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Protocol Gaming
Your essential guide to the business of gaming.
Image: Sony

Sony’s hit-driven PlayStation platform is failing indie developers

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot

This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: Sony faces a barrage of criticism over treatment of indies and cross-generation pricing; a slew of high-profile game development figures are founding new studios; and EA saves its E3 announcements for later this month.

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The Big Story

Sony's hit-driven PlayStation platform is failing indie developers

Sony's console business is by most accounts firing all on cylinders, with record revenue and strong sales of the PlayStation 5 helping it maintain its industry lead. But the company's reputation among small developers isn't as strong as its platform success, and missteps with its approach to cross-generation software is starting to take a toll on player goodwill.

Sony faced a wave of criticism on social media last week. It started with a widely shared Twitter thread from Iain Garner in which the indie developer, using the thinly-veiled code phrase "Platform X," derided the company's lack of support for small game-makers.

  • "Platform X is super successful and awesome hardware but their backend and process is straight out of the early 00s," Garner wrote. "I have no idea how to succeed on this platform and they won't tell me. Even if I do succeed, they may screw me anyway."
  • Garner's thread was echoed by numerous others on Twitter. Those were followed by a string of reports featuring yet more voices from the indie community further criticizing Sony for putting too much focus on big-budget games and for its lack of transparency and communication.

Sony's relationship with indies has ebbed and flowed. While Microsoft's Xbox platform became an early indie haven during the era of the Xbox 360, Sony made up for lost time during the late PS3 and early PS4 years by helping usher in a golden age for indie games on PlayStation.

  • Sony secured exclusive rights to breakout hits like Psyonix's Rocket League, Campo Santo's Firewatch, Hello Games's No Man's Sky and Jonathan Blow's The Witness, to name just a few.
  • The financial support and visibility Sony brought to such games helped establish the company as a lifeline for small game-makers desperate for better marketing and discoverability.
  • Though it remains unclear why, the winds at PlayStation changed in the last few years as Sony began gearing up for the PS5. The company now relies far more heavily on major first-party studio hits, at the expense of the hidden gems now more at home on the Nintendo Switch and PC. Sony did not respond to a request for comment.

That wasn't the end of Sony's bruising. A separate controversy erupted around cross-generation upgrades, after Sony announced a next-gen upgrade and expansion for PlayStation exclusive Ghost of Tsushima that costs existing owners $30.

  • Game publishers have walked a fine line when it comes to cross-generation support, often giving out next-gen upgrades to existing owners for free, but in some cases slapping a price tag on additional content. It's all part of an ongoing dance between game companies and consumers about fairness and the changing economics of this new console generation.
  • Sony isn't giving away anything for free with Ghost of Tsushima, choosing instead to bundle an expansion and other upgrade perks as part of a convoluted series of add-ons with varying prices. How much you pay is contingent on which version of the game you've purchased and when. Players are not pleased, especially considering new PS5 buyers can pay $20 less than existing owners for the same bundle of content.
  • Other games have also become snared in cross-generational logistics. Final Fantasy VII Remake and GreedFall were given away for free as part of Sony's monthly PlayStation Plus subscriptions, but those who claimed those titles through PS Plus are not eligible for PS5 upgrades.

Sony has long enjoyed a reputation for making stellar games and exquisite hardware, with the PlayStation platform dedicated to the kinds of experiences that are rare to find in an industry dominated by free-to-play and fickle trends. That's translated to massive success over the last decade, with over 110 million PS4s sold and some of the bestselling games of the last generation.

But Sony's shrewd business tactics and increased focus on producing big hits, combined with a seemingly blasé attitude toward consumer frustrations, have turned it into a corporate bad guy in the eyes of some in the gaming community. Indies are fed up and speaking out, while consumers are tired of paying premiums just to enjoy games they already own on their new PS5. PlayStation may be on top, but Sony is learning that it takes more than just big blockbuster games to dispel its growing aura of corporate greed.

