After yesterday’s industry-wide discussion of the cost of being visible on Sony’s PlayStation Store, Kotaku has heard from multiple independent developers and publishers expressing similar frustrations and fury.
There were two main responses to our article yesterday highlighting one independent developer’s frustrations with working with Sony to sell games on the PlayStation store. The first was a confusing number of people convinced that this was somehow part of an underground conspiracy to destroy Sony. The second was many indie game developers and publishers getting in touch to say that, yes, wow, Sony are far harder to work with and sell games through than anywhere else.
It’s not possible to rationalise with the former group. We had confirmed hard figures on Sony’s fees for getting any visibility on the PlayStation’s in-built store, so we reported them. The conspiracy, disappointingly, ends there. However, the information about just how much worse it is for indies to work with Sony than Microsoft or Nintendo keeps piling in.
“Oh yeah, so there’s Nintendo who supports you,” one such response begins. “[Then] Microsoft who supports you and [then] there is Sony who supports its own AAA machine and gives a fuck about everyone else.”
We’ve reached out to Sony to hear their side of all this, but at the time of publication they’ve chosen not to respond.
As Bloomberg reported in April, Sony shows extraordinary caution even with the games it makes itself, with an obsessive focus on blockbuster success. According to that article, the Japanese corporation is moving away from developing smaller in-house games, so fixated are they on only the largest games. It seems this lack of interest in smaller titles extends to third-party developers attempting to sell their games on the system.
“Sony does not understand what indie means,” an independent publisher tells me under the condition of anonymity, via Twitter DMs. “Not at all. For them indie is something in the lower million budgets.”
“No platform is ‘great’, but Sony is particularly terrible,” says another publisher to me via Discord. “They know it too — they’ve had a problem for a long time, and they’ve been telling devs they have a problem for a long time, but they’ve just never fixed anything, so the problem persists.”
The issue isn’t simply that Sony charges a minimum of $US25,000 ($32,065) to be featured in a visible position on the PlayStation Store — it’s that this is, for most indie games, the only way to be visible. Without paying, developers are reporting that games get completely lost, which many have told us is in stark contrast to both Microsoft and Nintendo’s stores. While both offer ways to pay for prominence (although we’ve as yet been unable to confirm exact figures), what we keep being told is that they also offer many other free options too.
“We get people every week saying, ‘Saw your game on the [Xbox] dashboard today!!’,” a publisher of smaller indie titles tells me. “The Xbox UI feels like a mess, but in reality, it’s actually kinda interesting that they just have so many different places and spaces to feature games.”
Meanwhile on Switch we’re told, “Without paying for featuring, there are spots on the eShop you will appear without paying. New releases, great deals, all those kinds of lists. And they will put new releases and decent discounts into the Discover tab too.”
In response to Iain Garner’s original thread about the mysterious Platform X, a few other indies stepped forward to speak out too, and a theme that emerged was just how few sales they see on PlayStation compared to other platforms.
Matthew Wright of WhiteThorn Games published a pie chart showing the percentage of sales across consoles, with Switch making up a good 60 per cent, Xbox around 30%, then Steam around 7 per cent and PlayStation down at 3 per cent.
Cristian Botea of indie developer and publisher Those Awesome Guys did the same, showing a whopping 91.5 per cent on Steam, 7.6 per cent on Switch, with 0.6 on Xbox and 0.3 per cent on PlayStation.
Another publisher who wished to remain anonymous told us some exact sales figures for one small indie release they named but asked us to withhold. The game sold around 20,000 copies on Xbox, compared to just 7,000 on PlayStation. However, when it came to releasing DLC, the Microsoft console saw 2,000 units shift, while, “On Sony, and [this is] not a fucking joke, until today, 7.”
The main reason given for these low numbers is not a lack of marketing, with some mentioning thousands spent on targeted ads that performed well for other formats. Instead, based on our conversations with a variety of developers, the numbers seem to reflect just how hard it is to find games on PlayStation if they’re not heavily featured, and how incredibly difficult it is to be featured in PlayStation sales.
“If your store doesn’t have a place where players can find new/interesting games,” an indie publisher vents to me, “and you have to literally use the search functionality to find a game, then why the fuck is anyone giving [them] 30%?”
In a now-deleted tweet, another independent developer wrote, “Yep, go try to find my game [on PlayStation] without typing it in…” This was a common refrain from those responding to Garner’s original thread, that the PlayStation just doesn’t have a sensible way of letting newly-released games prominently appear, while both Xbox and Switch have immediately obvious sections devoted to them.
Access to sales was the other large aspect of Garner’s invective. This, too, has been confirmed by developers and publishers who reached out to Kotaku. “It’s the worst,” one indie publisher told me. “You can only get invited to Promotions these days. You cannot set up custom discounts anymore, no publisher/developer sales. And these invites are…fucking insane. They propose usually something around 40-50 per cent by default and you have to make a counter proposal. You will always ask yourself, ‘Shit, I have to offer them 30 per cent or they will exclude me maybe.’ With the same time on other platforms, if you are trying to go for a stable price policy… god, it just ruins the strategy and it is frustrating.”
Cristian Botea publically tweeted, explaining just how hard it is to be picked for a sale. He added, “Good luck fighting your way through copy pasted messages that tell you to wait for the invite that will never come.”
When I ask any of these industry figures what it is that Microsoft and Nintendo does better, the answer is always the same: Communication.
“It helps every part of the process,” one indie publisher tells me of Microsoft’s quick responses. “If I literally can’t speak to someone at a platform about an issue, and the issue goes on for weeks, it just creates problems.”
“Besides their cut for sales we’ve never been asked for money,” Eric Freeman, independent developer of Deja Vu, tells me over Twitter. “And everyone on the ID@Xbox team have been incredibly nice and responsive.” He went on to detail how Microsoft have repeatedly invited them to be in sales, making the process simple.
“Heck, they invite you to shows,” another publisher tells me. “They not only invite you if you are already popular, they try to invite quality games no matter if you know them already. And Game Pass. Game Pass is a thing and it offers good value.”
Meanwhile, communication with Sony is reportedly extraordinarily difficult. Ragnar Tørnquist of indie developer Red Thread Games tweeted his frustrations. “We’re a pretty established developer with a proven track record, but I honestly have no idea who to even contact to make console sales happen. It’s like trying to be heard in the vacuum of space.”
“If I literally can’t speak to someone at a platform about an issue,” agrees a publisher over Discord, “and the issue goes on for weeks, it just creates problems.”
Of course, things aren’t all sunshine on the other platforms, but the central message was that things are significantly worse for indies with Sony. We learned some very odd details, like how Nintendo prevents developers from rolling out patches larger the 200MB without special permission, but in general, while no one thought anywhere was close to ideal, people are much happier with the experience and sales on Microsoft and Nintendo’s consoles.
“Crazily enough, Nintendo finally listened after many years, and now provide some of the best tools for devs to actually control their game,” a respected indie publisher told me. “So we can just drop a discount on Switch for our games whenever we want, at any discount level we want, it’s completely in our control. Steam is the only other platform that allows that.”
He points out that on Switch there are many ways to be featured without paying. “New releases, great deals, all those kinds of lists, and they will put new releases and decent discounts into the Discover tab too. [I’m] not saying it’s amazing, but it’s at least discovery methods, and we end up selling decent numbers on Switch because people can find our games.”
Then pauses and adds,
“Now try going on the PlayStation Store and finding a specific game.”