Sony and Indie Devs: a story of love and hate
Twitter user @haken25 told me a few days ago:
The Makers of Minecraft For the 360, are making a version of it for the PS3, PS4 and PSVita! You should blog about it!
I actually knew about that, and we had mentioned it when we covered Gamescom, but it’s true we hadn’t made a headline out of it. And why should we? Pretty much every single site and their mom had already talked about it right after gamescom, and tweets on the subject had created a huge buzz. Didn’t you hear? Sony are Indie devs’ best friends with their PS4, to a point where the OUYA might be considered an endangered species a mere 6 months after its release.
But it hasn’t always been the case. Actually, Sony’s relationship with Indie devs and homebrewers has always been a stormy one. Just like a teenage girl confused about her feelings, Sony has regularly switched between love letters and death threats to the Indie community.
The early days: hobbyists welcome
Back in 1997, Sony started selling an official development kit for hobbyists on its playstation 1, called Net Yaroze. For the “reasonable” price of $750, you’d get a PS1, 2 controllers, and the necessary development kit.
The SDK was fairly limited, compared to the official devkits: homebrewers could not actually burn CDs and had to fit their entire game – including graphics – in the 2MB of Ram. Nevertheless, It was pretty popular and well supported by Sony. They provided discussion forums, and even featured Homebrews on some of their Demo CDs. Some commercial games for the PS1 were even created with that library.
The Playstation 2 did not see a successor to Net Yaroze, but Sony introduced a Linux for Playstation 2 kit in 2002, 2 years after the release of the console. This one was less aimed at game developers, and more at people who wanted to use the device as a computer, although it was, again, fairly limited.
The Playstation 3 had support for Linux from day one through its “OtherOS” system. Several developers were able to install their favorite flavor of Linux on their PS3, and play with the possibilities offered by the Cell architecture. Sadly, Hardware acceleration and access to the GPU was restricted.
Despite the limitations, it seems Sony had a genuine interest in letting programmers play with each iteration of its playstation consoles.
The Dark days
However in the mid-to-end 2000’s happened what I like to call “Sony’s dark days” in terms of their support for hobbyist programmers.
In 2009, support for Linux on the PS2 was discontinued. Only one year later in 2010, the same happened to the PS3 in a much more painful way: people who wanted to keep their PS3 up to date (a pre-requesite if you want to play the latest games or access the PSN) had to give up not only on Sony’s support, but on actual Linux functionality on their console.
The 2010 removal of Linux support happened for the confusing reasons of “security concerns”, and in a context where Sony had been suing hobbyists and hackers left and right with DMCA violations, such as when they sued hackers who had taught their Aibo to dance in 2005.
Apparently Sony had been willing to provide cool toys for programmers, but they didn’t like to see these toys getting out of their control.
In the light of the above, what’s noteworthy is Sony’s constant attempts at pleasing hobbyists and Indie devs, but also in hindsight the fact that they had no clear idea what they wanted to achieve with these. None of the “Linux for playstation” or “Net Yaroze” programs provided a clear visibility or “path” on how a homebrew creator could eventually turn their hobby into an actual commercial game. Sony did offer a bit of support, but that was it. And when people tried to go a bit further or think out of the box, Sony retaliated.
Wait, what about Indie devs?
But I hear you scream: “hobbyist programmers and Indie devs are not exactly the same thing”. An attempt at defining a “homebrewer” versus an “Indie dev” led me to the following definition: Indie devs use official devkits and are licensed by the manufacturer, and generally aim at making money out of their games. Homebrewers often go with unofficial devkits, are not licensed, and (by choice or not) generally do not make money with the games they produce.
I’ve been talking a lot about hobbyists and hackers/homebrewers, but what about actual Indie devs? Today, after the announcement of the PS4, with Minecraft and other famous Indie games joining the platform, this seems to be a clear cut: you don’t need to be a big guy to get an official devkit from Sony, and there’s no need to go an try unofficial devkits. But it’s not always been the case. Of course, back in the PS1/PS2 days, the limit between homebrewers and Indie devs was fuzzy, for the reasons I explained above. But even after that, during the “Dark days”, I’d say it was even worse.
I’ve had several people asking me a few years ago: “with your programming skills, why don’t you code an actual game and get licensed by Sony?”. Those of you who have toyed with that idea in the early days of the PS3 and the PSP know it as well as me: back in 2006/2007, if you wanted to develop a game for a Sony console, you had to purchase a $20’000 development kit, and prove to Sony you had been working on commercially successful videos games in the past. Sony’s message to Indie devs when the PS3 and PSP got released was extremely clear: “f#ck you”.
I keep calling those the dark days. They were not especially dark days for Indie devs or hobbyists. They were dark days for Sony: The late 2000’s is when Sony completely failed to see Apple come with their Appstore, and Microsoft’s XBox Live Indie Game programs, both in 2008. It took Sony more than a year to react with a sub-par program, the PSP minis, which appeared at the end of 2009. Despite good effort, how to become a Minis developer was extremely unclear even to motivated people, while it was dead easy to put one’s app up on the Applestore.
The mid to late 2000’s is clearly a time where Sony lost Indie devs, and I think it’s in that context the idea of the OUYA was born, but you’d have to ask them for that
On a side note about the fuzziness of “homebrewers” Versus “Indie devs” and as an anecdote, some PSP Homebrew developers ended up licensing some of their creations as PSP minis. Such is is the case of the creators of PSP homebrew Panic Paradyz, who later released another game named “No Gravity” as a PSP mini.
Sony have made lots of mistakes, but they are also able to steer things in the right direction. The success of Journey on the PS3 shows that they’ve realized there’s money to be made with hobbyists and small studios. Several Indie games are even in IGN’s top 25 list of best PS3 games, and Sony’s announcements surrounding the PS4 reveal had an obvious appeal to Indie devs, Minecraft being the most memorable one.
It does not mean Sony won’t make mistakes again, or that their relationship with Indie dev is now a perfect harmony. They missed a pretty strong signal from the industry with Apple’s Appstore success a few years ago, their PSM program for the Vita is not really what I would call an acclaimed success, the Indie developers they’ve chosen for their PS4 announcements are as close as you can be from a “major studio” while still having the “Indie” name; and I’m sure I’m missing a few more things they’ve messed up.
But more importantly, as I’ve shown above, Sony’s history in the gaming business is paved with direct conflict towards Indie devs. I am surprised (should I be?) that “specialized” websites seem to have completely erased 15 years of such stormy relationships in their own analysis of the PS4 announcements. Oh well, I guess love is, indeed, blind.