Sony Developer Open Day

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

Strategic Content

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

XDev

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.

Conclusion

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.

Interlude: Pitch Jam

This weekend I participated in pitch jam, which brought together professional writers with those wanting to break into the world of games press and journalism.

Of course, when I first saw “games writing,” I thought it was all about writing the storyline for games (another area where I’ve dabbled in the past), but as it transpired, pitch jam was actually about helping those going into the world of freelance journalism. The idea being that often, they’ve written a great article or piece about gaming or the games industry, but struggle to pitch the article to website and magazine editors, who will actually publish it and pay them for their work

For the purposes of the jam, some dozen or so writers and editors from a variety of gaming websites and magazines very kindly volunteered their weekends’ to review and critique the pitches. Aspiring games journalists could then get feedback on their attempts to sell themselves and their work.

In the course of promoting Crystalline Green and Executive Star, I’ve done a lot of “content marketing” (i.e. blogs, videos and articles), both directly related to the company and game, and more tangentially, such as when covering the latest OUYA developments, or in areas of gaming that I’ve crossed into during the course of my work.

My two most recent games industry themed blogs, I republished on gamasutra.com, and was rewarded with them being elevated to  “Featured Post” by the editors there. Often though, it’s difficult to discern whether the quality of my writing is what attracts attention or if it is the content that has the real value, perhaps in spite of my writing.

With this in mind, pitch jam seemed like a good opportunity to get some feedback directly on my writing, somewhat detached from the content itself. Furthermore, the ability/skills involved to pitch an article to a website are transferable to pitching other types of content; a business plan to investors or a game to a publisher

First port of call though, was Robert Rath’s blog post dissecting the anatomy of a pitch (found after a little digging through google and the resources provided by the pitch jam organisers). Having never made this kind of pitch before, I unashamedly ripped of the format and structure of the pitch:

1st Paragraph – Give a flavour of the article content and my writing style.

2nd Paragraph – Back it up with the background behind the story: Any sources, plus how my own background and knowledge will add to it

3rd Paragraph – How I’m going to achieve that as a journalist: Convince the editor I have the contacts needed and can get the crucial interviews

After mulling over a couple of different ideas and sleeping on it, this is the pitch I eventually submitted:

Veiled in secrecy, Valve’s Steambox console has thus far been the antithesis of open development. As other platform holders fall over themselves to highlight their open, indie friendly credentials, Valve have seemingly headed in the opposite direction.

Yet developers of all sizes continue to flock to the platform, and for many indies, acceptance onto Steam represents the successful culmination of years of hard graft.

In my own work as an independent developer, I have built up an extensive network of contacts, especially here in London where I am a co-founder of the London Indie Game Developers group. Using these contacts, I will gather thoughts and opinions from both upcoming and established indie developers on what Monday’s Steambox announcement means for them, and the impact it will have in the wider context, as platform holders battle for indie support.

Being heavily involved in the OUYA community, I have seen how developers like Bluebutton Games and more recently, Bram Stolk (of Little Crane fame) have turned to Steam after becoming disillusioned with lackluster sales on the upstart console. While comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Sony and Microsoft’s respective “Next-gen” consoles, I shall argue the case that the existing credibility Valve and Steam hold within the indie community poses a far greater threat to the nascent microconsole market.

Of course, at this point I’m bullshitting somewhat, because I’ve not actually gone out and asked any of my indie friends if they’d be happy to do interviews or give their opinions on the matter. But then, this is a pitch created for the purposes of the jam, and I’m unlikely to follow through and pitch it for real. (I don’t have the time to actually go chasing up people for interviews for one thing).

I was lucky enough to get feedback from two different writers/journalists. First one from the editor of a large gaming site:

“Perfectly solid pitch, one with obvious timely appeal. It’s not the most imaginative or original, but it’s also one of those cases where it doesn’t have to be. The key to this being more interesting for the reader is that the featured developers have created games that the readers have at least heard of, if not actually played. Similarly, the article will rise or fall based on the quotes that these developers provide. There has to be some genuine analysis and insight present, or else the article will end up a blah placeholder. “

 

And secondly from a freelance writer and editor of a small gaming website:

“Dear Pitcher,

Nice, brief pitch that gets straight to the point; I like it. I’d suggest swapping the order of your second and third paragraphs, and then make sure to be explicit about who your “contacts” are. “Contacts” sounds too mysterious, and editors want concrete examples that they can rely on as assets for the article you pitch. Talk to some of your contacts, secure their participation, and cite their names/studios in the pitch you make.

