Is PlayStation Entering the Video Game Engine Business?

I have had a thought for the past two weeks. It was sparked by Jason Schreier of Kotaku reporting that Horizon: Zero Dawn could be ported to PC, unheard of for a first-party PlayStation exclusive. Then the flames were fanned by Blessing Adyeoye Jr. of Kinda Funny off-handedly mentioned that Media Molecule may allow creators to port their creations in the upcoming game Dreams to PC.

I cannot shake the thought that PlayStation may just start licensing some of their game engines, specifically Guerrilla Game’s Decima and the creation tools behind Dreams.

This is all speculation, but I have been mulling it over. I have been reading the tea leaves, if you will. Please, indulge me and see how I think PlayStation may be gearing up to sell more than just video games and consoles.

I want to start with Guerrilla Games and their Decima engine. Decima has been used in six games:

  • Killzone: Shadowfall
  • Until Dawn
  • Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
  • RIGS
  • Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Death Stranding

A short list, but the facts that accompany those titles is interesting. Three of the games were made by second-party studios: Supermassive Games and Kojima Productions. Two of them are PS VR titles and one is confirmed for a PC release (Death Stranding). This says to me that Decima, while seemingly tailored to open-world titles, is pliable. It even can support a strand game with a wide network of players engaging in the same game world, unlike something like Frostbite with Anthem. Decima appears to be powerful and diverse.

Sharing is in the code of Decima too. Here is technical director Michiel van der Leeuw in an interview with Len Mariken Maessen reporting for The Next Web on December 20, 2019:

Inventor types like us don’t just like to make things, we like to share them. Sharing makes you stronger. Sometimes you don’t get anything back but thanks – that’s also nice. But sometimes you find someone who’s on the same track, and it gives you all this creative energy. It’s all just code in the end, anyway: it’s the mindset of the maker that matters.

The sharing has gone beyond the PS4 as well. Death Stranding is releasing on PC this summer and will be published by 505 Games, not by SIE Worldwide Studios. If the report on Horizon making its way to the PC is true, that would have to be a SIE joint. Death Stranding alone proves Decima is capable of porting its games to PC, but Horizon would be a poster-child for the engine’s prowess.

The other half of this equation is Dreams. Media Molecule has been developing Dreams for nearly eight years. The game runs on Media Molecule’s BubbleBath engine and the tools players will use are what the developer used to make Dreams itself. Its long development cycle is just another testament to Sony’s willingness to back their first-party developers to the max and allow for such long development cycles. Sony bought Media Molecule back in 2010 to “secure excellence in game development for current and future PlayStation platforms.” Dreams certainly seems to be nothing if not excellence in game development.

The games that have been developed during the game’s early access period are astonishing to look at from afar. From the picture-perfect food, to the inevitable Star Wars game, to making E3 demos for the masses, to recreating Dead Space(!), the community seems to have taken the tools Media Molecule has created and run with them.

Seeing what people can make with Dreams always made me wonder what if someone made a full-fledged game and wanted to charge for it. If someone used Dreams as their game engine, would there be a way for them to make money off their game. Creative Director Mark Healey has thought about it too. In an interview with Edge Magazine in March 2018, Healey said that people selling Dreams-made games on PSN was a long term goal for the team.

The golden egg for that needs to crack for my theory is porting these Dreams game to other platforms. It appears to be another long-term goal for Media Molecule, according to Media Molecule co-founder Kareem Ettouneym at the View Conference:

The very limited exporting features [at] the moment are like exporting a video, but we have in the long-term [plans for] exporting a standalone game outside of Dreams entirely—exporting to other devices and beyond.

What ties these two engines and this idea I have together is how PlayStation’s leadership has been staked going into the next-generation where ecosystems will be the dominating factor. In 2019, PlayStation saw two new internal promotions to executive positions: Jim Ryan became the CEO and President in April and Hermen Hulst became the studio head of SIE Worldwide Studios, which oversees all first-party development. Both executives have spent their time with the European division of PlayStation. The company has been centralizing key people in the company’s executive leadership in Europe, home to both Guerrilla Games and Media Molecule. You may also recognize Hermen as the (now former) Managing Director of Guerrilla Games.

I agree with Mat Piscatella that ecosystems will be the battle to be won in 2020. It is readily apparent that is what Microsoft believes. It’s a practice that works pretty well for Apple. I think that Decima and Bubblebath can adapt to a wide variety of platforms and ecosystems. We know Decima has some sort of pipeline in place for porting massive open-world games to the PC. It even works with game streaming services based off Horizon joining the PS Now library this month until April. Horizon is technically on PC right now. We know they both work with VR development and it is a safe bet that they work with the PS5. These engines are future-proof for more than a PlayStation.

PlayStation has spent the PS4 generation backing their first-party studios, championing open-world, single player games, and making the PS4 “the best place to play.” As the industry moves into its next-generation, the “place to play” matters less than it ever has. Cross-play barriers are being shattered. Cloud streaming is stepping onto the scene in a big way. Games are no longer trapped in a special box under the TV, they go every where with us. I think PlayStation doesn’t just want to be the “place:” They want to power the play.