Overheard

  • "One of the unspoken taxes of being in game dev is having to move frequently, especially in AAA. Since I started in pro game dev, I've lived in Raleigh, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Chicago, LA, Austin, San Diego, San Francisco, LA again, and Seattle again. That's 10 moves in 27 years." —Game developer Laralyn McWilliams opened up on Twitter last week about the often unspoken mental and physical taxes the game industry takes on its workers. Game developers in the U.S. typically shuffle between major cities due to the industry's disjointed geographic layout and the lack of safety nets protecting employees from studio closures and layoffs.
  • "I think I originally pitched [George] Lucas in 2009 and I've been trying to find a way to make that [since]. And I think the work Machine Games have done, they're just phenomenal developers and storytellers. And when I started talking to them about it, it was a good fit. And we got to the opportunity to talk to Lucas and Disney about it and they were super excited." —Todd Howard, executive producer at Bethesda Game Studios, revealed the origins of MachineGames's upcoming Indiana Jones adaptation in an interview with The Telegraph.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Recently, Micron announced new memory and storage innovations across its portfolio based on its industry-leading 176-layer NAND and 1α (1-alpha) DRAM technology. But what does "1α" mean, and just how amazing is it?

Learn more

Lootbox

  • On Protocol: Sony announced two gaming acquisitions last week, starting with the purchase of Returnal developer Housemarque. The second was Nixxes, a company specializing in creating PC ports. Both signal Sony's willingness to grow its first-party ecosystem to ensure future console exclusives and control over where else those exclusives end up.
  • Remedy is expanding the Control universe. Remedy Entertainment announced it's making a new co-op spinoff of hit sci-fi narrative game Control codenamed "Condor," under a special arrangement with its old publishing partner 505 Games.
  • A new studio from a Mass Effect veteran. Casey Hudson, known best for his role as game director on BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy, revealed on Twitter that he's started his own game development company, Humanoid Studios. The independent team is working on a new title not tied to any existing franchise.
  • Tencent spins up yet another game development group. The Chinese gaming giant is continuing its streak of investing in the U.S. with a new Los Angeles-based studio called Uncapped Games, The Verge reported last week. The team of former Blizzard staffers worked on Diablo and StarCraft and are now building a new real-time strategy game for Tencent's Lightspeed & Quantum division.
  • Mobile games have earned $45 billion so far this year. New data from Sensor Tower shows the mobile game industry generating nearly 18% more revenue in the first six months of 2021 compared with last year, with Apple's App Store accounting for 57% of that.
  • Turkey's mobile gaming industry lands another unicorn. Istanbul-based Dream Games, maker of match-3 hit Royal Match, is the latest Turkish game maker to reach a $1 billion valuation following a $155 million series B round, VentureBeat reported. Turkey has been producing hugely successful mobile developers for years now, and Zynga has snatched up almost all of them.
  • EA may include real college athletes in future football games. EA is in the early stages of figuring out how it can incorporate real college football players into its upcoming EA Sports College Football, Axios reported last week, following the landmark decision from the NCAA permitting college athletes to profit off their likenesses.
  • You can now invest in the metaverse. Seven individuals across various industries have started a new exchange fund on the New York Stock Exchange dedicated to tracking the growth of the metaverse, The Washington Post reported. Numerous game companies, including Roblox and Fortnite maker Epic, are eagerly competing to create the metaverse, believed to be the next-generation version of the internet.
  • Yet another new game studio, this one from a GTA legend. Dan Houser, known best for co-founding Rockstar Games and helping create and write almost all of its major titles, quietly registered a new company in the U.K. called Absurd Ventures in Games, Polygon reported. Houser left Rockstar earlier this year, though his brother and fellow co-founder, Sam Houser, remains Rockstar's president.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Recently, Micron announced new memory and storage innovations across its portfolio based on its industry-leading 176-layer NAND and 1α (1-alpha) DRAM technology. But what does "1α" mean, and just how amazing is it?

Learn more

Look Out For

EA gets its post-E3 spotlight

Before the pandemic, major game publishers would all convene in Los Angeles for a week in June to try and break through the avalanche of gaming news to generate as much marketing buzz as possible. Yet one month after the second all-virtual E3, Electronic Arts is gearing up to enjoy its time in the spotlight with little else in the hype cycle to compete with.

The publisher's showcase, called EA Play Live, will be a multiday affair, with a big keynote event on July 22. EA says not to expect any news about new installments in Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but there just may be news about a new Dead Space title.

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends and colleagues to subscribe here, and send tips, feedback and ideas to nstatt@protocol.com. See you next week.

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