Also, I noticed a few spacing errors. Don’t forget to proofread before you send it out.

Best of luck!”

On the one hand, I feel a touch guilty about entering the jam, having a good pitch, and at the same time knowing there is almost no chance this article will ever get written for real (especially when there will be many people entering the jam who genuinely want to be games journalists, and may be getting back much harsher criticism).

Conversely, it’s a good feeling to know my pitch was received favourably. There was no real ripping into the style, format, wording nor content (all of which I had, somewhat masochistically been hoping for).

What is slightly depressing is how both placed the greatest value on being able to attract big names / developers of famous (indie) titles. Can’t really criticise the media for that, as it reflects a deeper desire for the audience to be able to attach either a face, or a game they have played, with the person being interviewed.

But, coupled with comments such as those made by Sony’s head of indie relations, it does somewhat feed into my existing anxieties about the culture that is forming around indie development. One with increasing emphasis on who you know as much as it is what games you’re making

 

Console Wars: The Battle for Indies

The big three console manufacturers have all been making lots of noise recently, espousing their indie credentials and how they are now open to all comers. Having just successfully released my first game on the OUYA, I was keen to find out how genuine a contender for title of “most indie friendly” they each were. Both in competing with OUYA, and as possible targets for my own game heading cross-platform.

So last Friday, I headed down to London, to the headquarters of UKIE, for the “Indie Collective” event, where each console maker set out their respective stalls and pitched their platform to the 100 or so assembled indie devs.

(I should make mention that Amazon and a number of other speakers were also at the event, but interesting as those talks were, my game is designed for console, so that was my main focus for the day).

Sony

This talk was less about the actual process of getting onto the PS4, which in a way was quite nice. There were some interesting points made by the Sony rep, Shahid, about (what I’d term) the stratification of game development into AAA on the one hand and indie on the other hand, with the hollowing out of the “double A” studios in-between.

One thing mentioned, when asked about Sony’s motivations for reaching out to indies was that Sony had always been a B-to-B type of business; somewhat implying that they viewed indies as closer to consumers than other businesses. Which is probably fair enough when you consider many indies don’t have teams of lawyers, marketeers and PR people, and in many cases, aren’t even incorporated.

Another area highlighted as of particular importance to Sony was the idea of “credibility” of a game developer. This idea that it isn’t necessarily the number of titles shipped or size of team, but how genuine and credible they think you are in terms of ultimately being able to come up with the goods. This extended to indies spending time networking, going to events, getting their face out there, so that Sony know of devs from more than just a few tweets and emails.

This point was extended when (somewhat controversially), it was suggested indies do their own PR, rather than rely on a company. Drawing on this idea that the indie game dev is the most important asset (after the game itself), when it comes to selling the game.

Other things included the emphasis on Vita (there were a couple of free Vita’s being given away during the talk). Presumably, since Sony have had some success reviving the Vita’s fortunes by turning it into a sort of indie platform, they want to continue that. And also perhaps might prefer unknown devs to start there and prove themselves, so as to reduce the number of “My first games” appearing on PS4.

Equally, there was a certain amount of sales pitch around Sony’s proprietary tools and SDKs, which again can be rationalised: They want you to ideally make exclusives for their platforms, and tieing you into their tech is part of that.

Overall though, the Sony talk comes from the same hymn sheet as what I’ve seen and read online coming out of the company over the last 6 to 9 months or so.

Microsoft

This was very much more about the process of getting onto Xbox One, and the speaker from Microsoft, Phil Waymouth, made the point a number of times that while him and his team heard this stuff every day, it was easy to forget not everyone else had heard about it. So his mission was very much to help educate people about that.

Microsoft have come under criticism that maybe their ID@Xbox campaign looks a bit rushed and “me too” ish. And reading between the lines about the above, you can see why Microsoft have been somewhat irked by that accusation.

Meantime, the process itself was presented as a simple 1. 2. 3. step affair: Initiate Contact -> Pitch Game -> Publish, though each step in itself appears to be complex and involved

The point was made that creating games was hard! And this was also reflected when I checked out the ID@Xbox site after the talk, which talks about professionalism and has a sign up form where you can list all the titles you’ve shipped, how many years experience you have in the industry etc.

As with Sony and the Vita, the hint from Microsoft is that Windows 8 apps are a good way to prove your self in terms of quality and the “credibility” factor that Sony spoke about. The idea that you’re a known quantity to Microsoft if there is an app or two that you can point to on the Windows 8 app store.

