How easy is it to build your first Vita game?

How easy is it to build your first Vita game?
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

April 13th 2012 at 10:00AM

According to a number of Ubisoft studios, it's a surprisingly welcoming process

The cliché about developing for Sony platforms is a pervasive myth.

It’s something we’ve all heard time and again, and even consumers with an interest in the making of games are aware of it.

The stereotype? Developing games for a PlayStation brand system is hard; very hard indeed. While there’s a degree of hyperbole to the accusation, for first-timers in particular, developing for the PS2 and PS3 was – and is – infamously testing.

Surely then, the logic must apply to the PS Vita? Inaccessibly powerful machines, after all, have become something of a speciality of Sony’s. At least that’s what the company’s detractors would have you believe.

However, speak with many of the teams who have now completed Vita projects, and you’ll hear something pleasantly surprising.

It may be that making a game for Sony’s new handheld is – relative to the typically elaborate process of development – a little on the easy side.

PURE AND SIMPLE

Take the experiences of senior staff at the various Ubisoft teams with Vita projects in the can, for example. For Ubisoft Reflections, Ubisoft Casablanca and Q Entertainment, making games for the handheld marked a big turning point in their perception of Sony’s platforms.

“The PlayStation 2, which was a very powerful system for its time, and the PlayStation 3, which continued that trend with the cell processor and the asymmetrical multi-core approach, were some of the most powerful and complex machines that the market has ever seen,” explains Ubisoft Reflections director of technology Michael Troughton, who worked on Vita releases Rayman: Origins and Lumines Electric Symphony.

“Developers had to really apply themselves if they wanted to get the most out of them.”

Now, says Troughton, that trend has been bucked, thanks to the Vita adopting a far more ‘conventional’ structure.

Boasting a symmetrical four-core CPU and PowerVR GPU in a single SoC, or ‘system-on-chip’, the device appears to deliver impressive power without obstructing the work of developers eager to build games for the system.

“The Vita has been relatively ‘easy’ to develop for,” agrees James Mielke, Q Entertainment’s Lumines producer.

While Mielke admits a lack of programming experience makes it hard for him to delve into the most technical of details, he has observed his team make very quick work of establishing a build of their game within the Vita development environment.

“When we started Lumines Electronic Symphony we were actually able to begin development on PC, and once the Vita dev kits were in our hands, we were able to get the game moved over to our dev units very quickly,” he adds.

And over at Ubisoft Casablanca, where producer Boujemaa El Hiba worked on Rayman: Origins, there is equal positivity.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the development environment on Vita,” admits El Hiba. “They are fast and really easy to use. The documentation is also good.”

IN PROFILE

Such a wealth of optimism is encouraging, but it will take more than familiar architecture to convince some developers that it’s worth betting budget, manpower and resource on making a game for the Vita.

Sceptics, however, would be wise to consider the Vita development environment, for it is that, say the Ubisoft staff, that is a large part of the reason they were so besotted by the platform.

“The work we did at Reflections on Rayman Origins and Lumines was targeted at performance optimisations, and the powerful profiling tools available such as Razor were invaluable,” offers Troughton.

“Razor goes far beyond any tools available to other mobile platform developers. It allows you to drill down in minute detail, or examine performance at a higher level, and because a lot of the performance capturing is done in hardware with a memory pool disjoint from the development ram it’s quite non-intrusive.”

And, says Troughton, with Sony relying on SPU processing power to drive the audio capabilities of the PS3, the fact that they opted to include a dedicated codec engine to drive the audio on Vita makes for an interesting decision that enables for the potential of an especially detailed sound experience.

“Sony have backed this up with some excellent tools and libraries, such as Sulpha, the audio debugging and analysis tool,” Troughton suggests.

El Hiba, who also sings the praises of Razor – in his case for its ability with CPU and GPU and the help it provided in hitting 60fps – has equally kind things to say of SN System’s SN-DBS, which he says saved his team a substantial amount of time with its distributed build abilities.

To paint too kind a picture of the experience of developing for Vita, though, would be to do those considering the platform a disservice, for it is not without difficulty.

Back touch pads and other eccentric hardware features, after all, don’t make for an unquestionably simple development process.

“One of our biggest challenges was wrestling with all of the new functionality – Near, the Vita’s social tools, etcetera – while various testing environments, like a useable 3G network, were still in various stages of completion and readiness,” admits Mielke.

“Fortunately we had a lot of excellent technical support from our publisher Ubisoft, who lent their expertise in a variety of areas to help our programmers with optimising the game’s performance.

"Sony’s developer network was also a huge help for us in tackling any technical issues we had along the way.”

APPLE IN ITS EYE

And it is that functionality, of course, that provides opportunity in abundance.

A pair of touchscreens, dual analogue sticks, twin cameras, a magnetometer and the Vita’s various other functions make for a potent combination.

This gives developers a potential surfeit of options in contrast to the tablet and mobile platforms that, while having a far higher installed user base, offer crowded marketplaces and typically a lack of physical buttons.

In fact, according to Troughton, there’s another significant factor that, from one perspective, makes developing for Vita ‘easier’ than making games for that bastion of accessibility, iOS.

“Not only is PS Vita a powerful system in its own right, but as a fixed platform it’s much easier for developers to really push the hardware as they only have one set of specs to worry about, rather than several iterations of iOS hardware, or the minefield of different Android hardware configurations,” says the quite possibly smitten Ubisoft Reflections director of technology.

“The developer tools and libraries also make it possible to get much closer to the metal than other mobile platforms.”

If Troughton and his globally scattered colleagues are to be believed, then the Vita really may be Sony’s first console to finally put an end to those aforementioned clichés.

And if that happens, it could be the Vita’s saving grace. If the platform has one key challenge, it is building a software catalogue both varied and expansive enough to tempt consumers to put down their smartphone and pick up a device physically centred around gaming; a tough task given mobile’s apparent domination of the market.

A user friendly, low friction developer environment, in conjunction with the likes of Sony’s indie-centric Pub Fund, which matches the development costs of a game project in return for varying degrees of exclusivity, could mean that the PS Vita can attract a variety of studios from beyond the realm of the triple-A studio giants.

Aside from giving the new handheld a fighting chance at a time when mobile gaming has overshadowed handhelds in the consumer conscience, it means through simplicity, Sony’s Vita might just present a significant new opportunity for developers across the world.