Previous to my attending the Indie Collective day a few weeks back, I applied for the Microsoft and Nintendo developer programs. However, I didn’t apply to the Sony Developer program, because I was given the distinct impression that it was essentially pointless to apply cold, and that it was better to get yourself known first, put your face out there in the community of developers and build up “credibility”
So to further that, I headed down on Monday to the Sony Developer Open Day at Sony’s London HQ. I spent most of the time furiously taking notes, and in the spirit of indie openness, here is my take on the day:
Self-Publishing the PlayStation Way
First up, myself and the assembled other indies were treated to a broad overview of Sony’s self-publishing philosophy. There was a brief history emphasising how Sony had, in some form or other, run various schemes or programs to allow homebrew or self-publishing. From things like Net Yaroze, something that I wasn’t aware ever existed, to more recently, PS mini’s and the move into the digital (distribution) era.
An interesting aside, they quoted 500 digital games from 160 studios had now been published digitally on Sony. Which works out at ~3 games per studio. In that context, it sounds a little less open and more like a small number of studios producing lots of mini-games.
But still pointing out that some of their favourite games, like “Retro-city Rampage”, were produced by one-man studios, and that they recognised that size doesn’t necessarily matter in that regard. Though from where I was sitting, I think most people there, just judging by their mere presence, probably didn’t need persuading of Sony’s Indie credentials
The real meat of the talk though, was Sony’s “Four Pillars of Self-Publishing”, which by my reckoning and note taking, somewhat mysteriously, translated into five key points:
- Working Together – Developers giving feedback to Sony on processes and informing them of where they need to improve things. Sony are happy to look to outside influences as part of that, but they don’t want to just ape someone else’s system. They want to create “the playstation way” when it comes to self-publishing
- Every developer is a publisher – When self-publishing, you’re treated as a publisher, just as a big publisher would be
- Personal Relationship – Always someone you can come and meet face to face to talk about whatever needs to get done between you and Sony (within reason. It helps living in London in this case as you’ll need to go to them). In fact, this is something that came up a number of times across the day. It was mentioned right at the start of the talk as well; The idea that each self-pub gets their own account manager. They kinda made it sound like a bank manager
- Equality of Opportunity – Basically, in terms of help and support afforded to you, the opportunities are the same afforded to big publishers and AAA studios. Key being quality, and providing this help with a view to the dev/self-pub achieving that.
- “No Hurdles, Just Games” – Which was the logo on the free t-shirts we all got!
The point about quality was again something mentioned throughout the day. Essentially that there is a reasonable limit to how much support they can provide, and I suspect anyone who wastes their time or is frivolous with them, they’ll give you short shrift.
Another sound bite, “Not just a policy”, was expanded as taking a proactive approach across the company to the work people do, and that extended to their interactions with indies. A few examples of that from other areas of the company were cited. Things such as Sony’s taking a chance with Eve-Online’s Dust 12345 [sic], and introducing free-2-play payment options.
Finally, there was a quick breakdown of the process of getting a game onto Sony’s platforms:
- Sign up to the Sony developer program, get assigned an account manager and discuss with them (one to one) what you’re about and planning on doing. (In fact, that doesn’t really tally with what was said later, so I may need to double check that). Another thing I have thrown into my notes is that “No console background is OK”, and actually Sony did do a show of hands as to who was using middleware, who had developed for console before and so on. The latter question got about 3 hands up out of ~50 attendees.
- Submit a Global Product Proposal (GPP). This is super-important, and Sony had a whole talk on this later / see later
- Development – Again, talking about all the things Sony can offer to assist in this department; Giving feedback, Advice on analytics, marketing, R&D / technical help etc
- QA (which they are trying to streamline)
- Publishing – Marketing, PR, sales and the business side of things is in fact, half the battle (something that I wholeheartedly agree with). Sony use the wholesale model for their digital store, and there are opportunities to meet with the marketing team and basically pitch your game to them. Discoverability wise, indies get their own store section, emphasis on it being in addition to listings in the main store.
