Interview

'Solar Ash' developers reveal the secrets to indie success on PS5

“It’s a magical series of really intense structures that were built out over a number of years.”

- Alx Preston, Creative Director at Heart Machine

Discovering a new indie game on PlayStation 5 can be a real challenge for gamers unless the developers have a way to truly make it stand out.

Just last month, several indie developers went on the record to disclose their struggles getting their games proper recognition on PlayStation consoles. Developer Heart Machine has been fortunate enough to find a solution. Its first game, Hyper Light Drifter, was met with critical acclaim, and now the studio’s second title Solar Ash is a PlayStation exclusive featured in multiple Sony showcases.

“It wasn’t magic or happenstance,” Creative Director Alx Preston says of his studio’s relationship with Sony. “A lot of good old-fashioned networking went into building these relationships.”

Solar Ash is shaping up to be one of the most exciting games of 2021, taking advantage of the PS5’s hardware in subtle yet effective ways. “I would say we really painted the canvas evenly on interesting features,” Game Director Chelsea Hash tells Inverse. “If there was a more interesting way to do something, we did it.”

The result with Solar Ash is an ambitious and ethereal 3D action platformer where players control a Voidrunner named Rei trying to save her home. The game emphasizes speed while fighting giant enemies on par with the monstrous bosses from Shadow of the Colossus.

Ahead of Solar Ash’s appearance at July 28’s Annapurna Interactive Showcase, Inverse spoke with Preston and Hash about what it takes to be a successful indie developer on PS5.

The Hustle

Sony showcased Solar Ash at the PS5 reveal event in June 2020 and the State of Play in February 2021. For most indie developers, it’s far more difficult to get Sony’s attention.

Developers specifically cite Sony’s lack of communication as its biggest problem. With Hyper Light Drifter and now Solar Ash, Heart Machine has found success in working with Sony. Preston believes that’s the result of a lot of hard work and networking.

“I have been a part of Glitch City, which is a collective of indie crews, for a number of years, and we’ve all had good working relationships with the various platforms,” he says. “It’s a matter of engagement, networking, becoming comfortable with people, speaking with them about your game, going to conventions, and doing the legwork.”

While he said he couldn’t speak for other indie developer’s experiences, Preston stressed the importance of forming and maintaining a healthy relationship with platform holders like Sony. Still, there are some areas he thinks Sony could improve, especially for marginalized developers that struggle to network.

“There are probably better ways to do outreach to different communities,” he explains. “I’ve done community building for years, and it takes a lot of work to do that, especially for smaller or more marginalized developers. There are absolutely segments that don’t get the attention and assistance they need or deserve. Spotlight and amplify those messages because they are important, and the more diverse our creative spaces are, the better off we are.”

Playing with Power

Heart Machine successfully got Sony’s attention, but it still has to deliver a game worthy of it. During development, Heart Machine focused on what makes Solar Ash uniquely fun and expanded from there.

“A big part of the indie spirit with art is to not clout-chase on the future generations of hardware,” Hash says. Instead, she suggests developers focus on particular features and design aesthetics and then take advantage of the hardware to realize them fully. She specifically cites the game’s color palette.

“It wasn’t about millions of colors. It was about our favorite six colors,” Hash says. “As much as the art is about pushing the envelope on performance, it’s uniquely centralized to leave space for the energy to go towards gameplay.”

Players can even surf on top of the clouds, which Preston cites as an example of the invisible but essential systems that make Solar Ash stand out.

“There's a lot of technology that goes behind it that might be unexpected, and it looks cool,” he says. “But you probably don't quite understand the depth of plumbing that we had to do to make it work the way it does. It’s a magical series of really intense structures that were built out over a number of years.”

Solar Ash is a PlayStation console exclusive at launch.Annapurna Interactive

Most indie games like Solar Ash aren’t pushing into the limits of the PS5’s graphical fidelity with cartoonish art styles. But Preston believes that the console has other unique capabilities.

“Graphics have tapped out at a certain level of fidelity to where the PS4 to PS5 wasn’t the biggest jump,” Preston says. “The biggest things you’re getting are nicer frame rates, higher resolutions, and ray-tracing. But the SSDs are far more fascinating to me than graphical upgrades.”

Preston also enjoys the new DualSense controller’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, particularly how they were implemented in Astro’s Playroom. “I’m much more interested in the unique features you can't get elsewhere that push gaming forward in interesting, unexpected ways.”

By honing in on the and subtly using the PS5’s power to enhance them, Heart Machine has created a stand-out indie game for the platform. Still, it’s challenging to garner attention as an indie developer, and Heart Machine certainly has some advantages with Annapurna Interactive’s backing and the critically acclaimed Hyper Light Drifter under their belt.

Despite that, there are some clear lessons any indie developer can learn from Heart Machine. Avoiding clout-chasing, discovering how hardware can enhance your basic ideas, and putting in the time to craft a strong relationship with Sony are the secrets to thriving as an indie developer on PS5.

Solar Ash will be released on PC, PS4, and PS5 on October 26, 2021.

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