July 27, 2012 5:00 AM | Staff
Back when Sony's PlayStation Suite was first detailed, it quickly became clear that it had quite the resemblance to a certain other digital platform -- one that has its share of, ahem, problems.
Sony's initiative, now known as PlayStation Mobile, is an exciting prospect that will allow any developer to register, pay $99 a year for a publisher license, and then develop and release as many games as they desire via the PlayStation Store, as long as said titles keep to the relatively lax service guidelines.
It just so happens that Xbox Live Indie Games, Microsoft's equivalent service for the Xbox 360, also has the exact same yearly membership fee, and features very similar standards in terms of what content can be submitted and how the process of development and submission is tackled.
The open-endedness of Xbox Live Indie Games has proven to be quite the double-edged sword, especially when paired alongside the poor discoverability of games on the service. Allowing any developer to produce games for the service meant that XBLIG quickly filled up with sub-par Xbox Live avatar games, and games with names like Try Not To Fart.
Even now, nearly four years after its original launch, XBLIG's top lists are filled to the brim with avatar games and Minecraft clones, with all the original, innovative titles that deserve recognition pushed well below the top list threshold.
When the PlayStation Mobile SDK open beta launched in April and more details of the service came through, showing even more similarities to XBLIG, I became intrigued with why Sony would choose to emulate a dying, never-really-successful platform. The fact that PlayStation Mobile is multi-platform is obviously going to be a key plus point over XBLIG, yet it's difficult to see exactly why Sony believes it can succeed where Microsoft failed.
It appeared that Sony wasn't 100 percent sure how it was going to pull this off either, as Jack Buser, senior director of PlayStation Digital Platforms, told me, "We've seen what has happened on competing platforms and are dedicated to delivering a better experience through PlayStation. While we don't have a specific announcement at this time, we are well aware of the issue."
Minis begat MobileAt the Develop conference in Brighton last week, I was given the chance to once again probe a Sony representative on how PSM is going to outsmart XBLIG.
Agostino Simonetta, European development account manager at SCEE, gave a talk on how developers will be able to take full advantage of PlayStation Mobile, detailing specifications for the platform and explaining that "it's an opportunity for developers to be creative [and] come up with something in the spirit of PlayStation."
PlayStation Mobile is a C# platform that runs code on a virtual machine, providing direct binary compatibility across a range of devices. The single code base means that you code the game once, and it can then be released for the PS Vita and all PlayStation-certified tablets and smartphones.
It struck me how often Simonetta described the company's "detached approach" to the platform as "lightweight," from the content guidelines to what will be seen as acceptable quality in the PlayStation Mobile store.
He noted, in particular, that as long as a game's content follows the "acceptable terms" laid out by Sony, then it will be allowed on PlayStation Mobile. Basic checks will be made when a game is submitted and a couple of days of QA will be provided, but essentially Sony "won't check the quality of the content." It is a "self service, single global submission publishing process," he added.
With XBLIG, and soon PlayStation Mobile, the content published via this channel is given its own special area on the store -- away from the publisher-vetted content. This area on Xbox 360 hasn't exactly been highlighted very well and has caused numerous outcries from involved indie devs, and it's difficult to see how this will prove any different on PlayStation Network.
However, Simonetta assured Develop conference attendees that PlayStation Mobile's dedicated "application store" will be promoted in the same way as existing PSN content, and will even work to highlight specific genres that you wouldn't usually find on PSN, such as casual games and non-game applications.
When I questioned Simonetta regarding how PlayStation is hoping to out-do XBLIG and solve many of the problems that Microsoft's platform faced, he referred me to the company's work with the PS Minis platform.
PS Minis launched in 2009 for PSP and PlayStation 3, and provided smaller developers with an easier way to approach Sony and get their games on PlayStation platforms. A $1,500 development kit is still needed to create PS Minis titles, and developers still need to gain approval from Sony to launch a game, but in comparison to publishing through Sony, it's a rather open platform.
Back when PS Minis launched, Sony's Zeno Calaco told Develop, "There are dangers in having total open access; having six thousand applications where probably only thirty are discovered by the consumer. Some of the developers working on the App Store and PSP Minis tell us that they prefer our approach because they get more visibility."
Compare that to the outline for PlayStation Mobile, and it seems that Sony has at least partly changed its mind on that front, and opted to lower the barrier of entry further.
"We're still supporting the Minis platform," Simonetta told me. "I think we have shown with this platform our dedication to the indie community over the years. We're still supporting it there. PS Minis has been a core part of the PSP platform, and it's been promoted heavily on the store."
"So why would we get into something like this knowing that maybe we were going to no longer support [PS Minis]? ... We've been very supportive of the same kind of developers for the last three years. You talk to developers that engage with us, and their feelings [about PS Minis] are great."
"It's not like everything is always perfect," he admitted, "but I think we have shown it to be competitive, and I think we have shown that on PSN as well. We are a platform that allows any [developer] to publish on PSN."
Through PS Minis, Simonetta reasons, Sony has proved that it can be supportive of the indie community, and is engaged with indie developers. "One thing you can be sure of is our commitment," he said.
I wasn't entirely convinced, and questioned Simonetta on how exactly Sony plans to solve many of the problems that XBLIG faced -- in particular, how will PlayStation Mobile will solve the issue of discoverability that plagues the Xbox indie store.
"It's a problem that any platform, or indeed any retail channel, has," he answered. "It's all about keeping all the content fresh, finding many ways to bring that to the forefront of the store. It's about being innovative in the way users [get to the content]."
"Discoverability is hard -- it's a challenge for everybody," he added. "I think we have done a decent job so far." Unfortunately, he was not willing to give any details regarding the ins and outs of how PlayStation Mobile plans to actually tackle this common issue.
If Sony can successfully nurture a thriving community for PlayStation Mobile, attract a host of great indie titles, and bring these titles to a good portion of its PSN audience, then PlayStation Mobile could potentially spell great things for both the PlayStation brand and the PS Vita.
That's an ideal scenario. For now, however, it's difficult to see anything to suggest that this won't be yet another low-barrier platform that flounders at the might of Apple's App Store.
[Mike Rose wrote this post, originally appearing on Gamasutra.]