Sony’s answer to Apple’s blossoming App Store, PlayStation Mobile, kicked off with such a strong, well supported launch that it was always going to struggle to maintain momentum. Originally designed to cater for both major developers and “snack sized” titles from bedroom coders, the service has shifted since gamescom last year into something that appears to only attract indies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but where are the likes of SEGA and TECMO, two big names previously “behind” the platform?
Brighton-based Futurlab pushed PSM (as it’s known) fairly hard though, at least at first. A trio of launch titles (including cute puzzler Slidin’ Beats) suitably priced meant that they picked up a fair amount of the initial traction when the service first appeared. And the initial batch of titles from elsewhere, including indie darling Super Crate Box, represented a diverse enough offering. “We’ve had a good experience with PSM,” Futurlab’s James Marsden told TheSixthAxis recently, “as our games were there at the launch window.”
Player Three’s Luigi Fumero agreed that being there on day one was crucial. “Our game Loot The Land was launched on the day PSM debuted worldwide,” he told me during an interview last week. “SCEA (Sony’s American arm) helped us to be part of the first batch of games, released before PSM was publicly available so they also put some effort into advertising it. Sony in general is very good giving you space on their blog to talk about your game and to interact with the users,” Fumero added, a sentiment I’ve heard others mention elsewhere.
Initial feelings were that the service would be rather special, and Sony were well up for attracting developers. “The suggestion to start PSM development originally came from the guys over at SCEE who were very enthusiastic and supportive about the prospect of us bringing some of our games over to the programme,” says Laughing Jackal’s Ross Brierley, speaking to me a little while back. “When we looked further into the platform ourselves, we were very excited about the potential the platform holds and we signed up as a developer as soon as we could.”
“Anything that allows more people to play our games on so many devices is a very exciting prospect so we’re of course delighted to feature on PSM so early on in the format’s life. Bringing our games to mobile is something that we’ve been keen on for a long time and in fact several of our minis were designed to be as much fun to play on mobile as they are on PSP so this is the perfect opportunity for us,” Brierley added. Laughing Jackal have so far opted to update existing minis games for the PSM platform, enabling the studio to push out some visual updates whilst keeping overall costs as low as possible.
But whilst Sony seem clued up enough to offer that most valuable space on their official channels, it’s this writer’s opinion that almost nothing is being done elsewhere, and that’s nowhere more apparent than on the actual Store. Fumero nods. “While on one hand I am quite happy with what Sony has done with the game, I am not sure they have done enough to advertise PSM as a whole,” he says. “There was no mention of it anywhere even the day before launch. Not a single press release.” Press releases that, if spread wide enough, would have highlighted the launch of the service.
In fact, I remember trying to guess which games would release on the service the day before it all launched because Sony hadn’t said and a couple of developers I asked had no idea. In any situation, this was ridiculous.
I asked Luigi if he thought Sony were doing enough. “Not really,” came the reply. “I don’t think they are doing anything wrong per se, I just think there was no need for an extra platform/channel.”
PlayStation Mobile is – and here’s one of the main problems with it – quite distinct from the rest of the PlayStation Vita titles on the Store. It has its own category, away from the ‘Games’ menu, for starters, and that’s not to mention the functional limitations like proper PSN support (and Trophies) that really should have factored in by now. But we’ll come back to that later.
“I think they are doing a better job at making it easier for indies to get on PS Vita and do native games,” Luigi told me, which isn’t that surprising. “Also the choice of language is not ideal,” he added. “If they wanted to attract small iOS developers they should have gone for a C++ SDK [software development kit] to make it easier for people to port their games.”
However, the biggest issue I’ve found when speaking to developers is that the current ecosystem just isn’t good enough. “PlayStation Mobile games should show up in user searches for PS Vita games on the web store and the PS Vita storefront,” Marsden said to me, adding that “PSM games should show up as new PS Vita game releases, with an option for the user to filter results to ‘just native’ or ‘just PSM’ or ‘PSM and Native’” He also pointed out that the Android application should be in the Google Play marketplace – “side loading is a barrier that many users will never get over,” he stated.
“Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games platform died a death because the platform holder did little to showcase games worthy of attention in areas with higher footfall than the XBLIG area,” James continued. “Making the above mentioned changes would prevent that from happening to PSM in my opinion, as high quality PSM games would be placed under the noses of PS Vita owners looking for quality games for their platform.”
Super Icon’s Claire Hill-Whittall, responsible for business development at the studio, agreed. “We’ve had a fair bit of coverage for Pixel, primarily on smaller sites/blogs – but we still see on forums people who have no idea about the game, or really PSM in general,” she said, speaking in a brief chat last week. “I think right now the PSM user base is fairly small, and there is a real challenge in expanding that. I can only conclude that this is because PSM just isn’t visible enough currently.” It seems that the general consensus is that shoving PSM games to the side under their own rather vague submenu just isn’t conducive to users finding them at all.
But perhaps the real issue is that, like Minis, PlayStation Mobile games don’t have Trophies or PSN leaderboards – two things that a good chunk of gamers no doubt find essential. James Marsden’s thoughts on this are well known to say the least – “lack of trophies in minis is probably the single biggest turn-off for most gamers,” he told me, “at least that’s the impression we get from feedback on our games” – so it’s baffling that Mobile launched with the same restriction, especially when the apparent competition in iOS titles have had integrated achievements, leaderboards and challenges for some time with Game Center.
Luigi Fumero agrees. “Those features would definitely help by attracting more players,” he told me, although added that “Sony would need to be more involved in evaluating the final games or the risk would be in devaluing the trophies. They should not become as uninteresting as Apple’s Game Center achievements.” Claire Hill-Whittall said that Trophy and leaderboard support is “absolutely essential”, saying the lack of them is “damaging” and pointed out that “they need to be super easy for the developer to implement too; as they are with iOS.”
It’s my opinion that sales of PSM games would pick up with Trophy support, too.
Sony are apparently working on Trophy support – we’ve had nods off the record from at least one developer (not mentioned in this article) and Sony have strongly hinted at an eventual update to the service that would bring the virtual silverware to PSM, but it’s been a long time coming already, and retrospective updates to existing PSM purchases might not happen if the costs in doing so are too high. But even with PSM fully up to speed and the titles mixed in with Vita games, would that really be enough to reverse the somewhat negative impression the service has attracted?
“I definitely think Sony are trying, but I do worry it is too little and too late at times,” said Hill-Whittall. “The performance issues with the SDK are a problem, although it is improving.” The Super Icon spokesperson also mentioned that PSM isn’t exactly available everwhere – “also, a really odd issue that we have heard a lot about is the lack of availability of PSM in so many regions, people are angry about this – and so far Sony haven’t really said a lot on the subject.”
And on sales figures? “Sales revenue currently would not sustain any sort of development,” Claire replied. “If we were to continue developing games for PSM we would have to do so at a considerable loss in the short to medium term, and as yet it is very unknown if this will improve or not over a longer time frame. It is unlikely given what we have seen so far that revenue would ever cover costs, unless those costs were absolutely minimal.” Luigi Fumero agreed, simply saying that “sales have not been very impressive.”
“We’ve come from PS minis where sales aren’t going to make anyone rich,” noted Marsden, “so our expectations were pretty well managed, so we’ve seen the kind of sales we were expecting for a new platform that hasn’t found its stride yet in terms of fitting into the PlayStation Network properly.”
From what I’ve heard, developers want more coverage on PSM, and a dedicated site for the service would be much appreciated. “Maybe a mix of community and storefront kind of website,” suggested Fumero. “Where some buzz can be created not only for the end users but also within the development community.”
“This, and other promotions to boost visibility will be essential if PSM is to flourish,” noted Hill-Whittall. “Currently it just feels very ‘niche’.”
Note: We approached developers for this feature choosing almost randomly from a list of those working on the service. If there are any other PlayStation Mobile developers out there who would like to have their say, we encourage them to get in touch.