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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Interview: The person bringing PlayStation development to students


Last week, we had the big news that Sony, in collaboration with the AIE and developer/ publisher, Nnooo, would be bringing a program called PlayStation First to Australia. The PlayStation First program allows tertiary students to develop and then publish a game on the PlayStation platform, gaining valuable experience in publishing commercial work, while ending up with some cash and IP to build a business on from there.

This program is headed by Dr. Maria Stukoff, and has been launched in a number of different countries around the world. It's a fascinating program for consumers, too, because it means a whole lot of very creative indie games. I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Stukoff a couple of questions about the program, and where it might go from here.

Related reading: We have also interviewed Nnooo, which will be publishing a wide range of games being supported by the PlayStation First initiative.

Dr. Maria Stukoff

Digitally Downloaded (DD): Why does Sony consider it important to engage with students?
Dr. Maria Stukoff (MS): PlayStation®First Academic Game Development Programme provides our university partners with tools, expertise and connections to some of the top game companies worldwide.. PlayStation First is all about inspiring the next wave of talented developers, giving students the opportunity to publish their games on the PlayStation®Network. Here at Sony we actively want to work with that talent, so students can cut their teeth with console games right from the beginning!

DD: Following on from that - why commercialise student projects? What additional value do students get from publishing a game that has a price tag, as opposed to simply distributing the final product?
MS: What better calling card is there for any young game developer to show off their first game published on PSN? That is what the buzz is all about, and that comes entirely from the students themselves – they are the entrepreneurs, the creators, the game makers – who want to get their games into the hands of PlayStation players. Game development is a complex and lengthy process, no matter the scale of the game and the technologies used or the target platforms. So in this capacity PSFirst acts as an Executive Producer – guiding teams through the quite technical and challenging endgame: the final polish, registering the product with SCE Third Party Relations, QA testing and marketing the title at the final stages. Everything else is down to the team – even setting the pricing of the game. It’s a hard yet rewarding journey to learn both the development and publishing pipeline for the videogames industry. If they get their titles published - WOW, lookout - because those teams will be ones to watch in future.

DD: I played PieceFall (the first game to be published under PSFirst), and it was a wonderful little game. How representative do you think that is of student projects around the world, and how many games do you expect will be published under the PS First initiative each year?
MS: PSFirst is affiliated with over 100 universities worldwide, and we have an amazing talent pool to see a constant flow of new ideas. We have the privilege to see so many early prototypes but success and failure is often self-determined by teams either parting way or being unable to secure funding post-graduation – sometimes it’s all about the right ingredients coming together to support teams who have published quality IP. These things are all factors yet certain teams standout. We want to make sure that those teams or individuals have the opportunity to get their titles to PSN. PieceFall is a great example of what is possible, and our aim is to make sure PieceFall is followed by a catalogue of amazing PSFirst work over the next few years.


DD: In Australia Sony is working with Nnooo to publish these games. Was there a reason to partner with a third party publisher, rather than have Sony publish the games directly?
MS: Today’s students are the next wave of PlayStation game developers, and we want to give them the best opportunities to become part of our developer community. We do this by linking them directly with future employers – PlayStation development studios. This way, students get first-hand experience of how to self-publish, but in safe hands. Having worked on PlayStation at an educational level naturally means they are ideal candidates to join a development studio making games on our platforms. Irrelevant of the game succeeding, the team members will have unparalleled experience that will hold them in high esteem for employment in the videogames industry far and wide. It’s a win-win situation.

DD: Do you see PS First expanding beyond the AIE to take on projects from other Australian educational institutions?
MS: We have enquires from, and links to, other institutions in Australia and an academic partnership in New Zealand. We are open to receive expressions of interest via our online company registration licencing enquiry website. PSFirst has a selection criterion to ensure we work with the right institutions ready to bring PlayStation tools into the teaching syllabus in order to raise the standard of video game graduates across the board. Australia is a creative hub for game development, and PSFirst can be part of the conversation to enhance the skills of more graduates especially for console development.

DD: Is this the start of a broader education play by Sony? Could we see SDKs being given to high schools, for example?
MS: Part of our work is to support requests to integrate PlayStation consoles into the classroom and work with teachers to create meaningful lesson plans. The aim is about getting young kids to unleash their inventive and creative talents using PlayStation in the classroom. Our motto is simple: “Don’t just be a consumer of digital technology – become a maker and creator”. PSFirst advocates PlayStation as a unique digital learning platform that sits comfortably alongside software such as Gamemaker and Scratch. LittleBigPlanet on PS4, PS3 and PS Vita for example allow teachers to see their lessons come alive through the action of game creation using the level builder as a creative space in the lesson! Games are a power tool for kids to develop the future-fit digital skills we need today, and engaging with schools means we are actively shaping the future of game development education.


DD: This initiative is part of a much larger strategy by Sony to really engage with independent developers. What value does Sony see in doing this, as it really does seem that you go well beyond what Microsoft and Nintendo are doing for indies.
MS: Independent developers are the lifeblood of the industry and push the boundaries of innovation. They're not afraid to experiment with and test new game experiences with our fans. Sony’s approach is about supporting the best work by ambitious creatives, whether they're students, industry veterans in large AAA studios or solo developers. That has always been our way. Diversity keeps things fresh and exciting and we want PlayStation to be known as the best place to play games made by the best developers.

DD: So far PS First is an initiative focused on supporting students in traditional game development markets in Europe, Australia and so on. But we're seeing a real explosion of interest in development from non-traditional markets such as Singapore, Thailand, through South America and Africa. Is the intention to expand this program into emerging markets to capitalise on the sheer number of inexperienced developers going through their education systems?
MS: PSFirst is working with academic partners across emerging territories including Singapore, Jordan, India and South America. The talent coming out of those regions is astounding. Singapore is well known for its digital technology hubs, and it comes at no surprise they are very excited about game development and working with PlayStation First. We also work closely with our Sony America – Latin America team, who have close links to the fantastic indie scene across Latin America to help launch their first PlayStation titles.

DD: What are some of the most creative ideas that you've seen come through the system so far?
MS: Well… that is a very safely guarded secret…! We are working on a few student titles now which we hope will come to PSN in the future. But sure to say that in recent years as indie gaming has exploded we’ve worked hard to narrow the gap between student teams and indie studios. This gap will eventually close. Some of the coolest PSN games in the future will be developed by students with our support, and I cant wait to see the next game published in collaboration with Nnooo and the Academy of Interactive Entertainment.

- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief

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Interview: The person bringing PlayStation development to students
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