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PlayStation’s Focus on Too Big to Fail Games Is Concerning

Sony’s consistent output of critical and commercial smash hits is undoubtedly a key factor in PlayStation’s rise from the ashes after the troubled launch of the PlayStation 3. By doubling down on beloved franchises like Uncharted, a revived God of War, and more recent hits like Marvel’s Spider-Man and Ghost of Tsushima, Sony’s stable of first-party studios has become synonymous with chart-topping, award-winning games.But a new report from Bloomberg suggests that Sony’s upper management primary focus on blockbuster games that are ‘too big to fail’ comes at the expense of riskier, more inventive projects. If the picture painted is an accurate one, Sony may be losing a key facet of its identity that’s not only been a hallmark of the company since its earliest days, but is also directly responsible for some of PlayStation’s biggest hits over time.
Jason Schreier’s report covers a handful of allegedly canned or altered projects among Sony’s suite of first party studios, like a The Last of Us remake that changed hands several times, a Days Gone sequel that will never see the light of day, and more. It’s certainly fascinating to learn about the projects that have and haven’t materialized from a company that’s been notoriously quiet in recent years, but the report points towards a company and leadership ethos that leaves little room for a bedrock of gaming, experimentation.

The most damning example comes from what we learned about the development studio properly spinning up to be its own team within the Visual Arts Service Group, a Sony team that pinch-hit and assisted other Sony studios cross the finish line with their games. Rumors have abounded for years that they would be continuing the Uncharted franchise, but Schreier’s report states the team was allegedly working on a Last of Us remake that never got the support it needed there, and has since been moved to Naughty Dog. While the lack of support is troubling enough, The Last of Us – a benchmark of excellence at Sony – isn’t a game that screams the need for a remake eight years on, and in the wake of a perfectly good remaster.

The Best PS5 Games

A quality-over-quantity approach isn’t inherently a bad thing, of course, and Sony’s output of successful first-party releases this past generation is a big reason why people buy PlayStations. But as the Horizon Zero Dawns and the God of Wars became the focal point of PlayStation’s first-party stable, there was less and less to keep players entertained in between. That led to the odd showings in the later years of the PS4, where Sony trotted out the same group of exclusives for years at PSX, State of Play, and E3 showcases.

While almost every new Sony first-party launch has been coupled with a record-breaking sales headline, and later end-of-year accolades from around the industry, the report suggests that the quality bar came at the expense of games and potential franchises that weren’t hits right out of the gate. While Days Gone didn’t necessarily review as favorably as other Sony first-party games, it amassed a dedicated fanbase and was reportedly profitable. Developer Bend Studio has shown its dedication to the game, with consistent patches and post-launch support to improve the tech issues critics noted. But even despite all that, the years of marketing pushes it got, and all the work Bend did to create its Freaker horde tech and establish this world, Bloomberg reports a Days Gone 2 was not “seen as a viable option.”

In the case of Days Gone, it’s a particular shame because there was clearly a gem of an idea buried underneath its issues. Bend’s reverence for motorcycle movement made the vehicle a joy to ride, its Freaker hordes are both frightening and thrilling to tackle, and Sam Witwer delivered a strong performance as Deacon St. John. Game franchises can come back from shaky starts, especially when there’s a solid foundation. Just look at Assassin’s Creed, which debuted to middling reviews but found its footing with the fantastic Assassin’s Creed II. And even within the halls of Sony you can find sequels that drastically improved upon the first. Uncharted 1 was well received at launch, but Uncharted 2 crystallized what the series could accomplish on a spectacle and design scale in a way the first just couldn’t. Sequels are meant to be improvements, and it’s a shame Days Gone may never get to be proof of that.

The decision was reportedly enough to cause team members to leave while Bend was assigned to help Naughty Dog on both a multiplayer game and a new Uncharted, which led to fears “they might be absorbed into Naughty Dog, and the studio’s leadership asked to be taken off the Uncharted project.“(The merits and timeliness of a Last of Us remake are another debate entirely, but it’s of course worth noting that a more modernized version of one of Sony’s most beloved games hardly counts as much of a risk as a brand new franchise would. More so, the alleged lack of funds or trust in the SVAG team feels emblematic of the larger problem – why should Sony bet on a new team, even if it’s working on a known property, when they can simply put it in the hands of one of their most successful teams? And sure, that might, on paper or in a boardroom, make sense, but then how does that new team find a chance to succeed?)

