Despite a Cold Shoulder at E3, Sony Isn't Turning Its Back on Indies
After PlayStation's presentation left indies on the sidelines, devs assure us that they're not "less relevant now."
2012's ‘Journey’ helped grow PlayStation's indie reputation. Screenshot courtesy of Sony.
Like millions interested in the event, monitoring its every new announcement, listening for any gossip trickling down the tubes, I wasn't actually at E3 this year. So I had no idea what was being shown on the show floor and behind closed doors alike. As a result, when I saw the PlayStation press conference proper, featuring as it did precisely zero non-VR indie games, I, like many, adopted a stance of: WTF?
Here was the console family that previously went out of its way to showcase the indie titles it had available—exclusives, of course, but also multi-platform affairs that it genuinely appeared proud to provide a home for. But in 2017, nothing. Writing on Engadget, under the headline "Sony is losing its grip on the indie market," the site's senior reporter Jessica Conditt commented on how the most attractive destination for console-bound indies has swung in the past, from Xbox to PlayStation, and how now, with Microsoft showcasing a plethora of indie projects during its conference, that proverbial pendulum is moving back again.
Conditt also picked up on three little words that appeared, with no wider context at least, to signal something of a shift in company attitude towards indies at PlayStation's higher levels. Speaking to trade site Games Industry Biz, PlayStation's worldwide head of sales and marketing, Jim Ryan, said that indie games were "less relevant now." There's more to it than that, of course—Ryan stressed in the same interview that "indie content" remains really important to PlayStation, and that their focus had to be on VR this E3. But those three words sent shockwaves.
Indie dev Rami Ismail, co-founder of Vlambeer, the studio behind the likes of iOS hit Ridiculous Fishing and Sony console exclusives Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne, picked up on the Engadget article, tweeting a link to it with the accompanying words: "If Sony has no big indie presence at [their year-ending PlayStation-only event] PSX, that's a clear policy signal towards indies. Hoping that's not the case."
He continued, further down the thread: "Microsoft's E3 was a clear indication that the ID@XBOX program is capable of creating trust in some big indie names… In the end, trust is a huge deal for independent developers, if we're to commit serious resources and investment towards a console game."
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Waypoint checks out the IndieCade booth at E3 2017
Among those big indie names is Brendan Greene, who appeared on stage beside Xbox head Phil Spencer at Microsoft's conference, to announce that his high-energy online shooter Playerunknown's Battlegrounds is coming to Xbox One as a console exclusive, with special enhancements for Xbox One X users. With that physical confirmation of platform preference alone, E3 2017 really did seem to mark another turning point for console indies—if you want to work with the best, PlayStation isn't where you pitch, right now.
"I think that which console is the 'Indies' Best Friend' is entirely dictated by the current market objectives of the platform holders," John Ribbins of UK indie studio Roll7—developers of Not a Hero, OlliOlli, and the forthcoming multi-platform Laser League—tells me. "It comes in ebbs and flows. In 2014, Sony backed a large number of indie games to prop up its Vita platform. The fact that it made a nice 'Sony Loves Indies' PR story was a by-product of that, not a company goal."
"Since 2014, Sony's pumped a fortune into VR," Ribbins continues. "The funding has shifted from little indie titles to VR games, the objective now to bolster content on PSVR. I don't think this is inherently a bad thing. Sony is a mega business, and it has to invest in developers that are going to build the right content for the tech they're currently pushing. In 2017, that's PSVR."
One developer I speak to, who prefers to remain anonymous, is currently PC focused and yet to work on a console project, but does see Sony's E3 "blanking" of indies as potentially harmful. "This certainly might cause me to reconsider my old views—I always thought I'd 100% prefer to go with Sony over Microsoft. Sony definitely makes me think more 'indie,' because when I think about Xbox, all that comes to mind is Halo and Super Meat Boy. But I guess people come and go at both companies, so maybe the tables have turned."
"I'd have leaned towards Sony in the past," the dev continues, "as I think their image is way more aligned to what I'm working on, and I'd like to get on the same train as Journey. But I'd certainly look much harder now."
One of the people who's come and gone is Shahid Ahmad, previously a member of Sony's in-house indies acquisition team, the Strategic Content division, who brought games like No Man's Sky, OlliOlli, Volume and Luftrausers to PlayStation systems. When I was writing a book back in 2015, serving as an introduction to the world of indie games, many a dev I spoke to praised his efforts in opening PlayStation up to the independent development community. For them, who to take their game to wasn't so much about the brand, but the people behind it—and Ahmad, who left Sony to found Ultimatum Games, was one of the most influential.
"I can see where Jim Ryan's coming from. He clearly said that indies are still important. It's the story that's less relevant, not the activity." — Shahid Ahmad
"I can see where Jim's coming from," Ahmad tells me, when I ask for his take on Ryan's "less relevant now" remark. "He clearly said that indies are still important, but that [they were] a story in 2013 and 2014. It's the story that's less relevant, not the activity. It's hard to think of another console manufacturer that has more indie titles available than PlayStation; and it's hard to think of many people who have put more behind the support of indies, in every way, than Jim Ryan. And, of course, there are many games being made by indies for VR, so they're a part of that picture, too. What I got from Jim's points was that indies are as much a part of PlayStation's business as any other partner."
