Interview

No other handheld gaming device comes close to the PS Vita, reckons Icon's Hill-Whittall

No other handheld gaming device comes close to the PS Vita, reckons Icon's Hill-Whittall
UK-based indie outfit Icon Games has been making the headlines with the outspoken comments from its MD Richard Hill-Whittall, who has criticised Nintendo's attempts to hinder smaller developers by disallowing them to publish sales figures from digital stores.

Icon is hard at work on other fronts, however.

Having found a niche for itself in the PSP Minis market, it's now looking at the bright prospects on offer by the PS Vita.

We caught up with Hill-Whittall to find out what's in store in 2012.

PocketGamer: Can you give us some background about Icon Games?

Hill-Whittall: Icon started in 2004, developing on PlayStation 2. To-date, we have developed and released just under 30 games for a variety of handheld and console platforms - including PlayStation 2, PSP, iOS, Wii and PC.

We've mainly focused on casual games, often family-orientated titles, although with Vita we are also looking at more core gamer releases.

You've announced your self publishing numbers - 250,000 total downloads but no one game has done more than 85,000. Do you think you'd be better off focusing on fewer releases?

Certainly so far our self-publishing revenue has been disappointing – although the Minis performed better than expected.

Financially it is a struggle, the biggest challenge when you are tight on resources is how to develop future titles within the timeframe and budget you can realistically afford.

It also makes it impossible to put R&D time into other developments and formats.

We are focusing on fewer releases now, particularly with something like Vita where the resource demands are so much higher.

Also, we are consistently trying to improve the quality of each new game. In the past we have had to cut some corners primarily because we were always running out of money and needed to get stuff out fast!

PSP/PSN has been your strongest platform. Why do you think this is the case?

I think the key aspect is how well Sony has promoted the Minis.

It has run several exclusive promotions and offers for Minis titles, and you are also free to set the pricing and run your own special offers and sales.

Add to this the PSP Plus service and you have so many ways to get your game noticed and downloaded. Hats off to Sony for such a brilliant, developer friendly initiative.

What has Sony been like to work with?

It's been brilliant – every step of the way our account manager has been there to help us, and the other support staff and departments are great at getting back to you and providing help.

I really can't emphasise enough how much Sony has turned its approach round and become by far the most developer-friendly platform holder.

What's your view on the PS Vita so far?

I love it – particularly from an art point of view (which is my main role at Icon). It has some serious power under the hood, and it is great to get to grips with the various pixel shaders and effects.

The controls also deserve special mention – touchscreens and twin sticks? No other handheld gaming device comes close in my opinion.

Many of your games are casual sports games - pool, golf, bowling etc. Why and how do you think you can be competitive in such genres?

We started doing pool games back in 2004 as I liked the genre, and it seemed to be a good entry niche to begin console development (PS2 back then).

Since then we have just evolved what we already had, supporting extra games and constantly refining and reworking the physics and AI.

We strive with each new game to improve every aspect, and we also monitor reviews and listen carefully to user feedback.

Do you think Nintendo's request characterises its general approach to developer relations with indie studios?

Completely – every aspect of self-publishing on WiiWare was made more difficult by Nintendo's approach.

Sales performance thresholds - whereby the publisher has to exceed these thresholds before they start to receive any revenue from Nintendo, and if not reached within two years you will never receive a penny. That killed cash flow and just about bankrupted us.

Store limitations - you can't ever change the price point, it [Nintendo] doesn't allow sales or promotions, it never really does any promotion except for the very top selling handful of games.

You can't update the game once it's on sale unless there is a critical bug found, there were no demos for ages – it finally introduced them but only allowed a game demo to stay on the store for 4 weeks, and so on.

It would be hard to devise a more developer unfriendly system! I am surprised we didn't have to sign the contract in blood!

Are you still planning to support Nintendo platforms?

I like the Nintendo brand, and it has produced some amazing systems over the years, but I wouldn't want to self-publish on a Nintendo platform again unless it modernises the way it works with developers!

Our focus right now is on Vita and PSP.

What are your plans for 2012?

We have two Vita titles in the later stages of development, plus a couple more Minis due for release soon.

Once the Minis are done and released I'll begin work on the next games, but as yet I haven't considered what the new ones will be, or indeed what platform(s).

I definitely want to continue on Vita, and I'm interested in the PS Suite. I think we'll also return to iOS and I'd love to look at HTML5.
Thanks to Richard for his time.

When Matt was 7 years old he didn't write to Santa like the other little boys and girls. He wrote to Mario. When the rotund plumber replied, Matt's dedication to a life of gaming was established. Like an otaku David Carradine, he wandered the planet until becoming a writer at Pocket Gamer.

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Sorry good sir, you are clueless. :-)

The PS Vita isn't even a phone. It's going to be as ubiquitous as the PSP - you rarely see them, as opposed to cell phones.