Polygon talks with the showcase of indies launching on PS4 to shed some light on how Sony intends to grow the next crop of smash indie hits.
There they stood, shoulder to shoulder across the wide semicircle of high definition screens at Sony's E3 press conference. Streamed live to the world from the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the presentation showed eight indie developers demonstrating their games live while a crowd of journalists and enthusiasts cheered them on.
It was a scene fit to make any of their mothers cry. But it was also a table set to entice a community of gamers who, over this eight-year console cycle, have grown ever hungrier for new, exotic flavors of indie to devour.
The vignette in Sony's nearly two-hour long presentation was a broadside blast at the opposition, Microsoft and Nintendo. Here stood the tiniest studios, two and three-man teams, along with established indie developers. Here stood the future of gaming. And they stood with Sony.
In the days following on the E3 show floor, Polygon talked to seven of those studios: 17-Bit, Ragtag Studio, Red Barrels Games, Supergiant Games, Switchblade Monkeys, Tribute Games and Young Horses. The stories they told were like those of many other indies, tales of bootstrapped teams living off savings, struggling in obscurity. But they also told the story of a console manufacturer scouring the landscape for diverse titles.
This is the story of Sony's indie push on PS4, told through the games and the developers they brought along to LA.
Jake Kazdal, co-founder and CEO at 17-Bit, didn't have his space shoot-em-up Galak-Z playable on the show floor at E3 this year, but he's excited about the prospects for his game on the PS4. The traditional looking shoot-em-'up is built in Unity, but his 2D sprites exist in a 3D space, giving the game a feeling of modernity while keeping its roots in the playstyle of classic arcade games.
His father had a few pizza parlors in the 70s and 80s when he was growing up, and Kazdal used to take a paper cup filled with quarters along with his folding chair and stand against the Zaxxon and Centipede cabinets there for hours every day.
"I just love that kind of awesome arcade experience," Kazdal said. "We're trying to update those classic 2D, super tight [games] ... for the modern age with the power of these crazy new machines."
He's been in the industry for a long time, starting as a Game Counselor for Nintendo in the 80s. He's been making games since 1996, and worked for many companies including Sega Japan, EA Los Angeles and Zombie as a concept artist, animator and an art director respectively. He broke off with two friends to create 17-Bit in 2009. Their first game, Skulls of the Shogun, took three and a half years to make. In the end it was a hit on Xbox Live Arcade.
"It was a free-time-at-night kinda thing [at first]," said Kazdal. "I had my first son at the same time. He's four today. I literally started the [day he was born] about four years ago. So I went indie and had a kid at the same time. That's where all this gray hair comes from.
"It has been a really challenging experience learning all kinds of new stuff about the business. I thought I knew everything about games, because I had been in it for so long, but running a studio is totally different then being a staff artist or a designer on a project."
After so much time spent with the Xbox architecture, he thinks it's time to try a launch on a different console. "Sony's been really outreaching to the independent developers. ... The PlayStation crew has been really aggressive about getting talented indies out there. Just super awesome. ... They're on top of all their stuff, they're just really obviously wanting high quality indie content."
"Microsoft seems to be going after this whole entertainment thing," Kazdal said, "including games, but also everything else possible that connects to that. Where the PlayStation 4, at this point, seems much more like a traditional gaming machine. For me, I'm just a gamer gamer. I don't really watch TV."
A product of the DePaul University Game Dev program, Young Horses' eight-man team has won accolades from independent game festivals as well as praise from multiple media outlets. The team members' personal stories are almost as endearing as the tale they've created on screen, that of a loving father, caring husband and secret octopus that is Octodad: Dadliest Catch.
Their game is a cephalopod simulator. Players move Octodad step by wiggly step through the environment, attempting not to draw attention. Add to that a supple physics engine anda few well-placed banana peels with the inspired character design of artist Chris Stallman and hilarity invariably ensues.
But for such a bootstrapped company, living in communal apartments and supporting each other financially during the long road to release on PC, moving to a console had always proved beyond its reach. The team tried in 2011 to make a Kinect version of the game, using retail hardware and third-party software. But Microsoft never showed any interest, and Young Horses quickly dropped the project.
Around that same time Sony offered a helping hand.
"They came to us," said co-founder and CEO Phil Tibitoski. "[Sony's] Nick Suttner has been following us since GDC 2011. He's our account manager. ... He's really super nice and is always looking out for us.
Geisler demoing at the PS4 press conference.
The eponymous Octodad.
"Then at PAX East [this year] he was kinda like, 'Hey, we're doing some PS4 stuff soon. Do you guys think you want to be a part of that?'" Tibitoski's eyes get wide as he tells the story, and he's still a bit breathless. He couldn't say no to such an opportunity. The only question was if the game would port over quickly. The team was less than nine months from a PC release and didn't have a lot of time to run down blind alleys.
