How Sony treats indie developers is awful for the industry

It’s rare for the public gets an inside look at the workings of the games industry. However, yesterday it was revealed that PlayStation creator Sony charges indie developers a minimum of £25,000 for visibility on their console's proprietary store. Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising in the slightest.

Originally reported by Kotaku, the story was brought to life by an indie developer going on a tirade following a very poor relationship with a AAA games publisher. Developer Iain Garner never specifically labels Sony, but he describes the platform as ‘operating a successful console and not having Game Pass’. 

It doesn’t take much to fill in the blanks on this one and assume Garner is talking about Sony in his tweet thread. He obviously can’t name the developer outright as it would likely leave him liable from a legal perspective. 

Garner wasn’t alone though, as many other developers also chimed in. Matthew White, the CEO of Whitethorn Games, referred to the platform as Nolan North - referencing Sony’s popular Uncharted series. Much like Garner, White is critical of Sony saying that the platform makes up for 3% of its total revenue. 

“Straight out of the early 00s”

Garner touches on several things in the Twitter thread, including the lack of management over games on the platform, a lack of transparency, a lack of communication and the fact that Sony makes it notoriously difficult for indie developers to thrive. 

For developers to make any progress with Sony, they need an account manager. The only problem is, Sony only assigns an account manager based on resources. If the developer deems you a big enough developer, you’ll be granted an account manager. The problem is, there’s no transparency in how Sony places value on games, so developers do not know how to improve their chances. 

Garner’s original tweet set off several other developers who mirrored those feelings. Ragnar Tørnquist, who worked on Draugen, tweeted about the developers’ inability to discount their game on the store. Since Garner’s initial tweet, a common thread of frustration and a lack of direction is pretty apparent throughout Sony and its publishing platform. 

Stifling creativity 

The way Sony treats certain indie developers is negligent, and at worst harmful to the wider industry. Creativity and innovation often come from the bottom in many industries, as expectation does not stifle those free of corporations. Encouraging and even supporting independent developers is great because it helps the gaming industry grow and expand. 

If we only support those at the top, we’ll end up with an industry that favours reliable income streams over the truly experimental. In recent years, indie games like Gone Home, Undertale and Disco Elysium drastically shifted what games could be. Could you imagine creating a title like that, and having Sony just completely ignore your presence on its store front?

I was thinking about how the games industry is like the music industry in some ways. You’ve got all your big established bands that people love, and then you’ve got the next generation of independent bands wanting to break through. With the right support and platform, those independent bands will be the next big band. Gaming is the same. Platform holders like Sony need to actively support smaller developers, as that’s how you end up with enormous hits like Among Us. 

Fixing the problem 

So how does Sony go about fixing this problem? It clearly believes independent games are important, as it headlines countless indie titles during its conferences. The best way to improve its relationship with developers is rebuilding the process from the ground up. From what Garner, White and Tørnquist said, it would seem Sony’s platform is a one-size-fits-all kind of process. This isn’t how development works though, as there are independent developers with one person and other with a team spread across the world. 

Honestly, Sony just needs to follow in the footsteps of Nintendo and Microsoft, which both make it far more seamless for developers to control the fate of their games. Developers can manage the price of their titles and add discounts as they please. It really should be as simple as that. Sony would still ultimately take a cut of sales, however, the developer would likely have more success. 

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Oh, and we can’t forget about the minimum £25,000 for PSN store visibility. Which, if you’re a lone developer, is an unrealistic amount. I’ve worked in marketing, and I know you can’t ever guarantee success with promotion and advert spend. What you can, and should, do is allow developers to cater their exposure on the PSN store to their budget. Facebook and Google both allow businesses to promote their products based on budgets. Sure, if you spend more, more people will see you. However, allowing smaller development teams to promote for a fraction of the price is a pro-consumer and pro-developer. 

One more thing...

Honestly though, the most shocking revelation in all of this is that Sony send Excel-based invoices to independent developers. It is one of the biggest game developers in the world, and one of the major players in global tech, but it invoices like it's stuck in the dark ages. 

What’s next? Messages by carrier Pigeon? Real-time conversation through Morse code? Or maybe even the return of the pager for notifications while on the move. 

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