- Live – The game has a life beyond launch: You should be thinking about what events you might do post launch, what things are going to help retain users and give a long tail
Finally, and another thing that came up repeatedly throughout the day, that right now, Sony are very busy with PS4 launch. So the above is really applicable “under normal circumstances”, and while they aim to still hit that, things are liable to slip right now
Global Product Proposal
If you want to get on Sony’s platforms, this step is mandatory, so pay attention! Indeed the GPP talk started with a call to use it as a way to “Bring your game to [Sony's] attention”, and “Focus attention on your game”. I think it’s actually slightly misleading to imply it’s your one big shot. It is, but not quite in the straight forward way it appears on the surface. Hopefully it’ll become clear what I mean by the end.
There is a single submission process (for each game idea, and implied that you’re only going to be working on one at a time). This is not a 70 page, old-fashioned style game design document, but equally, it’s something more detailed than one or two sides of A4.
A number of people asked basically the same question at the end of the talk about ports or existing games, and as far as I could tell, there was no satisfactory answer about where this fits in to the GPP (where (or whether) you put in screenshots or concept art, or a link to a build).
Later on, it was mentioned by Sony (in their talk about Strategic Content (again, see later)), that they were looking more for original content and were less interested in ports or games that had prior release on other platforms. Or alternatively, the point came up multiple times that they were looking to see what things the PlayStation version would have that made it better than versions on other platforms (read exclusive content or use of unique-to-PS hardware)
Meanwhile, the submission process has “transparent criteria” – in the sense that you don’t get told what they are, but the rest of the talk was basically massive hints. From talking to one of the Sony reps afterwards, it sounds like there are actually a limited number of tick boxes that if not filled, will fail you, but the rest is more about where you end up in the rankings of games/devs.
In fact, they rank all the games by importance, and some then get flagged as “Strategic Content”. Which basically means it’s something special. Something they think will shift boxes or maybe highlight some unique hardware capability
Moreover, if you’re not flagged or top of the priority list, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ignored, nor have no chance of progressing. So it’s not a total bust if you’re not top of the pile.
You can also ask to get feedback on your game design, above and beyond just getting a simple accepted or not. It’s optional, but honestly, just the opportunity to get that sort of quality feedback from experienced developers is as worth applying it in itself in my opinion.
As for what to include and cover, there were a number of points for consideration:
- Concept – Meaningful to the console, and makes use of what the console does. From developing on OUYA, I have an issue with things like virtual d-pads on touch screen, where the game was clearly designed with a different control scheme in mind, and does not translate when you take it from controller to touch screen, or keyboard+mouse to console. This point also links back to Sony clearly wanting to avoid a bunch of poorly considered ports for the sake of, and as well wanting the PS version having something to distinguish it from other versions on other platforms. Which leads nicely onto the next point
- Parity – The experience of the player must be at the very least, the same as it is on other platforms. Ideally it is better or offers players something unique without being inferior. (My interpretation is that, for example, even if you had unique PS content, if the Xbox version has better graphics, that’s not acceptable. Those graphics would have to at least be on-par)
- Objectionable Content Approval – Europe region is the strictest, and is more than just PEGI rating (since Europe actually covers a lot of different culturally disparate territories). But it’s all looked at on a case-by-case basis anyway, accounting for satire and “serious” games
- Performance – Creative use of interfaces, such as the controller touch pad. Having a look to see what is in the SDK’s. As well, having really snappy, responsive interface. No point in having some funky interface, or even a standard console controller setup if it doesn’t perform well. (In the hardware talk, the reduction in latency they had achieved with the new dual shock 4 controller, an example of which was passed around the audience for people to have a go with, was one of the features/improvements highlighted)
- Connectivity – Engaging the audience and taking advantage of the connectedness of the PS4 in particular. This was then expanded to include a whole list of things such as, in the social sphere, going beyond a simple facebook share button, to taking realism in AI / physics / story telling to the next level for a next gen console
From a practical point of view, the advice was to submit early. Some time after pre-production, having completed game design documents and considered what platform-specific features the proposal would include (again, this same point popping up), but before actual development begins (so again, by implication downplaying ports).
(How many indies produce game design documents or have a concept of pre-production anyway?)
