The start of 2016 has not been a good time for British game developers, with the news of the closure of both Lionhead Studios and Evolution Studios in the last few weeks. It’s never good to see a studio shut down and jobs lost, but it’s especially sad when it’s a storied developer with several popular games to their name. Looking to the future, there are real questions to be asked about the state of first party development for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Lionhead’s closure is particularly galling, with the studio closing in on the release of Fable Legends. This was a fairly major departure from the single player focused originals, with four-player cooperative quests that were to be controlled and shaped by a fifth player as the villain. We aren’t privvy to the decision making, but Microsoft clearly felt it wouldn’t recoup the development costs.
A big part of this would have been down to making this a free-to-play game with 5-10 year cycle of support, making it an expensive undertaking. Lionhead had been working on Legends since 2012, with the first closed betas starting in late 2014 ahead of a planned 2015 launch. That 2015 launch never happened though, with the game pushed back to 2016 and the promised open beta never opening its doors to the wider public. The game’s cancellation was the death knell for Lionhead, with the prospect of letting them start work on a new project too costly for Microsoft to consider.
It’s a similar tale for Evolution Studios, albeit one that has played out in a much more public fashion. The studio had already survived one difficult game launch, with the tragedy of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake understandably affecting the unfortunately timed release of MotorStorm: Apocalypse. Driveclub’s woeful launch had no external factors to blame. First it missed the launch window, releasing almost one year later than planned, and we all know of the months-long server woes which plagued the game.
Evolution went through a major restructuring in March of last year, with Sony saying that “Evolution Studios will now focus on DriveClub as a service going forward.” They actually managed to rehabilitate their image, with a long running and very generous DLC season pass, the excellent Driveclub Bikes standalone expansion and talk of PlayStation VR support in the future. However, it would have been several years of pre-production and growing the studio once again before they could release another full game.
Perhaps both Microsoft and Sony have misjudged what it takes for a game to actually become a service, though. Driveclub’s “service” was something of a misnomer, as Evolution fulfilled the remainder of the season pass before delivering the surprise that was Bikes and moved on to create more bitesized chunks of DLC. In Lionhead’s case, a free to play game can get people through the door, but it’s another matter to engage them long enough to feel like they want or need to pay. Both likely lacked some of the levels of engagement in order to be sustainable.
The most successful “games as a service” examples have all reached that stage quite naturally and often done so from small and unassuming beginnings. That we see a crop of hero shooters like Blizzard’s Overwatch, Gearbox Software’s Battleborn and Boss Key’s LawBreakers all eschewing free-to-play in favour of a paid release is quite telling.
The closure of Evolution Studios also has to be taken in the grander context of Sony’s PlayStation business, and with PlayStation VR on the horizon, you have to be wary of the company repeating the mistakes of the past. The PlayStation Vita released in 2012 with a lot of expectations from those who bought it. It came out with a healthy selection of games in its launch window, that included an Uncharted game worthy of the series, the bitesized third person shooting of Unit 13, one of the best Wipeout games in the series’ history, ModNation Racers, Everybody’s Golf, with many more on the horizon.
That stream of first and second party content soon dried up, however, and well before it became clear that the Vita was not selling enough consoles to warrant further investment. Bigbig Studios and Zipper Interactive were both closed shortly after they shipped their respective Vita games, while Studio Liverpool’s storied history came to a close half a year later.
In each case, they were closed before development could begin in earnest on a new game, but you have to wonder if that was not a little shortsighted. Both Guerrilla Cambridge (Killzone: Mercenary) and Bend Studio (Uncharted: Golden Abyss) quickly moved on to developing for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR, leaving the Vita floundering with no first party exclusives and waning interest from third party developers.
With lengthening development times and necessary delays, the lack of exclusive games at the end of 2015 showed that Sony really do not have a lot of depth to their Worldwide Studios, and that could be worrying when you consider PlayStation VR as a separate platform that poses very different game design challenges to developing games purely for the PlayStation 4.
Thankfully, with companies releasing VR hardware this year, there’s a lot of optimism and interest from developers big and small. As the most likely to reach a mass market audience in the first few years of this nascent technology, PlayStation VR should be catered for by third parties very well, but truly must-have games currently seem to be few and far between.
Evolution Studios were hard at work on adapting Driveclub for VR, as we discovered at Paris Games Week last year. This project might plausibly continue as more of an exercise in adapting the game engine and existing content, with Sony perhaps retaining a small number of Evolution staff and having them work with London Studio or the recently founded and VR oriented North West Studio in Manchester. At the same time, GT Sport from Polyphony Digital might be enough to sate PlayStation VR racing game fans.
But you have to ask where the second wave of PlayStation VR games are going to come from, and even what PlayStation 4 exclusives are on the cards. I can’t see Sony diverting Naughty Dog or Guerrilla Games to develop for PS VR, let alone Sucker Punch or the in house team at Studio Santa Monica – let’s not forget that a cancelled new IP saw layoffs at Santa Monica in 2014. Much of what remains within SCE Worldwide Studios is “too big to fail”, and often as part of a wide reaching infrastructure that lends support to external studios. Santa Monica, San Diego, Japan and XDEV all have major roles in assisting smaller developers in bringing their games to PlayStation, and those are somewhat essential.
Microsoft is a very different beast, with tentpole studios at 343 Industries, The Coalition and Turn 10 putting out regular new Halo, Gears of War and Forza games, while they have a handful of strong second party studios alongside.
However, it’s always important to remember that emotion plays little role in these business decisions. Regardless of how popular games like Fable II or MotorStorm were, both Lionhead and Evolution found themselves having to rely on former glories for too long. Lionhead didn’t even get the opportunity to release Fable: Legends and recoup some of the expenditure.
There’s a cautionary tale to take from this in relation to the health of other first party studios. After five years of games for the unloved Kinect and a decade in which any critical acclaim has met with indifference at the tills, it would seem that there is an awful lot riding on Rare’s Sea of Thieves.