How To Make A Game continues with a look at PS Minis. Is Sony's indie game service a good fit for your first game?
Sony’s PS Minis service may often be overlooked – not least by the format-holder itself – but over 250 titles have been released in the last three years. Since its introduction in 2009 as a seemingly savvy move by Sony to combat the rising force of the App Store, it’s rather fallen between two stools: it’s neither as convenient nor as cheap as iOS, while its games rarely offer the kind of production values expected of a fully-fledged PSN title.
But there's much to suggest it's a good platform for those working on their first videogame. In a less crowded space the cream stands a better chance of rising to the top, and titles like Where Is My Heart? and Floating Cloud God Saves The Pilgrims have enjoyed critical acclaim; Minis are playable on PS3, PSP and PS Vita, giving games on the service a wider reach than Microsoft's equivalent, Xbox Live Indie Games.
The most recent poster child for Minis is FuturLab’s exceptional shooter Velocity, which recently broke the 100,000 sales barrier, while Soho-based Mediatonic has also enjoyed success with the popular Who's That Flying?, Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess and 1000 Tiny Claws. We invited FuturLab’s James Marsden (below, left) and Mediatonic’s Paul Croft to discuss their experiences making Minis.
Marsden has been something of a cheerleader for the service, though FuturLab’s start on the format came around by pure chance. "We had a PSP game canned by a publisher in mid-2009, actually due to Minis being launched," he explains. "Suddenly people’s expectations of what they could buy from PlayStation Store for under a fiver changed, and our publisher dropped it. We had devkits already, and a simple engine running, so it was an easy step to quickly get something developed and onto the market.”
Another reason was Marsden’s reluctance to develop for the App Store given the number of games getting lost in the scrum on Apple’s platform - a view to which Croft also subscribes. "At the time the iPhone market was becoming crowded and we had the opportunity to be one of the first developers on a new platform Sony was backing," he tells us. "We jumped at the chance."
Another distinct advantage of Minis over mobile is its traditional control options, and Marsden advises that anyone designing a game around a d-pad and buttons give Sony's service a try rather than fudging virtual controls into a mobile game. "I was inspired by games such as Wipeout and Street Fighter," he says. "You can’t get those experiences on iOS because the level of precision control and input intensity can’t be supported by a touch-only device.
"We’ve had so many people suggest we port Velocity to iOS, and it takes around half an hour to convince [them] it will never work. What makes Velocity special is the way it supports skill and dexterity at a very high level of input intensity. If you take away the thing that makes it special, it stops being special."
Pitfalls and lessons learned
While details of Sony's submission and certification processes are confidential, it seems one key to a successful submission is to mind your language, with both our interviewees falling foul of the ratings system. "Having [Monsters] age rated was an interesting challenge that caught us a little off guard," Croft admits. "We had to make a few tweaks to the language and humour in Monsters that we were not anticipating when we did our original submission." In Marsden’s case, it was two seemingly innocent words that caused a two-month delay to Velocity’s release. "We missed a few lines of text in the back story that mentioned the words 'champagne' and 'drunk': two words not allowed in a 3+ /E for Everyone rated game," he explains. "We missed our PlayStation Plus slot because of this."
The two developers have different thoughts on the quirks of the Minis submission process, however. "When we started work on the game it was our first experience as a company with a console-like submission and QA process," explains Croft. "It’s very different from the iPhone or the web, but thankfully we had a developer on the team who had been through the process before and Sony was very supportive." Yet Marsden disagrees, saying it was "really quite easy. It takes a while to get your head around the system to package your game, but once you have your package, it’s all pretty straightforward.”
Advice to newcomers
"It has to be a great idea", says Marsden - though that's hardly unique to PS Minis. "The majority of gamers have been burned by low quality Minis in the past, and aren’t willing to try [one] unless they hear it’s one of the best on the platform. I would also suggest making good use of the physical controls. Gamers still want twitch games, so make a game that couldn’t possibly be on iOS by design."
Croft concurs. "Design the game for the platform you’re working on," he says. "The game will be played on a handheld and on the PS3 controller so think carefully about how that affects the gameplay. And ensure you budget time in your development for the submissions and age rating process."
Both emphasise the importance of self-marketing to attract interest from both critics and gamers alike - something we'll be looking at in more detail as How To Make A Game progresses. "Think about how you can draw attention to your game in the digital landscape," says Croft. "We often aim to do this through blending stories, characters and humour into our games." Marsden, meanwhile, recommends "thinking of as many interesting angles to talk about your game as possible."
But perhaps the future for Minis developers lies elsewhere. Marsden says that, while Minis are "great as a first step", other platforms may be worth considering. "It’s also worth looking at PlayStation Mobile and native PS Vita development," he says. "I’ve been told that the depth and scope required in a game concept has been significantly relaxed for Vita. Sony has got the message that the platform needs small games as well as triple-A titles. I think if we had a game like Velocity in terms of scope to make again, we’d be doing it for Vita rather than Minis."
Pros and cons
Marsden has spoken before about his issues with the service, suggesting the lack of Trophy support is "the single biggest turn-off", with leaderboards and network capabilities a close second, while Croft points out the obvious problem of visibility. "I would love to see Minis have a higher profile and gain more prominence on the PS Store," he says. "There are a lot of fantastic games and hidden gems on the platform from great developers like FuturLab and Dakko Dakko – it would be nice to share them with more people!"
Yet both are full of praise for Sony and the way it handles developers. "Sony has been very supportive through all of the games we’ve developed for the platform," adds Croft. "We’ve really enjoyed working with them. They helped us through loaning dev kits and publicising the game on their official blog and channels, running competitions among local communities - it was great to have them on side."
Meanwhile, Marsden claims that Velocity might not have seen release at all without the platform holder’s intervention. "We’d reached a point where we’d spent all our savings on the game, but it was still just a vertical slice demo. Fortunately our account manager at Sony thought it showed promise and would be suitable for PS Plus, so they signed it up." Indeed, the subscription service has helped bring Velocity to a wider audience, with Marsden saying Plus "does a great job of creating an install base. Velocity has been downloaded well over 100,000 times now, which is something we’d have struggled to do ourselves."
Minis may not offer the same level of success as the App Store, then, and the future may lie on other services and different hardware, but there's real benefits to starting out on Sony's multiplatform service: reach, a lack of competition and, crucially, the chance to build a relationship with one of the most powerful companies in videogames.