With Sony's indie support in question, developers at E3 weigh in

At this year’s E3, without new hardware to announce and facing off against Microsoft’s aggressive Xbox One X pitch, Sony positioned itself as being all about the games. The company’s media briefing consisted of little more than a succession of trailers. There was no particular emphasis on any specific area, outside of a section taken to show upcoming games coming specifically for PlayStation VR.
However, one omission stood out: the lack of any direct spotlight on indies after several straight years of championing them at E3—especially in comparison to Microsoft’s press briefing, in which they took pains to restate their commitment to the [email protected] program, and show off a selection of indie titles. This omission became even more apparent on the show floor, with Sony’s booth redesigned from the past few years to feature fewer games—all of a high profile—and no indies on show, outside of Polyarc’s Moss (a PSVR title). After E3 wrapped up, many siezed on a line from an interview with Sony sales and marketing honcho Jim Ryan, in which he claimed that indie games were “good to talk about in 2013/2014,” but are “less relevant now.”
Gamasutra talked to several PlayStation-focused indies we could find at E3 2017 about their interactions with Sony, and their sense of what E3 said about the company’s ongoing commitment to independent developers.

Burly Men at Sea
David and Brooke Condolora were in the Indiecade are at E3 showing their upcoming PS4 and PS Vita title Burly Men At Sea (previously released on mobile and Steam).
How is your experience been working with Sony?

“Navigating the Sony ecosystem has been a little more difficult because there’s so many different parts—Sony Europe, and Japan, and Asia.”

Condolora: Actually it’s been very very good. We’re actually not doing the technical work of the porting ourselves, so Sony is helping us do that. And it’s been very smooth. Ports came together very fast. Communication’s been fast. Really, Sony America, at least, has been very very good.
Navigating the Sony ecosystem has been a little more difficult because there’s so many different parts—Sony Europe, and Japan, and Asia. Just getting a handle on all that has been a little more difficult. But they’ve been very supportive.
Did you go to Sony with the interest of putting Burly Men At Sea on PlayStation 4/Vita or was it something that they talked to you about?
We approached them, actually, before the game was released, quite a bit before. And it’s been kind of an off and on kind of conversation that we had and then finally we got to a point where we decided that we did want to go ahead and do a console version. And Sony was very interested and very quick to send us development hardware and propose a partnership that worked for both of us.
You’re one of the only PlayStation-focused indies that I’ve found on the show floor here. So what’s your take on that? Do you think they’re stepping away?
I don’t know. My first thought, I’m just really surprised because they’ve supported indies very very well over the last few years and to us, having dealt with Microsoft a little bit, as well, Sony was much more forthcoming and interested, easier to talk to. I’m just frankly very surprised. Especially on the floor. I figured, you know, we’ve seen them at Indiecade a number of years, but they have a huge presence with all these indie games. I’m very surprised they don’t have a few at their booth.
Burly Men at Sea
But you still feel that behind the scenes, they’re still committed?
Well, I feel that behind the scenes they’re still committed to helping us. But I don’t know if that applies generally or not. Maybe our particular account manager is really great. And maybe some of the others have moved on, I don’t know. But I feel supported, I’ll say that.

“I had some idea that maybe we could’ve been a part of their booth, but I guess that would not have been possible. We wouldn’t be here if not for Indiecade. Which surprises me, because Sony has been so supportive.”

In previous years a title like Burly Men At Sea would have bene part of their booth. Wouldn’t you have expected that kind of support?
Yeah, honestly, I had some ideas that maybe we could’ve been a part of their booth or something. But I guess that would not have been possible. We wouldn’t be here if not for Indiecade, I suppose. Which surprises me because they’ve been so supportive.
You said Sony was easier to talk to than Microsoft, but Microsoft are still vocally indie-focused. They showed games at their press conference. Do you think indies would look towards Microsoft rather than Sony now?
I think that Sony is still the biggest game in town. You want to be on a platform that has the most eyeballs on it. Our experience with Microsoft has sort of been the opposite of Sony and sort of what you’re describing. They may be a little more out there, but for a developer like us, where maybe our game is a little bit too small or niche for them to care too much about it behind the scenes. So there wasn’t the interest there.
But I will say, as far as console is concerned, the platform we are looking forward to seeing how it develops is the Switch to see how that fits into this equation. We’re talking about a binary thing, Sony and Microsoft, but then you have a third platform that’s becoming more valuable. I wonder how that’s going to change the market as well.

Stifled
Ng: On the E3 show floor, post-press briefing and with Sony’s booth lacking in any indies, the search for indie titles for PlayStation felt like a losing one—until, of course, we found ourselves at Indiecade’s booth, a consistent—and consistently calmer—presence at E3 each year for anyone looking to interact with indie developers. Justin Ng, a developer from Singapore, was there showing Stifled, a PlayStation VR title.
Is Stifled PlayStation VR first?

“We reached out to our Sony contacts in Japan and after like a month or two they sent us a Morpheus dev kit.”

So that is something we’re not going to talk about yet. But the game we’re developing it for the PSVR, the Oculus, and the Vive.  We got in really early with the Morpheus [Sony’s code-name for the in-development PSVR] because when we first started making the game it was visually very interesting for us, and we thought it would be cool if we could put people in VR. So we reached out to our Sony contacts in Japan and after like a month or two they sent us a Morpheus dev kit.
So how has the experience been working with Sony?
It’s actually been pretty nice, I think. I would say, in some sense, it’s a bit harder to get stuff that we want to get going because of marketing, because we are based out of Singapore it’s a bit harder to travel and talk on the same time zone and get stuff done. But generally speaking, my friends at Sony have been really nice. 
How supportive are they in terms of hardware and development support?
With Asia, it’s been pretty good. The two kits that we’re using at E3, we were loaned them from Sony. Because I think we are making something that is unique and is different. I think the guys at Sony seem to like it, so they’re helping us out here and there. 
Stifled

“The bottom line is they need to do what’s best for their business. And unfortunately maybe doing indies is not that right now. And that’s unfortunate, but there’s not much we can do.”

