vita," says Phil Gaskell, creative director and co-founder of Ripstone. "I don't see another portable device currently servicing hardcore gamers. There are other devices out there, but none of them are dedicated gaming machines as good as this one."

With Ripstone, Gaskell and the rest of his team is looking to set an example. "For me as a publisher, we can either whine about lack of sales, or we can go out and publish unique and compelling games for the Vita that drive sales," he notes.

"So my role now is to help these indies get their games onto the console, in the hope that it will drive further sales of the console, and we can all have a good time making games for it!"

Nicklas Nygren of Nifflas received his offer from Ripstone after showing Knytt Underground to the publisher, and didn't hesitate to jump on it. Development studio Green Hill is porting the game to the PS Vita and PS3 for Ripstone, meaning that Nygren can simply concentrate on making sure the game is on a par with his previous Knytt releases.

knytt underground.jpgFor most of his developer life, Nygren was happy to create freeware. However, as of late he's realized that gamers are more than happy to pay for his games, starting with NightSky on PC, and now this Vita and PS3 release.

"My game development is going so well, so I can [make money]!" he laughs. "Otherwise I would have to get a normal job and I would not be able to spend as much time on what I want to do."

But doesn't having a publisher go against 'the indie way'? I ask him. "To be honest, I don't have very strong opinions about these things," he responds. "I'm just testing stuff and seeing what happens.

"I think it's very silly to have these idealist kind of views that a publisher is always a bad thing. There are no simple rules saying that you should do it like this or that. I guess everybody has to find their own way to do things. I just like going with the flow and taking opportunities to show up. If I get the chance to make a game for Vita and PS3 -- why not? It sounds amazing."

Like a Boss

Boss Baddie's James Whitehead is also new to this whole having-a-publisher malarkey. Ripstone will publish Big Sky Infinity later this year, building on the previous titles in the series including Really Big Sky.

"It's a lot more formal," he says of having a publisher for his Vita and PS3 title. "It's a different experience. When I built Really Big Sky, it was me, and I was just listening to feedback from other players, and playtesting it myself an awful lot and coming up with new ideas all the time.

"But working with a publisher, you get all that done beforehand, it's a lot more streamlined. Plus, working with a publisher has meant that I've been introduced to people like VooFoo Studios and the artists and coders -- I couldn't have done all this myself."

Big Sky was picked up by Ripstone after Gaskell spotted the trailer over on Gamasutra sister site -- "I loved what I saw, and I thought it would make a great Vita game," he tells us. "It's really colorful, I thought the colors would pop on the OLED screen."

Like Nygren, Whitehead was very keen to get cracking on a Vita version of his game. "I really wanted to work on it, I thought there was a lot of potential in the Vita," he notes. "I wanted to break into console development, with trophies in my games and all that kind of stuff."

big sky infinity.jpgMoving to the Vita for his Big Sky series is "an easy progression," says Whitehead, as the franchise has always been built with a controller in mind, rather than a keyboard and mouse.

"Plus, I've always loved handheld consoles," he adds. "So it's kinda fulfilling a dream in a way." Whitehead is working with Pure Chess developer VooFoo to bring the game to Vita, and when it launches, it will support cloud saves across both the PS3 and Vita versions -- "you can be playing it on the train, then go home and take your save data over to your PlayStation 3," he says.

Don't Panic

Nicolas Marinus is managing director of Thumbs Up, a new start-up that was originally aiming to primarily put out iOS games. However, as his team began to look into its options, Marinus came to the conclusion that he was perhaps looking at the wrong platform.

"iOS is very open, so there's a huge amount of games out there, and a huge amount of people buying those games," he tells us. "But they're less inclined to pay for them. So you've got a very divergent market with a lot of crap games in them as well"

In comparison, he says, "PlayStation is this seal of quality. Every game that they publish is of a certain standard, and the customers are more loyal. Their fan base is more dedicated, so they're more open to paying for those games as well."

While developing for iOS may be easier for the average developer, it's also a lot more difficult to get noticed on the platform, he reasons. "Whereas with PlayStation, it's harder to develop for it, but the chances of your game being picked up are larger as well. So that's the main reason I've chosen Vita and PS3: Dedicated people, and a quality seal."

In fact, the first time that Marinus brought an iOS prototype for his game to Ripstone, the publisher wasn't into it. However, after meeting the Green Hill studio and being coaxed into aiming for PlayStation Mobile instead of iOS, Marinus put a new trailer to Ripstone. He was in.

panic.jpg"My game is developed specifically for PlayStation Mobile, so our main focus was the Xperia line first, and now we're tackling the Vita as well," he adds. "Sony is very much dedicated to making sure that all the games for PlayStation Mobile also work very fluidly on the Vita."

Marinus was wary of using a publisher for his first game, especially given all the horror stories he had been told "about how they will take your IP and then kick your game out into the market -- if it performs well, great for them, but if it doesn't perform well, they're just going to let it die."

However, with Ripstone, Marinus is more than happy to go ahead with his PlayStation Mobile development. "They've put money on the table and they've offered some really good feedback. They're offering services like QA out of their own pocket. I don't have to worry about that. The deal that we have is very much a win-win situation, so I don't feel that a publisher is a bad thing."

He warns, "Just make sure you find the right publisher, and get a good deal."

It may well be this nurturing edge that allows Ripstone to coax more indie developers over to the Vita -- and Sony will no doubt be quietly watching from the shadows if Shuhei Yoshida's previous words on the topic are anything to go by.

"I think some people have a bad experience [with publishers] because the publisher has exerted control over them to the point where they don't feel like they own what they're creating," says Ripstone's Gaskell. "It's something that we're very conscious about."

"These are the creative guys, it's their vision, their story. We're not intending to meddle with that. We're here to help them get their vision out, not here to tell them that that should be green, not blue, or that the characters should wear a hat."

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