SCE Worldwide Studios is Changing, Relax
With the announcement today that Justin Richmond, game director on the announced Uncharted PS4 title, has left Naughty Dog in favor of League of Legends developer Riot Games, the Internet has spun itself into the quite the tizzy over this latest, high profile exit from Sony Computer Entertainment's renowned Worldwide Studios. Coupled with the headline grabbing plethora of recent layoffs and defections from both Naughty Dog itself and around SCE Worldwide Studios, many have begun to wonder just what is going on inside of Sony's first-party armada? Now, I don't work for Worldwide Studios. I'm not some secret insider reporting from the hidden catacombs beneath SCE Headquarters, exposing all of its deepest, darkest secrets. I'm simply a courier, here to deliver a simple message to the legions of PlayStation followers out there who may be chomping their fingernails in nervous anticipation as developer after developer seemingly exits Sony first-party:
I feel like people are looking too deeply into this; struggling to find something nefarious to explain away the changes happening within Worldwide Studios. I really think Sony is taking a hard look at everything in their company right now as they continue to right the financial ship under Kaz Hirai's leadership. If you've been keeping up with Sony's financial reports (riveting stuff, I know), they've been executing what appears to be a very calculated plan in terms of getting the company back into the black for its shareholders. Ridding themselves of unnecessary buildings, selling off the VAIO brand and exiting the PC space, rethinking and reworking their entire TV business; they're trimming the fat around the company and determining what is and isn't necessary for business moving forward.
The PlayStation division is no different. While PlayStation continues to be a (very) bright spot for the company, SCE is not content to rest on their laurels. They can't afford to just pump out game after game with wanton disregard for marketing, sales, or final product. I think we are going to see something of a paradigm shift for this generation as the PS4 continues to roll along, selling at a feverish pace. Sony is looking to reevaluate everything going on within the company to make sure that only top notch products are coming out of first-party, ultimately keeping the PS4 and it's momentum moving forward. While the PS3 had a metric ton of awesome games from first-party studios, some of those games weren't able/allowed to sell as much as they should have, or frankly, deserved to sell. Titles like Pupeteer, Sly Cooper, Resistance 3, Starhawk, Twisted Metal, and the list goes on and on; titles that were brilliant and well-received but had little to no marketing outside of the hardcore gaming niche. There just wasn't the budget to properly devote the time and marketing attention to each title in the way that they so rightly deserved. Many titles were basically just sent out to walk the plank, festering on the end of the board as the sharks circled below. This philosophy lead to an incredible line-up of exclusives for the PS3, and many of these games sold quite well (Uncharted, Killzone, The Last of Us, Gran Turismo), but there is still quite the subset — as mentioned above — that failed to meet sales expectations despite their undeniable quality. Even a franchise like inFAMOUS — which sold millions of copies and spawned a variety of sequels — could have been that much bigger had the title received the kind of focused marketing effort it deserved.
"I'm simply a courier, here to deliver a simple message to the legions of PlayStation followers out there who may be chomping their fingernails in nervous anticipation as developer after developer seemingly exits Sony first-party: Relax."
Based on what I've seen so far, I wonder if maybe SCE Worldwide Studios is trying to really focus and hone in on a few specific titles at a time for the PS4. This is a philosophy Microsoft has employed quite successfully with the Xbox; Halo and Gears of War are tentpole franchises that Microsoft built their whole release calendar around. Each title received the requisite marketing blitz, and the sales were phenomenal for almost every title released from both of these franchises. Just take a look at inFAMOUS: Second Son. Early returns suggest this title is selling extremely well. This was a game Sony's first-party released with no direct competition from within Worldwide Studios, and there were no other high-quality, first-party releases to cannibalize its sales. I realize this is early in the generation and people are hungry for AAA titles for their shiny new machine, but I still think the point is valid that priority treatment has only helped inFAMOUS: Second Son sell well.