As if to push that home, there was quite a bit of talk about the Kinect and how developers could access the full HD camera and the array of microphones that allow the Xbox One to know where sound is coming from in the room (and/or from which player). All of which, without wanting to be too disparaging, is probably beyond the capabilities of the average indie.

Conversely, I was very excited to see Microsoft address the problem of discoverability head on (something I feel passionately about). Microsoft analogised themselves as providing the easel, paint brushes and gallery for the game dev “artist”, and the gallery seems to learn from the mistakes of app-stores past: Single store (no ghettoized XBLIG/XBLA marketplaces), and for curation, a mix of hand-picked “spotlight” featured section, and using technology in the form of trending and a recommendations engine.

Other mentions went to the fact they fully support IAP and f2p/freemium models, but they also use the wholesale model. As an indie, I wasn’t really aware of this before, but it was explained quite well, and makes a lot of sense when you think in terms of the legal and tax aspects of selling games.

Second screen also got a fleeting mention, though personally, I think second screen gaming has huge potential, so disappointed, but not entirely surprised it got glossed over.

Microsoft seem like they want to make a distinction between indie and Independent developers, with their preference very much for the latter. But that they can’t say that out loud

Nintendo

Arguably the most interesting of the three talks, it was prefaced by the event host describing how once upon a time, it was not uncommon to travel all the way to Kyoto in Japan and actually meet with Nintendo bosses in person. The point being, things had come along way since then and the company was changing. It was also noted that many of the things mentioned in the talk were not being discussed openly (or at least not under NDA) until very recently. While I appreciate it kinda sucks to then have someone like me splurge it all out over the internets, hopefully, this will assist other indie devs and Nintendo themselves in opening up.

In fact, I was lucky enough to have a chat with one of the Nintendo reps during lunch, and the way it was put to me, going back to the motivation behind companies doing these talks, was that in the last generation, Nintendo had broadened their customer base and the spread of demographics (casuals, women etc). Now the intention was to do a similar thing for their developer base.

Nintendo admitted that wiiware hadn’t exactly been perfect, but that they were really starting to get there with the current eShop. Off-device eShop browsing was mentioned as being in the pipeline, though like much in the talk, it was “when it happens / but I can’t talk about that”.

As for being featured on the eShop, there are no paid featured slots, with everything being selected by the editorial staff. The permanent indie feature slot on the store was highlighted. Interestingly, there was a suggestion that niche games were a favourite amongst editors

IAP and freemium / f2p were all fine, and unlike Microsoft, the eShop worked on the agency model. Too much manipulating of the prices though, and/or attempts to game the system were deemed “inadvisable”.

Another point raised was that there was no minimum threshold before developers get paid. That was interesting for me when comparing it to my experience on OUYA, where there is a $150 threshold before they pay up.

In fact, much of the Nintendo talk seemed to be aimed at clearing up what they had identified as common developer misconceptions. No exclusivity requirement, and no requirement to use specific bits of hardware. Working from home, they had recognised, was fine, so long as there were reasonable guarantees that you didn’t leave your door unlocked and wide open for anyone wandering down the street to poke their head in and knab your Wii U devkit.

On the subject of the devkit, Nintendo made the reasonable point that, as much as they were willing to make things financially easy and provide as great an assistance as possible for free, the devkit pricetag, represented a reciprocal serious committment on the behalf of the developer.

Process wise, Nintendo made no pretensions about their eight odd steps to get games from inception to sitting on the store. Sign up to their dev program, get a devkit. Then after that, quite some emphasis was put on getting an internal game code / id number for your game. Without having gone through the process myself, I interpret that as being the starting point for your game competing with others for internal marketing resources and attention within Nintendo. That it enabled the Nintendo rep championing your game to fight for its cause.

Now here, more than anywhere, I might be guilty of reading way too much into what the Nintendo guys were saying, but the message was that although you can get a game code any time, the earlier in the development cycle you can get your game on Nintendo’s internal radar, the better

Another strong signal I got was that after QA and Price Setting, came the point that localisation was highly recommended. Again, without wanting to over-emphasise things, it seems this step is one that corporate would in the past have insisted on. They might drop it for indies, but the impression I got was that if you want to work with, rather than against the system, it would be better not to skip it.

