Most independent developers would likely be horrified if implicated in a console war. In the last year or so it's become clear they might have no choice; independent games could prove vital to who triumphs in the next-gen race.
So far it's Sony that has shown itself to recognize this by making significant gestures to win the affections of the indie community. The PlayStation 4 promises self-publishing, and indie games featured more prominently at Sony's E3 conference than ever before. Meanwhile the Vita has steamed ahead, largely relying on hot indie releases to rescue its reputation. It would seem that Sony is very serious indeed about indies.
It's not exactly a concern that's new to Sony, either. Over 15 years ago the seeds were sown by a strange and brilliant enterprise on the original PlayStation with Net Yaroze. The offbeat, rough-around-the-edges and weirdly compelling games that resulted represented the first time Sony fostered a community of emerging talent and helped launch a generation of game development careers.
Sony launched the Net Yaroze project in 1997. It made available to hobbyist coders a basic version of the PlayStation dev kit housed in an attractive black casing for the princely sum of £550 (about $836 at today's exchange rate), though this was later cut in half. Around a thousand units were sold in Europe, which effectively created a ready-made community of budding developers working independently on the PlayStation platform.
This wasn't the first time hobbyist coders had been able to create their own games at home -- something which had always been particularly popular in Europe. Home computers such as the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amiga had all allowed for the creation and sharing of games. The Net Yaroze offered a serious step up in technical grunt, allowing a new generation of creators to craft games far more advanced than had been possible before.
"The prospect of developing for such a well-known platform was too good to pass up," says Scott Cartier, whose Yaroze game Decaying Orbit was featured on one of the UK's Official PlayStation Magazine cover-mounted discs. "I started out on my Atari 800. After that I took a few brief stabs at game programming on the PC, but I finished nothing and never felt like I had a good grip on the platform. Frankly, all the driver and hardware compatibility issues scared me."
The constrained programming environment simplified the development process.
Matt James had several Yaroze games featured on demos, including Robot Ron and pingping. "When I got a PC I found the non-standard platform really annoying," he says. "A Net Yaroze seemed like a nice platform. I think Sony had just reduced the price so I blew some of my student loan on one."
For some the cost represented a significant investment, but a few got lucky with Sony's relaxed approach to actually taking payment. "I didn't actually purchase my Net Yaroze," says David Johnston. "I sent Sony all the relevant details and they sent me the kit but never actually charged the credit card. That was a pretty huge saving for me!" Johnston used his free kit to create the hugely popular TimeSlip, which starred a time-travelling snail and appeared on the cover disc for issue 48 of the UK's official PlayStation magazine.
The independent games scene is renowned for the creativity and ingenuity that flourishes in an environment devoid of big budgets and high pressure. Net Yaroze was no different. Visuals rarely matched commercial games, but this was often compensated for with intuitive and hugely entertaining gameplay.
TimeSlip, inspired by an episode of Dr Who, was the one of the first games to use the idea of one player co-op, where people played with past echoes of themselves. It was also super-difficult. Robot Ron was an early revival of the twin-stick shooter; its name a pun on the genre's originator Robotron 2084. Decaying Orbit was a compulsive planet-lander with impressive physics. Other games included stylish retro-shooter Samsaric Asymptote, top-down football game Total Soccer (which went on to play a crucial role in development of the engine for several handheld FIFA games), and Rocks 'n' Gems, which developed a cult following in the pages of the magazine.
"I think Net Yaroze caught the imagination of a lot of people. It certainly didn't signal the end of our engagement with smaller devs."Shahid Ahmad
Alongside the hardware Sony also provided private forums for Yaroze creators. "Every creator had a page," recalls Johnston. "I remember feeling at home there. I spent hours looking through pages of other users and trying out their games." It gave creators the opportunity to seek help not only from their peers, but directly from Sony.
"The private newsgroups were the best place to get help because you could talk to both users and dev support," says Cartier. Sony essentially created a potted indie community and nurtured it with technical help, as well as holding events and competitions. Matt James was late to the party, but he remembers that even toward the end Sony was still engaged. "I think the Sony people were active and helping because they liked Net Yaroze. They weren't even officially assigned to work on it."
The lack of distribution meant many games were never seen outside of this community. This made it even more special when a game was selected for the Official PlayStation Magazine cover disc. "It felt amazing!" says Johnston. "It felt like an awful lot of people would end up with a copy of my game." Cartier, who lives in the US, bought a new PC monitor just so that he could play the PAL discs ("It was my first officially published game!").
