The State of Sony’s First Party Studios

I want to give a huge shout out to Neogaf user JuanLatino’s thread on the first party studios as a resource for researching this piece

This week we were greeted with the unfortunate news that Sony is shuttering Evolution Studios, the developers behind Motorstorm and Driveclub.  This makes them the fifth Sony studio to close since 2009.  Add this to the fact that Sony’s first party output on the PlayStation 4 has been middling at best, and it is easy to paint a doom and gloom picture for Shuhei Yoshida and SCE Worldwide Studios.  However, I decided to look past the surface to speculate on the status of each first party studio and determine if there are any others likely to suffer the same unfortunate fate as 989, BigBig, Evolution, Studio Liverpool, Incognito, and Zipper.

Naughty Dog

The crown jewel, the favorite son, the cream of the crop.  Naughty Dog is often thought of as one of the best development studios in the industry, and there is good reason for that.  Their last three games: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011), and The Last of Us (2013) are all among the top 20 reviewed PS3 games on Metacritic.  Therefore, it is only logical that their PS4 debut in a couple of months with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has been highly anticipated since its announcement.  The game looks great, and I am sure it will both review and sell well.  I think it’s safe to say that Naughty Dog isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  However, that doesn’t mean that the future of Naughty Dog is set in stone.

After the development of Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog split into two teams.  Amy Hennig and Justin Richmond headed development on Uncharted 3, while Neil Druckman and Bruce Straley were the leads on The Last of Us.  However, in early 2014, Hennig and Richmond left Naughty, causing Druckman and Straley to take over the development of Uncharted 4.  It has been reiterated many times now that everybody at Naughty Dog is working on Uncharted 4 and the two team structure has been dissolved.  However, I don’t think that is necessarily a permanent change.  Naughty Dog lost some high profile people, but they never faced major layoffs and still have about 300 employees on staff.  They might not have the leads to work on two simultaneous projects, but they definitely have the manpower.  If some leaders emerge in the studio, I could see them splitting again.

The other question about Naughty Dog is what they do next now that Uncharted is coming to an end.  The idea of a Last of Us sequel is a somewhat controversial one but also pretty popular.  Naughty Dog has outright mentioned The Last of Us 2 before and the game sold incredibly well, so I think it is a pretty safe bet.  However, what that game is and how long they choose to stay in that world is yet to be seen.

Santa Monica

Despite not having released an internally developed game in three years, Sony Santa Monica remains one of Sony’s most important studios.  A major part of Santa Monica’s effort comes from helping external, second party developers bring their games to life.  This can be done through large, AAA titles like Twisted Metal and The Order 1886, or smaller, independent games such as the Pixeljunk series, Fat Princess, Journey, and The Unfinished Swan.  They are continuing this effort with Wattam, What Remains of Edith Finch, Bound, and Modern Zombie Taxi Co., all of which are being developed currently with help from Santa Monica.

Of course, Sony Santa Monica is also the studio that develops God of War games.  And at PSX 2014, Cory Barlog confirmed that they are working on another game in the series.  What that game is has yet to be seen, but we should see a reveal sometime this year.  Despite the tepid reception that Ascension received, the God of War franchise is still one of Sony’s best selling.  With a huge franchise and tons of independent influence, it is hard to see anything bad happening to Sony Santa Monica anytime soon

But Santa Monica is also another example of Sony attempting but ultimately failing a two team structure.  In 2013, Cory Barlog rejoined the studio.  At the same time, Stig Asmussen was leading what was rumored to be a new science fiction IP.  However, the studio underwent major layoffs in early 2014 that led to the cancellation of the new IP and the departure of Asmussen.  This leaves them in a similar position to Naughty Dog.  They still had about 200 people on staff after the layoffs, but I doubt we will see them re-attempt the two team formula anytime soon.  I would like to see a new IP out of a studio that has been making the same game for eleven years, but I think they will be relegated to God of War only for internal development.

