Shahid Ahmad is a man who loves games. Loves them. And that enthusiasm is infectious.
The audience for his talk at the Eurogamer Expo knew what to expect, too -- despite his session not promising any new information or first looks at exciting new games, the hall was still impressively full; proof if proof were needed that indie games are not only here to stay, they're going to be one of the most important parts of the coming next generation.
Ahmad opened with a favorite quote from American author Steven Pressfield: "The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket." In other words, being independent is about being free, and not being afraid to upset a few people in the process. "Very few people have the guts to make this choice," he said. "It's a difficult decision."
But it's a choice getting easier, thanks to the self-publishing revolution -- a movement that Sony is but a small part of. Ahmad cited the example of Amanda Hocking, who failed to land a publisher for her book by traditional means, then found initial success through publishing herself on Amazon's Kindle marketplace; and of Alex Day, a successful musician who eschewed record labels and restrictive contracts altogether and is managing to make himself a comfortable living purely through YouTube and other self-publishing platforms such as Bandcamp.
"Who here thinks publishing is dead?" asked Ahmad of the audience. One solitary hand went up -- apparently not the response he was expecting, but he remained unfazed, launching into a discussion of how Grand Theft Auto V had made a billion dollars as a traditionally published game. Publishing isn't going away, he explained, but it is changing. He believes the world of "double-A" -- those publishers who aren't quite top tier, aren't quite independent -- is contracting somewhat and being replaced by what he calls "super-indies" -- conglomerates of independent developers working together.
It's a direct response to the path that triple-A is on -- ever more expensive, ever more technologically advanced, ever more risk averse. Triple-A, Ahmad argues, focuses on leading-edge tech and monetization rather than creativity, and that's fine -- but it leaves the market open for other types of developer and publisher to swoop in and cater to other markets.
Publishing is a complex business -- a fact highlighted by one of Ahmad's slides demonstrating all the different responsibilities a publisher has with each of its products. By far the most complex part of the job is marketing, and by far the most powerful part of marketing is word of mouth -- an aspect of marketing that indies, as free to be as open as they like with their audience, are particularly well-suited to.
The Indie Myths
Ahmad spent part of his talk addressing some commonly held beliefs about indie games, the first of which was that "indie games have no depth." He countered this by citing IGN's review of Hotline Miami, which praised the game's multi-layered story; his own experiences with Jasper Byrne's horror game Lone Survivor (recently released on Sony platforms), which he claims freaked him out so much he had to stop playing for a while; and the perfect layering of different game mechanics found in FuturLab's upcoming PS4 and Vita title Velocity 2X, which we previewed earlier. As anyone who has played any of these games -- or any of the many others like them -- will know, simple or stylized presentation absolutely should not be mistaken for a lack of depth.
The second of Ahmad's "indie myths" was that "anyone can make indie games." While to a certain extent this is true thanks to the rise of easy to use packages like RPG Maker, Ren'Py and the well-supported Unity framework, not everyone can actually finish making something. "The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight," said Ahmad, once again quoting Pressfield. "At this point, Resistance knows we're about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it's got." In other words, the tools might be there, but there's no guarantee of success just because you have the right tools. Starting is easy, finishing is hard.
You can't "hide" as an indie developer, Ahmad argued. Because triple-A studios are so big, with teams often well into the hundreds, there are absolutely days when it's possible to slack off, coast and hide; indies, many of whom are part of a team only a few people strong, don't have that luxury -- particularly if there's an active community making it very clear they're hungry to play the dev's latest game. But at the same time, many indie developers don't want to hide and slack off this way -- they love what they do which is, as the axiom has it, the easiest way to do what you love.
Indies and PlayStation
Ahmad related Sony's approach to indie developers to the early days of British '80s band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with Sony in the role of legendary producer Trevor Horn -- aka "The Man Who Invented the Eighties." Ahmad joked that Frankie Goes to Hollywood's early performances were "rubbish," but that Horn saw the potential in the young band, pairing them up with session musicians and talented producers, eventually molding them into the group that would go on to be one of the defining sounds of the '80s.
It's an interesting comparison -- while Ahmad wasn't saying that the indie developers who want to get their work on Sony platforms are "rubbish," it's the "session musicians" part of his metaphor that makes the most sense. He specifically drew attention to Abstraction Games, who were responsible for Hotline Miami's excellent PS3 and Vita ports, and Blit, who handled the recent port of Spelunky, comparing them to the session musicians, producers and technical wizards who helped mold Frankie Goes to Hollywood into a phenomenon. In other words, the original creators of the works didn't necessarily need to know how to work on console or Vita -- they just needed to have a great game that would be great on Sony platforms.
Ahmad then launched into a number of stories about how various games got signed -- Super Exploding Zoo from Honeyslug (who also made Hohokum) was signed after a 2009 visit from Ahmad in which he was charmed by the enthusiasm of the developer, who pitched six games to him back to back; Velocity 2X was greenlit after FuturLab's managing director James Marsden sent him a pitch in which an image of Ahmad was replaced by a picture of Ronald McDonald; Switch Galaxy, which Ahmad describes as one of the best PlayStation Mobile titles, was signed up on the top deck of a number 98 bus; the PS4 deal for Rogue Legacy was worked out over Skype, with very little talk of actual business terms. Many of these deals were agreed to in a matter of minutes rather than the weeks or months many people think of when talking about business deals, and Ahmad believes this is Sony's biggest strength.
"Business means great relationships," says Ahmad. "And everything else follows. I would not be this effusive if I didn't believe in it."
He hasn't steered the company wrong as yet, and the next generation is looking to be all the richer for Ahmad's enthusiasm in signing interesting, creative and intelligent projects quickly and easily. He's one of the most important people in gaming right now, and every developer I've spoken to at the Expo so far has had nothing but good things to say about him and Sony.
Will it be indies that win the next-generation console wars? That remains to be seen -- but it's going to be one hell of a fun battle finding out.