Sony is losing its grip on the indie market

And that seems to be part of the plan.


Here we go again.

In 2011, Microsoft was the indie king. The industry was just blossoming thanks to services like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, which introduced independent games to huge, hungry audiences. Indie Game: The Movie was about to debut, giving fans a deep behind-the-scenes look at the perils and triumphs of small-scale development. The Xbox 360 served as the foundational platform for the film's major projects Super Meat Boy, Fez and Braid.

And then, the pendulum swung — in 2012, Journey landed exclusively on the PS3. It served as a lightning rod for discussions about emotion and art in video games, and it gave Sony the momentum to transform its indie ecosystem. By July 2013, Sony had opened up its processes, allowing indie developers to self-publish their games on the company's next console, the PlayStation 4. Even Microsoft still required indies to partner with established publishers, at this point.

Microsoft attempted to regain its indie dominance with the ID@Xbox program, though that turned out to be more complicated than most developers would have liked. The launch of the Xbox One was a low-key disaster while Sony continually dropped the mic, showcasing indie games at E3 to widespread acclaim while Microsoft played catch-up. As recently as E3 2015, Sony's head hung heavy with indie jewels.

Which brings us to today. Just one week after E3 2017, Sony's reign as indie king doesn't feel stable any longer. It showed zero indie games during its E3 press conference (excluding some VR options), and developers on the show floor whispered about the company's increasing silence. Jim Ryan, Sony Interactive's head of global marketing, said in an interview just days ago that indie games were "less relevant now."

When it comes to indies, the air around Sony is thick. It feels like the pendulum is about to swing back, indie-crown in tow.

"A few years ago, Sony was the champion of indies and I think it made their platform much stronger, honestly," says Johnneman Nordhagen, the co-creator of Gone Home who's currently building Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. "It gave them a whole group of devs that were coming up on the PlayStation platform that would then go on to do bigger and better things, and I think it's a mistake for them not to keep that farm team growing, in a way."

Sony's indie operations haven't halted entirely, of course, but they have changed in a tangible way. Two pivotal indie evangelists and outreach specialists, Adam Boyes and Nick Suttner, left Sony in 2016. Boyes headed to Divekick studio Iron Galaxy while Suttner landed at Oculus.

Around the same time, Shawn Layden's role grew: He transitioned from president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America to president of SIE America and chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios. Layden has hosted the past two PlayStation E3 press conferences, both of which were short on indies, by recent standards.

"There was a specific person at Sony who's not at Sony anymore, but I know for a fact that he cared so deeply and passionately about [indie games]," Ben Ruiz, the creator of Aztez, says. "And he was this big mover and shaker, and I think when he finally moved on he took a lot of the passion with him. The weird thing about Microsoft is that they've had people who it always seems like they've been assigned to indie games, as opposed to like, 'I love them so give them to me.'"

The people at each of these major companies make all the difference for Ruiz. A few years back, Sony felt like an approachable space with people who were excited about indie games while it seemed Microsoft was simply going through the motions. Erin Robinson Swink, designer of Gravity Ghost and creative director of the Games and Playable Media master's program at UC Santa Cruz, agrees with Ruiz.

"Sony was very good about approaching indies and finding us at PAX, and going to our booths and just talking to us, playing the games and really getting to know us," she says. "Microsoft kind of came in with a business card and said, 'OK. Thank you.'"

This was back in 2013 and 2014, but today, many developers say they don't see much difference between Microsoft and Sony. Microsoft is ramping up its indie-outreach efforts, sending folks to the IndieCade booth at E3 to make deals with new developers, and lining up a few high-profile launch exclusives, including Tacoma, Cuphead and The Last Night. Meanwhile, Sony is pulling back. This puts both companies solidly in the middle of the road.

"Our contacts at Sony are not as reliable as those at Microsoft, to be honest," says Roy van der Schilden, business director of indie studio Wispfire. He was showing off Herald at the E3 IndieCade booth. "I don't know them as well, they're less engaged with what's going on here at IndieCade — I've seen the Xbox people all over here all the time. I see, definitely, a difference."

Microsoft and Sony aren't the only two players in the indie world. Nintendo is ramping up its own outreach efforts ("They have opened up with their new Switch portal," van der Schilden says. "It's amazing how well they've learned from past experiences.") and new companies, like Raw Fury, Finji and even Iron Galaxy, are diving into indie publishing from a grassroots angle. These are independent developers who found their audience, saw success, and are now helping newcomers get started.

And then there's Devolver Digital, a company that represents the largest threat to Sony's — and Microsoft's, and Nintendo's — tenuous hold on the indie market.

Devolver doesn't do paperwork

The history of Devolver is intricately entwined with that of Hotline Miami. It's a symbiotic relationship — Devolver gave Hotline Miami the support it needed to become one of the most successful indie games in history, while Hotline Miami cemented Devolver's reputation as a one-stop shop for all of the neon-tinged, blood-splattered, pixel-specked titles about to burst onto the scene. Either would be able to exist without the other, but they certainly wouldn't be the same.

"I was almost finishing up school to become a kindergarten teacher," Hotline Miami co-creator Dennis Wedin begins. Before he continues, let's pause and really consider that statement. The co-creator of Hotline Miami was going to be a kindergarten teacher if his whole "ridiculously violent slaughter-fest of a video game" idea didn't work out. Talk about irony.