"I think I need to credit Sony and the SDK more than me," he said. "It was actually surprisingly easy to set everything up."
The Cell processor on the PlayStation 3 has been notoriously difficult to develop for, requiring all sorts of specialized programing know-how to optimize. "I've heard that the Cell was difficult just because it's different from Microsoft's solution," said Kevin Geisler, co-founder and lead programmer at Young Horses. "I never got to develop for the PS3, so I guess I can't really comment on that.
Instead of a byzantine architecture, Geisler found in the PS4 an environment not unlike a modern PC. And with a competent software development kit he was able to create a full port of the game in less than four weeks.
"I think I need to credit Sony and the SDK more than me," he said. "It was actually surprisingly easy to set everything up. Once we had the dev kit we had it running samples in about an hour or two. ... It was really a matter of plugging it in, running the code. And that impressed us enough that we just decided to [do it]."
"We thought if anything this [PS4] seems like the easiest thing we could port the game to," Tibitoski said. "Even a year ago I wouldn't have thought that."
After more than two years in development, after all the visits to PAXes and articles on Kotaku and other sites, Tibitoski is amazed at how large his new audience is on the PS4. "Everything has been great because people who have never heard of [Octodad] before come over here and [check] it out, so it's nice to see those first time reactions again."
The five people that make up Tribute Games' development team are based in Montreal. Their roots are in developing Game Boy Advance titles for Ubisoft, and they are perhaps best known for their work on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game. When they spun out of their day jobs, their little company pulled the lead animator from that game along with them, Australian Paul Robertson. His pixel art gives their games a distinct, retro look.
Their first game was Wizorb, a mashup of Zelda and a block breaker. It proved popular when it launched on Xbox Live Arcade in 2011, and since then it's been ported to PC, PlayStation Vita, PSP, PlayStation 3, Macintosh, Linux and iOS. Pretty much everywhere.
The game they're bringing to PlayStation 4, called Mercenary Kings, is a classic 2D action game. It takes inspiration from Contra and Metal Slug, but also games like Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online. Often the path to game development hell is paved with mashups, but Tribute Games' strong animation has been blended here with addictive four-player cooperative play. It was a hit at Polygon's E3 pre-show party, with long lines all night long. And those lines persisted on the E3 show floor.
Financially it's been a struggle for them, even with a successful Kickstarter campaign in September of 2012. But they value their freedom, especially since being a poor indie hasn't been all that dissimilar from being a poor studio under contract with a publisher.
"Most publishers' don't really want to spend money," said Jean-Francois Major, co-founder and lead programmer. "They just want to release it for you and basically take a piece of the pie. You kinda have to sell your soul to release on platforms like Xbox and PlayStation. But that has changed over the past year or so. Nintendo has been pretty up front with allowing self publishing by indies. Sony as well."
The opportunity to self publish, to maintain creative and financial control over their development cycle, was something that seemed to appeal to all of the indies at the Sony booth. It made the transition from Nintendo to Sony especially easy for Tribute Games.
"Sony has been awesome pretty much from the start," said Major "Obviously, they brought us to E3. They put us in their conference, and they actually allowed us to play on stage which blows my mind."
The conversation began when a member of Sony's indie business development team, Shane Bettenhausen, saw their Kickstarter and reached out to them.
"Basically they sent us some dev kits," Major said. "They've been making sure everything is going right, talking us through the SDK, talking to us about what our problems were and just trying to figure it out." It sounds simple, but things like getting extra controllers sent to them in time for QA testing has made all the difference in their development schedule. That just-in-time mentality, that close contact, is something Polygon heard repeated many times as we made our tour.
A three-man operation spread between Chicago and Dallas, Ragtag Studio never thought that Sony would return their email. Designer Chris Cobb mailed a friend who put him in touch with Sony's manager of developer relations, Brian Silva. They met in a hotel at Indiecade in October of 2012.
"These three dudes came up that looked as sloppy as I did," Cobb laughed. "They all had big bushy beards and shorts and T-shirts on; real raggedy looking. And they were the three guys from Sony; Brian [Silva], Nick [Suttner] and Shane [Bettenhausen]. And it was a remarkably pleasurable experience. It was just like hangin' out with a bunch of friends. We showed 'em our game; they immediately got it because they're all serious gamers.
"We kept in touch and then when PAX East rolled around we met up again," said Cobb. "Between now and then is when our relationship got a little more serious, I guess you could say. ... Everything came together in the last six weeks [before E3]. ... We needed to get a build together. We needed to do things like put the PlayStation 4 controller art in the game. We used to have an Xbox controller in there."
Ragtag's game is an isometric puzzle title, where players control a zombie named Ray who has a mysterious light bulb implanted in his head. The bulb allows him to cast a green light across the landscape, which gives him control over the undead. Players use Ray's powers to surreptitiously zombify residents of a small town, all without raising too much alarm in the process.
