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The Studio Conundrum Of Sony

Seeing things evolve and change over time is expected since it’s part of our culture.  Such evolutionary changes are of course present in the world of business since consumer tastes or hot trends will often dictate how things are both created and presented to the masses, sometimes resulting in the next big thing surfacing or an embarrassing flop being thrown our way which won’t be forgotten any time soon.  Companies doing the things they do may forever remain mysterious and perhaps unpredictable to us, but in the case of Sony the company is almost making a notorious name for themselves when it comes to handling 2nd party development studios.

Out of the big three (Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony), it’s somewhat considered that Sony has some of the strongest 1st party development studios out there. Now without coming across as a complete PlayStation fanboy, I’ll be saving that for later, Sony may not have prestigious franchise exclusives such as Zelda or Mario, but the talent of teams such as Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, and Polyphony Digital (when they come out of their hole to make a game) is undeniable.  The first party stable of Sony of course gets treated with respect but the same can’t be said of studios which aren’t entirely part of the PlayStation family.

Over the past few years we’ve seen Sony go through a rather tumultuous cycle in which forum chatterboxes had the fate of the company being absolutely doomed while others went forth spewing how the PS3 had no engaging games to play compared to Halo or Gears of War.  Such sentiments have obviously changed these days, but one thing that hasn’t is Sony’s sometimes occasionally baffling business decisions which don’t make a lot of sense on the surface.

I won’t try to come across as a know-all industry/business pundit since I’m far from being that.  But with that said, when you gaze upon Sony’s history this generation dealing with certain 1st and 2nd party studios, things are slightly distressing when considering the future of the PlayStation brand. Now I’m not going to go on a “Sony is doomed” tirade in order to drum up a debate amongst console fans, but the question does remain what Sony is planning for the immediate future.

With the next-gen PlayStation console possibly being shown off later this month, Sony is obviously gearing up for a console launch within the next year and are of course they’re doing things that are required when spending truckloads of cash: trimming a bit of fat.  Issuing lay-offs or making certain studios redundant is never a nice thing, but in the world of business it’s required to ease up the pressure one may feel upon their purse strings.  Even then, the continued parting of ways Sony is doing with key 2nd party studios, the latest of which is SuperBot Entertainment, is distressing for various reasons.

Sony probably has a better understanding of how to launch a next-gen console compared to the comedy of errors that was launching the PlayStation 3, but it almost feels like the company is tightening things up a bit too much.  I won’t make the argument that Sony won’t have compelling games at the launch of the new PlayStation, though my worry is just how many exclusive games they’ll have in the long run.  Given the two to four year development cycle of games that fall under the triple-A moniker, I’m now a PS fanboy that’s skeptical as to whether Sony will be able to continuously release key games that once again blow us away.

Unless development teams change their development cycles, which is unlikely right off the bat, Sony may have put themselves in a tough spot by opting to end their partnership with Lightbox Interactive, SuperBot, and putting studios such as Eat Sleep Play in such a tough spot that they opt to go the mobile route after their debut PS3 game.  The reasoning behind abandoning the contracts with studios such as SuperBot may be understandable since Sony, who of course is a corporate entity that’s driven by profit rather than making major sacrifices for the sake of art, may be disappointed with lackluster sales of a particular product. Yet by thinning the herd Sony may have lost out on key talent that could help drive the next-gen PlayStation into the stratosphere it needs to go in to become a massive hit.

Of course my assumptions are just that - personal opinions/feelings which aren’t entirely based in direct facts since I’m not a seer with a crystal ball that knows what will transpire in the next two years. The thing is, it almost seems illogical in a way to bid adieu to studios such as Lightbox or SuperBot since the immediate commercial failures of their respective games aren’t the fault of the developers - it’s partially the fault of Sony as well. 

Once the masters of marketing in the PS1/PS2, Sony has fallen flat during the PS3 generation - not just because of ads featuring crying baby dolls but because there’s hardly a marketing push at all for key 1st party games.  Sony may be wise at times to dish out the big bucks for key properties such as Uncharted or God of War by delivering constant promotions whether they be commercials, ad campaigns, or viral marketing programs, but such things were absent for Starhawk, PlayStation All-Stars, and other titles such as Sports Champions 2.

The biggest marketing push made for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale

Sony may not have sent their 2012 line-up to die entirely through the omission of a marketing effort since a few standard commercials/ad campaigns were done along with the hyping that’s done on sites such as IGN, which almost amounts to free marketing considering the questionable relationship that exists behind those in the games press and PR communities.  Even then, there was never a direct presence felt for key titles in Sony’s 2012 line-up since Starhawk came and went in a period when it should’ve been a standout title, Wonderbook was non-existent outside of the heavy push made by SCE Europe, and PlayStation All-Stars was pushed by a heavily promoted live-action ad which didn’t bother to show a second of actual gameplay footage. 

