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Why Sony needs to invest in Japanese studios

8 January 2013

Sony’s first-party studios provide some of the best games available on any given platform. With the likes of Naughty Dog, Media Molecule, Sony Santa Monica, Guerilla and Polyphony Digital under its belt, these studios provide a reason for buying a PlayStation console more than pretty much anything else. One thing you may notice however, is that only one of those aforementioned developers - namely Polyphony Digital - is Japanese. The rest of them are either European or North American and for a Japanese publisher this must be a worry.

It's a worry because there’s a lack of content that caters for the Japanese market. That's fine here but in Japan it gives little reason to buy the consoles and it means relying on third-party publishers to fill the gaps. The most high profile third-party PlayStation game in Japan is Monster Hunter, developed and published by Capcom. The Monster Hunter series was a saviour for the PlayStation Portable and kept it from fading from extinction in the East. Portable consoles are more popular than home consoles in Japan and making sure you have the content to support it should be paramount.

Sony has always had good third-party support for their home consoles. Every major publisher has got behind the PlayStation name and provided some of the best games of all time on PlayStation consoles. With the PSP, this was the case too but as time went on support began to drop as did Sony's support too. It was only because Capcom had struck gold with Monster Hunter that the PSP continued to get support in Japan.

            

A Monster Hunter PSP Sony made just for that one series. It has a larger battery and more durable analogue nub. 

This should have been a warning sign right there to Sony that it needs to invest in Japanese studios but it hasn't. Instead, when having a successor to the PSP in development it just assumed that the support was there, like it has with every previous console Sony has made. This wasn't the case and Capcom announced that the next Monster Hunter would be on the 3DS. That's where the problems with PlayStation Vita began.

It's no secret that Vita, arguably the best piece of hardware Sony has made in a while, is doing abysmally in Japan; it isn't just getting outsold by the 3DS but by the PSP as well. It's a nightmare situation which Sony has to fix and only it can change things around. Should it kill off the PSP and threaten to lose the third-party support it still has? Sony has to take a risk somewhere, but annoying the developers that still support it is suicide. I do think that getting more first-party Japanese developers should be Sony’s number one priority because while the PS3 is still doing well in the western territories and a new potential console is on the horizon, it's going to be hard to spread the developers across multiple platforms, especially when some of those developers don't want to make games on a handheld. Naughty Dog, one of Sony’s best developers, has also said that this is a big problem for Vita.

There is support from others though, including Media Molecule who announced Tearaway back at Gamescom. The LittleBigPlanet creator is looking to produce a really unique game on the Vita, something that the handheld is crying out for. There's also Killzone Mercenary coming from Guerilla Cambridge, which could prove to be a proper high quality FPS on the Vita, something which both Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified should have been. Meanwhile, hopes in Japan are pinned on Soul Sacrifice, a co-op action game which is one of the most gruesome games I have ever seen. That is just one game though; there needs to be lot more.

The only other notable Vita exclusive Japan Studio that Sony has had a hand in is Gravity Rush, which is a fantastic game, one of the best on Vita. If Soul Sacrifice is the only game this year, in 2013, then Vita sales in that terrirtotry simply aren’t going to improve. Japan Studio itself has had numerous problems, which led to Allan Becker, who was at Sony Santa Monica, to head over to Japan to sort out the mess. Japan Studio, like Sony Santa Monica, co-produce games which other studios, as well as internally develop. Japan Studio houses Team ICO who is making The Last Guardian, which has been in development hell for some time. To put it into perspective, the last game Team ICO made was Shadow of the Colossus, which came out in 2005. That's nearly eight years without a release.

           

 The Last Guardian has been anticipated for years and is nowhere to be seen.

Another studio taking too much time to make a game is Polyphony Digital. Yes, they produced Gran Turismo, which is one of Sony's biggest franchises, but it took them far too long to make it onto shelves. Both Gran Turismo 5 and Gran Turismo PSP took much longer to release than they should have. Ideally, Gran Turismo 6 should be a launch title for the next PlayStation console. Hopefully, Gran Turismo will also see the light of day on Vita, though when quizzed on the project Polyphony head honcho Kaz Yamauchi said it was 'confidential.'

