When PlayStation Mobile launched late last year, I truly had high hopes for the platform. Six months on, and it seems like my optimism may have been misguided.
The PS Mobile platform allows indie developers to sell their games via the PlayStation Store with relative ease. Once a studio or individual has registered and paid $99 per year for a publisher license, they can then release as many games as they want, as long as they keep to the relatively lax service guidelines.
It's without a doubt one of the easiest avenue for indie developers to launch a game on a "proper" video game console alongside Microsoft's own Xbox Live Indie Games, and those studios involved in the launch back in October were also pretty positive about what the system offered.
I've been covering PS Mobile over on Pocket Gamer since its inception, and each week has seen a new release or two ever since launch. It's been but a trickle, sure, but for a new platform it's been a great start. The coverage for PS Mobile on the official PlayStation blog has been great too, with each new title getting its own "Spotlight" post, and every new release rounded up in the weekly releases lists.
That was up until mid-January anyway. All of a sudden the regular posts about PS Mobile games on the PS Blog stopped, and PS Mobile was no longer mentioned in the weekly roundups. In fact, the only way to find out which new games had been added to the PS Mobile store was to boot your PS Vita up and hit the "Recent" tab.
And yet at the very same time a PS Mobile promotion, giving away a free game each week for six weeks, continued to trundle on via the blog. I was concerned, as without the full weekly promotion on the PS Blog, PS Mobile would no doubt go the same way that PS Minis did. I decided to get in contact with Sony, and a handful of recent PS Mobile devs, to find out what was up.
The overwhelming response from devs on the service was that the team handling the platform is struggling to handle the workload.
For example, Chris Egerter of Rocking Pocket Games, which has released titles like Dungeon Bandit and Blue Skies on PS Mobile, told me that "The mobile division seems to be pretty understaffed and it takes a long time to get things done."
Other studios backed up this theory, with developer Thomas Hopper offering more detail into what's going on behind the scenes. Hopper is perhaps the more prolific PS Mobile developer, having release five games for the service already, including Meltdown Moon and Still Life.
"I did find it a bit strange that the blog posts don't seem to cover PS Mobile anymore," he says, "but it appears to me that this is down to internal communications issues."
It seems that the PlayStation Mobile team handles the service globally, rather than having a team for each region, as is the case with the rest of the PlayStation business. This means that the single team is finding it difficult to keep in contact with each of the regional PSN teams.
"A few weeks ago I was told by email that one of my game updates had gone live to the PS Mobile store, when in fact it hadn't," Hopper continues. "I've since been told that the email had gone out as a result of human error."
Hopper has been hit by other errors by the PS Mobile team too -- just last week a banner for his game Out of Mind appeared on the PS Mobile store, yet the game wasn't actually available yet (it's being released this week).
Notably, Hopper offers some insight into how and when games are released on the service -- it seems there is a queue of new games and updates to previously released titles that are ready to go, and Sony lets them out of the gate a few at a time each week, so as to make sure there's always something new to play.
Despite the issues mentioned above, Hopper believes that Sony is serious about PS Mobile, and hasn't given up on it. The six-week free game giveaway which ended recently is proof of that.
"My guess is they're still having technical problems which make it hard to be sure what content is going to be released any given week," he adds, "which means that the PS blog posts don't get the info the need in time to talk about releases, and so they've kind of given up for now."
Blood from a stone
Talking to Sony about these matters has been hugely frustrating. I began correspondence with both the U.S. and European PlayStation PR companies three weeks ago, and have talked to five different Sony staffers. As of Monday, I hadn't received a single real answer, other than being told that I'll be reached out to "soon."
Yesterday, I finally got a response, but it wasn't exactly worth the wait. "PlayStation Mobile is a really important part of the PlayStation ecosystem," said the statement, later adding that "where possible we have supported the PSM developers and their games on our own channels, including the EU blog." That "where possible" is particularly confusing -- what does that even really mean?
Having said that, it's obvious that for now at least, PS Mobile hasn't been dropped. For example, Sony is running a PS Mobile game jam at the moment, and the winning entries will fight it out in a judged final at GDC later this month. And the company told me that it has "ambitious plans" for PS Mobile in 2013 that it plans to share "shortly."
It seems like my various inquiries may have stirred up the hornet's nest too as, in the last couple of weeks, PS Mobile has once again appeared in the weekly roundup on the PS Blog (although the latest update missed off a couple of releases), and a couple of PS Mobile games have been "Spotlighted." Whether this will last is anyone's guess.
But advances need to be made if the service is going to live up to its potential. For example, where is the trophy support that was promised six months ago? And why do we still not have leaderboard support? These sound like relatively minor updates in the grand scheme of things, and yet they've still not been put in place. They're the sorts of features that will help pull in the punters, and therefore attract more devs to the service.
Right now the only idea we have of sales on PlayStation Mobile is from Happion Labs, who posted sales figures for Sixty Second Shooter Deluxe of around 1600 euros (just over $2000) from November to January. An earlier post from Happion's Jamie Fristrom noted that Japanese sales topped those from all other regions, and I've heard other devs remark about this too.
I stand by my opinion that PlayStation Mobile has the potential to be great for indies, especially with Sony's newfound love for indie games on PS Vita. What the company really needs to do now is build up some momentum for the service, and actually, you know, promote it.