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PSN Outage: Developers Speak

We ask devs for their two cents on the still-ongoing PlayStation Network down time.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: April 28, 2011
It would be something of an understatement to say that Sony has had a hard week. After officially pulling the plug on the PlayStation Network on April 20th, the news trickling out of Foster City (and indeed headquarters all over the world) has been... troubling to say the least. personal data has been compromised, security experts and law enforcement have been called in and all because someone managed to infiltrate The Big S' data center. It's meant a complete shutdown of the online portion of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable's network, ranging from things as mundane as being able to chat with friends to more far-reaching consequences like being able to play online with others to the loss of the entire revenue stream from the PlayStation Store and Qriocity services.

It's that latter one that was most worrisome -- not for us, mind you, but for developers, particularly the smaller-time game houses that have been working on the lower-margin PlayStation Minis initiative. Clocking in at under a hundred megabytes and going for just a few bucks, these mobile-style (and indeed in some cases mobile-ported) bite-sized games don't share the massive budgets of some retail games, but they're also the life's blood of smaller devs who are testing the waters on Sony's digital distribution platform.

Sure, it sucks for gamers just looking to mow down some dudes online in a first-person shooter or for those looking to chase the checkered flag with other real humans in a racing game, but instead of bemoaning the fact that we're getting backlogged on reviews, we thought it more prudent and important to check in with the folks that depend on the PlayStation Network to stay in business -- or at least offset some of the costs of doing so.

We contacted a handful of developers across the globe, both those crafting Minis for the PSP and PS3, and slightly larger PS3-only projects. Because we wanted the perspective of smaller dev houses, we purposefully avoided bigger publishers that also make their money off retail games or $10+ million big-budget entries. This was to be a peek at the inner workings of the little guys -- ones that had reached out to us in the past for coverage. We felt it only fair to do the same when considering the impact of even just a few days' down time of an ordinarily round-the-clock online Store selling their wares.

While we felt it was important to let them comment in broad strokes about the overall issue, we also wanted to ask a few more pointed questions, namely the financial impact and some of the larger surrounding issues with the PSN being out of service. We decided on five different areas of impact and posed the same questions to each developer while offering a chance to comment issue as a whole. These are those questions:

[1] Has the PlayStation Network down time affected the company or staff as a whole? Obviously we have some reviews that can't get done until we can play the online portions, but it's not like our content has been completely cut off from our consumers.

[2] Would you feel comfortable giving a very vague idea of how much of an impact even just a week of down time has on overall revenues?

[3] Has the specific DRM setup that Sony allows developers to use that requires an active PSN connection been something you've used or considered in the past, and has this sort of outage influenced the decision to implement or continue to use it in the future -- even on other platforms with similar structures?

[4] Plenty of our readers have expressed some form of frustration with the lack of transparency and update frequency from Sony themselves. We can't say we share that feeling exactly, but from a developer's standpoint, were there any feelings of frustration on your end?

[5] Has the down time affected your release schedules going forward, or necessitated a shift in platforms? A week isn't exactly a long time, but that's seven days of lost potential revenue.

While we were delighted by the candid nature of some of the replies, what really stuck out was the tenacity of these devs. While not all of them are incredibly small-time operations or even solely depend on the PlayStation Store for revenue, all seemed to share a similar sense of resolve.

Take, for example, Budapest-based ZEN Studios. The multi-national studio has launched a pair of pinball games on the PlayStation Network (ZEN Pinball and Marvel Pinball for those curious), both of which are fantastic and regularly updated with new tables based on community-voted feedback. The outage has affected one such table update as Mel Kirk, the company's PR head honcho based in Northern California, explains.

“The PSN outage really is a bummer for all parties – developers, publishers & gamers alike – and it shows the need for heightened security and preventative measures to keep a system like PSN from being hacked," Kirk posits. "We know Sony is doing everything possible to resolve the situation, and they have been keeping us in the loop with information as it becomes available.

ZEN Studios has felt the impact just as hard as any other digital publisher on the platform. Sorcerer’s Lair for ZEN Pinball was due to release today on PSN, however we are now delayed due these circumstances. We are confident that those looking for our game will find it when it does become available, but it does put a little bit of a buzz kill in the middle of our ramp to launch. We are expecting the same type of support from Sony to help promote the game once everything is back online.

