May 16, 2013 12:33 AM | Staff
Following Sony's forecast last week that it will sell less than 5 million PlayStation Vitas this fiscal year, I reasoned that the company appears to be ditching the Vita in favor of its upcoming PS4 launch.
Shortly afterwards, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's senior business development manager Shahid Kamal Ahmad got in touch with me to give Sony's side of the story. (We did contact Ahmad for a chat prior to publishing the editorial, but we only successfully connected after we ran the piece.)
Ahmad said Sony's 5 million figure may not be exactly as dire as it sounds. "Sometimes things can happen," he says, "and they can dramatically change the evolution in terms of sales of a platform."
"But what you can never do is say 'We're definitely counting for this kind of increase.' So you can put plans into motion and say 'We're trying this approach, that approach,' and if something comes off, it's going to be fantastic."
Sony has seen an example of this happening recently. "I had no idea there was going to be the amount of press attention that there was around Thomas Was Alone [previously a 2012 PC game that was released on Vita earlier this year]," notes the Sony exec. "If I'd put something like that in the original plan that I put together for engaging with the development community, I would have been laughed out of the office."
He continues, "It's really funny, because I've spoken to a few people about it today internally, and they've all accepted it as 'Yeah, of course that was going to happen!' So in hindsight it's easy to say that this event and that event is what caused a change in course dramatically, but to say that in advance is usually not appropriate or sensible."
So essentially, the 5 million units sold figure is more of a worst-case scenario, where none of these games that Sony is picking up really takes off?
Answers Ahmad, "Yeah. I mean, I'm probably not the right person to speak to about corporate performance -- I'm such a tiny part of the whole organization. What I can say is that looking back at the performance of different consoles over the course of history, sometimes you've had slow starts which have been suddenly sprung into life by a number of activities."
"What you don't say ahead of time is, 'Oh this will and that will happen, and suddenly we'll have a massive spike in sales.' It's not the sort of thing that companies do."
From Vita to PS4I also speculated in my previous piece that Sony is using the PS Vita as a way to prove to developers that it is great to work with. At this point, the company can then get devs on board with PS4 development.
I put this idea across to Ahmad, who explains that development engagement is mainly what Sony is interested in.
"We've had developer relations for many years now, and it's always been an important part of who we are," he answers. "Certainly over the last couple of years, the number of potential partners has exploded."
"If you look back before the mobile era, there was a manageable pool of potential partners, because it was expensive to develop. We saw with the advent of mobile devices that costs came down, and you had different types of content that was appealing at a wide level."
Suddenly Sony found itself with heaps of potential partners to work with, and a platform to offer them. "I guess what has happened over the last year is that we've just engaged with a lot more people that we previously have, simply because there are more people to engage with. It's meant that we've had to reach much more broadly that we've ever done before."
He takes Hohokum developer Honeyslug as an example. Ahmad went to visit the team back in 2009 when it was making Flash games, as his job at the time was to find studios to make games for the PS Minis program.
"Here was a developer I went to see, and I expected to be out of there in half an hour, having been bored witless by a couple of Flash demos," he says. "Nothing could have been further from what I expected to see. I came out three hours later absolutely buzzing, because these guys had so much energy."
Honeyslug went on to release Kahoots on PS Minis, followed by Frobisher Says on PS Vita. Now the studio is working on Hohokum for PS4 with Santa Monica Studios.
"So that's a beautiful story, but it's a continous story, right?" Ahmad continues.. "It's not like back in 2009 I even knew what the indie space was! It was just by exposure to this type of developer who was active in a different space that it all started to fit in."
As the Sony manager notes, creativity can be very difficult to find, so once you have discovered it, it's worth holding on to it.
"We brought them to the platform, and they've stayed with us since in different relationships across different segments of the company," he says of Honeyslug. "I just see that as a typical example of our type of engagement. So it's not like last year we went, 'OK let's get indies to go onto PS4.' That's not the case at all. We like working with developers, we like working with publishers, and we're active."
Futurlab is another indie that Sony has slowly built up a relationship with, first on PS Minis with Coconut Dodge and Velocity, and now on PS Vita with Velocity Ultra and Coconut Dodge Revitalised.
"Now, we don't currently have any plans with them to do PS4 stuff," Ahmad notes, "but who's to say that they won't be the next people to bring content to PS4? It's a continuous story, and you know, we're going to have many more platforms I would imagine, and who knows what form they'll take. Hopefully the partners we've had for many years will be with us in years to come."
How do you solve the post-launch drought?Part of my reasoning for Sony to pile on the indies now in preparation for the PS4 launch, was to make sure that the post-launch game drought doesn't hit the console as hard as it has affected the Vita, the Wii U, and many consoles before them.
I ask Ahmad whether he believes that this surge of indie developers that Sony is bolstering can potentially help the PS4 is avoid this as much as possible.
"There isn't a console in history where making sure that you have content for it wasn't an issue," says Ahmad. "It's always the case that getting the right sort of content, and getting a good level of content, is going to be important."
"I don't think the PS4 is any different," he continues, although he adds, "I think we're going to have a really good launch, and I think we're going to have a good amount of content appearing for quite some time on that. We've got more developer engagement on PS4 than we've had for any previous console, so that's a really healthy sign."
What sort of indie games is Sony looking for?I ask Ahmad how exactly Sony goes about hunting down the indie games that it chooses for PlayStation platforms.
"To begin with, it was us doing outreach, and we started with partners that we'd engaged with already," he explains. "There are quite a few people who have worked with the PlayStation family over the years self-publishing on Minis and PS3, so they were a good place to start."
"But obviously you look at other areas as well," he continues. "You look at successes in all spheres. To me, the important thing was not so much the games. Games are important of course, but more important to me were the people making the games, because those are the people you're going to make the relationships with, and what you're interested in is what they're going to be producing."
Ahmad notes that a number of people were surprised to see Sony working with Jeff Minter recently, and questioning the move.
"Well, because the guy is a legend! Why not Jeff Minter, right?" was Ahmad's reply. "But what do you say to a guy like Jeff? Do you go up to him and say, 'I want you to make a game like this'?"
"I mean, how stupid would that be? It'd be like going to Patisserie Valerie and saying 'Make me a can of baked beans.' You go to them for the best cakes in the world, and you let them get on with making those cakes. You trust them to do a good job of that."
"Now, I'm not saying a Jeff Minter game is a cake -- certainly not a piece of cake," he laughs, "but when you go to Jeff Minter, you know what you're getting. You're going to get a certain type of game, and you do not interfere with that experience. And what you want is the best Jeff Minter game."
Sony has the same relationship with Dutch studio Vlambeer. After the two-man team brought Super Crate Box to the PS Mobile program, Sony was eager to work with them again.
"When they said 'Luftrausers' and 'jump', we said 'sure, how high?'" says Ahmad. "They know how to make games - what are we going to teach them about that?"
"So it's not necessarily about the game itself. It's about the people who make those games, and their sensibilities and credibilities. That's really exciting to us."
He adds that, "Obviously if someone comes to you with some ridiculous flight of fancy, you can say 'not this one, maybe another one' -- but that hasn't happened so far."
[Mike Rose wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra]