Look at the top-10 charts for retail game sales released by the NPD Group each month, and you’ll see a lot of familiar names: Activision. Ubisoft. EA. Warner Bros. Take-Two. They’re mainly big publishers with big budgets, releasing big games with a generous assist from big retail chains.
Those big games sell well without the retail stores, too, via gaming consoles’ built-in download stores. But just a few months into Sony’s new console’s life, the digital store on the PlayStation 4 is overrun with independently developed and published games, and they’re on the cusp of making the traditional big titles a minority. Not counting games developed by the studios either company owns, there are currently six indie games on Xbox One (out of 44 total), and 32 on PlayStation 4 (out of 64 total).
That number is growing, too; at a press event on Wednesday, Adam Boyes, PlayStation VP of developer and publisher relations, announced 12 new indie games for the PS4. Sort of like Apple, Sony gets some developer goodwill and artistic cred from all this, but what does it mean for its games business? Re/code caught up with Boyes one-on-one after the event.
The interview has been edited for brevity.
Re/code: Do indie games drive sales of PlayStation Plus subscriptions, or of consoles? How much of an impact do they have?
Adam Boyes: Everyone can extrapolate the number of units we’ve sold around PS4 [seven million] and how many people have downloaded Outlast [No. 9 in the U.S. in March]. That’s a massive, huge amount of people who’ve downloaded that game. And if you think about Don’t Starve and its life on Steam, and then you think about a million downloads on PlayStation Plus and how that’s fundamentally changed how people perceive a game like that, and how many more got exposed to it, it really adds a ton of opportunities. To your point, I think a lot of people do look at what the offerings are on a platform, and if they know there’s a great variety — and not everything is for everyone — there’s things that really resonate.
How do the editors of the PlayStation Store decide which games to promote?
Just like everything else, we have a Store team that works on the digital merchandising of the storefront. Some categories are based purely on popularity, and other ones are picked. It’s a sliding scale of how popular, how’s it tracking outside of the platform, is it exclusive, or a timed exclusive? All these things factor into the placement. And then sometimes you’ll put a game out there and maybe it doesn’t get featured, but it becomes like a cult classic, and then we can merchandise it after the fact.
On the mobile side, getting featured by Apple or Google can be huge, but for PlayStation games, is that a big driver of downloads?
I think it is, but the advantage we have with PS4 is the Share button and the What’s New [social feed on the PS4’s home screen]. When I have my iPhone in my pocket and I pull it out to play a game, it doesn’t tell me what my friends are doing. PS4 shows what your friends are doing, everyone who’s currently livestreaming, what they’re playing, what they’ve downloaded. There’s discoverability around that sharing. It’s not like the traditional brick and mortar where you need prime real estate as much as what are friends playing? What are they talking about?
Is that a bigger driver than getting featured?
It’s a massive factor. If you look at Don’t Starve, every person that was livestreaming, at least 15 people were watching. And that’s massive, that’s 15 people who weren’t doing anything else. As you’re watching a game, it literally says, “Buy it now.”
You mentioned in your presentation the Pub Fund, which is a Sony program paying advance royalties for certain games. How does that work?
Upon completion, you get paid the Pub Fund amount in full. That varies from game to game; it can go as small as next to nothing up to $500,000. It’s usually relatively small depending on what the title is. It’s really a booster pack.
How does Sony decide when to Pub Fund a game? What’s the tipping point?
There’s a bunch of things that go into it. We have a committee that goes through and reviews, we get a bunch of Pub Fund submissions on a regular basis. And then from a strategic perspective, is it an exclusive, how long is it exclusive, how much do they need, what’s the timing of the release? It really depends. People are like, “What are you feeling?” “Anything? Nothing? Wherever there are holes in our portfolio?”
You did mention one common theme among some of the new games in your presentation: Multiplayer games played in the same room, as opposed to playing with friends online. Why is that important? What’s the value-add?
Near the tail end of the last console cycle, it was either one-player action based games or it was broader multiplayer games where you’re online together. I think what we got away from was that spirit of the idea of games that we play together. We obviously want games to be great standalone, as well, but multiplayer local is such a powerful thing. There’s always yuks involved. Everyone’s laughing, having a good time, especially if there’s alcohol involved.
You said you got kicked out of your hotel at GDC for making too much noise while playing Towerfall?
I did. Swear to God. The security guard came three times. And they’re like, “Uh, we’ve had multiple noise complaints.” Are you fucking kidding me? I was so mad. 9:45! It’s not even past the loud time. I think that’d be like 10:30 or something? 9:45! I was so mad, I wrote up a huge complaint. They never got back to me, now that I think about it.
What was the hotel?
I can’t say.
I think, part of it. We’ve had mobile games come over, we’ve had PC games come over, we’ve had games come over from other consoles, we’ve had games that have been born and bred on the platform. I think with PC games, though, there’s certain games that … I’m a hardcore gamer, I have a PC at home. But it’s in my den, my office. Very rarely, when I do bring people in to play a game, it’s like “come into my creepy den” or whatever. The living room with the big screen, to me, is where Jamestown should be. The last thing is, we want people to be able to experience fresh things.