Unbox Dev Speaks About PlayStation And The End Of The Indie Goldrush

The first half of 2017 has really highlighted the shifting sands that indie developers face in trying to turn their passions into a living. The landscape is constantly evolving, from Steam’s replacement of Greenlight with a more direct system, Xbox touting numerous impactful indie games as (timed) exclusives at E3, Nintendo courting their so-called Nindies, and then Jim Ryan’s statements about a decreasing importance of indie games for PlayStation.

Today marks the release of Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure for PS4, Xbox One and with an updated version on PC, an indie platformer about the last word in parcel delivery… self-delivering boxes! We spoke to Prospect Games MD Andrew Bennison about the problems facing indie developers in this climate. You can listen to our 30 minute chat as a podcast, or keep on reading below.

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Jim Ryan’s comments to GamesIndustry.biz that sparked our chat with Andrew said, quite plainly, that while “There was a time and a place” to foster indie gaming on stage a few years ago, “it is less relevant now.” Sony’s focus during E3 was particularly narrow, with a string of trailers and announcements for a short 60 minute presentation, which surprisingly omitted the likes of Gran Turismo, Knack 2 and PlayLink. It meant there wasn’t space for indie gaming either. “We have VR to talk about now, for example,” Jim Ryan said.

It’s a case of the public position starting to reflect the behind the scenes changes in attitude that I have long heard of and suspected. “I think the public statements come about because things are changing internally,” Andrew said to us. “I think that for all of the platform holders and for everybody in the industry, right now is an extremely difficult time. The market’s just flooded across the board and the sort of indie goldrush has really come to an end. The accessibility of the mobile market has been completely saturated now, the accessibility of Steam has been saturated.

“Every platform has had their Indie phase – Nintendo’s kind of having it now, to be fair. There are market trends that come and go, and so absolutely, some platforms are now more into indies than others. Sony’s flat out said it after E3 when people went, ‘Well where are all the indie titles?’ and they’ve gone, ‘Well, VR’s our thing.’ It would be very easy to have a knee jerk reaction and say Sony’s kicking indies to the kerb and they don’t care about them, but to be fair, they’re a gigantic business with a huge amount of responsibility and they also have one of the only VR peripherals out on the market that’s actually selling. They need content for that hardware to drive further sales.”

There is, however, a hint of irony to this shift away from championing indie games, as much of the game library for PlayStation VR and virtual reality as a whole has come from the experimentation and willingness to risk livelihoods on developing for these platforms. Ryan highlighted that VR is a key focus, and there were a number of VR titles at E3

Andrew said, “They’ve got to focus on VR, so maybe indies will be their primary content creators for the platform, but that cuts out all the indies who aren’t doing VR, have no desire to do VR or have recognised that VR across the board is not making anybody any money right now in the way that we all thought it would by this point. Why would I as an indie dev want to take that risk? Investing in very specialised hardware and trying to target a very niche target in the grand scheme of things, when there’s so many more potential options out there, with the biggest one right now being the Nintendo Switch. That is the most fertile land for games developers in the market right now. It looks great and there’s no content on a platform that’s selling out in every region across the world!”

Perhaps one of the catalysts for this shift is the change in personnel at Sony, with both Shahid Kamal Ahmed and Adam Boyes having been real champions internally of indie games during the PSP, PS3 and PS Vita eras. Both have moved on from the company in the last few years.

“We know that there’s been a lot of changes internally, with Strategic Content basically completely shut down and quite a few influential figures from that department having left ahead of time anyway,” Andrew recalled. “The guys who basically created the indie renaissance for Sony, who brought in all those indie titles, they’ve all moved on to different companies. Those points of contact have even gone.”

It’s not just a step away from highlighting indie developers, but also the fact that what was once a simple market with just a single set of hardware to target for Sony and Microsoft has suddenly become more complex with the PlayStation 4 Pro and the soon to be released Xbox One X.

“With Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure, we’re essentially just leveraging that extra power to make it run a little better. On both platforms it will still be capped at 30fps, but we’re able to do a bit more on those beefed up platforms than on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. […]

“The advantage of a closed system is you know what the baselines are. You know what that platform can handle, so that’s great, and I actually think that the fact that we have beefed up PlayStations and Xboxes in the long term is a bad thing. […] All of a sudden now we have two versions of every console; these are closed systems that are fragmenting to the point that all their advantages, in my opinion, are kind of slipping away. I understand why they’re doing it, to try and keep up with a rapidly moving technological scene, but I do wonder for the future of these platforms if they’re going to keep doing iterative upgrades, because as developers it can make our lives very hard.”

Emphasising what all of this actually means, Andrew stated powerfully that “Most indie developers at our level can only afford to work on one thing at a time. That thing has to sell or our companies are gone, we’re done. Most indie developers are passionate enough that our livelihoods, our lives are on the line with this. You had the Cuphead developers remortgaging their house, we [Prospect Games] have taken out loans, invested our own money into this and done friends and family rounds. There’s a lot riding on this. We need to see success, we need to see that we’re going to make a profit.

“If a platform is basically coming out and almost saying you are yesteryear, all of the people who could help you get on that platform are gone, then I’ve got to go where the money is, as with any business.”

Thanks to Andrew for speaking with us. You can catch up with Andrew and Prospect Games on Twitter @ProspectGamesUnbox: Newbie’s Adventure is out for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and being updated on PC today, with a Nintendo Switch release planned for later this year.

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  1. There was a point where it seemed nearly every game released on ps4 was indie, which made searching the store for something new somewhat difficult for someone like me who rarely plays anything that’s not AAA.
    If quantity of indie games goes down on ps4 and quality increases, I’d be happy.
    Do feel bad for indie devs though, but like he said they need to go where the money’s at for them and is that’s Nintendo then there you go.

  2. Great interview Tef and thanks to Andrew for a sincere and genuinely interesting insight into the world of small indies. Good luck to you, I’ll definitely pick up a copy of Unbox on Switch when it arrived, I feel like a Nintendo console is where it’ll be most at home.

    Talking of indie devs, is Blair’s game out yet? And can we expect more interviews as podcasts? I really liked it, I can see it working well alongside Kris’s excellent output even if he can only do one or two a year, and you’ve got a good style Tef. Keep up the good work :)

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