Sony's emphasis on best-selling games is weighing heavy on the developers that make them--and teams that want to work on other projects.
A new report from Bloomberg highlights Sony's plans for the PlayStation brand. In lieu of a business-changing service like Game Pass, which fosters creativity by virtual of organic discovery, monetization, and full game purchases, Sony is instead doubling-down on its strengths: Big marquee first-party games that sell millions of copies.
Sony's games are lauded for their high production values, stellar art and animation, and mature themes, but these awards come at a very real human cost. Games like Naughty Dog's Uncharted and The Last of Us series require grueling overtime and crunch in order to achieve lifelike reactivity and dazzling visuals. The payoff is big: In 2020, Sony made over $22.7 billion from its games division. Like Nintendo, Sony has proven that exclusives push platform and full game sales to billion-dollar heights.
Sony is not only targeting more games of this nature, but it's apparently narrowing its focus on more guaranteed sellers. This strategy prioritizes safer bets, and it has affected the morale among Sony's creatives.
Bloomberg's report sheds light on some of what's happening internally. The restructuring of Sony's Japan Studio sent a message that the company was more interested in high-profile games than niche smaller projects that only sell well in Japan. Many developers who had been with Sony for years had left the studio as a result.
Sony Bend, the developer behind Days Gone, was denied a sequel to the zombie IP back in 2019. The studio was instead moved onto helping Naughty Dog on other projects. However, Sony did eventually let parts of Sony Bend work on a new game in a new franchise.
The most interesting part of the story surrounds Sony's Visual Arts Service Group, a critical but relatively unknown part of Sony's first-party games development. Leads at Sony VASG had ambitions to do more than work on other people's games; they wanted to make their own. So they set out to create something that could make a splash, and settled on remaking Naughty Dog's The Last of Us for the PlayStation 5.
Sony greenlit the project on a small trial basis, and the VASG splinter team of about 30 people started work. Soon they were called in to help Naughty Dog on The Last of Us II, and the remake game was sidelined. This happens quite often in games development--BioWare's Dragon Age 4 team, for example, had to drop the game to help finish Mass Effect Andromeda.
After The Last of Us II shipped, VASG returned to work on their remake. Only this time Sony had conscripted Naughty Dog devs to step in and help. Soon the hierarchy shifted. Naughty Dog devs have experience and seniority with The Last of Us, so VASG was once again relegated to a support team. This caused many of the splinter team's leads to leave and find work elsewhere.
Sony's yearly cadence is punctuated by a few heavy-hitting first-party exclusives, at most. It'll be interesting to see how the company keeps things fresh, new, and interesting without deviating from its system-seller metrics and burning out its development talent.
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