In all honesty, it will probably be a lot tougher on the guys who released games last week, or the week before. You really need the first few weeks sales momentum to carry you into the post launch hype loss, and it might be tough for those guys to get that back unless Sony steps in and provides some support for them. We hope they do! The loss of a week’s worth of sales will be felt by every publisher regardless of how great or small the revenue is. It just goes to show how fragile the business is at this point in the evolution of digital distribution.

We know Sony are doing the best they can to resolve this and in the shortest amount of time possible. We look forward to hearing about the security improvements that will ensure PSN runs smoothly from here forward.”

It's an attitude that was echoed across all three of the devs we spoke with. Czech-based Grip Games offered a similar combination of support and concern.

"The current problem with PSN is of course a major issue for a small developer like us. PSN is a significant source of our revenues and although you always [consider] the possibility that your games will not be a very big hit and won’t generate that many downloads, PSN shutting down for a few weeks is really like a punch in our face, especially at such circumstances," reveals Grip's Jakub Mikyska. Grip Games has released three Minis thus, far 5-in-1 Arcade Hits, Blimp: The Flying Adventures and, around a month ago, MiniSquadron.

"The biggest problem is actually not the missed revenue, at least not in our case, but the uncertainty of the coming weeks and months is the real problem we are now facing. When this outage is going to end? Will PSN users return and will be buying games again? Is this going to damage the digital distribution business model as a whole? Did this damage PlayStation as a platform? Nobody knows that and only the time will tell.

Small developers have a very limited maneuvering space and we have to be very smart about our next steps and we hope that the overall impact will be small.

We have yet to see what kind of position is Sony going to take towards the small developers. The ones who were just about to launch a title when the outage happened were offered an additional marketing support. But that is not our case as we are now in between our releases.

In the end, it is important to understand that a major crime has been committed and that Sony is just as much the victim as the people, who got their personal data stolen, are.

There is currently a lot at stake for them and we all must be patient for at least a few more days. I am sure that Sony will make everything clear as soon as they are ready and that PSN will be the most secure system on the planet after this incident ;-)

We are not going to turn our back on them whenever they are in trouble and neither should the players."

Kiev-based Beatshapers have been extremely committed to the Minis movement as well, with all seven of their games being released on Sony platforms on various PlayStation Stores around the world. MelodyBloxx, BreakQuest, NormalTanks, Carnivores: Dinosaur Hunter, Jane's Hotel and StarDrone are all available via the PlayStation Store. CEO/Founder Alexey Menshikov brings up a good point: in the absence of absolute wording as to the effects of the PSN intrusion, the Web has been abuzz with theories from editor and gamer alike.

"What is most annoying in this story that is too much loose talks.

Not long time ago we had this Xbox Live outage and Amazon Cloud outage last week.

I've been asked - will i drop PSN or correct the company strategy because of outage: No the outage will not force to drop development of 2 NGP launch titles and another PS3 and minis games which scheduled to release next few month. We also working on iPad game but this is part of our growth strategy, Sony remains our primary partners."

"We are surely affected but not really much to start really worry, its will not lasts forever and i believe Sony will learn the lessons and increase security up to the limits,"
Menshikov responded when we asked our first question about staff/company impact. "We've been asked does affect StarDrone sales - it is but we not rely only on StarDrone, we have 5 minis on PSN store and 3 more to come later this year. I have a friends who used to have release their games on PSN next couple weeks and we just finished work-for-hire mini and publisher about to release: all of them would be delayed and this guys are worry."

"Well we loose some money for sure - we have many our recent games giveaways and reviews, so new players might be interested in purchasing our game and can't do this because of PSN outage," he explains when asked about the financial impact. "But i really hope they will come back later when all be on rails."

On the issue of DRM, things are cut and dry as can be:

"Nope we didn't used that: most our games are offline Minis - in the StarDrone we using only leaderboards, which can be synchronized later when it back to normal. I doubt we will use active internet connection DRM in our games. My point is - people, who download pirated game are not our target audience."

When discussing Sony's communication with the public, Menshikov brings up a good point: no security is unbreakable.