Ahmad doesn't see Ryan's comments as being off-putting to indie devs, either—as a reason to opt for Microsoft over presenting a new game to Sony. "I'm reminded of Avis' brilliant tagline, 'We Try Harder,' and because of Hertz's dominant position at the time, that was what it needed to do. Let's not forget that PlayStation came from a position where it had to make a point of trying harder with indies, and it delivered. Xbox is now in the same position, and it's doing a really good job. It's great that all the major console manufacturers are now so supportive of indies."
Ribbins echoes Ahmad's sentiments: "The reality is that if you're an indie studio that wants to sell games and fund further projects, and a team, you have to be on every platform. Each platform's support for indies will wax and wane, but when it comes down to it, they're storefronts, and as long as there are people going to those stores that might want to play your game, it's worth you being there.
"To a degree, it's not about looking at where platforms are currently positioning themselves—it's about looking for the best deal for your studio. When you sign a deal with a platform holder, your game is a year, maybe two or three, from launch. The devs that signed those Xbox deals [seen at E3] did so before everyone was cheering Xbox as the new 'Indie Hero.' By the time you come out, the attitude and marketing direction of the people you've signed with might have completely changed. You just have to take all the opportunities that come your way. Some will work out, others won't."
Ribbins is a really positive dude at the best of times (he came on the old VICE Gaming podcast back when, have a listen), and isn't looking at this indie power struggle with any personal negativity whatsoever—"I think platforms are totally free to offer as much or as little support as they like to indies," he says. He also believes that Ryan's "less relevant now" statement relates more to where the company is in the moment, rather than its overall, longer-term ambitions and intentions.
"We, and many other UK indies, owe our initial publishing deal to Sony and its Vita drive in 2014 [which Ahmad was at the forefront of.] But I don't think it's about having favorites, as I'm sure there are other indies who could tell a similar story about how ID@XBOX supported their dev process. When Ryan says that indies are 'less relevant now,' he means they're less relevant to Sony's current funding strategy, not as a worldwide proposition. But that doesn't mean you'll get less support if you bring an amazing indie game to the PlayStation."
Nevertheless, Sony's moving of its indie operations to the background of E3 2017 did have some devs concerned. Conditt quotes Johnnemann Nordhagen, one of the founders of Fullbright and programmer of the studio's breakout game Gone Home, as saying: "A few years ago, Sony was the champion of indies, and I think it made their platform much stronger, honestly. It gave them a group of devs that were coming up on the PlayStation platform, that would go on to to bigger and better things, and I think it's a mistake for them to not keep that farm team growing, in a way."
"Many independent developers are wondering whether working with Sony right now offers any stability." — Rami Ismail
The Engadget article identifies other individuals who played important parts in acquiring indie titles, namely Adam Boyes and Nick Suttner, as recent departees whose absence, alongside Ahmad's and others in the UK, could have impacted the statement on relevance. Ahmad stresses to me that Sony's relationships with indies "was never just about a handful of visible people—nothing could have happened without an enormous pulling together of the whole company," but what devs both on-the-record and anecdotally tell me is that it is usually just a few people who ultimately get them through the door.
That said, Ahmad does add that "corporate identity has become less relevant and perhaps even less trusted—what people identify with are individuals who, through their personalities, lend voice to a corporation's ideas and values. That's probably true for every modern company."
"Vlambeer's games ended up with Sony because we felt good about the people, and the deal offered by those people," Rami Ismail tells me. "The brand comes in way after all sorts of other considerations, including technology, resources, and requirements. Today, that many of the people that we've worked with at Sony have left, it does leave a sour taste—even when our new contacts are dependable and passionate, too."
Ismail supports his post-E3 tweets regarding how he sees Sony's indie policy at the moment, telling me that "the lack of indies at the E3 showcase is such a radical shift from the indie focus of earlier E3s that many independent developers are wondering whether working with Sony right now offers any stability, and stability is what those developers need when making commitments about console development." He continues: "I hope Sony will respond to those developers who are hesitant with a clear signal that their work is still valued at a level that affords the 'E3 showcase.'"
But, like Ribbins and Ahmad, Ismail's not siding with doom and gloom, here. To him, Sony isn't losing its grip on indies, as per the Engadget headline—and he's been speaking with the people who make those decisions, those inside the company, to better understand where their heads are at right now.
"I feel that [not showing any indie games at E3] was, at best, a miscalculation by Sony. I personally like to believe that it was a miscalculation to put an audience behemoth like [the now PS4 and Vita bound] Undertale somewhere in the pre-show [rather than on stage], and I genuinely think we'll hear more from Sony on their future indie strategy at their own PSX. From my conversations with people there, after the E3 presser, they absolutely do still care about independent developers. I hope they'll be able to back up that sentiment with a return to form in the shape of strong and creative independent content in the future."
Related, on Waypoint: Nintendo Explains Why They Didn't Focus on Indie Games at E3
"PSX might well have a slightly different feel to E3," comments Ahmad, "but I don't think PlayStation has anything to prove when it comes to support of indies. They're put more into this space than most, and I'm confident that will continue, even if the shape of that support changes as the console cycle progresses."
The PlayStation Experience, PSX, takes place in Anaheim, California across December 9th and 10th. All independent development community eyes will be on proceedings, eager to see Sony show so much more than what it offered during its big E3 presentation. It's in Sony's interests, evidently, to not let its success—its reputation—in the indie sphere slide any further, whatever the corporate emphasis on putting VR front and center. Perhaps more so than E3, it's what PlayStation says about indies at its own event that's going to shape the next few years of public and dev scene perception regarding its place in a hugely important market.