Oct 4, 2022 - Technology

PlayStation to broaden lineup but won’t abandon roots, studio chief says

Photo illustration of Hermen Hulst next to a grid composed of the Playstation studios logo and Kratos, the main character of the God of War game.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photos: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Sony PlayStation is diversifying the types of games it makes, but will not neglect its core strength of single-player narrative adventures, PlayStation Studios chief Hermen Hulst tells Axios.

Why it matters: Winning gaming hardware generations by selling the most consoles is no longer enough for PlayStation.

  • While it entered a new console cycle with the 2020 launch of the PlayStation 5, Sony has also begun expanding into PC and mobile development.

What they’re saying: “We have a history and a reputation for building these incredible narrative-driven single-player games, such as The Last of Us and Horizon and the upcoming God of War Ragnarok,” Hulst says, chatting via video conference from his office in Amsterdam.

  • The PlayStation Studios head is centrally located to orchestrate expansion efforts, coordinating the work of some 4,000 developers across 19 studios from Japan to California.
  • “We're also diversifying now. And we have stood up 12 projects in total in the live ops multiplayer space.”
  • Live ops, or live service games, are usually multiplayer and designed for years of post-release content that can generate additional revenue. Live games such as Epic’s Fortnite and EA’s Apex Legends are among the industry’s biggest hits, but Sony has had scant success in the category.

Most of Sony’s live games haven’t been announced yet and are deep in development.

  • They’ll come from newly acquired teams such as Haven Studios, partners such as Firewalk and even Sony’s internal teams that are best known for single-player games, Hulst says.
  • They won't all be original intellectual property, Hulst says. “We're not excluding bringing some of our beloved existing franchises into live games.”

Traditional PlayStation fans shouldn’t fret. The blockbuster single-player narrative games Sony regularly wins awards for aren’t going away.

  • Many of Sony’s top developers like making them and will continue to do so, the studio chief says.
  • “Some of our biggest titles in the single player narrative-driven space are also our most profitable titles.”

Sony is also courting PC and mobile markets. The latter is nearly double console in global revenue, according to research firm Newzoo.

  • On PC, it has released four former PlayStation 4 games to robust sales, with more coming.
  • Mobile is going slower, with no titles announced but obvious ambition. Hulst says Sony plans to build up its “internal capability” to make mobile games, will work with external partners and refers to recently purchased Savage Game Studios as Sony’s “first” acquisition for its mobile group.
  • Sony may also still make games for the PS4, despite only having PS5 exclusive console games announced beyond 2022. “We certainly don’t want to forget the millions of active players on PS4, and we want to ensure there are great games for them as well,” Hulst says. “We’re evaluating it on a case-by-case basis.”

Sony’s moves come as costs rise for creating blockbuster games. “Most of the bigger teams have grown in recent years,” Hulst acknowledges.

  • Bringing titles to PC for additional sales has helped. “It allows us to continue to invest–to invest even deeper into their projects.”

Scrutiny over how blockbuster games are made has intensified as well. Numerous investigative reports about the industry in recent years described overworked developers “crunching” long hours to an unhealthy degree, including at flagship Sony studio Naughty Dog.

  • “I want to look at our professionals as people that can have balanced long term careers with proper career progression,” Hulst says.
  • Hulst says his teams are trying to tackle the issue with nuance. He floated that an experienced art director might decide they want to work a Saturday to polish something. “Am I going to say no? Well, it's a bit more complex, because what if his entire team then feels obliged to also go in? So what that means is that we need to have that conversation with the art director and say: ‘That's about the game. But there's also your team.’”
  • In July, a developer for Naughty Dog’s remake of the acclaimed The Last Of Us tweeted that the game was their first crunch-free experience in their career, praising changes at the studio.

What’s next: Hulst’s teams have a dizzying set of priorities ahead of them, including delivering games for the early 2023 launch of PSVR2.

  • They’ve also got a formidable task to figure out live games, and will benefit from the experience of a top studio in that sector, Bungie, which the company recently acquired.
  • In March, Sony’s live ops effort with racing game Gran Turismo 7 hit a snag after it had to correct an unpopular update tied to virtual car prices. “We’ve got to listen and learn and react quickly,” Hulst says of the experience. “That's what we're learning.”

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