July 1, 2013 5:15 PM | Staff
It's fair to say that PlayStation has had a rather good few months. Sony turned up the heat with its recent PlayStation 4 E3 offerings, and is making a concerted effort to make its PS Vita game library more attractive, all in a bid to turn its game business around.
But while the PS4, the PS Vita and The Last of Us on PS3 have been creating buzz for Sony's present and future efforts, there's another PlayStation platform that has been silently growing while no-one is watching.
Back in March, I questioned what the heck was going on with PlayStation Mobile, the platform that allows indie developers to sell their games via the PlayStation Store for PS Vita and PS-Certified devices with relative ease.
It appeared that Sony had all but given up on the service, and it was destined to go the way of Xbox Live Indie Games, filling up with junk that no-one wanted to play, and obscuring the actual decent titles that the platform had to offer.
Then there was a change in the wind. Sony made the decision to waive the fee on PlayStation Mobile development, essentially meaning that any developer can now create games for the PS Vita for free, without having to fork out the previous annual $99 fee.
Since then, the influx of new titles coming to PS Mobile has rapidly exploded -- where there were perhaps two or three new games per week released for PS Mobile before May, there's now regularly twice as many as that hitting the digital shelves.
There's genuinely great titles to discover among those releases, too -- and more often than not, the physical buttons of the PS Vita help to ensure that a PS Mobile version of a ported game feels better to play than the touch-screen Android and/or iOS edition.
See Gun Commando for example: A fun retro-styled first-person shooter on mobile, yet the d-pad and buttons of the PS Vita help to make the PS Mobile version a cut above its touch-screen counterparts.
Jumping on boardSome devs and publishers clearly have noticed the sudden burst of energy on PS Mobile. Mobile game publisher Chillingo, for example, announced this week that it is bringing numerous titles from its back-catalog to PS Mobile.
"The cost element wasn't something that affected our decision," Chillingo COO Ed Rumley told me of the waived PS Mobile development fee. "It's simply a case of it being the right time."
Rumley says that since announcing the company's intention to port their games over to PS Mobile, he has been inundated with requests from Vita users for additional Chillingo games that they want to see on PS Mobile.
There's another angle to the move, too. The company believes that the upcoming PlayStation 4 will feature plenty of mobile and handheld cross-functionality, and hence by jumping on the PlayStation bandwagon early, Chillingo is anticipating Sony's next moves.
One of the most recent exciting releases for PS Mobile was Rymdkapsel from Martin Jonasson, a minimalistic strategy game set in space. Jonasson says that while developing for PS Mobile was fun, it's not quite as mature as iOS or Android tech-wise.
However, he adds, "Being able to just go to a store, buy a plain old Vita and go home and develop for it is amazing. It's something I wished I could do for the systems I had when I was starting out with game development. There's something magical about having an actual console to run your game on."
Since there aren't really that many PS Vitas sold as-of-yet, and even less people buying games from PS Mobile, Jonasson went in with low sales expectations.
"Sales haven't been disappointing, nor overwhelming," he tells me. "On the upside the storefront is easily accessible from the PS Store, it's not hidden away like XBLIG."
"I'd consider doing a game for PS Mobile again, but then I'd make sure to hit a few other platforms too, just like I'm doing with Rymdkapsel," he adds.
Needs more incentiveThis is the message that I heard from multiple PS Mobile developers -- that sales are OK, but not enough to keep the platform a solely-viable option right now.
Take Thomas Hopper, for example. He's by far the most prolific PS Mobile developer, and has released numerous titles exclusively for the platform, including OUT OF MIND, Super Skull Smash GO! and Floribund.
"Sales is an interesting topic, because the games are selling in reasonable numbers -- more than on any other platform I've launched games (Android for example)," he says.
He continues, "I am working on PSM games full time right now, however I'm not making enough money to support myself long term. In a good month I'm selling about a third of the number of units I'd need to support myself."
In order to keep supporting the platform in the way that he is, Hopper needs more. "I'm trying to improve the quality of the products I'm releasing and trying to make bigger and better games," he adds.
Right now his next PS Mobile game is Shuttle Quest 2000, an R-Type meets Monster Hunter style mashup with Gameboy-inspired visuals. It's his most complex game to date, with quests to complete, resources to rake in, crafting to attend to, and aliens to shoot.
"I really love PS Mobile," he notes. "I get the nicest and most helpful feedback from PS Mobile players, and I would like to keep it my main focus. I have at least two (if not three) more games to deliver on PS Mobile before I start thinking about other platforms, but it is something I will have to do if something doesn't change."
The question is: What can Sony do to increase PS Mobile sales, other than selling more PS Vitas?
Well, quite a lot actually, First and foremost, the PS Mobile shop on the PS Store now resembles a huge mess. It was OK to have "Featured," "Latest" and "All" tabs when the service first launched, simply because there were barely any titles to choose from anyway.
However, given that there's now 100+ games to choose from, something needs to be done to streamline the storefront. Currently, if you want to find a specific game, you have to hit the "All" tab, hit "Games", guess which genre the game in question is going to fall under, then scroll down to find it. There's not even a search box, for crying out loud.
The image scroller at the top of the PS Mobile store needs a rethink to, or at least needs some actual decent games displayed. Boot up the PS Mobile store now, and currently across the top is an image for a game filled with Japanese text, and then two images for the game iFishing. Scroll across, and there's the image of a calculator as the fourth featured "game." It's not exactly the greatest use of the space.
(Note that I'm using the SCEE storefront -- the U.S. storefront has a different set of games along the top, with Feed Me Oil, Cardboard Castle, Cytus Lambda and Monoke Slasher featured. It would appear PS Mobile is another casualty of the SCEE/SCEA divide.)
With the popularity of PS Mobile now kicking off with devs, Sony should be looking to capitalize on the movement. A revamped storefront would definitely help matters, but some added marketing on the official PlayStation blogs would also help considerably.
Sony has the chance to make PS Mobile something more than another Xbox Live Indie Games. The next several months will be interesting to watch.
[Mike Rose wrote this article originally for sister site Gamasutra]