Sucker Punch

While I would never deny that Naughty Dog is the best studio in Sony’s stable, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Sucker Punch is my favorite.  I think that the Infamous games are the best playing open world games on the market.  And while Second Son wasn’t the greatest game in the world, it was pretty impressive for what was essentially a launch game and remains the best PS4 game from one of Sony’s studios.  Second Son sold pretty well too, so it would makes sense to think that Sucker Punch is safe for now.  Sucker Punch has the talent and the potential to become the next big thing at Sony.  However, if their next game also comes out to a muted reception, then their future might be a bit more tenuous.

After Second Son launched, Sucker Punch faced some pretty significant layoffs.  They have since started hiring again and are back to about 100 people, so I wouldn’t read too much into this.  This could be seen as the standard business practice in the industry that involves ramping up for launch and then thinning down afterwards.  However, those layoffs included some members of the studio that had been there since the Sly Cooper days.  To me, this signals the studio wanting to move in a new direction going forward.  That, combined with the fact that Infamous has seemingly run its course, makes me think that they are working on a new IP.  We don’t know much about it, but we do know a few things.  For one, it’s an open world game, which makes sense for the studio.  Also, Shuhei Yoshida said at last year’s E3 that he had played a portion of the game.  This would obviously be a very early in development version, but we are more than two years removed from Second Son.  I don’t think Sucker Punch will announce their next game at E3, but I do think we will see it some time this year.

Bend

The Sony studio which has been quiet the longest is Sony Bend, who has not released a game since 2012’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss.  The reason for this appears to be that they had some cancelled projects.  A Reddit poster claiming to be a former Bend employee talked about how the studio was working on a follow up to Golden Abyss, but it was cancelled because Naughty Dog didn’t want the game to be made.  They also pitched an Infamous Vita game as well as a few new IPs, none of which took off.  This should obviously be taken with a grain of salt, but it would explain why they have taken so long.  However, I would bet that their game will be announced sometime this year, probably at E3.  The reason I say that is because the game entered full production early last year.  That would put them on track for an announcement this year and a release next year.

But what do we know about the game?  Well, we know a few things.  First, it is a PlayStation 4 game, the first Sony Bend console game since 2004.  They are attempting to push the hardware and are working in Unreal Engine 4.  This is also the biggest game they have ever made.  They have increased from a 40 person studio to a 90 person studio, about the same size Sucker Punch was when they made Infamous.  In terms of what the game is, Neogaf insider Shinobi602 claims that it is an open world horror game.  I think it goes without saying that this game is a big deal for Bend.  This is a game that will either make or break the studio.

San Diego

Sony San Diego is a rock.  Every year they release an incredible baseball game in MLB The Show, and every year is sells moderately well.  In fact, MLB The Show is so good that it consistently outsold MLB 2K, which was on multiple platforms.  Now they don’t have any competition on the market, but they continue to release a quality product.  Last year was just a stepping stone onto the PlayStation 4, but now that they have their grasps on the tech they are focusing more on the game modes this year.  The only big problem facing these games is that the online never works.

Lately, Sony San Diego has started doing more external collaborations and seems to be Sony’s attempt to make free to play work.  Kill Strain is an internally developed free to play game, while Guns Up! and Drawn to Death are external free to play games.  I don’t think this movement is going to be successful.  Guns Up! came out late last year to no fanfare and was panned by reviewers.  I follow PlayStation very closely and am not entirely sure what Kill Strain is, and it doesn’t seem to have anybody excited.  Drawn to Death has promise and David Jaffe at the head, but the general consensus on the game is pretty negative.  San Diego has never had a ton of success with games that aren’t MLB, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon.  That’s okay though, because their ability to make a baseball game in nine months in unmatched, and that is enough of a reason to keep them around.

Pixel Opus

Pixel Opus is going to be a short entry, because I don’t really know why they are a part of Worldwide Studios.  There a studio founded by former students that made Entwined, a game that was okay at best.  I don’t know if this studio will continue to exist or be a Sony studio, and there isn’t much information out there about them.  However, they do exist and do internally develop games, so I figured I would at least mention them in here.

