In 2010, a group of friends came together to collaborate on a game that came to be known as Secret Ponchos, a unique take on the shooter genre in a very stylized Old West setting. Early in the development process, these friends, now known as the developer Switchblade Monkeys, reached out to Sony with little more than a concept video. Sony responded by telling the developer that if they could get the game together, they would help distribute the game on PlayStation Network.
Several years later, Switchblade Monkeys came to PAX East 2013, showing off Secret Ponchos to the public for the first time. During the convention, a group of people in regular clothing came over to the Secret Ponchos booth and played the game. Then, they hung around and watched as others played the game. After about 20 minutes, they introduced themselves to the Switchblade Monkeys team. They were from Sony, and they wanted to get Secret Ponchos on the PlayStation 4. Yousuf Mapara, president and creative director of Switchblade Monkeys, confessed that, with their small staff, they just didn’t have the resources to commit to a console port.
“They were just like, ‘Well, what are your barriers?’” Mapara said. “’What can we do to help you get it on PS4?’”
At Sony’s main presentation at E3 2013, Sony VP of Publisher & Developer Relations Adam Boyes introduced eight independent developers onto the stage to showcase eight indie games all coming to the PlayStation 4. It seemed like Sony was taking a big step toward giving independent developers more support than ever. The stage at E3 was no longer reserved for big-budget franchises, but it included several small-time game companies, many of whom were still on their first commercial game. This overwhelming public show of support for indies was unprecedented, but it might not have been out of character for Sony.
“There’s almost like a misconception that all this support for indies is new, and from my experience, Sony’s actually been very consistent with it. They’ve always given indies a high amount of respect,” Mapara told me. “The only difference right now is that Sony is actually being a little bit more vocal about it.”
The games presented on stage at E3 were as diverse as the developers themselves. Oddworld: New N’ Tasty! is a reboot of a franchise that began in 1997. Octodad: Dadliest Catch is the commercial sequel to a freeware game made by several students from DePaul University in 2010. The indie devs that were presented on stage represented a panoply of different experience levels and game genres. It was certainly an impressive display by Sony.
It was very easy, though, to get cynical. It wasn’t exactly a long shot to assume that Sony was only doing this as a publicity stunt, an attempt to get one more edge above Microsoft’s Xbox One presentation. According to several of these independent developers partnering with Sony, however, Sony’s commitment to supporting indie games is more substantive than mere lip service.
“Not only are they removing all barriers for small developers to get access to their platforms, but you can tell from working with them that they are genuinely, personally invested in making this happen,” said Chris Cobb, co-founder of Ray’s the Dead developer Ragtag Studio. “I’ve been super surprised at how well they’ve treated us from the first time we met them, and they really have made it almost impossible to say to no to putting a game on their platform.”
One of the first reasons Sony is becoming such an attractive place for indie devs is the ease with which developers can get into contact with the right people. Whereas other game companies might send developer applicants through a string of automatic forms before ever connecting them with a real person, Sony’s process is much more inviting, according to Mapara.
“We didn’t approach Nintendo only because I had no idea how to do that,” Mapara said. “When I looked at Microsoft, one of the things we noticed was they did have an email address you could contact … but we didn’t have a concept of who was receiving this on the other side, like if it was an automated service or what. I just think with Sony’s system, things happened more naturally. And I think that made a big difference.”
Of course, there are more barriers to console publishing than those on the corporate side. For years, confusing and complex console operating systems have made porting to consoles a chore, throwing up technical barriers that, traditionally, smaller developers didn’t have the resources to cross. For this upcoming generation of consoles, these barriers should be on their way out as well. Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One were advertised as having architectures similar to an ordinary PC. And from what the developers have seen, Sony has kept this promise.
Not only is coding for the PS4 similar to coding for a PC, but the console also supports popular engines like Unity and PhysX that are becoming standards in indie development. Suddenly, console ports are no longer such an ordeal.
“Just because it was really easy to set up the [PlayStation 4] dev kit in the first place, it kind of snowballed into, “Well, let’s see if we can get some of our own code running on it,’” said Kevin Geisler, producer/programmer at Dadliest Catch studio Young Horses and lead on the game’s PS4 port. “I don’t have much console experience, but I found it extremely easy to use. It was very similar to doing our port for Linux.”
Once the corporate connections have been made and the game has been coded, all that’s left is to get your game out to the public, a feat easier said than done. Even with the rise of distribution methods like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam Greenlight that specialize in giving indie games a shot at publishing, being able to monetize a game is still an uphill battle. Even though Ragtag Studio is trying to get Ray’s the Dead on Steam, Cobb said the developer is actually having better luck getting the game on a console.
“It’s interesting to me that we’ve actually had an easier time getting onto the Sony PlayStation 4 console than getting onto Steam,” Cobb said. “I’m not sure if people are aware that that’s kind of how drastically things have shifted, but that’s definitely been the case for us. It’s been nice to just sort of sit down and have a meeting face-to-face with some real people at Sony and discuss your game rather than having to go through a system like Greenlight.”
It certainly seems like Sony is making the game industry a lot more indie-friendly, and Cobb agrees that it’s now “easier than ever for a small team to make a game” and be able to publish on a variety of different platforms. But this ease comes at a cost. The indie sector is growing by leaps and bounds, and the market for independent games has suddenly become saturated with decent games made with the help of user-friendly programming tools and improved distribution channels. Though publishing a game is becoming easier, standing out from the crowd is becoming more difficult.
Making a unique game, though, is only half of the battle, Geisler said. To make a successful game, indies now more than ever need to focus on building a community around their game in addition to building the actual game. Good marketing is just as important as good code.
“It’s hard to do just one or the other and count on being successful,” Geisler said. “ I know I read a lot of postmortems from other developers, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether the game wasn’t good enough or whether they didn’t do enough marketing.”
But whether or not indie development is becoming easier or harder, Sony appears to be giving these small devs as many tools as possible. With recent news that the Xbox One will now allow self-publishing, indie support is quickly becoming a major issue in this console race. Figuring out which console will fare better with the indie sector will have to wait until the systems have been out for a while. But whichever console you think is more up to the task, it’s hard to deny that Sony will end up getting the credit for breaching the indie issue in the first place.
“I think Sony has actually changed the landscape because they forced the issue,” Mapara said. “I think that Sony, in the public eye, made it visible and raised the stakes.”
“I can just tell you,” Cobb said, “as someone who’s been very involved in all that, that it’s very genuine on their end.”