Sony's Adam Boyes On The Importance Of Indies

by Jeff Marchiafava on May 20, 2013 at 08:00 AM

Over the course of this console generation, Sony has made finding and securing creative indie games for PlayStation 3 and Vita a growing priority. From indie-oriented programs like Pub Fund and PlayStation C.A.M.P. to Santa Monica Studio's work with developers like Thatgamecompany and Giant Sparrow, the company has amassed an impressive library of critically acclaimed indie games for its systems. With the release of the PlayStation 4 on the horizon, Sony is working harder than ever to ensure its newest console is an appealing platform for indie developers.

As vice president of publisher and developer relations, Adam Boyes helps Sony find interesting projects and talented developers to pursue, and works to keep them happy when they sign on. We spoke with Boyes to find out what lessons Sony has learned over the years, how the company measures the success of indie titles, and what advantages the PlayStation 4 will offer smaller studios.

What is Sony doing to secure indie games on its systems, and where are you finding these indie games?

Our team's in charge of Pub Fund, and so what developer relations does is we go out to a variety of different shows, consumer-oriented shows, internal ones as well, and we look around at what the cool stuff is. It's also going on Steam, downloading mobile games on iOS and Android, and seeing what developers are up to. So we have a team in our region of about nine people that are full time, dedicated to scouring the earth for cool stuff.

We've heard Sony reached out to a number of developers for their feedback while designing the PS4. Did you speak with indie developers as well?

Yeah, absolutely. It was a big focus. Once we started talking to different developers, what we did is we would bring a bunch of indie developers together and we would meet with them in a group to get their feedback. We prioritized them as highly as larger publishers because we knew that a lot of innovation and creativity is born out of the independent studios. So their feedback absolutely went into a lot of the key decisions as we built the hardware.

It seems like the attention of indie developers has been gradually shifting from the Xbox 360 to the PS3. Are there any lessons you learned from Microsoft's handling of indie developers that helped you facilitate that shift?

I think it was mostly what we learned about ourselves during the PS3 era and from meeting with developers. The Vita was a great place for us to evolve some of our processes, but the most important thing was sitting down with developers over lunch, or over a soda at PAX, and just saying, "Hey, why aren't you on the platform? What's working for you and what isn't?" You know, getting out of our cave. We didn't do a lot of traveling five to eight years ago, and so that was important to us. And then sitting down, working with them, and then saying, "Okay, you might not believe us, but we're going to show you how we're going to improve and evolve." And then coming back to them on a very regular basis.

Minority's Papo & Yo is one of the many indie games supported by Sony's Pub Fund

Sony has invested heavily in Pub Fund. What kind of return have you seen from that investment so far?

We've seen great returns. We've been extraordinarily happy with the results. We are a business at the end of the day, so if a certain program isn't working then it's not like something that we maintain, but it's been very successful for us.

How do you measure Pub Fund's success?

We judge it in multiple ways. Revenue is obviously critical to the business. It's also about the awareness of these titles. We also do customer satisfaction with the gamers and users, and then we talk to partners. The bottom line is no program can be successful if people don't want to come back to it or if they publically speak out that it didn't work for them. And that's where I think accountability is such a critical part of it.

Are you planning to continue Pub Fund?

Absolutely. There's no end in sight for us. It's been very exciting for us. I've only been with the company less than a year and it's a big focus of our department. We're investing heavily like I said, growing the team and developer relations, and then both globally, and finding any way we can to continue to grow and improve the Pub Fund process, and the funding around independent content.

Drinkbox Studios' Tales from Space: About a Blob and Guacamelee are both Pub Fund titles

What else besides Pub Fund does Sony do to help indie developers get their games on your platforms?

A lot of it comes around education. The first big thing is obviously self-publishing. And I think allowing anyone to publish on the platform is a key one; that's the first big barrier of entry. The funding options – we talked about the Pub Fund, whether they want to team that up with Kickstarter or some government funding, which some people have done in the past. Allowing the developer to set their own price, and set their launch timing is really critical. Being open to the business model – so if it's a free-to-play title or microtransaction-based, or subscription, or episodic – all that stuff I think is key. If we don't support a breadth of those things then we won't stay competitive.

And then also working to relieve the barriers of entry. So whether it's supplying dev kits free of charge or waiving patch fees, that's a really important part for us to work with them. And just understanding what their challenges are. Once we understand what their challenges are – we had one developer call us up recently and they said, "Hey, listen. We'd love to have another Vita dev kit." And we said, "Okay, we'll put the request in." And little did they know we had already shipped it out and they got it by 10:00 A.M. the next day. So being able to just really be there for them, being a phone call away to be able to support them. 

