After a console generation in which it seemingly abandoned indies in the face of the overwhelming success of the PS4, it appears that Sony’s struggle to court small developers is far from over. A group of indie publishers have taken to Twitter this week to express their frustrations with the console giant, pointing out issues like its lack of communication, frustrating bureaucracy, issues with discoverability, and severe limitations on when and how games can be put on sale.
The conversation was kicked off by Neon Doctrine co-founder Iain Garner, who wrote a Twitter thread criticizing “Platform X,” which he said was “a very successful console and does not have Game Pass.” Garner’s thread, which has been quote-tweeted by several indie publishers at the time of publication affirming many of the issues he lists, criticizes the so-called Platform X’s tools, communications, and interest in supporting indies. He calls out a lack of transparent processes, poor communication, an extremely limited ability to discount games, and an inability to get games promoted on the store without either obscure or expensive methods.
“Platform X gives developers no ability to manage their games. In order to get promotion you must jump through hoops, beg and plead for any level of promotion. And a blog is not as good as they think it is,” he wrote. “If Platform X doesn’t like your game, no fanfare no feature no love.”
OK. I am mad enough to burn some bridges. Because honestly, what’s the point of a bridge that I am not allowed to cross.
So here is a thread about Platform X. I will not be defining Platform X but it’s the operator of a very successful console and does not have Games Pass! pic.twitter.com/OJ2ZJz9BNy
— Iain Garner (@NeonIain) June 30, 2021
The conversation sparked by the thread comes at a time when Sony seems to be trying, in small ways, to nudge the narrative around its indie support in a more positive direction. Last year, it launched a $10 million fund to support indie developers during COVID-19, and it recently appointed Shuhei Yoshida to lead a new initiative to support indie studios. This is following a PS4 console generation during which Sony seemed largely uninterested in such support, letting its efforts lapse and be largely outshone by its competitor’s programs in ID@Xbox and Nintendo’s Nindies (later Nintendo Indie World), which have historically included in-person showcases, numerous digital showcases, blogs, tweets, behind-the-scenes support, and just a whole lot of games.
Following Garner’s thread, I spoke to four other indie publishers and two indie developers (one who self-published) about its contents, all of whom named Sony as the platform they specifically were criticizing, though they could not speak for Garner. Those I spoke to expressed frustration with various aspects of Sony’s internal processes, communications, and restrictions that they said made it more challenging to release games on its platforms, especially smaller games. They also lamented the challenges of getting indie games seen anywhere, but many pointed out that Sony actively hampered or was at least indifferent to these struggles, making PlayStation an extremely challenging platform for indie game sales compared to its competitors.
In all subsequent communications, Garner declined to identify which console he was speaking of, but context clues from the thread (such as the mention of official blog posts and certain pricing details) can be used to tie his narrative in with the stories of others who spoke up.
A one-way partnership
In our follow-up conversation, Garner acknowledged that at least some of the issues he brings up are common across multiple platforms, not just “Platform X.” For instance, he remarked in his Twitter thread that wishlists have “no effect,” but he and others later told me that this is largely true on all console platforms — it’s really only Steam where wishlists are critical to indie games’ success. Similarly, those I spoke to confirmed “lot checks” (a term specifically used by Nintendo, but which was used referring to compliance checks across all three platforms) are frustrating everywhere, though two people pointed out to me that PlayStation’s compliance checks were by far the most complex in terms of process, communication, and user feedback.
But Garner is adamant that what he calls Platform X is especially bad for indies, for a couple of reasons. The first, he said, is a challenging, frustrating amount of paperwork and bureaucracy involved with getting a game published on the platform. Multiple people I spoke to mentioned having to fill out numerous forms or go through various backend softwares to find the thing they were looking for, often without much help or support. Two said it was extremely challenging or even expensive to get a single dev kit, pointing out that Xbox had provided dev kits to either themselves or colleagues easily, and for free.
Sometimes you might be waiting a month for a reply to something simple.