The success of games may be based on the mindshare that exists amongst gamers and the word of mouth that goes around once a cool trailer pops up, but pushing a game within the general mainstream audience, such as what Microsoft does with Halo, is a necessity that Sony and their marketing partners don’t entirely seem to understand.  In a way it’s almost disconcerting to see a game like Starhawk hit the market with a modest ad campaign since it’s almost akin to a movie studio releasing a movie with little to no fanfare because they have absolutely no faith in it.  Sony may have tried to push PS All-Stars by featuring an episode of the Cartoon Network series Robot Chicken based upon the game, but if that’s the core of your marketing effort then I think certain things need to be re-evaluated.

The distinct lack of marketing of certain games may have been rectified in a sense due to a culling of PR staff at SCEA last year, and a new agency coming aboard, but it nonetheless showed a small level of arrogance, and perhaps ineptitude, that games would immediately sell themselves despite being properties that gamers weren’t familiar with. Of course a small bit of blame can be put on the development side of things, both through the core studio and support parties, as titles like Starhawk and PS All-Stars did have a problem focusing on certain design elements on top of issues that held them back from immediate greatness.

Lack of proper promotion and perhaps better guidance on the part of the development team/SCE Producers have led us to where we are now: a dozen or so development studios have been thrown away in favor of something else; which at this point we won’t know until the new PlayStation finally arrives.  As I said earlier, by partying ways with studios such as Eat Sleep Play and SuperBot an immense amount of potential is being missed since Sony won’t have those studios in their back pocket making games alongside the biggies that are Sony Santa Monica and Guerrilla Games. Properties such as Twisted Metal and even Starhawk may be owned by Sony, thus they can return under the guise of a new developer, but it’s unlikely we’ll see another studio ever tackle them given how the current 1st and 2nd party development culture of Sony is right now.

In a way by opting not to continue their partnerships with particular studios Sony is essentially banking on their core groups (Santa Monica, Guerrilla Games, Naughty Dog, and Sucker Punch) to deliver the goods right off the bat.  I don’t doubt we’ll see all those studios up their game and wow us by the return of familiar properties amidst new ones, but it does seem like an odd thing to do from a business perspective. Sony will hopefully continue their trend of backing unique studios such as Giant Sparrow (The Unfinished Swan) and Minority (Papo & Yo) for smaller digitally distributed titles as the years go on, but I think a gap will still be felt unless Sony does the unimaginable and opts not to continue their trend of ruining 2nd party development partners when their corporate expectations aren’t met right off the bat.

Looking at how Sony has handled their partnership with 2nd party studios is in a way depressing since it shows a lack of care and a failure to commit.  It’s good that Sony is showing a level of restraint and is looking at things with a finer eye as opposed to wasting money on a project as they did with Lair, but it’s yet another sign that the video game industry is in need of some streamlining and better management.  Money can be burned by certain companies, but Sony isn’t one of them based on the financial status of the company; a situation that is perhaps why things have been trimmed in such a frugal fashion.  Cutting a few things is fine and it’s traditional for any company/developer since Sony has done loads of it this generation with its European branch (Eight Days, Heavenly Sword 2, Wipeout next-gen, and One Life).

A piece of concept art from Studio Liverpool's cancelled IP for the next-gen PlayStation

Cutting ties with 2nd party studios, thus ending obligated DLC, and even closing 1st party studios such as Zipper Interactive and Studio Liverpool, both of whom were making next-gen PlayStation titles, shows that Sony is being a bit too cautious for their own good unless all the content in development was absolute rubbish - a thing which I personally refuse to believe based on the heritage of the various studios. 

By opting not to re-evaluate things and perhaps stick with a studio no matter how tough times may be, Sony has simply alienated themselves as far as content is concerned and has even reneged on the unofficial obligation that exists amongst consumers who opted to back games such as Starhawk and PlayStation All-Stars.  Launching any kind of new property is tough these days, even the first Uncharted wasn‘t a mega-hit, but abandoning it so quickly post release will only annoy consumers who opted to put their money behind a game and subsequently enjoyed what it had to offer. Such business decisions could sway consumers to look elsewhere when everything they’ve cherished has been taken away from them - a scenario that in the world of gaming could make a substantial impact. 

As a longtime fan of Sony I’m confident that the company will deliver a console filled with engaging features and software that will captivate us.  I simply things don’t become too steeped in a cycle of predictability because only a handful of 1st and 2nd party studios are still around - all of whom are too afraid or aren’t allowed to venture out their comfort zone otherwise they’ll be the next to be shuttered and without a gig.  Maybe Sony will wise up and opt not to treat studios like things that can easily be tossed aside since such things do impact the people who work there and the families they have - an element that I think we as gamers sometimes forget about when we learn of the latest firm to be on the chopping block. 

Ultimately we’ll find out soon enough what kind of plans Sony has for the future of the PlayStation brand once the much hyped February 20th press conference rolls around.  I don’t know if the future of the PlayStation will shine brighter than ever before as I only hope that we’ll continue to see software that’s both compelling, promotes originality, and comes from an array of sources.