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The State of PlayStation Network: John Hight Interviewed

Sony's PlayStation Network has provided some stand-out digital games, from Everyday Shooter to fl0w, and Gamasutra talks to SCEA's first-party PSN exec about the company's philosophy towards fostering 'signature' indie developers.

A lot of ink has been given to the massive success and appeal of the Xbox Live Arcade as a platform for gamers, developers and publishers. Details about Sony's PlayStation Network, which has both first-party and third-party publishing options, have been harder to come by.

Here, in an interview conducted at GDC, we quizzed John Hight, SCEA's director of product development for its first-party published digital games based in its Santa Monica studio. The vast majority of the major 'indie'-style PSN titles such as Everyday Shooter and fl0w are hand-picked by Sony and first-party published - though Sony is also starting to further push its third-party publishing arm, based out of Foster City.

In the chat, however, first-party supremo Hight talks about the company's philosophy towards fostering 'signature' indie developers, why the platform is better-suited to indie development and publishing than the 360, and future plans for the service -- including support for Japanese PlayStation games.

I'm curious to know how the model for payment and UI for PSN has been evolving over the year-plus, and where it's going in the future in terms of simplification of interface and all of that to help digital games get distribution easier.

John Hight: You're talking about on the network platform itself, and the store?

Yeah.

JH: I'm not the best person to answer that. I'll answer what I know, but we actually have some folks who are specifically responsible for that.

We give them a lot of feedback based on how our customers are reacting to things, and I think you will see a pretty big change in the PlayStation Network in the early part of April, where we roll out some new interface stuff largely based on customer feedback.

Simplification, cutting down on the number of mouse clicks, making it easier to find stuff that you want to find... that's kind of an outgrowth of us having more content now, so we have to make sure that you can get at it easily.

There seems to me to be a kind of aggressive push now for more content from the Sony side. Is that accurate, would you say?

JH: No. I would say that we're always pretty careful about how much we put on the network.

We're very careful about how too much quantity could kill us, because it's more about having really well-selected, cool experiences. I guess we're aggressive in the sense that we're out there looking at a lot of things.

I'm looking at 20 proposals a month, and I only see the stuff that gets filtered through some of my producers. We're definitely trying to talk to everybody out there, and sometimes even if we're not into a particular game or it doesn't fit, we like to have the relationship, because we'd like to hear about what the next game is.

 


Have you been down to the Independent Games Festival pavilion yet?

JH: I have, yeah.

What have you liked down there? Not that it's any indication that you're going to sign them or anything.

JH: It was funny. I liked The Adventures of PB Winterbottom. It's funny, because those guys are in my class [at USC] right now, and they've been so timid about showing me their game, saying, "Well, you know, we're going to be up at IGF, so if you would..." -- and they call me Professor Hight, it's pretty funny -- "if you would stop by, we'd appreciate it."

And it's cool. It's a fun little game. I wouldn't say anything if that wasn't the case. In case they're listening, this does not necessarily mean that they're going to get an A in the class. (laughs) It's no guarantee. So I definitely like that. And it's interesting.

There are two goo games there. There's World of Goo and Goo, both of which I liked. The Goo game itself I think was a little more engaging for me, because it's fluid and organic, and it seemed a little bit easier to pick up and play. The Fez game was cool. I played that.

Gosh, I'm trying to remember. There's a lot of neat stuff, and it seems to be in general the quality level across the board is better than last year. Each year, it keeps getting a little bit better, and it's very encouraging.

I saw that too. It seemed like the level's coming up a little bit. I was especially impressed, just looking at the awards show last night, looking at the visuals of the Student Showcase games, because it was leaps and bounds. I felt bad that I hadn't played any of them. I was like, "Wow, these look amazing."

Here's a loaded question: What are you going to do to beat Microsoft in this space? And Nintendo as well, as they get into it.

JH: In terms of our objectives, we've already beat them, and I think we are vindicated in our strategy, because long before it seemed to be this popular cause to go after the indies for new content, we focused on that right off the bat.

We wanted innovation, we wanted stylish games, and we wanted things that were new and fresh and cool for our customers. We sought this space out two years ago, before we even launched the PlayStation Network.

I think it's very cool that all publishers are now considering this, because that's what it's all about. It's a low-risk area. It's a place where young people can come into the industry and try out their ideas and not have to go through the usual course of working through a big publisher as QA for the next five years.

Plus, they're getting a broad exposure to everything: producing, coding, sound, music, and putting it all together. It's much easier to learn working on it in a smaller game than it is to work in one part of a larger game.

 


I do think that Microsoft did get some indie stuff early on, like Cloning Clyde. But you have a different approach, wherein a project will be found and it will be developed with Sony.

JH: Yeah. It's one thing to go out and sign up things, but you want to ensure success. We look at our developers as long-term relationships, so we put in whatever resources we need.

In the case of the guys who work with me, typically we have a producer and a designer. These are all seasoned people who have had 10 or 15 years of experience, and they know their job is to mentor these developers. And they take it seriously.