Technical & PSN Services
The technical talk was the only one Sony requested we didn’t take pictures of (though apparently, taking notes and talking about it afterwards were both fine). However, I’m going to largely skim over it and just pick out a few key points:
- The dev kit is a lot more than just a PS4. Built in at a hardware level are profiling and performance analysis tools, and tools that allow you to see what’s going on inside the machine, from what textures are in memory, to browsing the file/directory structure. That in turn suggests it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use your off-the-shelf PS4 as a devkit any time in the near future
- There is already a long list of middleware that is directly supported, and an obligation (though no cast-iron guarantee) on the part of the middleware provider to make sure that middleware works how it is supposed to with PS4. Furthermore, if you want to see middleware added, it’s a case of pestering Sony at one end to persuade them of the demand for that middleware to be supported. And at the other end, pestering the middleware provider to talk to Sony about it.
- PS4′s live tiles will allow you a limited amount of control. You can put a little HMTL 5 script into your game’s store tile to customise it a bit
- If you have your own servers, it is possible to do PSN user authentication for them. Presumably this is for things like MMO’s, where they probably want to have their own server infrastructure, but will want to use PSN user details rather than force players to create new user accounts.
- All games require trophies – This is a bit of an issue for me personally as my game just isn’t that kind of game.
- API’s are available for iOS and Android to write your own companion apps. You can use them to connect and then send whatever messages between the PS4 and the second screen device. This is of particular interest to me, and when I asked about compatibility with middleware such as Unity, the answer came back that, yes, in theory it should be possible
- Unity3D support for PS4, the general beta release is coming as of February 2014
I mentioned these guys before, because they seem to be what I was missing prior to going to the event. In short, Strategic Content is a small team (literally 3 or 4 guys) that go through the games being developed for Sony platforms by indies and self-publishers, and pick out those of particular importance in terms of the wider context of what Sony are trying to do with the platform. Literally, the games of a larger, strategic importance.
They also look outside just those developers already signed up with Sony, to the wider community of indie developers, seeing what other indies that they trust are recommending, and actively seeking out games that are generally made of win.
These guys are very much the public facing part of Sony’s dev relations team. Those active in the indie and gamedev community, going to events, talking to people, finding out what’s out there. Previously, I had been given the impression that these guys were the gatekeepers of the platform, and that unless you built up your credibility and a relationship with them, then it probably wasn’t worth applying to the Sony developer program.
The biggest take-home message from the day for me was that actually, they are just one arm of the dev relations, or one route onto Sony’s developer program. In fact, applying cold through the Sony website was another, and the third being to sign up as first-party with XDev (see later).
In terms of what they were actually saying, it was nice fuzzy things about why they liked this or that developer (case study was Velocity by FuturLab). Or “growing the medium” (as an art form presumably?). They explicitly stated that their preference is for exclusives or at least new IP, rather than ports.
And as for what they do, I don’t think they were quite willing to come out and say it publicly, but the long and short that they will, on a case-by-case basis, provide help and support that developers may need. That probably means getting extra attention from marketing, but as well, hinted that in the past, it had included financial assistance. The fact they were so cagey on the subject I can understand though, since by the nature of what they’re doing, it has to be discreet and measured
This is Sony’s “all inclusive” deal. They provide (complete) financing, marketing, veteran producers to help you, can take you to global events such as E3, Gamescom. They will ensure you’re game is put through the full, rigorous QA, localisation, and can provide those things usually reserved for AAA studios such as time in testing suits, motion capture and even merchandising.
Equally, your title will be Sony/PS exclusive, and they will take ownership of the IP. There are some caveats to that, such as having first refusal when it comes to producing a sequel.
In terms of applying, the advice was that if you think it’s the right path for you, all things considered, then to contact XDev in the first instance. Then later on apply for the regular developer program if you were rejected. Though Sony gave no details of the exact application process or criteria they would judge you against, they mentioned they are working on roughly twenty games. That indicates to me it’s probably reasonably competitive and/or potentially for more established or experienced developers than your typical straight-outta-uni solo indie dev.
The process is intimidatingly long enough that non-serious developers will give up and spurious applications easily filtered out. Assuming you’re serious about developing for Sony, seems that it’s almost worth applying to their Developer program just to get in a GPP and corresponding feedback on your game design, marketing strategy etc.
Sony seem keen on building up more personable relationships with their devs, so useful if you can do that by attending events or participating in the indie dev community on twitter, but if you’re not one of the “chosen ones” picked by Strategic Content, there are other routes to getting on their platforms, so still worth going through the process.
However, don’t expect quick results, and with PS4 launch imminent, Unity support not till next year, this is about the long game, not quick ports.