PlayStation’s Blockbuster Garden

Sony’s Obsession With Blockbusters Is Stirring Unrest Within PlayStation Empire – Bloomberg: by Jason Schreier for Bloomberg

Interesting article to kick start the day. Never a dull moment with Schreier’s reporting.

Sony’s focus on exclusive blockbusters has come at the expense of niche teams and studios within the PlayStation organization, leading to high turnover and less choice for players. Last week, Sony reorganized a development office in Japan, resulting in mass departures of people who worked on less well-known but acclaimed games such as Gravity Rush and Everybody’s Golf. The company has informed developers that it no longer wants to produce smaller games that are only successful in Japan, Bloomberg has reported.

The practical shutdown of Japan Studio was surprising initially. Then Sony confirmed that Team Asobi, those responsible for the highly impactful and successful Astro Bot games was remaining intact. Sony is looking at the numbers, cutting costs by trimming the fat, and leaning into teams and products that generate huge returns on their investment.

That comes off cold and calculated, especially when games can be artistic, quirky, and so on. Sony has contributed to the indie and smaller game scene for decades. It feels strange to see them making bigger swings like this.

But maybe this should not be strange or surprising. Back in 2019, Hermen Hulst was officially promoted to the head of Worldwide Studios and Shuhei Yoshida was put in charge on an indie developer initiative. Yoshida is in charge of courting indie developers and bringing great games to the PlayStation 4 & 5. It seems clear now (hindsight is 20/20) that Sony would break-up their smaller studios from making smaller games to being support studios for their larger teams. Sony is moving their indie and smaller games to external partners and focusing their internal studio budget on their global money makers: the games and studios that bring and keep folks in the PlayStation ecosystem. Even the line between studios is blurred with the branding of PlayStation Studios now.

… [Bend] tried unsuccessfully to pitch a [Days Gone] sequel that year, according to people familiar with the proposal. Although the first game had been profitable, its development had been lengthy and critical reception was mixed, so a Days Gone 2 wasn’t seen as a viable option.

Instead, one team at the studio was assigned to help Naughty Dog with a multiplayer game while a second group was assigned to work on a new Uncharted game with supervision from Naughty Dog.

The time between Bend’s previous game, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and Days Gone was seven years. Even with Days Gone being profitable, it makes sense to have them help produce two games that will, arguably, be more profitable in a shorter window of time. Naughty Dog cranks out hit after hit, even in the face of intense crunch, and has for years. Exploring crunch and its impact is definitely more Schreier’s wheelhouse and I’ve written about Naughty Dog’s own practices during the PS4 generation. It sounds like having dedicated support teams could help alleviate crunch on some level, helping keep the output and quality consistent, leading to more revenue.

Bend’s developers feared they might be absorbed into Naughty Dog, and the studio’s leadership asked to be taken off the Uncharted project. They got their wish last month and are now working on a new game of their own.

The folks at Bend didn’t sign up for this work though either. I am curious how long this next game will take to be developed, especially if parts of the studio are still assisting with two Naughty Dog projects.

Emphasizing big hits can also be counterproductive because sometimes games that start small can turn into massive successes. In 2020, Sony didn’t put much marketing muscle behind the quirky video game creation system Dreams, by the PlayStation-owned Media Molecule in the U.K. As a result, PlayStation may have missed out on its own version of Roblox, a similar video game tool. Parent company Roblox Corp. went public earlier this year and is now valued at $45 billion.

I feel like this is business-talk for the Bloomberg investment reader. This is not an apt comparison; really, it is complete conjecture. Roblox has been around since 2006. They have built an audience and a product for 15 years before going public. I don’t see Dreams as a one and done style game and tool for development. I’ve been talking about PlayStation getting into the game engine business and Dreams is an essential part to that plan, I believe. Shuhei Yoshida has even talked about a “decade of Dreams.” Sure, talk and action are to different elements to game development and promotion. Dreams did/does have plans to be brought over to PS5 and PC with features to export creations from Dreams. Roblox wasn’t built in a day.

In theory, this [remaking The Last of Us] would be a less expensive proposition than remaking Uncharted, since The Last of Us was more modern and wouldn’t require too many gameplay overhauls. Then, once Mumbauer’s group had established itself, it could go on to remake the first Uncharted game and other titles down the road.

It sounds like they wanted to be Sony’s first party remake studio, at least at first. I predicted this year that Sony would buy Bluepoint Games. I still think that is a possibility and should happen. In the long run, it could be cheaper to buy the best remake studio in the business than develop one from the ground up internally. Microsoft certainly thinks it is cheaper to buy prominent studios in the long run.

“The people funding the work are often risk-averse, and if they have to pick between a team that’s done it before, and someone trying to do it on their own for the first time, I can see why some people pick the prior developer over the latter,” [Dave Lang] said.

Makes sense to me.

Mumbauer’s project, code-named T1X, was approved on a probationary basis, but Sony kept the team’s existence a secret, and refused to give them a budget to hire more people, leading many to wonder if the company was really committed to letting the team build a new studio.

I imagine that “T1X” stood for Thing 1 X. “Thing” was the codename for The Last of Us, so T1 makes sense. “X” is a cool letter to use and could stand for “remake” or anything really.

He thought the remake project was too expensive, according to people familiar with the matter, and asked why the planned budget for T1X was so much higher than remakes Sony had made in the past. The reason was that this one was on a brand new graphical engine for the PlayStation 5.

New game engines are expensive. Hideo Kojima had to shop around for an engine after leaving Konami. He settled on Guerrilla Game’s Decima engine, which took years and money to build. It’s also a widely adaptable engine. As for Naughty Dog, their engine is proprietary. If Sony wanted to remake The Last of Us, it would make sense to use an established engine, rather than build one from scratch, especially when comparing costs to previous projects. Sony’s own remakes were sometimes upscales of PSP games.