The success of their teams is their personal success, and they don't try to co-opt the ideas of their team. By the same token, they don't just toss in an SDK and say, "Hey, I'll get back to you later." They really spend a lot of time with them.

Is that a model that you plan to continue?

JH: Absolutely. Yeah, it's been successful. We're not going to do a ton of games, but we're trying to make every game its own unique, cool experience. We're going to continue to focus on teams that we see as having a lot of potential, and we hope to grow with them.

What do you see as the benefits of releasing games as they are done, versus specific, spaced-out gated times?

JH: It isn't completely just as they come out, but for us, it's about making sure each game has the time to be refined. These are not downloadable games on your PC. They're on your console, and the expectation from a consumer standpoint is, "These things can't crash. These things can't drop a virus on my machine." They have to have the same solid, rigid QA that we put in all of our console games and our Blu-ray titles.

Plus, when we release, we release worldwide, so that means 21 languages in Europe, 4 or 5 languages in Asia... and we'd like to -- we've gotten a lot of feedback from our customers -- they don't like it when you delay and release it in the United States, and then when localization's done, in Europe, then we release... we're trying to coordinate it all so that it's a simultaneous worldwide release.

But games have their momentum. You don't want to sit too long on them. I try not to double-up and release two things at once, because one gets to have its air time.

I meant more on that last point, I guess: releasing the game when it's done, versus queuing in any way.

JH: We try to do simultaneous release, but we're also cognizant that these are small developers, and while we do support them, at least in the first party, we support them through financial advances to fund the game.

In our third party side, a lot of these developers are self-funded, so you can't just have them hanging out on a line for months with no royalty income coming in. You want to make sure that you release it in time, so they can start earning earnings back on their work.

 


What do you see as the future of retail versus download titles? A lot more download stuff is coming, but a lot of people seem a bit cagey about going against retail. What do you think?

JH: Well, people are still very comfortable going to a store and buying a game. We experimented with that with Warhawk, when we released both, and I think we had a lot of success with it. To make our retail partners happy, we gave them a value-add. They had a headset that came along with the game. And we sold more at retail than we did on download.

I think what's cool about the download space is that we can release games that would just be noise for retailers. They'll take lower-cost jewel case games aimed at children on the PC side, but those aren't the games we typically do. We have higher quality games.

There's no mechanism to get a $10 game to you right now other than online, but the neat thing about it is that we can drive people back to retail with games like Warhawk, because now our customers hopefully realize that when we release one of these games, we're going to back it up with continued online content. We just released an expansion on Warhawk in September, and we'll release another one in April. Each one makes the game bigger and bigger.

It seems to me that retail has too much control for not being game developers, of what comes out in terms of games. You couldn't release flOw in retail as a boxed product for PS3. I don't know. It's a pet peeve of mine that people want to still please the retailers when they're making a lot more money off of games that developers sometimes make.

JH: Well, they take a huge risk. They're carrying an inventory. They don't know whether the customer's going to like the game or not, yet they're sitting on stacks of boxes of these things, and they've got to maintain stores, keep the lights on, keep the workers paid, yadda yadda yadda. And our costs for direct distribution are minimal.

We have a significant investment in the PS3 and establishing the network, no doubt, but basically, I'm not carrying an inventory around. When you purchase that game from me, boom, we download it from the servers, so the distribution costs are very low. We pass those savings along to our customers.

I understand the retail side of things, and we couldn't be here without them. That's important. And there will always be a place for big, epic games like God of War, where it's an event. You want to go to the store and be there at midnight when it goes up on the shelves and be one of the first people that play through it and brag to your friends about it. Those are fun. Those are fun events.

I mean, where are you going to get your hardware, you know? (laughs) A lot of the times, when you buy that hardware, you're going to buy a game along with it, and I don't think we're going to see retail just go away.

I don't think digital distribution is going to cut them out completely, and I don't think that will necessarily be the right thing. I mean, a lot of things have been available for a long time online, like with Amazon.com, and they haven't killed the book business. People still like going to a bookstore and hanging out, perusing.

Also, there seems to be an attempt with downloadable services to emulate a storefront, so you can still sort of browse. It's arguably a better experience, because you can actually play it before you buy it.

JH: Yeah. I think with these types of games, this is absolutely the right space to be selling them. We could not have gotten flOw to the consumer if we did not have PlayStation Network.

 


This is something that's probably not your area of expertise, but do you know if we will ever see any of the Japanese PlayStation 1 titles coming over here within the PlayStation Store? I know it's not quite your area.

JH: I'm pretty darn sure they will, but I don't know which titles.

So it'll be title-by-title. You won't just open the store up, necessarily.

JH: And here's the deal. Even with those titles, you want to make sure that they look good and play fine, but there are rights issues. Unfortunately, our legal team has to go through and determine, "Okay, what exactly are the rights on this?"

I don't think they ever contemplated, in that time, having a digital distribution for the titles, so a lot of it is going back and clearing it up with the original authors and making sure they're okay with us selling each game.

