Just from looking at them, it’s clear that Microsoft and Sony’s respective business models couldn’t be more different if they tried, with the latter company’s approach often winning out. One seeks to build up a vast library of games, while the other prioritizes its work with a handful of prized developers. Sony manages to drive sales of its PlayStation consoles by cultivating beloved exclusives from such studios as Naughty Dog and Guerrilla Games. This tendency for Sony to prevail in the console market through reliance on its first-party studios goes back years, being most prominent during the early days of the eighth console generation.
In the past, Sony’s high-caliber exclusives helped the PlayStation 4 sprint ahead of its competitor, the Xbox One. While Sony focused on delivering compelling games with boundary-pushing technology and exciting narratives, Microsoft centered an all-purpose entertainment system. Consumers were not keen on a deprioritization of games and gravitated toward Sony’s console. Of course, Sony’s solid strategy and gains during the eighth generation could never outright stop Microsoft from finding its footing, given enough time.
Microsoft may have been slow to pivot to a new business strategy, but once they did the Xbox brand was all the better for it. Recognizing their mistakes with the Xbox One’s launch, Microsoft sought to ensure a steady path forward by placing veteran employee Phil Spencer in charge of the Xbox division. Spencer, in turn, would guide Xbox towards crucial decisions like shifting away from anti-consumer policies and shaping the Xbox Series X/S around the idea of bringing gamers into the future. Such bold advances in company policy stand in stark contrast to the current state of Sony and its PlayStation brand.
Whereas Xbox has started to embrace the direction in which game consumption is headed, PlayStation remains wedded to its traditional business tactics, the flaws of which grow more apparent with each passing day. As mentioned, PlayStation, and by extension Sony, chose to emphasize the efforts of a small number of AAA studios in order to dominate the console market. Unfortunately, this strategy has had the downside of downplaying and marginalizing Sony’s smaller developers, thereby affecting the variety of games and the value of Sony’s broader catalogue. The problems at Sony run deeper than just stubborn adherence to tradition, however.
Jason Schreier of Bloomberg revealed some of Sony’s inner workings, demonstrating its support of a few studios above its many other talented developers. Per his reporting, Sony has made decisions that have caused harm to studios like Sony San Diego, Sony Bend, and Japan Studio. In essence, Sony is like a parent that shows intense favoritism to one child while the others are left in the dust.
In the case of Sony San Diego, the Bloomberg report touched on the studio being thrust into the spotlight by circumstances outside of their control. News broke that the studio is working on reviving old PlayStation properties. After the news, several outlets including Gaming Instincts typed their speculative lists with excited fingers. As the gaming world rejoiced, the reality was less cheerful for the hard-working developers.
It is crucial to understand that Sony San Diego is often in charge of last minute work on Sony’s bigger titles. For example, the studio is known to have added certain final touches to The Last of Us Part II just before its release. By the sounds of it, though, San Diego has sought to explore new territory beyond their assigned role.
As the story goes, San Diego’s desire to work on full projects of their own making has faced resistance from Sony itself. Sony San Diego’s studio heads apparently proposed a remake of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune to Sony’s executives, who rejected the idea in favor of a less costly remake of The Last of Us. Despite San Diego agreeing to work on this other remake, they were soon relegated to assisting Naughty Dog in the game’s development. Hearing about these struggles faced by the San Diego studio, it becomes clear how obstinate Sony seems to have grown in their dealings with certain developers.
In fact, we don’t feel it unfair to say that Sony is outright neglecting its talent and taking the safest route possible to their own detriment. In a cynical way, it makes sense that Sony would choose a recent game from Naughty Dog to remake, given how certain it is that the company would get a return on its investment. Such a company would be so committed to releasing a product borne of unfettered greed, it’s only natural that they would neglect decades of viable properties, like Resistance and Syphon Filter. Alas, the extent to which Sony seems intent on alienating its own studios doesn’t end there.
Consider what became of Sony Bend, in what should have been their moment of glory. Their 2019 post-apocalyptic motorcycle fantasy game Days Gone achieved decent financial success and garnered a strong fanbase. In spite of this, Sony Bend was denied the chance to develop a sequel, ostensibly due to Days Gone’s mixed critical reception. One has to wonder how any studio under Sony can appreciate their genuine victories when they are followed by such disregard and disinterest.
Then there was the matter of Japan Studio, one of Sony’s oldest and most storied in-house developers. It came to light that the studio was being reorganized around Asobi Team, the creators of the Astro Bot games. This pivot feels especially galling in the face of Japan Studio’s PlayStation 3 output, which included the likes of Rain and Tokyo Jungle. It’s hard not to feel some level of resentment towards Sony’s other properties given how the company chose to treat Japan Studio.
That said, blaming certain games for the absence of other interesting works deflects from the actual problem that is Sony’s questionable priorities. The corporation seems to direct attention and resources away from smaller studios and projects, in favor of uplifting proven hits like God of War and The Last of Us. This might keep those admittedly beloved titles in the spotlight, but it comes at the cost of unique and innovative ideas that keep Sony relevant. Sony’s failing in this regard, and the resentment it fosters among gamers, grows more obvious when looking at how Microsoft’s fortunes have changed for the better.
The key to Microsoft’s success as of late is tied to how they have constructed their Xbox Game Pass service. Game Pass not only grants access to Microsoft’s own catalogue of first-party titles, but also a range of more niche titles from independent developers. The aim has been to create an inclusive environment where anyone can find something of personal interest. In building Game Pass to be so accommodating, Microsoft has managed the difficult feat of appealing to players while also doing right by game developers.
The service’s capacity for aiding game creators is perhaps best exemplified by Hyperdot, a game that only recently left Game Pass. Created by one person, this small arcade game received the support of one of the biggest video game publishers. For all of Microsoft’s flaws, we can’t deny the sheer amount of good that the company can accomplish with Game Pass.
Those flaws do still exist, though, and it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which they manifest for Microsoft’s in-house developers. Similar to Sony San Diego’s experience, the now-defunct Ensemble Studios was forced to add the more profitable Halo brand to their real-time strategy game, leading them to scrap their previous work. While the resulting game Halo Wars did release in 2009, it hardly seems worth enduring the crunch, the strenuous relationship with Halo’s original developer Bungie, and the resulting shutdown. Stories such as these serve to hammer home the importance of a healthy relationship between a developer and their publisher, a concept which Sony would do well to take to heart.
Though Sony’s focus on the few may paint a bleak future, there is still some hope for a more inclusive Sony. Jim Ryan, CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, said to expect news on their response to Game Pass. God of War creator David Jaffe also mentioned Sony is working on a counter strategy for Game Pass. If these claims are indeed representative of Sony’s plans, then the company may well find its way again.