Gaming

Why an aloof Sony remains an enigma for indie game developers

“If there's no path to success on your platform, then why does it exist?”

A startling claim from an indie dev rocked PlayStation nation last week.

In a Twitter thread, Iain Garner laid bare the difficulties of working with PlayStation as an indie developer. Garner, founder of Neon Doctrine, didn’t name names, but replies downthread and elsewhere on Twitter made it crystal clear which company he was talking about.

“Platform X gives developers no ability to manage their games,” Garner accuses. “In order to get promotion you must jump through hoops, beg and plead for any level of promotion.”

When Garner says “get promotion,” he means prominent placement on the PlayStation Store homepage or inclusion in high-profile discount sales. For a small studio, discoverability can be the vital difference between keeping the lights on or laying people off. These hoops, Garner says elsewhere in the thread, include:

  • A $25,000 fee to be featured on the PlayStation Store
  • An invite-only system for discounts
  • Non-responsive account managers

The hours that followed saw a swift torrent of outrage blogging and posting, but is working with PlayStation as difficult as it sounds? Inverse spoke with Garner and three other indie developers about their experiences working with PlayStation, and the perspectives they shared were more ambivalent than the online dogpiling indicates.

While some say their experiences working with PlayStation bear little resemblance to Garner’s account, all acknowledge the platform has limitations in helping players discover indie games.

Between July 1 and July 6, Inverse emailed nine Sony representatives for comment about opportunities and resources for indie devs over the course of reporting this story. Though one representative acknowledged the July 1 request, all nine did not reply by July 6.

Garner tells Inverse his rant was “sparked by a really shitty meeting that made me realize how fucked up the situation has become.” He adds that he was “very surprised and kind of amazed by the mostly supportive response.”

Above all, Garner wants to see creators given more avenues to succeed. That means platform holders like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo need to make tools to help sell games.

“We don't need charity,” he says, “but we do need a path to success. If there's no path to success on your platform, then why does it exist?”

Garner says Sony’s processes and procedures are dated and insists his experience has been “better with everyone else.”

PlayStation’s sacred symbols are on display here, but some indie developers feel their relationship with the hardware maker isn’t quite so sacred.Joe Brady/Getty Images

Do other developers have an equally challenging relationship with PlayStation? An oppositional but still understanding voice on the subject is Luc Bernard, director of Light in the Darkness, an indie video game experience about the Holocaust written by a survivor.

“I have been very happy with PS5 sales of our games and that my experience is that my account manager is fantastic [and] responds all the time,” Bernard tells Inverse.

What’s more, given that his game deals with difficult subject matter, Bernard credits PlayStation “for being the only platform so far allowing me to release this.”

“Nintendo won't even answer my emails about it,” he says.

While Bernard has developed a strong working relationship with the North American branch of PlayStation over the past six years, he agrees that discoverability in the indie space is still an issue.

“Overall, it has become harder as an indie since there are so many indie games that are releasing now,” he admits. “But I've been so happy with releasing on PS5, and I had no marketing budget.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Thunderful Games CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson, whose group of studios has worked with Nintendo to publish the Steamworld series among many other titles. “I don't think we've been worse off on [PlayStation] than any of the others,“ he told us via email. “I think it's hard to ‘move the needle’ on any of the platforms today. Algorithms govern Steam, and Nintendo claims to do the same. It's back to basics: build great games, and they will come.”

Matthew White, CEO of indie publisher Whitethorn Games, also takes a pragmatic view on the topic. He revealed on Twitter that less than three percent of his company’s sales are on PlayStation, in part due to discoverability shortcomings. He also said it often takes months for account managers to respond to emails and took eight months for his company to receive development kits from the hardware maker. White tells Inverse, “the biggest issue is communication and access to data [and] tools,” while “discoverability on [the] platform is [a] close second.”

A collection of trailers highlighting PlayStation’s new and future indie offerings.

These factors make PlayStation the “dead last” platform in terms of support. “Our partners at Epic, Steam, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony do try their very best to be supportive and kind,” he adds, “it just feels like Sony isn't fully invested into the 'scene.'”

Like Garner, White also made it clear his intent is not to dogpile on Sony but to foster a creative community with “more direct and engaged communication with developer partners” across the board.

All these statements, however, suggest PlayStation can improve the way it works with indie developers. The question that remains, though, is why these shortcomings exist in the first place.

White posits as a “total guess” that the lack of staff and resources at PlayStation are at least partially to blame. “Everyone feels exhausted, burned out, and slow,” he says.

Speaking anonymously, another indie developer seconded staffing concerns, referencing the 2016 departure of Adam Boyes, who was a major influence in establishing Sony’s relationships with the indie community leading up to the launch of PlayStation 4. That developer tells Inverse, “Sony should really consider hiring people. They have not recovered from all of the people who left around the time that [Adam] Boyes did.”

Three of the four developers we spoke to maintain that some of the blame may be regional, with PlayStation Europe cited as a challenging group to work with.

Despite his ties to North America, White believes “certain issues are definitely regional.” At the same time, our anonymous indie developer added, “SIEE [Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe] is worse in almost every way imaginable.” To Garner, who kickstarted the conversation and works with PlayStation Europe, “region splitting to dodge responsibility is a flimsy shield.”

Garner says Sony has responded to his concerns since his Twitter thread went viral but declined to detail what was discussed.

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