Tiny game studio finds Nintendo stardom through Sony’s obsolete device

A file photo of a visitor to the 2012 Tokyo Game Show looking at the PS Vita. The developers of ‘Gnosia’ reasoned that by sticking with the Vita, they were giving their game the best chance of being noticed. — TAN KIT HOONG/The Star

For Toru Kawakatsu, winning a 70-second spot on Nintendo Co’s popular Direct showcase last month was the culmination of an unusual strategy many dismissed as quixotic.

His four-person game studio, dubbed Petit Depotto, started work on an adventure game called Gnosia for the PlayStation Vita portable console back in 2015. The Vita was already ailing back then, and Sony Corp had stopped announcing sales numbers for it, but Kawakatsu and his friends didn’t waver. Last summer, three months after the Vita was officially discontinued, they released their finished work on a zombie platform. Warmly received by players and recognised by reviewers, the game got Nintendo’s attention, which may not have happened had they competed on more congested fronts. Gnosia’s Switch edition went on sale in Japan on April 30.

Competition for the Nintendo Direct spotlight among game developers is fierce. It’s where indie titles like Snipperclips are shown off alongside big-budget blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed in front of millions of fans watching live. And with Animal Crossing and the coronavirus pandemic boosting popularity of the Switch console to unprecedented levels, merely making it onto the platform is now an achievement.

"We have gone through twists and turns to make the game, but the outcome proved what we believed in was right,” said Kawakatsu, leader of the studio based in Nagoya, Japan.

The developers reasoned that by sticking with the Vita, they were giving their game the best chance of being noticed. Instead of pursuing a tiny sliver of the audience for huge platforms like the Switch, they could command the spotlight on the elderly Vita.

"If we had released the game to the other platforms, Gnosia would have been buried in the flood of hundreds of new releases and consumers wouldn’t even have noticed it’s there,” Kawakatsu said.

On the Vita, starved of new releases, the game picked up traction with loyal fans of the console as well as game reviewers, earning a big award along the way. It became the most-downloaded Vita software for three straight weeks, was covered on the official PlayStation blog and was most recently recognised as the best indie game of 2019 by the Famitsu game magazine.

"We decided to give the award to the game because the level of satisfaction we heard from players was extremely high,” said Katsuhiko Hayashi, head of the Famitsu Dengeki Game Awards committee.

Gnosia wasn’t the first time Petit Depotto adopted its unconventional strategy.

In 2012, a year before Microsoft Corp introduced the Xbox One, the group released a game titled Unholy Heights to Xbox 360, another distinctly unpopular platform in Japan.

Kawakatsu said it’s easier to get favorable reviews when a game is released only to a niche market with a devoted fan base that can be targeted directly. A larger platform, by comparison, could weigh on the game’s reputation by inviting more casual players who may find it unsuited to their tastes and review it negatively.

Unholy Heights was later published to PC and the Switch due to popular request from gamers. Gnosia also earned free promotion from Vita loyalists and attracted interest by being the console’s sole bright spot of the year.

Kawakatsu said the response to Gnosia and pre-launch sales on the Switch have surpassed his expectations. For its next release, Petit Depotto may well reprise what’s worked so well, targeting another platform nearing its end to build a loyal following all over again.

"No one wants to feature a game whose potential is unknown,” said Hideki Yasuda, an Ace Research Institute analyst. "If Gnosia were to be released on the Vita and the Switch at the same time last year, Nintendo wouldn’t have introduced it in the Direct showcase and the game’s sales would be much lower.” – Bloomberg

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