This small community became very Euro-centric. Although each region had its own newsgroups, SCEA did not offer much support and Japan was isolated by the language barrier. The latter developed an air of mystery. It could be quiet for months, only for an incredibly accomplished game to emerge, such as the WipEout-inspired Hover Racing or the 3D adventure Terra Incognita. Lead developer of the latter Mitsuru Kamiyama now works at Square-Enix, while the game is available on iOS.
The support in Europe did not just represent a significant advancement for hobbyist developers. Now prevalent across the globe, games technology courses simply didn't exist in the '90s. Professor Ian Marshall helped set up what was arguably the world's first at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland.
"[The Net Yaroze] was incredibly important," he says. "We had a whole range of developers in Dundee who wanted students for 3D console programming. Students from a traditional computer science background could do C++ but not programs that worked in 3D. Access to a Net Yaroze meant we could put them in a console environment and we could actually host target programming which is basically how most of the games industry worked at that time."
Sony was generous in its support of the course. "Sony was giving a few people in universities one [Yaroze]. We got two rooms full of them - around 40 Yaroze platforms - free of charge." This presented a steep learning curve for all involved, but, like the private newsgroups, Sony was keen for Abertay to get the best out of the hardware. "We got support from their technical people, their educational people," says Marshall. "Sometimes we had to go back to Sony Europe and say 'Help!' They were always there."
The importance of Sony's support on both an individual and academic level should not be underestimated. Graduates from Abertay emerged equipped with skills relevant to the rapidly evolving console market and were quickly snatched up. Similarly, a huge number of Yaroze creators went on to work in game development - several of them at Sony.
Matt James went on to found Hermit Games, releasing titles on PC and Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie Games initiative. "Before I got a Net Yaroze I didn't think it was possible to do games for a living," he says. "Once I joined the private newsgroups I suddenly knew loads of people doing exactly that."
For both Scott Cartier and David Johnston the experience was invaluable when it came to working in the industry. "By the time I graduated and was looking for jobs in the games industry I had a PS1 disc that I could give to people," says Johnston. "Not many people could do that." Both men eventually founded independent companies. Johnston created Smudged Cat, under which he's developed the time travel mechanics of Timeslip, as well as re-releasing the original. Cartier's Order of Magnitude Games develops for mobile platforms.
As games development tools became increasingly accessible, Sony's support diminished with subsequent consoles. A PS2 Linux dev kit was made available but received little marketing or developer support. The situation has improved in recent years on PS3, PSP, and Vita, but the relative ease of development and distribution on PC and mobile will make it harder to win independent developers back.
"I think Net Yaroze caught the imagination of a lot of people. It certainly didn't signal the end of our engagement with smaller devs," says Shahid Ahmad, head of the strategic content team at SCEE. Since the start of 2012 he's been heavily engaged with the development community to help get games onto Sony platforms, particularly the Vita. On Twitter he's a one-man networking machine.
"We think a responsive developer engagement plan is critical at a time when developers have more choice than ever before," he says of Sony's strategy to support independent developers. He points to the success of Brian Provinciano's Retro City Rampage and Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone on Sony hardware. Both developers have been vocal about the support they received. "We believe the Vita is the best platform for indie expression," insists Ahmad. "We're happy to work with devs in creative ways to make that vision a reality."
Some independent developers remain wary of working on consoles. Horror stories still circulate (although it must be said, rarely about Sony). Professor Ian Marshall believes the Net Yaroze can act as a blueprint for winning trust and nurturing new talent. "Make it easy for indies to jump from developing on a PC to developing in whatever they want. The Yaroze communities were classic social networking. Continue that and provide support materials so that developers can get that first step, that first little game together."
Shahid Ahmad agrees. "PlayStation as a company works hard to build and retain trust across the board. Our willingness to engage across social media, at events, in person, and on forums with a mandate to support developers and other partners the best we can means we don't put up an artificial front. Real passionate people at PlayStation and in the development community get to talk about the work they love and to build a business around that." It's a strategy that will look altogether familiar to anyone who was part of the fertile Net Yaroze community. As the console war kicks off afresh, Sony will be hoping to recreate the Yaroze's success on a much larger scale.
With special thanks to John Szczepaniak, whose Gamasutra article and guidance was invaluable in putting this article together.