The long lead times and lack of Japanese studios must be a management issue. Sony's Worldwide Studios, which overlooks all of Sony's developers, is headed by Shuhei Yoshida (who is a nice enough chap and very approachable -- just tweet him @ysop), but I get the feeling he needs to reel the studios in a bit and knock a few heads together. It needs stronger support in Japan, whether it be through start-up studios or buying existing development houses.

Start-up studios are probably the cheaper option but it would take a while to get some results and by then it might be too late. Buying studios is surely the perfect quick fix for Sony and given its financial situation - not as dire as some make out since they bought EMI, Ericsson and Gaikai last year as well as 10 percent of Olympus – it has money to spend, but is it willing to?


The other question is who to buy? There are numerous smaller Japanese studios who support Sony but these studios would have little impact given they already develop pretty much exclusively on Sony systems anyway. Looking at the big Japanese names then you could make arguments for several of them. Capcom is a no-go, buying Monster Hunter would be an immense boost but Capcom is far from in trouble, despite Resident Evil 6 selling worse than expected. Konami is pretty much out of bounds too, since they only have Kojima Productions with Kojima who is a Sony supporter, and has little else of note. SEGA is an option as its parent company Sammy might sell given how SEGA is losing them money. Not a great sign for Sony but some of its IPs are potential earners, Sonic of course being one of them. Maybe Sony could bring the blue hedgehog back to his former 16-bit glory? It would also be funny to see the reaction of the disgruntled Dreamcast fanboys who blame Sony for SEGA's demise out of the hardware space. It was SEGA's fault it got into financial trouble in the first place. That's a terrible reason to buy a company though in truth.

Maybe there’s Atlus? Though not as well-known as some of the others, it does make a lot of games and knows its market well. Admittedly, none of them are big sellers but its library would add quite a bit of content to Sony systems if it were to be bought. Namco-Bandai is an unlikely purchase, since it doen't have massive sellers in its portfolio either. Tekken was great back in the day, but the fighting game genre isn't what it was. I'd be happy with Tekken Tag Tournament 2 on the Vita personally. Namco is also releasing God Eater 2 on the Vita this year, which should help, but it's also launching on the PSP so it might not have a big impact.

The most likely investment, if any, by Sony for a third-party developer is surely Square-Enix. This is simply because Sony already has shares in it, around 9 percent. That isn't enough to be a board member so it has zero influence in the decisions made. Increasing the stake would allow Sony to get onto the board and pull some strings in order to get games on its platforms and maybe even exclusively. Maybe then the fabled Final Fantasy VII remake would happen? Then, if the opportunity arises, buy it out and absorb Square-Enix into Sony and have the likes of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and the Eidos franchises as part of the library. Final Fantasy has global appeal and Dragon Quest is even bigger in Japan. Those along with the Eidos studios would bring a large amount of content onto Sony platforms exclusively and make all of their platforms more compelling buys. It wouldn't be easy or cheap but would sort out a lot of its problems.

Is buying Square-Enix the best option? Maybe. I think getting on the board at least would allow Sony to leverage that and get some exclusives which can push its systems in Japan, in particular. Imagine a new Vita exclusive Final Fantasy game, maybe the VII remake or VII-2. Hell FFXIII has two sequels and no one asked for those so why not give the best-selling Final Fantasy a sequel?

           

The Final Fantasy VII remake would be closer to reality if Sony had a larger stake in Square-Enix.

Whatever the case, Sony can't sustain three platforms simultaneously, especially when two of them will need new content in a consistent fashion, and appeal to the right markets. Sony is well positioned with its western studios to help the PS3 successor in the west but that will mean nothing for the Vita since the Japanese support will be severely limited and most of the western studios want little to do with a handheld. It's a shame really but what can Sony do? Force them?


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