Wedin carries on:

"So, we kind of just decided to make the game that we couldn't play, the game that we really wanted to play ourselves. And that became Hotline Miami. We didn't care if anybody was going to play it or any of that. It was just us putting all the cool stuff we that wanted to see in a game in there. And then Devolver got their hands on it, and it wasn't our choice — we sent it to some friends who worked on the Serious Sam indie games, Vlambeer, and they just gave them the demo."

Vlambeer, the studio behind Ridiculous Fishing and Nuclear Throne, was already working with Devolver on a trio of games set in the Serious Sam universe but made by established, independent studios. This was in 2011, and the indie-focused marketing move put Devolver's name on the wider gaming industry's radar. It also shifted Devolver's own plans, pushing the company toward indie publishing and, luckily, Wedin's last-ditch demo.

Devolver's Nigel Lowrie got his hands on the tiny, arcade-style demo of Hotline Miami, he made a deal with Wedin and Dennaton co-founder Jonatan Söderström, and the rest is history. Wedin says a lot of developers are afraid of signing on with publishers, worried they'll lose control over their creative visions or be buried in weeks of mind-numbing paperwork. He didn't have those concerns with Devolver.

"Devolver was very simple," Wedin says. "The contract was one page. It just said, like, 'We get a certain percentage because we did marketing, but you own the game.'"

The paperwork problem cannot be overstated. Independent developers are generally not legal experts or communications majors — they don't want to accidentally sign their rights away or waste time haggling over contractual details. Paperwork was (and perhaps still is) one of Microsoft's biggest hurdles as it tried to snap up independent developers at the height of Sony's indie reign.

Vlambeer, the studio that introduced Hotline Miami to Devolver, actually made its hotly anticipated survival game Nuclear Throne exclusive to the PS4 at launch because it didn't want to deal with Microsoft's restrictions.

"They had so many weird rules," Wedin says. "Like, Microsoft is all about paperwork. ... I'm sorry, I'm making video games. I'm not doing this."

A cacophony of curious circumstances led to Devolver's success as an indie publisher, but much of its appeal comes from its no-bullshit, anti-corporate approach to the industry. If indie developers are afraid of working with major publishers, it makes sense to position your company as a small-fry, easy-going, no-rules kind of establishment.

It makes sense to hold a satirical, anti-E3 press conference during E3, complete with lots of fake blood. It makes sense to buy out the parking lot directly across the street from E3 every year to host a three-day mini festival filled with games, food and beer.

The independent gaming industry is now large and stable enough to support publishers like Devolver, Raw Fury and Finji, which are focused on innovative titles from small teams. Indie games are their own genre, and the market is shifting to accommodate more experiences, more developers and more publishing opportunities. The community itself is also established, allowing veteran developers to support newcomers, offering advice on publishing, marketing and, yes, paperwork.

This is Sony's competition now — other indie developers and companies like Devolver, the anarchist, neon-tinged publisher who does E3 out of an Airstream trailer parked next to the Hooters in downtown Los Angeles. Microsoft may be making moves in the indie space, but many developers are bypassing the big names altogether, choosing to exist in Devolver's new kind of AA limbo. Hey, at least they have beer.

"I think indie publishers are really becoming a thing," says Ben Wander, a former BioWare developer currently working on A Case of Distrust. "Devolver, we know a few people at Raw Fury who really want to help us out."

What could have been

If this were the Sony of years past, a highlight of the company's E3 2017 showcase could have easily been Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. It comes from Nordhagen, who worked on the BioShock franchise before creating Gone Home, a breakout indie hit that defined the modern genre of non-violent, narrative-driven, first-person games.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine would have been a fitting, powerful breath of fresh air at Sony's E3 press conference, too. It's a stunning independent game from an established developer, and it generated sizable buzz when it debuted at The Game Awards in 2015. A follow-up presentation at Sony's E3 2017 showcase — complete with a new trailer backed by original folk music dripping with the sweet humidity of the American South — would have swept through the audience with a piercing kind of familiarity. As gorgeous, rolling plains and mystical creatures filled the screen, Sony would have subtly prompted the audience, Remember this game? Yeah we thought it looked incredible, too.

It would have been a chance for Sony to show it's still on the same page as its audience — the same audience that devoured every advertisement, trailer debut, late-night talk show appearance and pre-order bonus for No Man's Sky, an indie title that premiered at the 2013 VGX award show, was featured in a huge way on Sony's stage for two consecutive E3 conferences, and promptly became one of the most infamous games of the current generation. Infamous, but still furiously popular.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine — or any number of eye-catching, prominent independent titles in development right now — could have been Sony's chance to prove it still believes in indie games. Attention on any indie title would have bolstered its E3 press conference and helped cement its reputation as a creative, supportive community for independent developers — a reputation it seemed to relish in building over the past few years. Instead, Sony didn't bring a single developer on-stage, and its show centered on big-name, AAA experiences and VR.

Of course, it isn't 2014 anymore. Selling indie games becomes more difficult every day, as the market is saturated with new experiences. The folks at Sony might be onto something here: Let the indie industry curate itself and form its own publishing ecosystem and then work with these companies in a more traditional third-party structure.

More traditional, perhaps — but less independent.

"It really seems like there's a lot less support from the big console manufacturers out there," Nordhagen says. "I don't know why that is — whether that's a reflection of changing market dynamics or things like that. Selling indie games right now is really hard for everybody."

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