In what will come as sad news to anyone who’s even remotely interested in video games, Sony have decided to shut down Evolution Studios.
Evolution’s flagship titles MotorStorm and, more recently, Driveclub, might not be your absolute favourite games of all time, but the implications of this and other recent announcements could be significant for the gaming industry as whole.
With more and more in-house exclusive creators being wiped off the map, are the days of first-party developers now numbered?
The growing cull
A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft announced that they were cancelling Fable Legends – and would negotiate the closure of Lionhead Studios, a team that has long-since produced the well-liked Fable series for Microsoft. They also revealed that another of their in-house developers, Press Play, would cease as well.
But this, together with Sony’s decision to scrap Evolution Studios, are only the latest culls in a long-line of axed exclusive-creating outfits.
In 2012, Sony shut down Pursuit Force creators BigBig, SOCOM developers Zipper Interactive, and most crushingly perhaps, WipEout pioneers Sony Liverpool (formerly Psygnosis).
Microsoft meanwhile, has downsized, merged or re-branded several of its notable first-party operations over the past few years.
Why Lionhead and Evolution?
It’s true that Lionhead’s sales and reputation were suffering in their later years; Fable III was seen as quite the let-down after Peter Molyneux promised all but the Garden of Eden in most of his games, and there was a feeling in the community that the then studio head tended to plow his time into rather extravagant projects (Project Milo?).
As for Fable Legends specifically, the game had been in development for a long, long time, no doubt at great expense, and early signs and feedback were that it would not be the outright hit Microsoft would hope for.
At Evolution Studios, meanwhile, the ambitious online racer that was DriveClub was released to a mixed critical reception and disappointing sales (although it did break the 2 million mark).
The market for racing games is essentially dominated by Forza and Gran Turismo, and the sales of Driveclub probably emphasised the futility of chasing the genre with another, big new IP.
With racing games being Evolution’s bread and butter for as long as recent memory serves, it only made sense to shave time and effort by closing the studio – although Sony did mention that they understood the possibility of losing some major talent.
A changing landscape
There may well be a bigger issue at play here. In a mainstream landscape increasingly dominated by cross-platform releases, the likes of Sony and Microsoft face a tough challenge to not only create consistently strong exclusive titles – but have them make an effective splash in a crowded market.
As such, first-party exclusives tend to be grouped into two extremes of late: flagship franchise entries that fans expect, and experimental new IPs.
In the case of the former, Uncharted, Gears Of War and the like are still being pumped out, and continue to sell like hotcakes. In the case of the latter however, fortunes are much more precarious.
Attempts to make online multiplayer exclusives like Driveclub and Fable Legends into ‘system sellers’ appear to be doomed. Such projects eat up a great deal of resources, but don’t appear to be justifying the investment.
This is compounded when platforms attempt to use their first-party devs as a mean of pushing new tech or agendas. Microsoft had Rare churn out endless Kinect games over the previous console generation, while Lionhead put out the uninspired Fable: The Journey for the motion device.
Lately, first-party devs not working on pre-existing fan favourites have generally been steered towards ambitious, un-tested new experiences – which brings big risks.
Sony and Microsoft seem to be waking up to the fact that experimenting with exclusives is best done via third-party developers (such as Remedy with Quantum Break, pictured above) and indie studios (like The Chinese Room with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture), which brings massive financial reward if all goes well, and less of an expensive blow if it doesn’t.
As such, there are now a relatively tiny number of Triple A first-party developers left, with the likes of Naughty Dog high-profile and successful, but increasingly unusual, examples.
A sad end?
Although the Lionhead and Evolution closures do seem to make financial sense, the thought that first-party developers might disappear almost entirely will read like sandpaper to the eyes to any long-time gamer.
These game development companies are symbolic of the brands that we invest in, and that investment has developed a personal bond with us and our choices. There’s a reason gamers fiercely debate the console war… well, there’s two reasons.
One of them is that it’s much easier to fuel your ego by insulting somebody through the internet about a simple choice of games console (top tip: they can’t hit you through a computer monitor), but the other reason is that we care about the consoles we have chosen, and the companies and their art resonate with us.
Some of the most treasured gaming experiences of all time have been original titles developed by first-party studios.
But the reality of the market is that cross-platform games are much more common nowadays, and exclusivity isn’t rewarded, or respected as much as it once was.
Bungie, one of Microsoft’s most loved third-party developers, chose to leave the Halo series to work on Destiny, a cross-platform release.
So maybe it’s just a sign of the times, and we gamers should expect to see it happening more often. But there’s something in the sentiment we hold to our individual brand choices, and you won’t get that pride with any joint PlayStation, Xbox, PC, Oculus Rift, Nintendo, Atari, Safari, Google Games release, because we like the individual experience we get with our consoles.