Announced at this year's gamescom event, Sony's new Minis programme is a brand new attempt to bring the PSP platform into line with Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch by offering a new range of what the company calls "snackable" small-scale games, designed by some of the leading lights in mobile game development. At a specially convened conference during the show, we met up and talked with Sony and a quartet of mobile game-makers about the new initiative, saw some of the games currently in development, and got some idea of the level of commitment given by the platform holder to the venture.
Described by SCEE head of developer relations Zeno Colaço as a plan barely eight months old, this "accelerated programme" is all about attracting smaller, independent game-makers to the PSP in a similar way - they hope - to the enormously successful iTunes App Store. Just like Apple's offering, the initial costs to the developers are low - "just north of €1200" for a full-on PSP development kit according to Colaço. Also to Sony's credit is the fact that there are no additional "hidden" costs - product QA costs and the like are entirely taken care of by the platform holder all the way through to the game's online debut on the PlayStation Store. After that Sony takes a cut of the game's PSN ticket price - a figure which Colaço refuses to divulge, saying that the business model had yet to be finalised.
However, one of the major points of his pitch is that while PSPgo is the "trigger" for this new line, the existing userbase will not be ignored. "Whilst this programme is going to kick off with PSPgo, it is actually addressing our entire consumer PlayStation Portable audience," Colaço says at the conference. "Globally we have over 54 million units, 17 million in the territories that SCEE looks after... We're digitally distributing to all PSPs, not just PSPgo, which is primarily a network-only device."
Content creators are given limitations in what they can produce, but the restrictions are remarkably slight, and Sony is keen to foster a creative environment from the Minis that teases out the best from developers large and small. "We're not putting any limits of what type of games can be produced," Colaço continues. "We're actually leaving that very open."
The only restrictions on game content come down to a set of common-sense standards that set about keeping gratuitous graphic violence, racism, and other unsavoury elements out of the games. Additionally, a 100MB download limit has been placed on the Minis. Otherwise Sony is hoping to bring out the best from its developer partners, with SCEE's Minis evangelist John Booth saying that we can expect many smaller, more concept-driven games that aren't typically "game-like", citing the firm's previous history with games like Flower on PS3.
Booth himself was instrumental in bringing both smaller, indie developers and larger firms like EA into the Minis programme, and there was no barrier to entry. While some game-makers were handpicked and approached directly, others got wind of what Sony was up to and contacted them directly.
"We knew someone who had a contact at Sony - we emailed them, and they came to visit the office the following week," Honeyslug's Ricky Hagget says. "We spent an excitable 90 minutes showing all of our existing and prototype games, after which point they were suitably impressed to ask us if we'd like to make a game for the PSP download service. We said 'of course!' and had a dev-kit the following week. It was all refreshingly easy and straightforward, although we'd put a lot of work into the games we showed."
Honeyslug is the epitome of the small independent developer, consisting of just three people, remnants of Eidos's old casual games division. It has developed for the Flash gaming domain, and also has a brace of iPhone/iPod Touch games to its credit. Kahoots is the name of its debut PSP offering, an intriguing platform puzzler that sees you guiding the eponymous creatures past a range of hazards, collecting treasures and moving on to the next level. Those who've played Lemmings will have no issue quickly getting to grips with the gameplay. The PSP version looks set to be very close indeed to the game's Flash roots - you can have a go yourself at a playable sampler and aside from boasting more levels, the new game for the Sony platform should be very similar.
Honeyslug reckons that transitioning from existing mobile platforms to PSP was no bother at all. "We have extensive experience in mobile, as well as PC casual download, Flash and Nintendo DS, so PSP wasn't hugely surprising, and we were able to use a whole load of our existing code," Ricky Hagett says. "The PSP code samples are extensive and mostly very good, and the level of support we received from the dev team was excellent - with really quick, helpful responses. With Kahoots, we went from zero to alpha in 10 weeks, which is an indication both of the ease of developing for PSP, and our suitability for it."
Another small-scale mobile studio that has been welcomed into the PSP Minis fold is the almost legendary Subatomic Studios, responsible for one of the most successful and indeed brilliant games on the iPhone: Fieldrunners. "Coming to the new Minis channel has been a great, great pleasure for us," says Subatomic CEO Ash Monif. "We've had immense support from Sony - they've been great, great partners in all this. We've been hard at work, heads down, on creating a new enhanced version of Fieldrunners. It has enhanced graphics, enhanced sound and will be featuring new content: two entirely new levels with new strategies, new towers, and new enemies."
Fieldrunners is widely considered to be the best tower defence game available on the iPhone. The objective is simply to guard your base from wave upon wave of incoming enemies: hundreds, thousands of them even, depending on the game-type you select. You set up different towers, each equipped with different weaponry that blasts, zaps or blitzes the oncoming foes causing varying levels of damage. Setting up the towers side-by-side also serves to create intricate mazes that the hostiles funnel through as they seek to reach your HQ. Part of Fieldrunners' genius is the way in which the iPhone's touch-screen display has been used for an ultra-intuitive game interface.