Release of The Last of Us Part II had been pushed to 2020 from 2019 and Naughty Dog needed the Visual Arts Service Group to polish it off. Most of Mumbauer’s team, along with some of the 200 or so other staff at the Visual Arts Service Group, was assigned to support Naughty Dog, slowing down progress on its own game.

The Visual Arts Service Group’s main job sounds like it is to be support and wrap-up on projects across Sony’s disciplines. Mumbauer seemed to want to change that, but their first priority would have been to provide support. It makes building your own team, engine, and game all that much more difficult. Really playing against a stacked deck.

Sony sent word that after the completion of The Last of Us Part II, some people from Naughty Dog would help out with T1X. Mumbauer’s team saw this as their short-lived autonomy being stripped. Dozens of Naughty Dog staff were joining the project, and some had actually worked on the original The Last of Us, giving them more weight in discussions about T1X’s direction. The game was moved under Naughty Dog’s budget, which Sony gave more leeway than the Visual Arts Service Group.

Not to sound like a broken record, but this, again, makes sense. It strikes me as more efficient. Naughty Dog made both games, just coming off the sequel. Naughty Dog transitioned their game engine to the new platform early from the  PS3 to the PS4. They did it with The Last of Us last time! This could likely be cheaper for Sony, giving them even more of a return on their investment.

But those who had wanted independence were disappointed. By the end of 2020, most of the T1X team’s top staff had left, including Mumbauer and the game’s director, David Hall. Today, the T1X project remains in development at Naughty Dog with assistance from Sony’s Visual Arts Support Group. The future of the remainder of Mumbauer’s team, which has come to be jokingly referred to as Naughty Dog South, remains unclear.

Their disappointment is understandable and human. I am empathetic toward it. I’ve had my share of projects and visions get pulled out from under me. This group of people had an idea they were passionate about with a new direction to move forward in. Their owner, unfortunately, did not agree with the cost of that vision. It did become a “stay here and keep supporting” or leave situation. Some folks left, hopefully finding the independence they wanted.

This mixture of passion and finances makes decisions like this feel cold. Sony has a whacky legacy with some truly great, small games. As the cost of development skyrockets and broader appeal becomes more necessary to make returns, I can’t blame them for cutting costs by shutting down studios. Hopefully, it is a strategy that pays off. If making more blockbuster games brings in more customers which equals more money, then Sony could create more indie partnerships through Yoshida’s initiative: A rising tide lifts all ships scenario.

Microsoft is raising their tide by buying up elite studios and creating recurring revenue with Game Pass on a monthly basis. It’s consistent and dependable. Heck, I converted to Game Pass Ultimate before the Xbox Series X launched with 2 1/2 years. In the rough year I’ve had the service, I have played one game off Game Pass. When my subscription is up, they hope I stay on board and continue the trend of paying them, whether or not I actually play the games. This plan for revenue allows Microsoft to make more deals, take smaller risks more often, likely giving their teams more opportunities for creative freedom. Microsoft is also not afraid to shut a project down.

Sony is bringing their games to PC and even Xbox! Bringing their huge, extremely popular titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn, MLB The Show, and Days Gone to other platforms helps diversify and increase their income while focusing on making more of those huge titles.

Sony is also leveraging their film making department and relationships to expand their video game IP to wider audiences. HBO is taking a crack at The Last of Us. Ghost of Tsushima just had a movie announced with some of the people from John Wick. The Uncharted movie is still slated for release this year. These partnerships bring more folks into these blockbuster game properties, hopefully bringing in more people to play these games on PlayStation.

Deals like Game Pass or Sony’s Indie Initiative take time to see the fruits of their labor. Game Pass is easier to see now that those fruits are becoming ripe and ready for folks to eat. Sony’s may take similar amounts of time. I genuinely hope these plans and moves pay out. Not only for my own selfish fan desires, but because I can see it lending great opportunity to foster external, new talent. Or Sony is batting down the hatches, closing off their garden, and the fruits will begin to wither away. Either way, it’s going to take time to find out.

Cutting the Hair: The History of Neil Druckmann’s Hair during the PS4 Era

A silver-foxed lining of staying at home in 2020 is that folks around the world are growing out their hair in pursuit of the “man bun.” While the idea of having a man bun is a fantasy for some, one man in the video game industry has been in leveling up his hair stat for over seven years: Neil Druckmann.

Continue reading “Cutting the Hair: The History of Neil Druckmann’s Hair during the PS4 Era”

Part VI: Conclusion

Welcome to Part VI of Chasing the Stick: The History of Naughty Dog during the PS4 Era.

I decided to break-up the six parts of my history into individual episodes as well, for more choice for you, the listener.This episode talks about the future of Naughty Dog with the PlayStation 5 and what could lie ahead. I hope you enjoy.

Continue reading “Part VI: Conclusion”

Part V: The Last of Us Part II

Welcome to Part V of Chasing the Stick: The History of Naughty Dog during the PS4 Era.

I decided to break-up the six parts of my history into individual episodes as well, for more choice for you, the listener. This episode focuses on the tumultuous and generation-long development cycle of The Last of Us Part II. I hope you enjoy.

Continue reading “Part V: The Last of Us Part II”

Part IV: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Welcome to Part IV of Chasing the Stick: The History of Naughty Dog during the PS4 Era.

I decided to break-up the six parts of my history into individual episodes as well, for more choice for you, the listener. This episode dives into the rapid, slammed development of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. From pre-production to release in just 15 months, The Lost Legacy is a marvel to explore. I hope you enjoy.

Continue reading “Part IV: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy”