How an indie explosion is transforming PS Vita into the developer's playground
SCEE's Shahid Ahmad on handheld hurdles
Faced with the poor performance of the PS Vita, the platform holder is calling on an increasing number of independent developers to reverse the ailing handheld's fortunes.
Recent months have seen numerous hit PC indie titles announced for PS Vita and PlayStation 3, including Hotline Miami, The Binding of Isaac and Stealth Inc (formerly Stealth Bastard).
Add new releases like Luftrausers, Hohokum and Doki-Doki Universe, and the Vita's indie catalogue is growing by the day.
To enable this change, Sony has removed some of the hurdles of its reputedly tricky approval process and is actively reaching out to the development community to ensure the PS Vita can attract the very best indie talent.
It's a huge change of pace from the PS Vita's initially publisher-led "home console in your pocket" approach and a clear attempt to react to a marketplace changed forever by Steam, Android and the App Store. But is it enough?
Spearheading the charge is Shahid Ahmad, SCEE's senior business development manager in charge of strategic content.
For Ahmad, embracing indies isn't a new approach, it's the continuation of what he believes is a Sony tradition.
Honeyslug's Hohokum, bound for PS Vita via Sony Santa Monica
"PlayStation has always enjoyed great relationships with its partners," he says.
"The potential partner space has exploded with the advent of far more developers than at any time in our industry's history.
"It's been enchanting to see just how much creativity has been unleashed. There are more games released in a day than I will probably play in my lifetime. It truly is a dramatic flowering and the excitement in the community is palpable.
"Whether it's game jams, events, impromptu web streamed events or games as cultural dialogue, there has never been a more exciting time from a creative perspective. It seems that anything is possible."
"All we're doing is recognising that change and finding ways of supporting it. We know there are going to be really exciting ideas emerging and PlayStation has a heritage of hosting creativity. We plan on continuing that tradition."
Not just a wellspring of new ideas, however, Ahmad also identifies games from independent studios as an increasingly mainstream prospect, pointing to the success of Minecraft, Angry Birds and Ridiculous Fishing as just three examples of chart-topping indie hits.
"Some people might regard indies as a niche prospect," he says, "but just as in the digital book publishing space, we are all set for new heroes and heroines to emerge."
There's another force at play, however. Thanks in part to the Vita's small install base, it has become more difficult for Sony to attract games of any sort to the handheld.
Independently produced, self-published games represent a solution to the problem.
Dennaton Games' critically acclaimed Hotline Miami
"We've had independent developers self-publishing on PlayStation for many years now," says Ahmad, "but we've found that with the current publishing climate, not as many developers are being signed up to create games for PS Vita by the publishing community as we'd ideally like to see at this stage in the cycle.
"That's why we've engaged directly with many developers to bring great games to Vita. The importance of developers should never be underplayed."
To this end, Sony is pursuing developers in the community and encouraging studios to submit pitches, in an aggressive attempt to attract talent.
"We do a lot of prospecting, working closely with our games consultants team and with developer relations on both sides of the pond," says Ahmad.
"We attend events, we take email pitches, but the important thing to note is that if you want to make a game for PlayStation, there are fewer barriers than you might expect and you should get in touch."
Curve Studios' Stealth Inc. - A Clone in the Dark, formerly known as Stealth Bastard
The barriers to which Ahmad refers relate to Sony's notoriously difficult approval processes, which have been simplified to make the company's platforms more attractive to self-publishing developers.
"We used to have a two-stage concept approval process," says Ahmad, "but that has been replaced by a single stage without effective gating.
"We have a team of account managers ready to help you publish on our platforms. We have a great community and great developer support too.
"There used to be a perception of PlayStation being a tough world to get into. We're happy to change that perception for you and would love to support your work on our platforms."
Ahmad refers to the rise of indies, helped along by increasingly powerful mobile and digital distribution platforms, as a "Cambrian explosion," referring to the event which saw the diversity of life forms on Earth accelerate exponentially.
It's a fitting analogy.
Luftrausers, by Vlambeer
But within this new eco-system, what can Sony offer developers that Apple, Android or Steam cannot? Ahmad's response is impassioned.
"What PlayStation offers is a customer and fanbase that is loyal, discerning and appreciative," he says.
"We have beautiful, elegant hardware designed for people who love to play games. We have the most iconic controller design language on the face of the planet. That takes some beating. If you want to be part of that, we want to support you."
Still some way off the openness of the App Store and Google Play that have arguably necessitated Sony's shift, the PS Vita is undoubtedly a far more welcoming place for developers.
Whether the new initiative will pay off and turn around the handheld's fortunes, however, remains to be seen, but the shift has already begun.
From here on in, the Japanese giant is going to be increasingly reliant on small, creatively agile teams of developers.
"There's no denying that the role that developers play in the video games ecosystem has never been more appreciated," says Ahmad.
"Although we have always been supportive of developers, I think the difference now is that we are much more open to having a dialogue about our shared future with developers than at any point in our history.
"Given that there are more independent developers than ever before, it's quite reasonable that we should intensify our outreach and support to this new community.
"Developers will directly shape the future of video games on our platforms and we are happy to support their growing ambitions."