As for the “which flavour of the month bit of tech should your game use if you want to sell to us as platform holders”, the answer was Miiverse and off-TV gaming. Admittedly, I have never heard of the latter, but fortunately, the emphasis was on Miiverse. This was covered in quite some detail, with particular pride shown by the Nintendo guys about how developers could interact with their fan base, and customers/players could, through the miiverse, discover what was trending or what their friends were playing through a more organic feeling, human-face recommendations engine

A throwaway comment was made about local multiplayer gaming also being good, which I find interesting, since OUYA, more by luck than by design, seems to have ended up with a really good slew of local multiplayer games. (I really feel OUYA should be targeting the Nintendo, mum&kids end of the market, not the PS4/Xbox One hardcore segment).

Finally, if you really want to get Nintendo’s attention, in their words, make a game to “Surprise people and put a smile on their face”

Conclusion?

Realistically, these are commercial organisations, and are not entirely doing this out of a purely altruistic love for the art. However, if you have a game that you truly believe in the quality of, there’s probably never been a better time to get your game onto consoles

As for my self, I’ve sent off introductory emails and/or filled out the forms to apply for each of the three respective developer programs. It’ll be interesting to see what they all come back with. (Hopefully I won’t be able to tell you, if you catch my drift)

 

Indie vs Retail

Can indie developers breath new life into flagging video game retailers? I decided to try and find out

It should be obvious to all that bricks and mortar stores selling video games must adapt or die in the face of digital distribution. To make those physical spaces justify the overheads they generate, there need to be reasons for people to come into the store and spend their money in person, rather than simply going online and having their purchases delivered to their front door or downloaded straight to their gaming device of choice.

One possible avenue is to get indie game developers into the stores to demo their games. This gives indies a platform to showcase their work, get feedback from the general public on their games, and provide a new way of connecting with their audience. For the store, it means an added attraction to bring people through the doors.

It just so happens that I’m working on a game for the OUYA, which is being retailed through GAME here in the UK. Since OUYA have been pushing how ‘open’ their platform is to develop for, there haven’t been the NDA’s or legal issues one might usually expect with grabbing the devkit and publicly showing it off to everyone and anyone who cared. In fact, this was something I’d already taken it upon myself to do, organising a number of meetups of developers and fans prior to the console shipping to kickstarter backers, as well as taking it to the Gadget Show Exhibition and an Anime and Comic convention (MCM Expo) down at the NEC

While the cost/benefit equation of these events is somewhat questionable from a pure sales point of view, in terms of increasing exposure and the possibility of generating press interest, they are well worth it. Plus they are just fun to do for an indie developer working from home and not getting out enough.

The logical extension would be to demo the OUYA (and by proxy, my own game) in branches of GAME, and after approaching them about the idea, they proved receptive and willing to give it a go. So, last week I headed down to Northfield, a suburb of Birmingham, to the local branch of GAME to test drive the idea.

What went right?

Position / Setup
Full credit to the guys at the shop, who before I arrived, had collected together all the OUYA boxes in the store and arranged them on an old PS3 stand. While some people were a little confused as to what the OUYA was or mistook it as having something to do with playstation, the setup by and large looked the part.

The stand was also well positioned, so as not to get in the way of people moving around the store, whilst at the same time not being hidden in some dingy corner or away from where customers glancing around the store might notice

GAME Northfield OUYA

Engagement
People responded really positively to the live demonstration, whether they were just watching myself or others play, or actively trying it out themselves. Also, not only being able to respond to customer’s questions directly, but not being directly affiliated with OUYA, I was able to honestly address some of OUYA’s shortcomings, which helped build trust and a rapport with customers

Local Multiplayer
After a bit of experimenting with various games, I came across a couple that really let people jump in quickly and play with/against each other. This was a big bonus as lots of customers were out shopping with someone else (A husband and wife, or mother and child, or group of friends etc). Or alternatively, seeing one person play would often draw the interest of another unrelated customer, and being able to have them hop into the game was a big advantage in retaining their interest

OUYA
The small size of the OUYA made it easy to transport and get set up. The downside was that it wasn’t obvious until pointed it out to the customer, that the little box, tucked away in the corner, was actually running all the games. Also having the devkit, which is a different colour scheme to the version actually being sold, caused some confusion and questions about whether it was available in different colours (and why not?!)

No Internet
Although unfortunate from the perspective of being unable to demo the online multiplayer games, it meant there would be no issues with customers attempting (accidentally or otherwise) to make game purchases on my credit card. Having already downloading a good selection of games before hand, ensured that there was enough variety in the titles on show to make the console feel rich and varied content wise. The (online) store being unavailable had the added bonus of focusing customers’ (and my) attention on those pre-selected games. The OUYA has also been criticised for having a laggy UI, but since there was no need to exit the game library and navigate around the rest of the UI, that particular problem didn’t come up at all.

