Why we nearly axed our first PS Vita project
Thursday, 1st January 1970 at 1:00 am
In this republished blog post, Icon Games' Richard Hill-Whittall explains the turbulent first few months working on Sony's new handheld
It was with a fair degree of trepidation we awaited the results of our Stage One Vita concept approval (or International Product Assessment (IPA) as it is called).
We have recently developed a number of Minis for PSP, which I covered in detail here. Sony Europe have been wonderful to work with, they have really got to grips with working with smaller indie developers in a way Sony of old never had.
After a little badgering, and the help and support of our SCEE Account Manager we were over the moon to get accepted onto the Vita developer program and have spent the last few months developing two Vita titles; Build’n Race Extreme and Pub Games.
I was anxious about concept approval, but quietly optimistic given how the games industry has changed since the PS2 era/early days of PSP. Since the introduction of iOS and the AppStore Indies have been producing amazing stuff; empowered by the lack of constraints and the creative freedom a platform such as iOS offers. It seemed to me that perhaps the industry had matured enough and concept approvals and harsh platform holder restrictions were behind us.
A Little History
I’ve struggled with concept approvals in the past, and have always believed them to be unfair, causing smaller studios in particular major financial problems and restricting more creative indie games.
Let me give you an actual example of just how hard this has hit us in the past. In 2005 we signed a deal with a small US publisher to publish two of our games (Vertigo and Pool Hall Pro) in North America on PS2 and PSP. The deal was negotiated by the rather excellent Jeff Hilbert, and was worth $450,000 for us. This was huge – the games were complete, already released in PAL territories and ready to go into SCEA QA.
Sony refused concept approval, and the deal was dead – no negotiation – finished. Overnight we lost $450,000 – which for a small studio would have drastically improved our position and helped us to invest more money into future development. And these were games already released in the PAL region with some fairly good reviews.
This hit so bloody hard, it took a long time for me personally to get over the set-back and focus on new developments, especially as our cash-flow projections had been destroyed in one step.
So – how is this fair? We had the deal signed, and while they weren’t stellar games there were hundreds of titles out there with much lower review scores on PSP & PS2. These were solid games; especially considering how tight our development budget restrictions were.
The difference was we were a small UK indie studio, SCEA didn’t know us and our publisher wasn’t one of the bigger publishers. Effectively, we were screwed before we even submitted.
For a long time I didn’t even want to consider working with Sony again.
Since then however we started working on Minis with Sony and it has been such a positive experience; we have worked with some great people at SCEE and SCEA, such as our Account Managers who have been supportive every step of the way during our Minis development phase.
To-date we have released 5 Minis; we’ve had some great reviews and they have (for Minis) sold fairly well. We also self-published on PSP PSN in North America; Vertigo and Pool Hall Pro (YES – the ones they turned down in 2005)!
We have had a blast on PSP and are still going strong with two new Minis in development.
I Need To Do What!?
Being a small indie I have to be really careful with my budget – we self-publish and develop so only actually earn money once a game has been released and the sales revenue kicks in. It is still relatively early days yet for us with self-publishing and we are learning all the time what works, what sells well, what doesn’t, and so on…
The one thing we always know is what we can afford to spend on a title. After having our fingers burned badly in the past (such as the example above) we are cautious on what features to include; if we run out of money we have no safety net, and adding too many features to a title for a brand new platform is a recipe for disaster. This is probably our main strength and it has consistently allowed us to weather storms and continue developing games while learning from our mistakes and evolving as a studio.
We carefully considered our concept documents. We included plenty of features, game modes, while also planning to fully utilise the performance of the Vita and its unique features.
But things went a little wrong.
[SCEIPA] Submission feedback
The feedback was scathing; essentially Sony asked us to completely re-design the game and gameplay (particularly in the case of Build’n Race Extreme). Essentially they provided us with a mini-GDD of design changes, which rather spectacularly required just about every element of the game to be reworked. Their concern was that the racing game genre will be crowded on Vita.
Now while some of the ideas were good these were ideas for another game; someone else’s game – not the game we have been working on the past few months. It is also completely impractical given my budget – and what if we re-design and they still are not happy or feel we haven’t gone in the direction they want – what do we do then? Would we be aiming for continually shift goal-posts?
Oh – and they also want online multiplayer even though we already included downloadable track sharing and Leader boards features.
My initial reaction was panic – and I strongly considered pulling out of Vita development there and then. Fortunately SCEE were very supportive and within two days a meeting was lined up to discuss what to do next.
The meeting with SCEE was very positive – IPA isn’t like it once was and while certain territories may be harsher, the whole process is dealt with through your own territory. The SCEE focus is more on giving advice that may help with a title’s market appeal, rather than a checklist of Vita features. Other regions however are not as enlightened!
So although the original reports back were scathing, there is a lot more hope than I thought after first reading them…
AND it seems that online multiplayer isn’t too big-a-deal code wise as we are already supporting Ad-Hoc MP it isn’t much more extra work. So we’ve decided to go for it and add it. It is more QA hassle, but after Wii LOT check how bad can it be! The main reason we are adding it is because I think without it both titles would be reviewed less favourably, and I’ve been on the receiving end of a few poor reviews and this is something we are really trying to improve.
Additionally, certain elements of my original concept documentation didn’t really emphasise the differences over our past (less favourably) reviewed Wii titles and our new Vita games. I think they were under the impression that Build’n Race Extreme was a quick port of a poor reviewing Wii title (http://www.gamerankings.com/wii/958818-build-n-race/index.html).
If you have an iOS title and it reviews well I understand there will be less of an issue in it being a port.
ALSO, crucially, they are accepting titles of various different sizes and scope, which was encouraging.
Right now I am going to rework my concept docs to explain a few things a little more clearly. I will be adding online MP but beyond that not much – just clarifying a little better what is planned.
Not really any reworking or extensive redesigning needed – so the team is happy and we can make the games we want to make.
All in all a positive meeting and while I still hate the thought of IPA, it has changed, which is a huge relief!
I’ll keep you posted on our resubmission progress…
I would add that if you’re on the fence about Vita, I think it is worth a try; at the very least submit a paper based Stage 1 concept (the second and final stage is the Stage 2 playable)
Oh – one other thing…
Sony – Remember the PSP?
My final point is to hope that Sony hasn’t forgotten how badly the content restrictions on PSP damaged the format – rules such as the 30% different content over PS2. What could (and should) have been a huge success was hampered by Sony themselves, closing the door on many titles and shutting Indies out completely.
Let the market decide – poor games won’t sell and poor studios will fold. The consumer should be given the chance to decide, not second guessed, and iOS has proven that the consumer is open to a lot of different game styles and approaches and this has allowed innovation to flourish in a way it hasn’t done for a good many years.
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