How SONY's Hometown Studio Rose From the Ashes In Time for the PS4
The Tokyo-based Japan Studio, responsible for PlayStation 2 classics such as Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the Ape Escape franchise, seemed A.W.O.L. for much of the PS3 generation. Now, on the eve of the PlayStation 4's release, Japan Studio is trying to make a major comeback. I went to Tokyo to find out how.
It wasn't a single trip. I had to go to Tokyo twice to get the full story, and to gain an audience with the man who is sort of Sony's secret weapon for making Japan Studio a force to be reckoned with once again.
That man is Allan Becker, former head of Sony Santa Monica which is, not coincidentally, one of the studios that defined the PS2 and PS3 generation with the likes of God of War and thatgamecompany's Flow, Flower and Journey. Becker now runs Japan Studio and it was in the studio's Tokyo offices that he told me about his goal: "For Japan Studio to be relevant globally in two and a half years."
Becker wants Japan Studio to be back in a big way. When I asked him whether we can expect strong PS4 titles from the studio, his reply was simple: "Absolutely." In an age when Sony studios in California and Amsterdam make standout games like Uncharted, Last of Us and Killzone, getting a studio whose most notable PS3 games between 2006 and the beginning of this year were Siren: Blood Curse, Echochrome and Tokyo Jungle to play a major role on PS4 would be a huge deal. And it'd be a boon to PS4 gamers everywhere.
Getting there, however, won't be that easy. Becker, who has been at the studio for two and half years, inherited something of a mess. "The thing I was shocked by was the number of titles in production," he said of when he first arrived. "That completely blew my mind." At that time, there were 40-something titles in production, and the environment was, what Becker called, "a free-for-all."
That was then. Now, Sony's most creative studio is starting to make leaps towards recapturing its former brilliance.
A Trip To Tokyo
My first trip to Tokyo happened in mid-September. I took the bullet train from Osaka, where I live and have so for over the past decade. The Allan Becker interview didn't look like it was going to happen, and I'd need a second trip for that. However, I was going to see some of the most powerful individuals on the PlayStation team, including one with deep Japan Studio roots and another who had more recently taken hold.
The first of those two was Shuhei Yoshida, the Internet's new favorite gaming executive, a ubiquitous Twitter personality who travels the world in his job as the chief of all of Sony's game development studios. Among gamers, the always affable Yoshida has become well-known for his willingness to be frank and to interact with PlayStation gamers on Twitter—an openness that might raise eyebrows among Japan's traditional (and stodgy) business culture. I sat with Yoshida by an enormous hotel suite table covered with an array of PlayStation hardware. To help me tell the Japan Studio's story, he turned back the clock.
Between 1996 and 2000, Yoshida was mainly managing the Japan Studio at Sony's Tokyo headquarters. "I started hiring people and created internal teams that eventually made Ape Escape, The Legend of Dragoon, and Ico," Yoshida said. He produced titles like the first Gran Turismo, whose team, led by Kazunori Yamauchi, were spun off into their own studio, Polyphony Digital.
Yoshida produced PlayStation 1 role-playing game The Legend of Dragoon, overseeing a hundred-person team and a $16 million budget, which, at the time, was quite large. "Eventually, we recouped that, thanks to sales outside Japan," says Yoshida. "The sales in the U.S. were very strong." Even in the early days, success abroad was key to the Japan Studio.
It wasn't only the internal titles that helped make PlayStation a winner. Starting with the first PlayStation, Sony was blessed with a seemingly endless reservoir of games. "There was no shortage of great third party games," says Yoshida. "That really pushed the PlayStation in Japan."
While Sony also had first-party, internally-developed games, the Tokyo-based giant wasn't exactly Nintendo. You bought Sony hardware to play video games from an array of what often seemed like other Japanese studios, whether that was Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII, or Metal Gear Solid. Strong internally developed Sony titles were gravy.
Yoshida was proud of Sony's games but acknowledged that the embarrassment of third-party riches could have led to complacency. "And so, probably the company took getting some third party support for granted," said Yoshida. "[And thought that] PlayStation can be successful without a strong first party."
MUCH MUCH MORE here! Seriously, READ IT!
SCE Japan is ready to kick some ass, as it seems
(big JRPG confirmed j/k)