Furthermore, no one was exposed to the lower quality games lurking in the depths of the store, and no one asked for specific games to be downloaded on the spot (which would inevitably have meant hanging around ages for it to download, causing everyone to lose interest in the meantime).

What went wrong?

Footfall
The number of customers who actually came to the shop that day was disappointingly low. Far lower than expected according to staff, considering a couple of major releases were coming out that day.

No Promotion
I was in such a rush to get my game ready in time that I didn’t do any promotion of the event beyond a few tweets the day before. No attempts to contact press or otherwise generate interest beyond (figuratively) grabbing people as they walked past in the street

Game Specifics
My own game is both quite abstract and complex (requiring players to get through a substantial tutorial before they can really get going), and slow paced. As a result, I found it wasn’t really hitting it off with customers, so in the end I didn’t actually demo it to that many people

Closing the Sale
In terms of generating extra pre-orders of the OUYA, I was quite poor at closing the sale and getting those genuinely interested to actually commit the £10 pre-order deposit. That’s partly because I suck at sales, but also due to it being too easy for customers to get out by saying they can just buy it when it comes out.

Securing the OUYA and Controllers
Being small and light, and having completely wireless controllers meant that someone had to keep an eye on the equipment at all times to avoid it getting stolen

Limited Play
Some games I had not played extensively enough prior to demoing them, only to discover that they used a limited number of plays per day, leaving customers disappointed that they could not continue.
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From a practical, proof of concept point of view, the whole day was a success. However, as already mentioned, it clearly isn’t effective in terms of raw sales generated for the indie, and in terms of generating press interest, it’s only going to work once or twice.

Interestingly, in discussing these issues with other devs, the example of Games Workshop came up a number of times. Every store has a dedicated space for players to come in and play tabletop battles together. Even if just watching other people’s battles, it brings people into the store with something exciting and participatory, which in turn helps create a lasting connection with the product and relationship with staff and other members of the community.

Stores like GAME already do a similar thing, with consoles set up for people to have a go at playing the latest games. However, what Games Workshop also do is run sessions for beginners, and for helping improve people’s skills in painting and crafting scenery.

As it happened, I’d help arrange for a number of other developers to demo their own OUYA games at GAME, including Jamie Lowes of Vamflax, who headed down with his own game, Chopper Mike, to the large GAME store at the Bullring in Birmingham the day after my own adventure.

jamie lowes bullring small

One thing that he reported came up repeatedly was that customers were also enthusiastic in getting into game development themselves. It makes sense that people think to themselves “I can do that as well,” especially when the developer is no longer remote and hidden behind corporate logos, but there in person and able to talk about the issues that directly affect game development

Retailers could co-opt the indie community by providing the co-working spaces and environment where they can get out of the home office and interact with other developers and gamers. Get feedback on their latest builds or inspiration from what others are doing. A sort of indie games incubator that doubles as a store and hub for all things gaming related.

Whether you could truly justify that cost if you’re not a platform holder like Google or Microsoft is a question that can’t be easily answered without taking some big risks to try and find out

Indeed, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to retail. Perhaps the game industry will trend back towards larger, more professional studios and indie games will once more cycle into the background world of underground niche development, making all this irrelevant. The incoming new generation of consoles will no doubt boost retail and allow long term issues to be kicked down the road for another few years.

However, these are questions that need to be answered now if retailers are to have enough time to make them work before the inevitable changes in the industry finally catch up with them.

I’ll be trying to answer some more of those questions when I demo the OUYA again at GAME Perry Bar on June 1st. If you missed the chance to play Chopper Mike before, you can catch up with Jamie Lowes in GAME Solihull also on June 1st. Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios will also be demoing, at GAME in Leeds, again on June 1st, and also June 2nd

Rebranding Always Online

Games that require always on internet provide immense benefit to both game developers and customers, but the case for their use is not being made

The recent controversial tweeting by one Microsoft executive about the prospect of an always online console was not what lost him is job, but rather the attitude it displayed. It is one reflecting a deeper frustration amongst those in the game industry with consumer resistance to games and platforms that require a constant internet connection.

There are of course a multitude of excellent reasons why game developers would want or require an internet connection for single player games, or those that do not use the internet directly in the game itself.

always online

Collecting data about gamer’s habits, analysing where in the game they get stuck, frustrated or bored. Gaining feedback on game balance issues and detecting bugs and defects more precisely and in a way that is useful to developers without having gamers require detailed technical knowledge of the game or needing to manually report. These things help make better games, and therefore eventually benefit gamers, even if not directly / at the time.