David Logan, CEO at Akupara Games, offered an explanation for at least some of the frustrating processes those I spoke to mentioned. He told me that the main reason Sony’s processes for game submissions were more involved than others had to do with submitting products based on region, something the company had done throughout the PS4 era. So for worldwide launches, games had to go through separate submission processes for Sony America, Europe, Japan, and Asia, with Japan and Asia having their own portals and processes that required translation from Japanese to move through.
In 2020, he continued, Sony had begun working toward streamlining all this. But movement has been slow, and documentation is often an update or two behind.
“Parts of the process change on an almost weekly basis and it oftentimes needs to involve multiple reps, support tickets and parts of the backend (which is still split into two different pipelines) to make movement on specific issues,” Logan said. “We’ve been blocked by Sony directly on things like updating ratings, terminology usage, trophy visibility and patch review all within the last few months. However, my team does recognize the active changes and streamlining Sony is heading towards. Though there are instances where we wish it was similar to the pipeline we had grown accustomed to over the past few years.”
Slow or annoying paperwork is one thing, but the publishers I spoke with all confirmed that these issues were made worse for small companies working with Sony due to slow or non-existent communications processes. Logan said he’d had a support ticket open with Sony for nine months, which his company pings monthly trying to get assistance. Cristian Botea, project manager at Some Awesome Guys, said that while sometimes you might get a fast reply from Sony to help resolve an issue, “sometimes you might be waiting a month for a reply to something simple.”
“A lot of the time, that reply feels like something that could’ve been somehow integrated in the documentation in a better way or better integrated and streamlined in the publishing process,” Botea said.
All of these process and communication pain points can be made a little more manageable, I was told by multiple people, with an account manager — basically a contact person for a publisher at the company who can help answer questions — getting their game in front of the right people and making sure the right paperwork is filled out. But as Garner pointed out in his thread, there was never a clear process for how to get an account manager assigned to him, adding that publishers without account managers have to go through a ticketing system. “We’ve all used one of those before, so you know what that’s like.”
Other publishers I spoke to confirmed similar difficulties. Sherveen Uduwana, who’s currently working on Midautumn and previously designed We Are The Caretakers, told me about his experience with this process from several years ago, acknowledging it may have changed since that time. His account lined up with Garner’s, with Uduwana pointing out that processing times for game submissions were often extremely long. And without an account manager to contact, there’s often no one at all to check in with about where your game is at in the process.
“At a lot of larger or more established studios, they just have contacts at all the storefronts that they can reach out to with questions, or to ask for an update or to help troubleshoot things,” he said. “But a lot of those are actually pretty informal and built through past relationships in my experience. So when you’re just starting out, the process is super opaque, even in our case we leveraged an existing relationship to start up a convo.”
Best way I can put it is that I was thrown to the wolves… and told ‘survive.’
One developer who self-publishes and wishes to remain anonymous said that in multiple years of working with Sony, their relationship had always felt like a “one-way partnership.”
“I felt like if you weren’t the big names, you were just there, plugging away with minimal support until you eventually shipped your title,” they said. “Best way I can put it is that I was thrown to the wolves… and told ‘survive.’ Which I did, by trial and error. Everyday.”
Somewhat related to communications problems is the separate issue of discounts. As Garner pointed out in his thread, discounts on Platform X are “invite-only and also ‘very limited.'” Other publishers I spoke to, again referring specifically to Sony, confirmed that Sony is notoriously stingy with who it allows to hold discounts on its platform and when. Multiple people I spoke to confirmed this to be the case, saying that publishers can only run discounts when explicitly invited by Sony. Matthew White, CEO of Whitethorn Digital, told me that PlayStation sets the discount, with publishers able to agree or make a counteroffer, but timing and rate are ultimately dictated by the platform.
“You almost never get invited,” he said. “Say two in a year.”
White and others confirmed to me as well that no other platform runs its discounts like this, with most other storefronts allowing publishers to discount their games when and how they like with a handful of exceptions. It’s a move they say not only frustrates consumers, but also harms small developers who frequently use sales as an easy way to get their games noticed and talked about more broadly.
The unachievable front page
The other reason why Garner said Platform X is so much worse for indies has to do with discoverability. Garner told me his game, Vigil, initially had interest from “a higher-up,” but that didn’t matter once his game started going through the company’s processes.