Guerrilla Games

I think Guerrilla is somewhat of an overrated studio, but there is no doubt that they are one of Sony’s heavy hitters.  The Killzone series was never the “Halo Killer” is was meant to be, but the games sold well, and Killzone 2 specifically was a great game.  However, Killzone 3 was a bit of a step back, and Killzone Shadowfall was not very good at all.  Thankfully though, they are no longer working on Killzone.  Instead, they are making Horizon: Zero Dawn, one of the most exciting things Sony has on the docket.  Horizon has the ability to be a huge success, and I think it is going to propel Guerrilla even further and put them on a level just below Naughty Dog.

However, there might also be a Killzone game in development somewhere in the studio.  They have around 270 employees (although that includes the Cambridge studio), and Horizon was being worked on simultaneously with Shadowfall.  So Guerrilla is clearly a two team studio, and last year on a stream a developer stated that Killzone is waiting, not dead.  This could mean a few things.  The most obvious are that they will return to the franchise one day or that a second team is developing a new entry right now.  However, I think it could also mean that Guerrilla Cambridge is taking over the Killzone franchie.

Guerrilla Cambridge

In 2012, SCE Cambridge Studio was restructured and renamed to Guerrilla Cambridge.  The idea was that they would be a new sister studio to Guerrilla Games that would develop Killzone games for Vita.  And they did.  Killzone Mercenary came out in 2013 and was a fine addition to the franchise.  However, Cambridge is now working on Rigs, a competitive multiplayer game that is one of Sony’s big VR exclusives.  But I don’t think this means they are done with Killzone.

We don’t know the size of Guerrilla Cambridge, but it would appear that they have two teams working, because in 2014 they put up a job posting for work on a “high profile, multi-million selling franchise”.  This clearly isn’t Rigs, since Rigs isn’t a franchise at this point.  The obvious answer would be that they are taking over Killzone from the Amsterdam studio.  The fact that Mercenary was generally more well received than Shadowfall supports this argument.  Other possibilities include them taking on Resistance, given their shooter pedigree, or a return to MediEvil.  However, I think both of these are pretty unlikely.  My hope for Guerrilla Cambridge is that they can forge their own identity, and I think if they keep making quality games, that will happen.  I don’t see Cambridge being a major factor in the future, but I also don’t see the studio going away.

Media Molecule

Media Molecule is the most recent breakout hit from Sony’s first party.  LittleBigPlanet was huge and put Media Molecule on the map.  They then went on to make Tearaway, which was much less huge.  Even the PlayStation 4 port couldn’t save the game.  But that was just a small team within Media Molecule, a studio now focused on Dreams.  Dreams is a game about creating worlds.  I think it is super interesting and impressive, and I will probably never play it.  The game isn’t for me, but I hope it delivers for the audience it is for.  What has been shown so far looks very promising.  My one major concern is that there isn’t an audience for the game.  And if the game under performs, I don’t know where that leaves the studio.  Sony wouldn’t shut down a studio that offers something so unique, but that would be two games in a row that failed to sell, and LittleBigPlanet 3’s tepid reception doesn’t make a return to that franchise very enticing either.  It would put them in a difficult spot, but one that I’m sure Sony would want to work through.

It is hard to tell if they have anything else in development right now.  The Tearaway team might not have all moved on to Dreams, but Rex Crowle, the lead on the game, is working on a side project, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they needed the entire 50 person studio working on Dreams.  I would like to see another passion project come out in the meantime, but I wouldn’t expect it.

London

Studio London is the studio inside Sony that focuses almost primarily on the casual audience.  Whether it is SingStar, EyeToy, Wonderbook, or Playroom, Sony London is not making games that I particularly care about.  In fact, the only “hardcore” game of any significance that they have made is The Getaway.  That isn’t to say anything of the quality of their games though, as SingStar especially is a franchise that has sold particularly well in Europe.  But now, Sony London is focused on PSVR.  VR Worlds is a launch title for the headset that combines multiple tech demos they have been working on over the past two years.  Sony wants this to be their Wii Sports for the headset.  It very well could be, as most of those demos have been positively received.  However, the opening of North West Studios, a UK studio built with the sole purpose of developing VR titles, makes me a little bit worried for the future of Studio London.  There always seems to be talks of them making another Getaway game, but I think their future is either casual games of closure.