It's a concept that takes a bit of explanation, as do the controls, and demos are a tiring affair for Cobb. It's only the second day of E3, but he's already starting to drag a little bit. Asked about what platforms he's developing for, he looks even more tired. When he gets home, where his wife is working full time to support him, he'll go back to developing for a release on PS4, and quickly after on PC. There's a lot of work yet to be done before the end of the year.
Ray's the Dead
At the thought of releasing on Xbox One he lets out a strangled sort of laugh, half from exhaustion and half from frustration.
"I shouldn't have laughed," he said. "We spoke to Microsoft at Indiecade, at the same point when we met with Sony. Quite frankly, the meetings couldn't have gone any more differently from each other. Microsoft was just — they weren't really gamers at all, and they were only interested at that time in pitching Windows 8 apps.
"Their presentation at E3 this year didn't indicate any change in direction for them," Cobb said. "Right now you still need a publisher to even get an indie game on the Microsoft platform. We would have to sign a deal with a larger publisher like Electronic Arts or Ubisoft."
For a bootstrapped indie like Ragtag Studio, Sony is making life easier for them. "Sony has removed all barriers, quite literally, on their system. ... It's been easier to get our game onto a Sony platform than it has been to get on Steam," said Cobb. That's how drastically things have changed these days."
A studio with only five full time employees, Switchblade Monkeys is blessed with an additional seven contributors. They're friends and contractors, all helping get their game off the ground.
"We mainly just kind of took a hit in the quality of life," says President Yousef Mapara. "Just dial it down, go back into starving artist mode. And I think it's good for every artist to go into starving artist mode every once in a while. You get too cushy and you just work [too] hard."
Called Secret Ponchos, their game is a series of online duels that play a bit like twin stick shooters. Players try to kill as many opponents as they can, gaining notoriety and securing their legacy in an amped up Wild West setting. The graphics are intricately detailed, and the controls feel tight.
Mapara left his job as an art director at Radical Entertainment with the intention of making a "stupid little iPhone game." But he eventually got spooked by the sheer volume of games coming to the iOS platform on a monthly basis.
"It seemed like there were a lot of marketing variables that we didn't understand," Mapara said. "I don't know how many — 10,000? — games release a month on there and how do you stand out? At least on the console market there's a barrier to entry. ... XBLA, PSN, they don't put out a ton of games, so if you can kind of make that screening process then at least you have some of that virtual shelf space."
Steam presents a similar problem. In the Greenlight program developers have to garner support from tens of thousands of gamers before Steam will invite them to release on their platform.
"I'm a little bit scared about ... posting a video that people might be like, 'this is stupid,' and it's just all the trolling," Mapara said. "So I get nervous about anything that's sort of internet crowd judgement."
Caley Smyth, the senior interface designer, shares his concern. "It's nice to show somebody a game and walk them through it and say, 'Do you like this or not?' And it's really hard to make a website and have it represent everything. So we have to learn how to do that. I'm nervous about it as well. I think one day we'll have to cross that bridge, but I would rather just meet with somebody and see how they play it and if they like it or not."
"They were kind of in regular clothes and stuff, and they just kinda played the game for 20 minutes, watched people playing the game."
Sony never really gave them the chance to sell their product, however. They just liked it straight away.
"The Sony guys actually, they were there [at PAX Prime] and they didn't introduce themselves," Mapara said. "They were kind of in regular clothes and stuff, and they just kinda played the game for 20 minutes, watched people playing the game. And then you can't hype them, you can't sell them on it. ... But then actually they had a very gamer perspective of it.
"They introduced themselves," Mapara said. "And said, 'We really like this game, would you consider bringing it out on PS4?' And I said we don't have money for that kind of stuff. And they just said, 'We'll help you with dev kits. What do you need? What are your barriers?'"
For the team members at Switchblade Monkey it's all about being a small fish in a small pond. The water in the PS4 marketplace will get deeper, but for now they're all alone.
A new beginning
It's important to mention that none of the developers Polygon spoke to had seen what Sony's marketplace will look like. Discoverability will be an important topic for console manufacturers and developers alike, as opening the doors to self publishers, like Sony has with the PS4, can create the same glut of games now seen on iOS and Steam Greenlight. The eight indies on stage with Sony could be the leaders of a new generation of breakout indie stars. They could just as easily be drowned by poor marketing of their titles, or trampled by their peers rushing to follow them.
Sony's down-to-earth approach is clear. It's taking an interest in games from a gamer's perspective, and welcoming diverse experiences onto its platform. It's also making it easy to develop for the system, from the architecture of the console to the ways Sony is supporting teams with equipment and expertise.
For now, these eight teams represent a stark difference in tone between Sony and its biggest rivals. It's up to these eight indies to prove themselves worth the attention, as much as it's up to Sony to help sustain the environment they've been allowed to run free on.
Editing: Matt Leone
Image Credits: Polygon, Sony
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan