[I'll do my best to not go too technical in here, a (hopefully useful) glossary is provided at the end of the post]
I am a programmer at work and at heart. I love programming, punching in text and seeing it make do things that work on a computer, iPod or a website is something I draw an immense amount of satisfaction from. Which is why I found the announcement of PlayStation Suite at last year's TGS more interesting than PS Vita itself. As cool as the device sounded back then (and I do like playing it a lot), this particular piece of software really got my attention. Running my own code on an actual console with seemingly no hurdles? C# as the programming language? How do I sign up?
A closed beta program popped up after a few months of radio silence, unfortunately it was restricted to UK, US and Japanese residents with no news on when we, the simple folk of neither, could start making things happen on those delicious screens. Finally, couple months later, the PlayStation Suite beta has been made publicly available and it looks like it delivers on all fronts.
Using MonoDevelop (an open-source alternative to Visual Studio), C# as the programming language and .NET Framework, it provides an environment with a fairly decent barrier of entry - I can see programmers with 6 months (and upwards) experience with C# and .NET being able to create something workable there. On top of that, a device simulator (which I haven't tried) and the ability to run and debug the code on a proper actual device (I tested it with a PS Vita, worked swimmingly well) is included to ease the potential developer into the process further. The membership fee is no more expensive than what Microsoft or Apple are asking - $99 a year - although there is currently no information available on the registration approval process - I imagine registering without a valid company would not be possible.
The open beta version of the software provides plenty of sample code and working prototypes and it's great to see one of my early concerns put to rest - you can use analog sticks, all buttons and the touchscreen for input. I have only tried two demos - one side-scrolling shmup and one third-person monster-slasher (both with simple 3D graphics), and they performed really well on the device .The nature of .NET-developed software adds some extra resource consumption, but it adds memory management - data that is no longer used essentially is kicked out of the memory automatically without the need for the developer to keep track of it. The applications also don't clutter the home screen - there is a separate development assistant app downloaded from the PS Store that manages all user-created software. Another great feature is debugging using the Vita USB cable - effectively turning a retail console into a proper dev unit.
Do I see that as the future of game development? Not really. C++ is still the industry standard, and that is not going to change any time soon. It's a nice alternative, though. The cost of entry is significantly lower than any full-on dev kit, and offers pretty solid amount of possibilities. I think of it as Sony's XNA, which, since they both use the same language, will hopefully lead to some cross-platform integration. I certainly wouldn't mind to have the option of covering PS Vita, Xbox 360 and Windows (including Windows Phone) within the same bunch of code.
A (hopefully useful) glossary
- a Microsoft-developed programming language, very similar to Java ("that thing they made Minecraft with"), fairly easy to learn, especially with prior C++ experience.
("that damn thing every other game needs to install for some reason") - a set of functionality provided for programmers, like creating windows, playing sounds, handling keyboard input, leveraging a ton of otherwise necessary busywork.
Visual Studio, MonoDevelop
- those are called Integrated Development Environments (IDEs), which essentially bundle code editing, turning code into target programs, debugging, and installing software on test devices into one (or a set thereof, depending on living up to the "integrated" part of the name) application.
Header image taken from Sony's PSS site, fair use and so on