North West

North West Studio is the newest addition to the Worldwide Studios family.  It was founded a little less than a year ago, and it’s sole purpose is to develop games for PSVR.  We have not seen anything from the studio yet, and it seemed like they were still staffing up when the studio was announced last year.  If this pans out it could be a big deal, but we really don’t know enough to say either way yet.  However, I will say that this shows a strong commitment to VR from Sony without forcing existing developers to use the tech.

Polyphony

For as much as people like to talk about Uncharted and God of War, nothing in Sony’s stable sells as well as Gran Turismo.  In fact, Gran Turismo 5 remains the second best selling PlayStation 3 game, behind only Grand Theft Auto V.  GT6 sold much worse, but a lot of that can be attributed to it launching on PS3 so shortly after the launch of the PS4.  I think Sony hopes that GT7 can return the series to its former prominence, and I am inclined to believe them.

At Paris Games Week, Polyphony announced Gran Turismo Sport, which is apparently a different game than Gran Turismo 7.  Kazunori Yamauchi said in early 2015 that GT 7 was in the works and would launch in 2015 or 2016.  GT Sport has been given a 2016 release window.  I don’t know what the hell is happening with this studio and I never have.  This is the same studio that delayed GT5 a million times and released a Prologue version of the game.  What I do know is that they are making one (maybe two) visually impressive racing games that will take forever to come out despite being announced for this year and will probably sell a lot of copies.  And also the game will be playable in VR now too because of course it will be.

Japan

If I don’t understand how Polyphony works, then I definitely don’t understand how Studio Japan works.  Coming in at over 400 employees, Studio Japan is by far the largest Sony studio.  Similar to Santa Monica, a lot of their efforts come in the form of collaborations.  Some of the more notable developers they have worked with include From Software and Level-5.  In terms of internal teams, the makeup is kind of unclear.  Project Siren is the Gravity Rush team, and they are working on Gravity Rush 2.  Team Ico no longer exists, but genDesign, a studio that I assume is basically Team Ico, is working on The Last Guardian.  I assume that once that game is finally completed, Fumito Ueda and Sony will part ways for good.  But they definitely have more people working on other, unannounced games.  For instance, they released Rain, Knack, and Puppeteer in 2013.  So what are they working on?  I have two theories.

The first is the more founded of the two.  Neogaf insider Verendus has made claims that they are working on a JRPG to rival Final Fantasy.  It would makes sense for Sony to try and get something like this in their stable, especially since Final Fantasy is now a multiplatform franchise and Level-5 seems more willing to work with Namco Bandai.  A game on that scale could be a huge deal, and it would definitely require a big team.  I have no idea when or if this game will be announced, but I imagine Sony would want to show it at an E3 or PSX.  The other, less founded rumor is that Studio Japan is working on Crash Bandicoot.  There are a lot of rumblings about Crash coming back, but I doubt Sony would make Naughty Dog work on it.  Given their history with games like Knack and Puppeteer and the fact that Mark Cerny made a game there makes me think that they are the most likely to work on a Crash revival.  Of course, with over 400 employees, both of these games could be in development simultaneously.

And that covers all of Sony’s studios.  While the output has been poor recently and the amount of closures shocking, I don’t think Sony is in as bad of a place as some might see them in.  This year alone they have eight games announced from these studios.  Instead, I think the issue lies more in scheduling and the need to spread these titles out a little more.  For instance, despite having eight games this year, the only one last year was MLB The Show.  But Evolution’s closing is a sad one, and one that I would have expected a year ago but surprises me today.  They turned Driveclub around, but I guess it wasn’t enough to make up for the year long delay and disastrous launch.  So I bid a heavy farewell to Evolution while I look forward to seeing what comes next from Sony’s Worldwide Studios.

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