Yet the concept of an always online game has become toxic in the minds of many gamers, and grown to represent perceived corporate greed and the running rough shod over gamers’ concerns by large studios and publishers. The internet is also abound with innumerable stories and anecdotes of jumping through hoops, over barriers and gamers being generally prevented from just being able to get on with the game experience.

It is therefore interesting to consider the OUYA, a console that works purely based on digital distribution and though not quite demanding 100% connectivity, essentially needs an internet connection to be in any way useful. It has not encountered any of the hostility directed towards other games and platforms, such as Sim City, Diablo III and the rumoured upcoming Microsoft console.

The key to understanding this is to realise that the benefits of an always online OUYA are obvious. So clear and easy to understand that consumers can see exactly what the direct benefits are to them.

It is in making the case for similar always online products that game developers and publishers have thus far failed. Explicitly spelling out those benefits I listed above, and accepting and accommodating those who are not convinced (i.e. giving them a way to opt out of the data collection) is the bafflingly simple solution that for whatever reason, isn’t being acted on.

In a world where people are increasingly aware of privacy issues and the data they are inadvertently creating, it only makes sense to offer control and give people a stake in the management of the data that, after all, they created in the first place. It’s time companies woke up to customer concerns and understand this is not a technical or anti-piracy issue any more.

Finishing Service

What Indie developers really need is a finishing service

Another take away from Richard Nash’s excellent (if rather long) take on the state of the literary/book publishing industry is that publishers (especially editors) actually perform multiple roles that add value, and while some of those roles are now obsolete, others are absolutely still relevant. Perhaps even more so in a world flooded with digital content.

Chief amongst the tasks of an editor is ensuring that manuscripts are up to standard and ready for market. In other words, that they are polished and have had all their rough edges smoothed out. Translating this to games, I’m not talking about finding bugs or play testing and balancing, but the little things that make a game feel professional and complete.

polishing

In some cases, that rough, unfinished feel to a game can really add to the indie credibility / authenticity, but all too often, potential customers don’t get past the shoddy packaging to find the real treat of a game inside. Especially in an era of free to play games where consumers are oversaturated with choice, and need to make a rapid assessment on a game’s attractiveness, if the outside façade doesn’t look promising, first impressions will form and players won’t even get past the front door.

Of course, no one goes indie to have a publisher telling them what they can and can’t do. The problem is that traditional publishers own and control the brands/IP and bundle in financing and marketing along with testing and finishing services. This needs to be unbundled to provide indie devs with a pick and mix of services that they can select based on their appropriateness and cost effectiveness for their business.

As a consultancy service, developers can choose to take on board or disregard the advice they are given as is their prerogative, rather than having it foisted upon them. It also allows the providers of that service more scope to provide a sliding scale of services, tailored to the needs of the developers.

Often indie games can be a bunch of ideas mixed together in a crazy mess of the creative energies that spawned them. It may be that developers need help to pick out the mechanics, aesthetics or elements of their game that are unique, so that they can build on those and ditch other parts of the game not core to the experience. This works to give indies both a better, more focused game, and assist them in thinking about how the game will be marketed.

Equally, a game may simply need tweaking and minor adjustments made here or there to make it really shine. The little things that gamers and testers are unlikely to be able to consciously articulate, but that can make the different between a good, solid game, and something that really makes players feel energized and immersed.

Or perhaps if that sounds a little fuzzy and waffle filled, there is the other end of the spectrum, where a great set of mechanics and art are lacking all those peripheral things that make a game feel professionally produced. The menu screen might be the first thing the player sees, and no matter how good the game inside, it leaves the player their first impression of the actual experience of being in the game. Equally, developers might not want to spend significant time providing the tutorials, controls remapping, and options setting screens that are not really central to the game, and so not really what those developers are interested in (and ultimately not what they should be spending their valuable time and resources on). Those things though, act like the in-game customer service, helping players get an experience optimised for them. It makes sense to delegate creation of that to a professional services company

As for OUYA, I don’t expect as a platform holder for them to provide this kind of service, especially since the company is small, and just starting out. However, the winds of change are blowing the industry towards indie shores, and without the support and infrastructure of a large studio / publisher, many game developers will find themselves in need of these kinds of services. Having third party companies able to offer that would indeed be an indication of a richer, more complete ecosystem, dedicated to ensuring games reach their potential as more than just commodities

 

Who’s Curating Who?

Who should be curating content anyway? And should we trust them?

I recently read this essay about the state of publishing and the literary world. It’s a long read, but well worth it, with multiple points relevant to the games industry as well. One of the big questions it raises, and one that has also been picked up by the wider games industry, is just who’s job is it anyway to curate content?

Journalists and reviewers are professionals who we pay to get their opinions. They may be experts in their field, but more often are simply excellent communicators, able to articulate a point in an eloquent, amusing or concise manner as per their audience. While they speak with authority stemming from their status, they are a hangup from a time when we lived in a content poor world.

When games were expensive, and limited to what might fit on the shelves of the shops selling them, it made sense to spend time considering each game’s merits before making a purchase decision. Journalists and reviewers are great at helping decide if a game is good, but not at selecting which games to consider in the first place.

Publishers by their very nature as the middle man in the content distribution chain need to decide what is worth the cost of physically printing boxes and burning disks for. However, historically, publishers have vertically integrated back down the chain, acquiring game studios or having huge influence on the content being produced itself.

We can assume if a game comes from a publisher, it probably has a high level of quality, but as games publishers have evolved towards producing fewer, bigger budget games, they don’t do much for helping pick out those better games already swirling in the wider content pool.

It’s interesting to note that new publishers, such as Chillingo, on purely digital distribution mobile platforms, due to the skewed nature of the market, have found it most profitable to pick a small, select number of games and maximize profits on those. Where curation is needed most, publishers are at best, of limited use to consumers navigating the ocean of apps.

Platform Holders have traditionally had an interest in highlighting the best content on their systems. That which will drives their own sales or where they take a direct cut of the profits. However, in a content rich ecosystem, there is not the same incentive to do that. So long as enough quality content is available, there is no real need for the platform holder to find the hidden gems or give consumers the tools to do that themselves.

Publishers concentrating on profitability provide this minimum quality volume whilst maximizing profit for both themselves and the platform holders.

Even without great tools, The Crowd can be very effective at finding a diamond in the ruff and through viral or social media channels, elevating it to a high status, getting the message out about it and ensuring it receives the success it deserves.

However, whilst great at digging deep into the piles of content, the crowd again won’t produce the volume of finds required to be truly useful. If you don’t like whatever is flavour of the month on social media, or have specific needs and niche interests, the crowd is unlikely to solve that problem.

Algorithmic Recommendation systems are far better than humans at dealing with scale, able to take data not only about the content itself, but the people consuming that content, their habits and usage patterns. What it lacks is a way for new content to gain initial traction.

While giving extra weight to new content can give a partial solution, it precludes content that is given a soft launch or beta release and encourages marketers to front-load all their efforts. As seen on the app stores, having one opportunity, on launch, to make it into the new and trending games leaves a vast scrapheap of perfectly good apps that for whatever reason (from poor understanding of the system, to low budget, to having the misfortune to come out on the day of a big franchise) missed their chance.

The easy answer is to combine all these so that each curator can compliment the overall system with its relative strengths. This is of course completely wrong as few or none of them deal effectively with the large amount of good but not great content.

This is something observed by Nash in the essay I referenced at the start. When competing on a global level, all those who on a local level excel in their field, come across as average at best when placed next to the elite, world-beating, best of the best.

It’s also easily identified in the current status of the games industry, with the stratification of content into super-top end (and super-budget) AAA titles, and the vast seas of small scope games produced for mobile.

The solution is still to have the tools, but to put them in the hands of professionals, who are faster and more skilled at using them to find a wider breadth of content, highlight it, but otherwise leaving it to the crowd to do the detailed analysis and review where required.

The caveat is that those professionals should not be journalists. As they are providing a service, it makes no sense for those curators to be paid like salesmen, on commission for the most traffic to their websites.

Quite how you do it instead is the big, unsolved question. There are no financial incentives for the platform holders, publishers and other stakeholders to provide a better curation service. Until there is a danger of total market failure, we will continue to tread water in the ocean of content

Wide Games

Is augmented reality gaming a dead end, or can open, hackable technology bring gaming back outdoors?

Games have their evolutionary origins in learning and practice. For hunting and gathering, war and tribal conflict, it makes sense to have a way to practice techniques, strengthen teamwork and test outcomes without the negative consequences if something goes wrong.