“We were basically told that unless we had games that would push [next-gen] (super pretty) then they weren’t interested in providing promotion,” he said.
The final straw, Garner said, was a talk he attended recently where the company gave him and others a presentation about marketing. It was during this meeting that he was told the company could promote his game on its storefront — if he paid $25,000 on top of the cut he already pays the platform for being on it at all.
“Honestly felt like a F2P tactic,” Garner said. “We slow you down and you can pay to speed up.”
The $25,000 offer Garner received resulted in some head-scratching from the other publishers I spoke to. Many hadn’t heard of it before the Twitter thread, though all of them confirmed it was too rich for their companies to manage. Logan suggested that for smaller developers, that price point could “amount to the entire lifetime sales of the title.”
“This is an amount greater than or equal to some indie developers’ entire marketing budget,” he continued. “That price tag definitely excludes most smaller and mid-size developers and publishers from consideration.”
This is an amount greater than or equal to some indie developers’ entire marketing budget.
A Kotaku report verified the figures Garner is referring to, saying that pricing for even more visibility on PlayStation can go as high as $200,000, though it’s unclear how much visibility that gets a company. Kotaku also said that Microsoft “runs similar payment schemes for the Xbox store.”
The anonymous developer I spoke to had heard of the $25,000, saying they could understand asking for payment for such a spot to a degree — it is, after all, advertising. But they added that such a high number for a small spot effectively guaranteed small games would never be seen.
“It’s unreasonable, because you have no idea if that $25,000 advertisement will make you that money back,” they said. “$25,000 was mentioned and talked about but […]there are spots well over $100k for features. No smaller indie or small game is ever seeing that front page. So that’s why you will always see five to six major game studios on that front page. If an indie was to ever feature up there it would be monumental and celebrated to say the least.”
Two publishers pointed out to me that Sony will sometimes feature games on its storefront of its own accord, based on an internal analysis of how well they think the game will do. However, both said the process was obscure and largely out of developer and publisher hands.
Aside from the storefront issues, those I spoke to expressed exasperation that there really weren’t any other meaningful avenues to promote their games through PlayStation. When I asked publishers about the blog posts mentioned in the original thread and whether they were any help, Botea noted that his team had to proactively ask about it, and when they did, the deadlines made it unworkable. Logan said the blog process was “definitely one of the easiest processes among the partners” but also indicated that issues with deadlines and approvals for blogs could be challenging for developers on already-tight game release timelines. White told me that the blog was offered by Sony as “marketing support,” but then said it was “an awful joke that does not convert to sales in ANY way.”
White had his own set of frustrations, which he laid out in his own Twitter thread opening with a “totally hypothetical definitely not real” breakdown of Whitethorn Digital’s revenues by platform. The pie chart doesn’t have percentages, but “Nolan North” is the smallest slice of the pie, only slightly outmatched by “Gabe” while “Proficient Sergeant” and “Plumber without a Wrench” take up most of the chart. He wrote that less than three percent of Whitethorn’s sales are on Platform X (which he confirmed separately to me to indeed be PlayStation).
Alright, I’m gonna unfortunately throw my hat in here as well. We **love** our Platform X friends, and I’m former Platform X employee myself, but we cannot move the needle on the platform.
— Matthew White (@matthewmwhite) June 30, 2021
Why might that be?
“It took us more than eight months to get kits for PXs hardware, despite having numerous confirmed IPs on the title,” he wrote. “We have a full-time employee who spends more than half of his time digging through sales reports for PX, as they are sent in excel-driven invoices that require manual invoicing like it’s 1928. There is internal chaos with messages coming from random teams at random times.
“It’s impossible to plan launch support, vouchers for Kickstarter backers take months to generate, nobody will answer support emails. We get no store ops opportunities, PS5 featuring and placement is a giant mystery.
“I know it seems like I’m jumping on a dogpile, but it’s been really difficult to work with our developers telling them straight up not to expect sales on PX. I’d love to see that change.”