You mentioned waiving fees for some indie developers and providing extra assistance. How do you decide who gets that extra help?

We haven't charged a patch fee to any independent developer in the last three years, so that sort of defines our process quite well. It's really about what the makeup of the team is, right? Obviously for a big project, when it's a big huge patch that's going to involve a ton of testing, then it's something that we obviously have to apply a lot of resources, but for many of the smaller titles then we have the ability to waive those.

Coming Up Next: Boyes explains what the PS4 will offer independent developers...

Zombie Studios will be self-publishing Blacklight: Retribution on PS4 as a free-to-play title 

Sony has stated that indie developers can self-publish on PS4 and set their own prices for their games. Does that include free games and subscription-based games?

Yeah, absolutely. Free, subscription-based, microtransaction – any type of game that they want to release.

Does Sony have any concerns about allowing devs to set their own price, especially if you're providing assistance or waiving fees during the development process?

No. I mean, again if they want feedback on different categories of what pricing could be – but what we often do is just point them back to the store to show them what other titles with a similar scope are priced. Ultimately they always have their own choice in price and they also have the ability to change the price at their whim.

One of the major criticisms lodged at current-gen consoles is that indie games tend to get buried by other titles in digital marketplaces. How do you plan to get indie developers more attention on the PS4?

That's something we're looking at multiple, multiple ways to do that. Obviously one thing is the storefront – how do we promote content. I think right now our Spring Fever campaign we are doing on the PlayStation 3 store, we've got four games that are all by indie developers releasing each week. So that's a great way to show them off. The recommendation engine obviously is a big one that we want to focus on to ensure that you know what your friends are playing. And we think the share functionality on the PlayStation 4 is a huge one; being able to share the video and show your friend what you are playing. We think it's going to drive a massive amount of awareness around games.

And the share functionalities and video recording is completely built into the system?

Yup, that's a system-side aspect.

A lot of indie developers we've spoken to are frustrated by not having any say over when their games are released on consoles – they submit their game and are eventually told when it will be released, usually with little advanced warning. Are you addressing that for PS4?

Yeah, we actually – once the game has been submitted for QA and gets approved, the developer gets to choose what day they come out, which week on the store. So they actually get full autonomy to choose exactly the day they come out, which Tuesday.

Lukewarm Media will release its graphically impressive Primal Carnage: Genesis episodically

Some of the first indie games that have been announced for PS4 such as Blacklight: Retribution and Primal Carnage: Genesis look more like retail games than what indie fans might expect. Do you think indie development will eventually go the same route that triple-A development has, with ever-increasing budgets and shrinking profit margins?

I don't think so at all. The great thing about the next generation is because the content is so easy to bring to the platform and because all of the tools and technology across the entire industry have become so easy to work with, it's easy for a team that required a bunch of funding and sort of a two-year life cycle – they can now build a prototype or something that they can ship in four months and put it out for sale and it can be really high quality – especially for someone who is looking for a smaller price point game.

I really don't think we are in the arms race game anymore. I think that we see time and time again that developers, whether it's one or two people – if we look at Brian Provinciano with Retro City Rampage, he literally made that with a couple friends; Jonathan Blow has a very small team as well that works on their content. I think to get straight to the core mechanics, which a lot of independent games focus on, it will always maintain small teams. I think it's amazing what Zombies Studios has done with Blacklight: Retribution, with a small team that's self-funding, as well as the guys from Lukewarm Media with Primal Carnage: Genesis. But at the same time we look at The Witness, and Jon Blow and his team has done something a lot different; it's not that typical shooter.

It's all about depth and breadth; we want to show a wide variety of content and I really don't think we are going to see a big arms race. If [an independent developer is] able to self-fund that and put great content out there, I think that's fantastic. But I don't think it's going to be a trend that is going to stop one- or two-person teams from building content.

What is the final goal of Sony's indie games initiative?

I think the most important thing is to create such an intimate conversation with the content creators and allow them to directly talk to their gamers. [That way] we just basically purely provide a facilitation platform where they are able to talk to them, patch them, update them, and have those conversations with gamers, improve their games, change their games, and really just basically have the best platform for game creators and gamers. That's really the big goal. And by working with smaller teams, we have that intimate relationship and are able to make more effective and efficient changes faster and evolve the entire platform. Because content is king, that is really the bottom line. That's what we're focused on.

For more on how Sony is working with indie developers, check out our Sony's Indie Initiative Bonus Content hub.