However, with the talent and caliber of employees at Worldwide Studios, Sony has the ability to take this focused, first-party release philosophy to another level. This doesn't have to be a two or three franchise kind of thing like Microsoft ran last generation, with third-parties filling in the blanks. The purported ease of PS4 development and the continued, rapid expansion of the install base tells me that third parties will be there for the PS4. With SCE Worldwide Studios, Sony has the ability to run AAA releases once a season with focused marketing efforts. Consider this: inFAMOUS: Second Son was the big release for Spring. People were genuinely excited for this title, and it's one of those games you saw everyone on your Friends List playing the week it released. Now, let's say for argument's sake, #Driveclub's development woes get ironed out, and the title is ready for a Summer release. Sony promotes the game, and it releases during a typically slow time in July or August with the attention focused squarely on its shoulders. Come the fall, I don't think there is any question that the big release for the PS4 is The Order: 1886, and I would expect this title to receive the full brunt of Sony's promotional efforts. While technically a second-party title, it is still being published by Sony and developed in conjunction with Worldwide Studios. In the winter, something else unannounced as of yet can be slid into the schedule. To recap, in this scenario we would have inFAMOUS: Second Son in the Spring, #Driveclub in the Summer, The Order: 1886 in the Fall, and the Winter would be open to whatever title SCE chooses to slot here. Imagine the possibilities if once every three months or so, Sony's first-party studios churn out a new hit game that's given a proper marketing focus and room to breathe on the release schedule. SCE has 12 studios in the Worldwide portfolio — all working on PS4 games — and they can use this first party might to always keep the release schedule robust, cranking out quality titles and filling out the release calendar between big third party and first party games alike.
I think it's also important to mention that I believe the Naughty Dog news is unrelated to the other recent layoffs and departures seen throughout Worldwide Studios, and the next Uncharted game is just at a point now where final decisions need to be made. I feel like this was a matter of coincidence in how it lined up with other workforce moves across SCE. Was Amy Hennig a casualty of creative differences? We don't know for sure, but that's what my money's on. Justin Richmond? Sounds to me like he just got an offer he couldn't refuse from Riot Games. The bottom line is, Naughty Dog has made four games for each the PS One, PS2 and PS3. All 12 games are awesome, with the PS3 quartet in particular comprising four of the greatest games ever to grace the industry. These guys have proven themselves year after year winning countless awards and honors. If any studio knows what they're doing, it's Naughty Dog. If someone happens to leave their team, I have to believe there are a ton of developers out there who would jump at the opportunity to work with the world's premier development house. These guys know what they're doing! Naughty Dog will be fine.
This is the point I wanted to make about SCE Worldwide Studios in general as well. These guys know what they're doing. They've been in the PlayStation business since 1995. They entered a scene dominated by Nintendo and Sega and carved out their own gaming niche that quickly grew into a gaming crater. PlayStation is synonymous with gaming, and high-quality gaming at that. These guys know what they're doing. With an 18 year track record of delivering high-quality games, SCE Worldwide Studios has gained my trust and the trust other like-minded gamers. They have an eye for quality in the first-party studios, and I have to believe that if they cancel a game or postpone it, there is obviously something they saw in it that just wasn't working for them. An idea is just that: an idea. It's a proof of concept that looks good on paper but not always in execution.
You know, this is really a byproduct of the Internet age that we live in. Things have always been happening behind the scenes, we're just privy to that information now. People have always been coming and going, games have been green-lit and canceled, and projects have been shelved and restarted. This is a part of the gaming industry, and in this age of instant digital information and omni-connectedness from seemingly everyone on the planet, this is the kind of stuff we're being allowed to witness across this modern media landscape.
"Think about it like this: do you think anyone knew/gave a damn who was coming, who was going, or who was developing Super Metroid?"
Think about it like this: do you think anyone knew/gave a damn who was coming, who was going, or who was developing Super Metroid? Mike Tyson's Punch-Out? How about the original Crash Bandicoot? I don't know that many people did, and those games were awesome. What matters is the end product. The games. Everyhing will be judged according to the quality of the title printed on the disc or digital download.
Will any of these projects currently under development be affected by the recent happenings around SCE Worldwide Studios? We'll find out in due time. In the meantime, relax — and keep one thing in mind:
These guys know what they're doing.