The future of indies on PlayStation
I asked Garner if there was anything he thought that Platform X could do to better support indies, but his response was not an optimistic one. “Honestly, I don’t know. They need to redo their whole system. It’s so broken in so many ways and they’ve been slapping band-aids on it for years. If they don’t fix it, by the end of the generation, [they] will be a rich boi toy with only the big boi titles and exclusives, everyone else will be elsewhere.”
Garner’s analysis lines up somewhat with past observations of the ways in which all three console platforms’ interest in indies have waxed and waned with their success. Not that long ago, after all, it was Xbox that was struggling with indie support, and as Uduwana pointed out to me, even Nintendo’s lauded indie support on Switch dried up somewhat in recent years once it became apparent that the Switch was performing well and no longer needed to court indies to fill its library.
As multiple publishers and developers pointed out in a 2020 interview with GamesIndustry.biz on this very subject, indie support tends to shift across all three platforms, depending on whichever one is “winning” or “losing” at the time.
“History tends to repeat itself in video games, and we’re definitely seeing that again now,” said No More Robots founder Mike Rose in that interview. “Whenever a platform holder has arguably ‘lost’ a console cycle, they tend to then lean more heavily on indie developers for the next cycle.”
We need to continue advocating for supporting indie games, and not just any indie games, but the low and mid-tier indie games that can benefit from the money the most.
And Sony is, at least on some level, trying. There’s the aforementioned $10 million fund for indie developers that it announced last year, as well as Yoshida’s initiative. And White made a point to tell me that head of PlayStation Creators and Double Fine veteran Greg Rice had been especially supportive and helpful behind the scenes in getting questions answered and games noticed. The anonymous developer I spoke to also affirmed that the recent indie push had made things a bit better for first-time developers. But it’s clear from the discussion this week that these moves either aren’t enough, or aren’t being felt by a meaningful chunk of the indie scene. We reached out to Sony for comment for this article, but the company has not responded.
Ultimately, the publishers and developers I spoke to aren’t asking for piles of free marketing, or instant approval for all their games. What they are looking for is a chance for their games to be seen in an overwhelming gaming ecosystem. When I asked what platform-holders could do to improve the ability of publishers and developers to get visibility for smaller games, Logan had a few suggestions:
“Being more transparent about the process to be considered for opportunities and what thresholds need to be reached, creating more opportunities for smaller titles to be featured in (right now many initiatives exist only for AAA titles), creating a more indie-focused branch of their platform, more financing for porting, and generally cleaner, better-documented pipelines.”
In a separate response in which he talked about the efforts made by distributors to promote indies, Logan also pointed out that the best features, sales, promotions, and other opportunities are largely for games that are already successful.
We have these same conversations every year around indies…It gets talked about, improved just a bit, then thrown back into the same hole.
“It often feels like the rich are getting richer, while the smaller titles struggle to survive,” he said. “Distributors will say they’re supporting indie games, but what they often do is promote the successful indie games. 99.9% of indie games are not Hollow Knight or Binding of Isaac, and those games really are in their own tier. I feel we need to continue advocating for supporting indie games, and not just any indie games, but the low and mid-tier indie games that can benefit from the money the most.”
There’s no easy solution to the problem of discoverability industry-wide. But those I spoke to pointed out that some platforms certainly manage discoverability better than others, or at least don’t directly interfere with indies giving themselves a boost with something as innocuous as a sale.
“We, the indies, ultimately just want PlayStation to be a more welcoming platform for us, listen to our concerns and feedback and allow for indies to thrive as well on the platform,” Botea said. “Hoping that this grabs their attention in all the right ways and we can start on a constructive path to fixing this.”
The anonymous developer I spoke to was less optimistic, pointing out that the struggles indies go through on one platform or another is a topic that comes up repeatedly, but never results in meaningful industry change.
“We have these same conversations every year around indies, when a developer gets fed up and can’t keep it in anymore,” they said. “It gets talked about, improved just a bit, then thrown back into the same hole. I am not asking for us to be saved, just heard. Most devs already feel like they are fighting everyone including themselves, we aren’t looking for another enemy.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.