"No i'm not frustrated - I completely understand Sony in their efforts to investigate it as deep as possible and than make an official statement, whatever how bad new it is. Sony was always delays the immediate response on past outages or even PS3 hack update but alway, the later response was confident and professional. In my opinion, Sony doing good job in such a bad situation - i can only imagine all those crying kids who demands PSN back immediately, not understanding that it might be serious issue and sony trying to protect them.

Moreover, nobody promised 100% uptime, not any internet provider can offer this, plus there is information about it in the PSN license agreement. Now (after reading todays news and see the private data compromised): yes this is really bad and i expect Sony take care on security in the future but again - this is digital world, nobody protected and everything might happen. You can listen [this TED talk] for example."

That's not to say the down time has had a tangible effect on Beatshapers' latest release.

"Yes, will delay the StarDrone demo and 3D patch because it will be too many releases same time for next few weeks. Hard to say how big impact it might have on revenue. But there is a good thing - because of outage, we still had StarDrone banners in EU PSN stores :)"

It's a rather positive outlook for Beatshapers, but it's mirrored in ZEN Studios' response as well.

"Yes, the down time has affected us," ZEN's Mel Kirk says bluntly. "Again, we had a product set to launch TODAY, obviously that is not happening. We would assume Sorcerer’s Lair will release next week if things are back online, but at this point we do not have a definite answer."

Ditto for Jakub Mikyska's Grip Games.

"We have another minis title planned for late May or early June. Now, we may postpone its release to see the damage this outage may have done and if our current titles will be able to perform like they were before the outage. If there is a significant drop, we may need to start thinking about alternatives. On the other hand, PSN is our primary platform and we don’t want to get hysterical. We have confidence in Sony’s ability to make things right again."

Grip Games, like many affected by the outage, responded understandably in regards to potential frustration stemming from official announcements.

"Uncertainty is our biggest frustration. It is not yet clear when the PSN is coming back and if it will be fully functional at that moment. It also remains to be seen if the players will immediately jump into purchasing games again, or if they will wait to see if PSN is safe. Most of the information we have at the moment, is what we read in the press."

"Towards the end of last week we started to realize how serious a problem this outage was. We contacted our account managers and they responded to us right away,"
adds Kirk. "We have been happy with the flow of information and updates from Sony."

The responses to our rather private question of even vague estimates of lost revenue, not surprisingly, were rather mixed.

"I cannot share this data, however a week of PSN sales for a company like ZEN Studios is important," Kirk explains.

Grip Games was a little more forthcoming:
"Right now it seems like two weeks of down time. In the case of a small developer, like us, we are talking in thousands of Euros. But the number goes a lot higher for the teams who spent the last year developing a PS3 PSN game and have just recently released it. I definitely wouldn’t want to be in these guys’ shoes right now.

Bigger damage than just the missed revenue is the long term impact this is going to have. It will definitely affect the whole PSN and the overall revenue it generates, at least in the coming months. A lot of people simply won’t trust Sony anymore and will not be using credit cards as their preferred form of payment and this could take a long time to fix.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this incident caused some studios to close down, because they missed a lot of potential revenue that they were counting with."

When questioned about the overall impact on the company, though, Grip Games had a knack for looking at the bright side yet again.

"Operations of our company were not affected and we continue to work normally. On the other hand, the inability to connect to the PSN and play our favorite online games is starting to have a significant effect on our productivity (a positive one) ;-)"

Likewise, ZEN Studios looked to revenue from elsewhere to offset the loss of PSN sales.

"The effect to ZEN Studios is a week’s loss of revenue on the platform (luckily PSN is not our only source of revenue), and the delay in the release of Sorcerer’s Lair for ZEN Pinball. I guess you could say it will be hard to judge the effectiveness of the the work and promotion we’ve run to this point for the table, so not sure what the impact in terms of hours lost on something that has now ‘fallen apart’ will be."

In Sony's defense, many of these responses were received before an extensive Q&A was added to the PS.Blog yesterday, then updated further still today. Though there were plenty of questions in the early days, more and more information has been flowing out to the public as Sony gets a handle on the situation from their security consultants. Rest assured that as we hear more, we'll let you know -- particularly when the PSN comes back up in any form.

We want to offer our sincere thanks to Jakub, Mel and Alexey for chiming in with their perspectives, as well as the other studios that declined to offer. If any other developers would like to offer their takes, we'll happily update this story with those responses. Those same five questions apply to any developers or publishers that are comfortable answering them.