And if a project that, from the outside, seemed as sure a thing as a Days Gone sequel can’t move forward, how much room is there for new ideas, and risks that can lead to the next The Last of Us or God of War? Of course, these games were risks themselves! It’s almost a folly to think any one publisher can produce only hit after hit without some stumbles along the way, or experiments that, even if they don’t work on first blush, may lead to greater success down the road. It’s worrying to read about a laser focus on these big projects alongside something like first party studio Media Molecule’s Dreams, a creation-suite that, as Bloomberg notes, never quite got the marketing it deserved. Its dedicated audience is certainly there, but in an era where creation platforms like Minecraft, Roblox, and more become some of the biggest games in the world, it’s disheartening that Sony didn’t try to push Dreams into that stratosphere.

The Sony Japan Studio restructuring is further proof that Sony is hedging all its bets on only its most unflappable blockbusters. With the reorganization of Sony Japan to be focused around Team Asobi, undoubtedly due to the success and acclaim of Astro Bot Rescue Mission and Astro’s Playroom, the development house that has led to some of Sony’s most eclectic, memorable experiences is singularly focused on the series that sells consoles… or convinces players to buy into the innovative DualSense. Seemingly gone are the smaller, but no less worthy games like Gravity Rush, Ape Escape, Shadow of the Colossus, and the talent behind those franchises. The only, truly small-scale studio that exists within Sony these days is Pixelopus, the Concrete Genie devs whose latest game was certainly a charmer, but didn’t necessarily capture the same mindshare as Days Gone did in the same year. Does that studio’s creative wit have a place in modern-day PlayStation? I truly don’t know, and as a fan of their work, that worries me.

The Evolution of PlayStation Hardware

Despite all the worrying signs, the PS5 continues to sell out, the first party studios Sony is paying all its attention to are seemingly thriving and have massive sequels like the next God of War, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, and Horizon Forbidden West on the way that are, again, probably too big to fail. And PlayStation series seem to be of wider importance to Sony than ever, with Uncharted, The Last of Us and Ghost of Tsushima on the docket for film and TV adaptations. There is clearly a long, healthy life ahead for many of these series, and it would be hypocritical to say that I can’t wait for the sequels, both announced and assumed, to come.

But PlayStation has historically never rested on safe bets. Through its stumbles and successes, the lineup of PlayStation exclusives across the generations is marked by risks, some that worked and some didn’t, but all of which proved the company’s ethos of putting intriguing game experiences first. What the new report shows, more than anything, is the picture of a company more concerned with the bottom line and capitalizing on what’s already worked, rather than blending in new, bold steps to find renewed success elsewhere. It’s why, in the wake of the report, a video of former PlayStation Worldwide Studios chairman Shawn Layden has been circulating widely on social media.Talking about Vib-Ribbon at E3 several years back, Layden said “A personal favorite of mine that really embodies the PlayStation spirit. It wasn’t a multi-million seller, but that’s not the point. Vib-Ribbon was unafraid to go against the tide. It was courageous in its ambition, and it brought a completely new experience to gamers. It’s an incredible time to be part of the PlayStation family… After all, guys, it’s all about the games, isn’t it?”

It’s a broad statement, and of course, I’m sure Layden would agree, it’s equally about the people making those games, and the audiences who play them. But the spirit of what he’s saying rings so true: Vib-Ribbon wasn’t an exception to the rule but rather emblematic of it. Would it be released today, though? It sure would feel like an exception. Creating art within a commercial space will also have to conform to some amount of oversight, but it seems that art disconnected from a guaranteed, monumental win doesn’t even have the room to be imagined in the first place. And with the loss of space for those ideas to grow, it’s natural to worry that some of the PlayStation legacy will be lost, too.

Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior News Editor, host of Podcast Beyond!, and PlayStation lead. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush and check out his new Persona 5 podcast.

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