VR is still something that Sony are pushing pretty heavily. Do you think that they’ve shown more interest in what you’re doing because of that? 
Yeah, I would think so. With VR they push the headsets and I think the headsets did pretty well for them within the first year. And people obviously are hungry for content, so it’s really great to be in the right space at the right time, basically.
Yet outside of VR they haven’t really been showing any indies here.
Yeah, I was at the press conference, I was a bit like, “Aw, man.”
You’re an indie, you’re working on hardware they’re pushing, is that something where you think that maybe—
The way I look at it is even though I’m a bit bummed out that we didn’t get showcased, but I think it really boils down to them as a business. The bottom line is they need to do what’s best for their business. And unfortunately maybe doing indies is not that right now. And that’s unfortunate, but there’s not much we can do. We just try to get help other places, basically.

Of the developers officially invited to demo their games ay Sony’s reception, FutureLab was the one with the truest indie-cred and a long history with Sony going back to PlayStation Mobile with Beats Slider, but would be best known for Velocity 2X on PS4 and PS Vita. James Marsden was on hand demonstrating their new slot car racing VR title.
Were you looking to work in VR, or did Sony come to you?
Marsden: Obviously as a developer, we’re excited about new technology. But we had spent no time investigating VR when Sony came to us and said, “Would you like to make a VR game?” So we said, “Yeah, absolutely, we’d love to do something, but we’re really busy on another project.” And they said, “Well, the window of opportunity to sign a game with us, for this particular moment is quite short. So we need a pitch quickly.” And this was around the time that drone racing videos were being shown on Facebook.

“We wanted to be able to show Sony two examples: One that was not going to work and one that would work. And fortunately, they agreed with us.”

Having spent no time in VR we thought that was a good idea, so we pitched that. And they agreed, they signed it up. And then we spent some time in VR and realized that would be a disaster, because there would be so much motion sickness.
So rather than go back to Sony and say, “We’ve got no faith in the game we signed with you,” we had to come up with a Plan B. So that’s when we really started thinking about what works in VR. And Dave, our tester at the time, we basically tasked him, we loaded him up with hardware, all different headsets that were available. Gave him a Steam account and just said, “Figure it out.”
So, he came back and said, “Look, the things that really work in VR in these early days are games where the action comes to you.” So he proposed Scalextric. We just thought, that’s a genius idea. So we prototyped this in parallel to the other project, the drone racing. Because we wanted to be able to show Sony two examples: One that was not going to work and one that would work. And fortunately, they agreed with us. So this is the result of that.
Tiny Trax
You’d signed with Sony and you took that time to build two prototypes?
We were prototyping two games in parallel which was a challenge because, obviously in pre-production, you want to be nailing one game.
In that process and since then, how has the support been from Sony?
We work with a part of Sony called Strategic Content. And their mantra is, “Support, steer, don’t interfere.” And they totally abide by that mantra. So they like to give feedback, but they don’t enforce any kind of direction. And so they understood what we wanted to do and they’ve been very supportive. Halfway through the project we realized that this would really benefit from being a multiplayer game, so they extended the development. So they’ve been great really.

“Our strategy as a business is that our customer is not the player. Our customer is Sony. Our job, as we see it, is to make Sony look good.”

Do you feel you’d be getting the same sort of interest and support if you  weren’t working on a technology that they’re trying to push?
Right, so our strategy as a business—and this is maybe a bit unusual for many developers—is that our customer is not the player. Our customer is Sony. Our job, as we see it, is to make Sony look good. So we make great products for them, and we don’t rely on game sales. So we need to sign our projects in line with what they’re trying to achieve.
So that’s why we work with their department of strategic content. They strategically sign games that support a certain feature. That’s why we we’ve been on PSP when they were launching the Minis, PlayStation Mobile, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, and now PSVR. So we see ourselves as the blood sucking leech on the back of the elephant’s foot. Sony being the elephant. But that’s the way we stay in business. 

We found Spencer Yip at Sony’s pre-press briefing reception, who we saw—surprisingly—demoing his upcoming game on a PlayStation Vita. Yip revealed to us that while he had been invited to the reception, he was in fact showing his game unofficially, simply pulling out the hardware to show it to any journalists that passed.
How have you found support from Sony? Did you attempt to pitch to them? 
Yip: I didn’t pitch them for any funding, but I talked with them about bringing it to PlayStation first, and they were really receptive to the title. I mean even when it was in a prototype stage. Our game is an action RPG with kind of a hand-painted style, so I think it really…
Well, they were receptive, but you weren’t asking them for money, so…
Maybe that’s why but they were really helpful. They helped get us set up. They helped us get developer hardware really quickly. They’ve even been really nice to invite us to PlayStation Experience twice. That’s super cool, you know?
Fallen Legion
You feel that as a developer they’re responsive to you, they’re helpful, and they’re going to be invested in making your game a success?
Well, for me, personally, my account manager is super accessible. I can’t speak for everybody, but they respond to my emails super fast. They always get back to me. They offered us opportunities to show our game at PlayStation Experience. Me, personally, I feel like they’ve done a lot to help support my game. Especially since this is my first title out on console.
There are a lot of bigger developers that probably have something cooler than us, but I feel like they’ve really kind of reached out to me specifically. And I really thank them for that. This is not any BS, because they really invited me to these things without me asking them to do so.
[Homepage/thumbnail image: Josh Miller]

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With Sony’s indie support in question, developers at E3 weigh in