Sports in particular, but even the most basic of games tap into this instinct. As video games get increasingly abstracted away from that root origin, they can lose a lot of their power and meaning, and leave the experience feeling a little shallow.

augmented reality

Computers are tools to be used, whether they are for work or for helping us have fun. So understandably, attempts to augment reality have focused on taking real world situations and using various tools to add to the experience, or taking a digital experience, such as gaming or navigating a UI, and bringing real world elements into the equation.

Both these approaches are fundamentally wrong, because they aim to take something pre-existing, and modify it in an attempt to work with something for which it was not designed for.

Take for example (American) football. Players have microphones and speakers in their helmets to communicate with their coach on the side lines. It works because it doesn’t change the game, and is really just an upgrade of the existing mechanic where players go over to the coach to talk to them between plays.

Transfer that to soccer, and suddenly you have distracted players, ear pieces falling out when players get roughly tacked or head the ball, and in a fast flowing game, the whole thing rapidly breaks down. Moreover, soccer is designed to be more chaotic game, where there is confusion and quick reactions are needed, and you don’t have so much time to think. The technology makes sense on the surface, but really it goes against the underlying design principles of the game.

The key here is to design a game with the user interface as one of the core considerations. Virtual d-pads on touchscreen games that were originally designed for games with other control schemes are a classic example of how you can’t just port games across interfaces without considering the impact it has on playing the game.

So many augmented reality games fail to get that the interface with reality in which the game is being played is not through the camera and screen of a smartphone, it’s the eyes and ears and other senses of the player. The phone is just one element of that UI, and should only be used where appropriate. It goes back to the idea that you’re so immersed in your augmented reality game that you walk into a lamp post. It sounds silly, but it is legitimate poor design, because it puts too much emphasis on forcing the player to view the world through a restricted and artificial view.

A good example of a “reality” game is paintball. The game is played outside, with real paint and real air guns that make a real painful experience when they hit you. Your phone doesn’t replace any of the existing real elements. You don’t replace the gun, paintballs or the player’s eyes with the phone. Instead you add to existing mechanics by having an app that tells you how many paintballs you have left, where the flag capture point is on your map, how many of your teammates are out of the game.

New Hardware

The really exciting stuff comes however when you start to design games from the ground up considering both the environment and the hardware. Laser tag is usually played in a confined indoor space because of the limitations of the laser guns, whilst a wide game like man hunt only works because it can be played across a large field or wooded area in which there is space to run, places to hide etc. Those same balancing decision need to be made with smartphones or google glasses or whatever other hardware is being used. When is it being used, what are the physical logistics for players to use it, what advantages/disadvantages does its use confer, can its proposed use cause it to be damaged easily?

Open source hardware and software like Android, and the rise of crowdsourcing finance for hardware projects, from the OUYA to the pebble watch, gives designers more creative space to play with when considering the equipment games require, and the environments where that equipment can be used.

The Right Sentiment

A tetchy games industry is getting itchy feet

Sometimes, people need to just get all the thoughts swirling in their heads onto paper. Even if they’re not entirely coherent, it is part of the process of articulating a hard to pin down feeling, and one that others may well also be feeling, but can’t quite get the words out themselves.

That’s exactly what gamesindustry.biz did this week, musing on the relationship between game developers, gamers and games press in the light of the one year anniversary of controversy at last year’s GDC, which rocked the niche games journalism industry, and lead to much introspection.

Of course, journalists love to talk about themselves, but the underlying sentiment still rings true. There is a lot of ill feeling between gamers, developers and press at the moment, as if each is holding the other back from going in the direction they feel gaming should move.

It feels like the video games movement that has reached the stage in teenage adolescence where it is time to leave home, for better or worse.

This year will see a slew of platforms from old names and new. It may be that video games take the fresh start and the opportunity to take risks and do new things. Something unexpected might come along that takes it to places previously unimagined.

leave home

Or it might all wind up in a slide back to comfort zone, nostalgia and tired old tropes. A brief journey out into the wider world, only to decide it’s safer to return “home” for another decade or more of stagnation.

With any luck, it’ll be the former, but there is already massive change going on in the games industry, and it is causing enormous friction in the form of the mobile revolution. Bringing with it digital distribution, new monetization methods, new formats and new demographics to gaming, it is still in full flow, and its effects will be felt for years after.

OUYA will play its part in that, but the resistance to change (at least in my opinion) has caused so much hate to be aimed at a product that offers to do exactly what gamers, press and developers have been clamouring for (namely innovation).

David Cage caused much controversy for unapologetically telling the games industry to grow up. To do that, the industry needs to leave home.