Thomas Was Alone is possibly the most important game released on a Sony platform so far this year. I don’t wish to demean the obvious contributions to Sony’s platforms made by games like God of War Ascension, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider or Devil May Cry. Those are all great games and it’s not up to me to tell you which you should enjoy more or less than any other. But Thomas is more than just another game release on the calendar. Thomas is a symbol.
The clever, minimalist aesthetic approach to game design arrives this week for PlayStation Vita and it brings with it a promise. Not the promise of a few hours of enjoyable jumping around with Danny Wallace’s award-winning voice over in your ears – although you will get that. Thomas Was Alone promises that Sony have noticed a gap on their platform, found a solution that already exists and are applying it liberally. For PlayStation, the indie superstars are on the way.
Thomas Was Alone is a game made by one man, Mike Bithell, in his spare time. He’s humble, kind-spirited, generous and obviously very talented. He’s a perfect example of the unassuming indie developers populating the bleeding edge of game design creativity. He had an idea and he made it happen. He convinced some very talented people to work with him and when he was ready, he put his game on the internet.
What happened next was a surprise to Bithell who, in all his humility, didn’t really seem to know what to expect. Thomas Was Alone found a fan base, built a community and became incredibly popular among those who were clued up enough to be in on it from the early days. Its fame spread until it was available on most major PC distribution platforms. When it went up on Steam, Bithell sent free codes to everyone who had bought the game directly – so they had the Steam version too. He closed that email with the following: “instead of giving me any more of your hard earned money, go find another little game and give it a chance. People like you keep us going.”
And that’s the most pertinent fact in Thomas’ arrival on the PlayStation Network this week: its story is not unique. Yes, Mike Bithell seems to be a genuinely lovely guy. Yes, Thomas Was Alone is a fantastic game. Yes, it caught the attention of a few and spread to become popular for many. But there are a raft of other games that all have similar stories. They all have similar paths from idea to dream thtough hard graft and – eventually, perhaps with a light sprinkling of good fortune – to acclaim.
Since Thomas Was Alone’s announcement for PSN in February, there has been a seemingly unending stream of freshly announced Vita ports for games that those privileged PC gamers have been droning on about for months. We’re going to see Luftrausers, Spelunky, Hotline Miami, Divekick and others. We’ll soon have the Sportsfriends collection, Kickstarter funded and bundling together four diverse and highly innovative games. All of these will arrive in Thomas’ wake as games that have been seen and played elsewhere, gained some groundswell of support and been snapped up by Sony.
For the Vita, PlayStation Mobile – despite some possible misfires in how it’s marketed – offers such scope for smaller developers to put their ideas on a proper games console. Sony’s recent verve with indies isn’t simply allowing the existing indie darlings a new place to be fawned over. It’s allowing the future indie darlings a new place to be born.
This isn’t entirely new, Sony has a long history of backing less traditional games from largely unproven designers and developers. But the Indie Pub fund and their other forays into collaboration with quirky, spirited games without big publisher backing may simply end up as footnotes to what the company is doing now. This new devotion to indie developers feels like the start of something big. It feels like a former champion is suddenly ready to become a hero. Sony isn’t just lending its support to imagination and small team development, they’re banking on it.
Tighter working relationships are a big part of Sony’s indie future, and we should mention the astonishing work from Shahid Ahmad at Sony in this area. His idea was to make the Vita a new home for indie developers, his bosses gave him a green light and he’s worked tirelessly on making it a reality ever since. As Thomas Was Alone is released across PSN Stores, his dream is ending its gestation period and being born into the world.
But those close relationships are just one element of what’s happening. Sony recently opened its arms to Unity on all of its platforms, including the PlayStation 4. This makes an affordable development environment available for those who want to put their games on Sony machines. Thomas Was Alone needed help from Curve Studios to port it, future games made in Unity may not.
The design of the PlayStation 4 hardware, too, hints at Sony’s newfound faith in what indies can do for the platform. Sure, most probably won’t make use of that super fast RAM in the PS4 but the PC-like architecture is surely a boon for easier indie development and the packed-in Move abilities, cameras and touch surface on the new DualShock all provide inspiring tools for innovation.
With Thomas Was Alone, a new stronger wave of impressive indie support on PlayStation platforms starts. That’s important for indie developers and it’s great news for us as fans but it might just be the killer differential in Sony’s own next stage of evolution. Watch this space, the indies are coming.