"We've paid very special attention to the control system on PSP," Monif says. "We've shown it on the showfloor to the press and fans alike and they've been pretty happy with the controls so far. We're optimistic that you'll be able to get right into the game and have lots of fun. You navigate the field with the d-pad, you place towers with the X button, you select the tower types with the left trigger and the right trigger... The tower upgrades are the same - select the tower and move left or right. Finally, you zoom in and out with the analogue stick." Sounds fine in theory, and fingers crossed that Subatomic can pull this off. A trailer shows that the PSP version has a clear graphical and audio advantage over the iPhone game, but Fieldrunners veterans will know just how crucial that touch-screen is to the gameplay.
The good news is that the developer still aims to support the older version of the game, for those happy with their iPhones and with little interest in joining the PSP renaissance. Indeed, Sony is placing no exclusivity limitations on the Minis developers we speak to. "We're continuing to support our iPhone/iPod Touch version of the game, releasing content across all platforms," Monif states. "However, because we're so small we need to do just one thing at a time."
Not quite so small is Frima Studios, currently producing Zombie Tycoon as its first release for the PSP Minis line. As its own press releases says, Frima is "an important game developer based in Quebec City, Canada" and boasts over 240 employees. However, the firm specialises in mobile projects with appropriately mini-sized teams. "This project has a team of seven people, working for about four months in development," says Frima's Jean-François "Jeff" Tremblay. "We've got another five or six weeks in development, so we spend anywhere between four to six months in total depending on the energy, the effort... This includes conception, the artwork, the design and all the creative research."
Zombie Tycoon appears to be new version of an older mobile game originally created by Frima's recent mobile-centric acquisition, Humagade, but has been radically transformed into a full 3D game for its transition into the PSP Minis line-up. A smattering of gameplay footage, backed up by extensive concept design work, is shown in a slick trailer - the idea of the game is effectively to take control of your own zombie horde and employ their brain-sucking abilities to achieve the complete and utter destruction of mankind, in a humorous, wacky manner of course. It turns out that that the undead suffer from an attention-deficit disorder, so if you don't take direct, RTS-style control of their lives, they turn on each other with unfortunate flesh-eating consequences.
Tremblay himself joins the assembled ranks of game-makers in paying tribute to Sony's new developer-friendly approach. "Reducing the price is one thing - money is always an object," he says. "I think opening these dev-kits and this distribution platform to indie developers is a great opportunity for us to take our material, take our ideas, take our content, and throw it out there to a pre-existing, massive userbase... It's Minis, but with a massive support group by Sony."
Rounding off the presentation is a brace of EA Mobile games showcased by studio head Chris Gibbs. Demonstrating that the Minis programme is available to all developers and publishers both large and small, Gibbs says that EA Mobile is currently the market leader in terms of portable gaming, and reveals that its initial line-up of PSP Minis consists of two old favourites. The first up is a new iteration of Sudoku, featuring over 200 puzzles "ranging from easy all the way through to insane". A new "newspaper" game mode has been introduced that allows you to copy over puzzles from the printed page and store them in memory on the PSP, the idea being that you can complete these puzzles at your own leisure, whenever and wherever you want.
EA's second offering is a new iteration of the game that took handheld gaming into the mainstream all the way back in 1990 - Tetris. Despite the somewhat ancient origins of the game, Gibbs claims that "there's a lot of innovation in this - within EA Mobile we've done a heck of a lot with Tetris over the years," and cites the classic and marathon modes plus a new replay option that allows you to relive your greatest Tetris combos.
With no actual gameplay on show for either title, and little in the way of originality mooted, it has to be said that EA's offerings suggest the company is playing it safe. Gibbs himself reckons these titles were chosen as "truly mass-market games" and says that a further four games are in development for the Minis line. He won't go into any specifics whatsoever on what they are though. I ask about original IP, but get little in the way of feedback. Gibbs invites me check out other titles in the EA Mobile range for an overall idea of what the division's overall ethos is, but the originality question seemingly remains unanswered.
In closing the presentation, SCEE's Zeno Colaço makes it clear that it was the developers and publishers of the games that were the stars of this Minis presentation. And it may well be that this is the reason Sony itself - which has the largest set of first-party development studios out of all the three major platform holders - isn't presenting any Minis on the day. While the programme is still young and embryonic in many ways, Colaço assures me that Sony's game-makers are contributing to the Minis line-up, but there is the very real sense that the primary focus of his efforts is on bringing in brand new talent to the PSP platform.
Not only that, but Sony also seems set on carefully stage-managing the show - compare and contrast with the App Store, either impenetrably chaotic or overflowing with new content, depending on how you view it. The Minis programme is set to launch jointly on 1st October with PSPgo, offering 15 titles, and there are 50 currently in development. It seems clear that Sony wants to pace the release of the games, and give them a chance to breathe: music to the ears of iPhone developers worried about the exposure and success their games get on to the iTunes App Store.
In many ways, the Minis project has more in common with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade set-up than the Apple set-up. Colaço is quick to point out that the focus is very definitely on games here, as that is where Sony's strengths traditionally are. So those looking for legitimate alternatives to the tools and apps currently only available via PSP custom firmware are being given little motive to turn back from the dark side.
Overall though, Sony's ethos seems sound and laudable, and the notion of bringing keenly priced, creatively-driven mobile games to the PSP is obviously a no-brainer, and long overdue. Just how successful Sony has been in its efforts will only become apparent once the full range of games has been released. We'll be checking them out when they are.
The PSP's Minis programme launches on 1st October.