I'm pretty impressed with the ability to download some of these games to the PSP. Do you think that we'll be able to see more original titles downloadable from the PS3 to the PSP?

JH: Yeah. We actually have a couple that are at least in concept phase right now.

That's quite a good thing, for me anyway. I play on the train most of the time, so I've been waiting for a vehicle through which we can get smaller-type game content in that sort of way. So keep doing that. (laughs)

JH: Well yeah, we want to see things that are made for the PSP. It has a unique interface, and games always feel better when they're built for that particular platform.

Have you heard anything about WiiWare yet? What I've heard is that it will be releasing games on a larger scale. Like, the only limitation is something like one game per publisher per month, or something like that. I don't know how much you've heard about it.

JH: No. Unfortunately, I really don't.

Are you worried about mindshare? Because they have a dominant number of platforms.

JH: I think a lot of the gamers that we work with on things that we look for in games... we're always looking at the visual side, gameplay, and audio, and I think the PS3 is unquestionably the most powerful hardware out there. What that translates to for our artists is that they can really make some beautiful stuff.

I think that we've tried to break the mentality people have of downloadable games somehow being for kids, or trivial, or are somehow of a lesser quality than their counterparts that are selling for $60. Instead, they're different. There's different gameplay.

They're little capsules of gameplay that are very specific, and they entertain in one particular area. But the quality overall is very high. With flOw, it's full 3D graphics, 1080p, 60 hertz, THX sound. I think that's what makes that a worthy experience.

I don't think we're necessarily going to talk to the same developers. I think that some games will probably be well-suited for the audience Nintendo has found. I don't know that we have exactly the same audience for our two platforms.

 


How much are you doing to help these independent developers figure out how to develop on the PS3, and use the SPUs, and things like that?

JH: In first-party, we provide the hardware, and we usually give them hands-on. They get to work with our designers and our tech directors. So they get a lot of information about it. But it's not that arduous.

People try to portray the PS3 as this very difficult beast to develop for, and the reality is that Kellee and Jenova at thatgamecompany got their PS3 dev kit really early on, and within a month's time, had flOw up and running. And they'd never made a console game before. Jonathan Mak, within three weeks' time, he had Everyday Shooter running on the PS3, and he's a solo everyman.

I think that while there isn't a huge toolset that's being provided with the PS3 -- we have some very good tools now, those early developers didn't have so much, but we have some good tools now -- but I think it's more than that. There isn't any baggage. You can get right to the iron. You know what you're telling the machine to do, and for most developers, that's very liberating.

It's that last twenty percent of trying to get all the bugs worked out of the game, and of making the game look pretty and be responsive. After all, these are supposed to be real-time experiences, and not low-framerate.

If you're working through a fairly large SDK where a lot of things get included that you don't necessarily need for your game, it's going to be very confusing on what to rip out and what not to have in there. And even just for debugging, it's like, "Hey, is it my problem, or is it somewhere in this black box?"

The cool thing about the approach that we have, is that it requires you know a little bit about programming. It doesn't write the game for you. But it does give you a lot of power over the hardware. It's a different architecture. With last generation, you could kind of come up with an engine that would work across all three platforms and get reasonably good results, but now, the machine's so powerful and so different that if you really want to take advantage of it, you have to write specifically for the PS3.

I think that's mostly what those people are talking about when they say that it's difficult. Also,  how much did flOw and Everyday Shooter use the SPUs?

JH: To some degree they do, sure.

Not as much as [thatgamecompany's next game] Flower is, perhaps?

JH: They're OpenGL, and they're using our solution, which is PSGL, which is a great renderer. Flower looks awesome.

I know, from talking to them, that thatgamecompany's developers have since figured out how to use the SPUs, but I think with smaller games, it's in fact easier to develop on the PS3, because you don't necessarily have to.

JH: That was part of our strategy with them. We felt like with flOw, we'd allow them to get their feet wet, understand the mechanics of building the game. We didn't think it would be a good idea for them to take on some sort of heavy, 3D world in their first game. But now that they've got that under their belts, here we are a year later, and now they can, and the proof is in Flower. It looks great.

The thing that's just really cool for me right now is that this is kind of how I got started in games. I got started back in the early '90s. It was an era when I could make an entire game myself, or with one other person. It was an era of experimentation.

A lot of the games that you see now, the first person shooters, Castle Wolfenstein, that was [originally] an experimentation. Doom was one of the early experiments on direct distribution of games. It's neat to see this stuff happening again.

I think the outgrowth of this is that you are going to see just incredible diversity, and the things that we consider genres now -- because we're so accustomed to seeing multiple games done with the same mechanic -- we're really going to be busting genres.

You're going to see a blurring of lines and this movement, this convergence in technology and the fact that universities and other places are taking game development seriously and preparing people for doing it, is just a wonderful time to be in.

Yeah, it seems like art games are going to come more from the independent side than from the large-scale side. It certainly has started to be the case now.

Yeah, you're right. We treat our developers like artists. That's our intent. And that's the best way to treat them. This is what it's all about. You have a vision for doing something, and then it's a matter of finding the audience.

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