The State of the PlayStation Mobile SDK with regards to PlayStation Vita development
It has now been several months since PlayStation Mobile (formerly PlayStation Suite) was unleashed onto developers in beta form. On 20th September 2012, Sony announced that store deployment will be made available from October 3rd, with a final version of the SDK to be released in November.
So far, I am sorry to report that, in my opinion, the PSM SDK is not in a fit state for production use, particularly for PlayStation Vita development. Far from it. Before I look at the key issues, I want to make it clear that I do understand that PSM is designed as a portable platform to work on all PS Certified devices (which currently includes a range of Xperia Play, Sony Tablet and HTC One devices as well as the Vita), and as such developers wishing to max out the Vita’s hardware potential should ideally be using the official full-blown Vita SDK for games specific to that platform. And that brings me to the core political problem:
We can’t use the official Vita SDK to write games
Why not? Because the barrier to entry is prohibitively high. License costs are exorbitant, and business models and product plans must be submitted in advance. A few facts are at play here:
- There are virtually no Vita games and they are desperately needed, 7 months after the machine’s European launch. Everybody I know with a Vita is clamouring to the PSN store updates every Wednesday to see if there any decent new games.
- It’s all about the F2P and low price downloadable titles: Treasures of Montezuma Blitz and games like the newly-released SunFlowers are becoming incredibly popular. These are simple, no frills games with a low or no price tag, and people want to play them.
- The people most likely to write these types of games are indie developers, possibly business start-ups with little-to-no capital who want to get a foot in the door.
Why doesn’t SCE give these people some love? They are passionate about developing but they can’t. So they struggle on with the grossly underpowered PSM, and will likely eventually give up and move to the iPhone, Android or Facebook to get their revenue, where the cost of entry is almost zero, and no prior project approval is needed.
There is an argument that these platforms are awash with crummy games and applications, and that is certainly true, but it is also true that the cream tends to rise to the top. Certain games have become very popular on iPhone and Android, there is no reason why the same would not happen with an open development platform utilising the full power of the Vita. To keep the chaff out of the main PSN store, a simple Indie section can be incorporated.
I currently have a team of 6 designers, developers, graphicians and musicians with no budget waiting to code simple, great games for the Vita. How are we going to do this without a workable SDK?
The lowest common denominator problem
The PSM SDK provides the ability to code games in C# running on the Mono VM. The problem is, only the lowest common denominator hardware platform is supported. If I’m coding a game for Steam, should I make sure it only works on the lowest possible PC spec?
The SDK has no device targeting capabilities. This is a massive problem. Because of the relegation from being able to use the proper Vita SDK, many developers have turned to PSM with only an interest in developing Vita games, only to find out that many features aren’t available and there is uncertainty as to whether PSM releases can be limited to specific app stores on specific devices or not. SCE appear to have completely failed to recognise this trend and why it is happening. I suspect that most of the requests for device targeting would go away if the native SDK was opened up, however in the absence of that, device targeting would be the next best solution. Let’s take a closer look:
- No rear touch pad support
- No support for front or rear cameras
- Very limited networking functionality
- No PSN integration (although this has been hinted at)
- No support for features supported by the Vita PowerVR GPU such as compressed textures or more than 128 vectors
This doesn’t bode well.
There are more problems with the SDK that apply to all platforms although the Vita is particularly sensitive to some of these:
- No Visual Studio integration. We have to use MonoDevelop. This was a strange decision that can potentially impact on productivity.
- No support for background events or notifications. Allowing this would open up a myriad of useful possibilities for productivity apps among others.
- Unoptimised VM. There are rumours that the speed has been limited, I don’t know about that, but performance tests by developers on the official forums show that simple sorting and other basic computational exercises are incredibly slow on the VM, particularly the Vita VM which performed 3 times slower than the PSP on the same tasks.
- RAM limitations. Again this is a symptom of the lowest common denominator problem, but currently we are limited to using 96MB of RAM for our applications, which is ludicrious even for a smartphone.
- The simulator. The simulator provided with the SDK is rather sub-par. There is no multi-touch support, the default resolution is set for the Xperia Play and rather brilliantly, 3D models don’t render at all if you are using an ATI card for development, which pretty much renders the simulator completely useless.
- The class structure (particularly the relationship between Sce.PlayStation.Core and Sce.PlayStation.HighLevel.GameEngine2D) is all a bit of a mess at the moment and needs some major re-factoring before the SDK goes gold.
Trophies Matter More Than You Realise
The biggest turn off to gamers from buying Minis was not the low resolution graphics or lack of online gaming, but the failure to include trophy support. Modern gamers are extremely motivated by trophy collecting, and not being able to provide them in PSM games is a crippling limitation that will unequivocally harm sales in a significant way.
The PSM store will be launched in 9 territories and the SDK will be offered initially to 11 territories, not including the ones I or most European developers live in. We can only hope that we will still be able to use the SDK and sell in other territories, and that we won’t be locked out of the program altogether just because we happen to be competent developers sitting in an office in an unapproved location.
Think About It, SCE
The business logic is really very simple:
Did the Vita flop (or, as Jack Tretton put it, sell ‘adequately’, which is basically the same thing)? Yes.
Are you in desperate need of new content for the platform? Yes.
Are there many good developers out there willing to do it practically for free? Yes.
Do you want to maximize your chance of making the Vita a massive hit and making it a sticky platform for developers? Yes.
So please, before you rush a sub-par SDK to market in November, think about it.