PlayStation Network: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Digital games downloads for consoles are in a fascinating position right now. We've previously discussed the state of console downloadable games - as well as a more detailed discussion of royalty rates for Xbox Live Arcade.
But the state of PlayStation Network for indie games is significantly less-discussed - actually, for some potentially interesting reasons. A starting point would be this interview with Sony's Scott Steinberg conducted at GDC, discussing Microsoft's announcement of Xbox Live Community Games. Steinberg's response to that:
"I thought it was interesting in the sense that what they were talking about we've sort of been doing for the last couple of years with PSN and giving smaller, start-up, entrepreneurial developers the chance to get in and make their games available on the PSN."
Well, yes and no. The biggest issue here - and what I find somewhat disingenuous of Sony - is that Microsoft is trying hard and genuinely to open up its platform to everyone (though they do have significant XBLA-related royalty issue and game complexity/submission headaches to work through).
And Sony is trashing them on the basis of PSN - which is actually somewhat of a closed platform right now, save some inspired and to-be-lauded cherrypicking.
The First-Party PSN Advantage
Closed platform? What on Earth am I talking about? Of course, there are some amazing 'indie' downloadable games on PSN - particularly awesome titles such as Fl0w and Everyday Shooter, among others.
But these are, to all intents and purposes, first-party titles. Many of these are produced by the team headed by John Hight at Sony Santa Monica, and have the full power of Sony behind them in terms of funding help, worldwide release aid, and so on.
Though these titles are absolutely indie - and some of the best independent games released so far - they have to be hand-picked by SCEA (quite often with Sony acquiring the IP along the way) to make it onto the service.
As Everyday Shooter's Jon Mak recently noted in an interview, the Sony Santa Monica folks are doing an awesome job of A&R:
"The game maker wins because they get to follow their uncompromising vision. This keeps the game maker happy and motivates them to create the best game possible, which is what the publisher wants: a great game to sell... Anyway, I really hope that Sony Santa Monica, and the rest of Sony will continue this artist-centric approach to publishing."
Constriction Of The Pipeline
But there's a caveat. The pipeline for first-party PSN games is not large at all - even with SCEE (Elefunk) and SCEJ (Echochrome) also producing titles as a first-party which are then published via SCEA in North America. Sure, there are some rarities like the PixelJunk series - which are first-party published in the States but not in Japan, and we'll get to that later. But in general, there's not a lot out there.
The net result for indie-developed titles put out first-party in the States? Do we get one game a week? Certainly not. One a month? Probably not either. In other words, the dream of first-party PSN release will only happen to the best of the best indies - several games per year. And where does that leave everyone else?
(One could argue that this is better for the consumer in terms of quality vs. quantity, mind you, but it places constraints on who can reach the service and makes it much less open.)
Third-Party's Role In PSN
Well, the third-party publishing for PlayStation Network - for everyone else who doesn't get picked up by SCEA directly - is run through a different division of Sony, located in Foster City. I've spoken to them briefly with regard to getting PSN games entered in the Independent Games Festival, as I am IGF Chairman, and they seemed perfectly nice. But what's getting released via this method right now?
Overall, a lot of users are mystified by Sony's relatively sparse release list. Some think it's a tactic, I suspect. Here's a NeoGAF messageboard poster who explains things quite neatly from his perspective:
"That's a big problem with the PSN downloadable games right now. Every Thursday morning, I'm thinking, "Wonder what's going up on PSN this week?" but by evening I'm often disappointed. Since the new year began [up to early March], there have only been seven new games (and one of them, Jet Moto 3, has vanished from the store). That's including the PS1 classics and EyeToy games. That's not even one game a week!...
Where are the downloadable games from the big-name third party publishers? Apart from Sony, the only major third party publishers that have any representation are Capcom, Namco, and...uh...er...well, I suppose Konami might count for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1 classic), although as I understand it Sony "published" the PSN release of that. Oh, and Midway licensed a few classic games to Sony Online Entertainment last year. And that about wraps it up."
