PlayStation’s first party conservatism

Rumors suggest PlayStation has a Horizon: Zero Dawn remaster on the way. It’s a frustrating development, confirming Sony’s talented first party studios are laser focused on sequels and remakes. Seeing Jim Ryan shut the doors on anything that isn’t a $100 million IP safe hit, with such creative talent at the helm, is a head-scratcher.

Less risk taking at Sony’s AAA level narrows the field for original experiences and IP and limits the greater potential of the industry. Audiences not into first person shooters and mature action adventures stay on the sidelines. Even for “core” gamers, variety helps; a side project this generation can evolve into the next big thing years from now.

I have well founded pessimism. PlayStation Studios PS5 releases follow a predictable formula: follow ups for Spiderman, Horizon, God of War, and The Last of Us. Three of the four get remasters or “director’s cuts” of their original entries, naturally sold at a $70 price point. Only Returnal and Destruction All Stars would be considered original IP releases, with Insomniac’s Wolverine on the distant horizon.

Sony’s hitmakers have warped its strategy into a ruthlessly centralized economy of scale. Ultra expensive, mature, third-person action adventures power the rest of the engine. Therefore, keep 100% of the talent on the next big entry. A splinter group on a passion project represents a risk; that’s headcount better spent on extra polish, QA, or post launch DLC for the next Last of Us or Spiderman release.

Contrast that perspective with Microsoft’s. Xbox still devotes massive investments in safe sequels: your Halos, Forzas, and post-Activision Blizzard acquisition, Call of Duties. But they have made space for their first party studios to build games that deviate from the norm. This year, Microsoft’s Obsidian Studios published a final 1.0 version of the survival game Grounded, alongside the adventure RPG Pentiment. The studios build each game with a fraction of the staff and cost of a typical AAA title within genres that aren’t guaranteed best sellers. I’d expect Ninja Theory’s Hellblade II – while hewing closer to an action adventure template – will continue the original game’s unorthodox exploration of psychosis while having a development crew of only forty people.

Financially, I get Sony’s corporate strategy. Their brand’s ‘halo effect’ is enough. A platform with hitmaker IP attracts suitable third party studios to innovate and take risks. Spiderman: Miles Morales begets Sifu. Horizon: Forbidden West builds an audience for Stray.

Besides, if the money keeps rolling in, especially with several of the cobranding TV and movie deals PlayStation is on top of, why mix things up now? Likely, millions will watch HBO’s The Last of Us TV series on streaming next year. It’s sensible that Sony develops associated Last of Us gaming content to capitalize on brand awareness.

I grant Sony’s core philosophy makes prudent financial sense. But what’s surprising (and disappointing) is the void in anything that deviates from this hitmaker strategy. Variety isn’t just a question of taste but has its financial impact: acquiring new audiences in new genres and investing where gamers’ tastes may shift years from now.

Almost nobody making first person shooters in 2015 would imagine the battle royale Fortnite would become a worldwide phenomenon. So, where is Sony’s next move? Where is Sony’s Pentiment? I love big budget Sony action adventures like everyone else, but it’s time for the company to mix it up.