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Does PlayStation Mobile have what it takes to attract indie devs? Exclusive

Does PlayStation Mobile have what it takes to attract indie devs?
August 30, 2012 | By John Polson

August 30, 2012 | By John Polson
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

When the executives behind a giant corporation like Sony say they want to attract more small indie game makers to the PlayStation brand, they'd better have some decent developer support to attract this group of people, many of whom are already content with their do-it-yourself, bootstrapping ways.

It's hard to say how many indies will get on board with PlayStation Mobile, but there are early indications that small independent game developers see potential in the platform as an attractive and affordable way to streamline Android development for PlayStation Certified tablets and smartphones, and even the Vita. While typical Android developers may face rampant piracy and a fragmented market, PS Mobile offers a platform that runs one code on a virtual machine, making it a relatively simple proposition for the entire range of PlayStation Certified devices.

Despite a few bugs with the beta version of PS Mobile's standard development kit (SDK), developers who spoke to Gamasutra are optimistic for the platform. PS Mobile, formerly known as PlayStation Suite, promises several improvements over the company's small-games initiative, PlayStation Minis. Some of these improvements include a tenfold size limit increase for games (from 100 MB to 1GB) and much-needed PlayStation Network integration (including DLC, trophies and leaderboards).

Minis vs. Mobile

Alasdair Evans of Laughing Jackal has developed over 10 games for the Minis and PlayStation Network platforms, including two Cubixx and two Fighting Fantasy entries. He says meeting PS Mobile's quality standards is not that different to Minis development, and Sony Europe provides direct support for any issues that arise.

Porting games to mobile hasn't been too tough for Laughing Jackal because the developer already designed Hungry Giraffe, OMG-Z and Orbit for touch and mobile platforms, as well as Minis. Evans needed only part of his team to spend about two months with the PS Mobile platform, with about a month spent on tool and engine porting and another month on game code.

Developers had to program Minis for PSP in C++, whereas PS Mobile uses C#/Mono. Evans says, "The PSP was a fixed function graphics pipeline whereas PS Mobile utilizes shaders, which meant converting our graphics code and various tools. We only allocated one person to this as we're currently working on a large-scale secret PS3 project." Evans also says that DLC is available for PS Mobile games and "is easy to implement."

Alexey Menshikov of Stardrone developer Beatshapers said his company tried PS Mobile when it first rolled out but had dropped it until late this month because of too many bugs. Vlambeer's Rami Ismail said that while the PS Mobile SDK had "a few nasty bugs," they were rather common for a new SDK.

PlayStation vs. Android vs. iOS

Quoted last year saying Android development is a bit of a minefield, Ismail found the Android-based PS Mobile SDK surprisingly stable when porting Super Crate Box from PC. The most painful bug "made sprites that were flipped over an axis rotate incorrectly" and that took about a week of part-time programming to fix.

Overall, the porting process for Vlambeer took about a month of part-time work. "For every silly thing we needed, we found something buried somewhere that could do it."

Super-Crate-Box.jpgBoth Evans and Ismail have developed for Apple's SDK previously, and both suggested that PS Mobile and iOS development tool costs are actually on par with each other. Vlambeer noted that there were performance differences on their Playstation Vita, Xperia S, and Sony-provided Xperia Play, so the team recommended at least having a phone and a Vita available. However, none of these PlayStation Certified devices have exorbitant kit prices; all are off-the-shelf items.

Evans expressed certain proclivities for using Sony's SDK. "You have their outstanding team behind you, checking for errors and making sure you adhere to the platform." However, with Apple's SDK, "your technical difficulties are yours alone; the support system cannot compare to Sony's."

Ismail felt that PS Mobile might be somewhat less limiting than iOS. "While we've never had any issues with the acceptable terms on iOS, PS Mobile uses the known, tried and tested rating systems like PEGI and ESRB. That means that PS Mobile titles can pretty much contain things that Apple would not allow on iOS, like nudity or slightly more violent games. Apple obviously wants to keep iOS a family platform, something we fully understand for their device series -- it wouldn't make a lot of sense on PlayStation Mobile."

Ismail noted that Apple's SDK is obviously far more mature than PS Mobile's codebase. Apple's Game Center leaderboards, friend lists and multiplayer is important, too. While PS Mobile doesn't support anything similar yet, Ismail says he's been reassured that "they're at the absolute top of things that will be implemented soon."

A viable platform?

Futurlab managing director James Marsden has developed Minis since late 2009 and finds the PS Mobile SDK "far easier to get your head around than PSP." He has argued that the platform, the Vita particularly, is a worthwhile venture for indies. "We've previously had no interest in developing for Android, but for indie game development, PS Mobile turns the Android marketplace into a viable platform."

His team had very early access to PS Mobile. He said they have developed "the best part" of future PS Mobile title Slidin' Beats on a pre-alpha SDK, and picked it back up in July along with two other titles.

Futurlab developer Robin Jubber says the team is "enjoying how easy it is to prototype on PC and send it out to HTC handsets and the PS Vita instantly. It's a surprisingly fluid environment, especially for writing to hardware as potentially complex as the PS Vita."

slidin beats.jpgConcerning any possible advantages PS Mobile development has over Minis, Marsden can't say without a larger picture. "One big benefit we see for PlayStation Mobile is that we can get games with HD art and networking functionality onto PS Vita, and since there's not a huge library available for the system just yet, there's a good chance that a quality game will get noticed by Sony, supported by them in their various official PlayStation channels, and therefore sold in good numbers. When you count the number of people carrying HTCs and Xperias around too, things could be quite good."

Futurlab feels PS Mobile is an effective way to help fill the Vita's current software gap. However, he's aware that the hardware that can play Minis (PlayStation 3, PSP, and Vita) comprise "a far healthier install base" than just the Vita.

Marsden believes the real advantages of PS Mobile for are "the choice of language, the use of Mono Develop, or soon Visual Studio, the 2D engine (in fact the many engines, for instance, UI or physics), extensive sample code and tutorials and fast response times on the forums and from Sony themselves."

He says it ultimately comes down to his team wanting to create games for the core market, and twitch gameplay is a big part of that. "We're exploring ways to support twitch gaming properly on touch-only devices with our next two PS Mobile titles, and what I mean by that is not just putting virtual buttons or joysticks on screen, which we've fallen foul of before, as it just doesn't work."

When asked if Mobile will face the same network-related disadvantages of Minis, Jubber clarifies otherwise. "No, the download size limit has leaped from 100mb to 1GB, and there's no restriction over rolling our own online functionality. Mobile doesn't support [PSN] integration right now, but we are assured that integration with PlayStation Network will arrive, so we're prepared to update our games with that functionality when it is available."

What about discoverability?

Discoverability concerns also loom over the platform. To remedy that, Marsden shares, "Apparently there will be a dedicated part of the store for PlayStation Mobile titles, and I've heard that Sony [is] planning more ways to support indie developers on the PlayStation Store, but I can't share any details unfortunately."

Marsden adds, "Visibility is always going to be a challenge for a digital marketplace with lots of content, but PlayStation is a games business; their brand relies on supporting quality games, so if a developer puts the work in to develop a great game, it's in Sony's interest to support it through their various official channels. We have certainly felt the benefits of their support on minis, and I would hope those opportunities will continue for great titles appearing on PS Mobile."

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