He's right - if you go look at a master list of PSN titles, then you'll see (though some indie-style games that aren't out yet are mislabeled as being 'published' by SCE) that really, only Capcom and Namco are getting significant amounts of releases out via the third-party method right now.
Capcom's Battle To Conquer PSN
In particular, it's interesting to track what Capcom has been saying and/or intimating about the process, even as the leaders in cross-platform releasing right now. Commenting on no Beta on PS3 for Street Fighter II HD Remix, the company's Christian Svensson comments:
"We wanted to do a beta to test the new network features but even if it were possible for Sony to do, it would require 3 submissions (US, Europe, Asia/Japan) to reach the same global audience we can with MS in a single test and global submission...
To date, we are still the only third party publisher doing cross platform, simultaneous digital releases (still working on the global simultaneous, but see the issues above on multiple submissions per territory as an issue). Believe it or not, this is not easy and to suggest we aren't treating the PS3 as important would be ignorant of what we're doing for it."
I think this hints at some of the issues that are buried regarding PSN. It appears - from both Capcom's evidence and speaking to developers off the record - that there are significant process issues to getting games released worldwide, or even getting games released in the U.S., with slow response times and confused procedure at times.
Apart from territory-specific slowness, having to submit games separately for each territory is potentially a major issue for smaller developers and publishers who don't have, say, an office in each territory.
While you could make a game just to release in one territory, it presumably limits your sales significantly - and there may be different standards in each territory (such as Japan using different 'Accept/Back' buttons) which might mean complex variant submissions. Microsoft has, at least, managed a single worldwide submission process for XBLA titles.
Furthermore, some of the digital download milestones Svensson listed recently for Capcom are borderline mindboggling in their 'should be simple' nature - though congratulations that he and his staff managed them:
"-First Cross-platform Simultaneous Digital Launch from Any Publisher (PSN/XBLA) - Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix
-First Third Party Published Content on the European PSN Store - SCEE tells us it will be Rocketmen
-First PS3 Title to Handle In-game Purchase/Conversion From Within a Demo - Rocketmen
Let's face it, if these are things that a major publisher like Capcom has to struggle at, how is it going to be possible for the average independent developer to do them?
This is one of the reasons why PixelJunk Racers/Monsters are, slightly oddly, submitted and published by the developer itself in Japan (where the Q Games folks even took out a print ad in Famitsu!) But they are published by SCEA in North America - a slightly territory-mangling state of affairs which is only so because of Sony's territory-split structure.
Progress To Open Up PSN?
Obviously, it's not possible to wholly condemn or praise Sony on the basis of some of this anecdotal information. And having said all of this, Sony's GDC 2008 lecture on PlayStation Network seems to present a much rosier possibility for Sony and third-parties. It references the free PhyreEngine and comments of third-party possibilities - again, with a little anti-XBLA rhetoric here:
"[Chris] Eden added that what differentiates PSN from the competition was pricing, as well. "We don't set or recommend prices, or have price slots," he said. "Sony just acts as a digital reseller, you're free to set your own prices."
Unlike competing services, he continued, Sony doesn't slot releases into a schedule. Once a game has passed its final QA check, the content is uploaded to the network the following Thursday."
These and a lot of other promises in the GDC lecture made me hope for the future of the PlayStation Network for indies - and not just via the higher-end, privileged first-party releases. And it's quite possible that some of the fixes are in process.
So overall, I do think Scott Steinberg and the other Sony execs do have a right to say that PSN is doing a good job for independents - especially given the great work done by first-party to pick up indie games and give them the respect they deserve.
But a regular third-party worldwide PSN release schedule - and not just from major publishers who have to strain to accomplish it - would really give "entrepreneurial developers the chance to get in and make their games available on the PSN." So look at your infrastructure, and make it happen, Sony.