Sony Corp.’s Visual Arts Service Group has long been the unsung hero of many hit PlayStation video games. The San Diego-based operation helps finish off games designed at other Sony-owned studios with animation, art or other content and development. But about three years ago, a handful of influential figures within the Visual Arts Service Group decided they wanted to have more creative control and lead game direction rather than being supporting actors on popular titles such as Spider-Man and Uncharted.
Michael Mumbauer, who took over direction of the Visual Arts Service Group in 2007, recruited a group of about 30 developers, internally and from neighboring game studios, to form a new development unit within Sony. The idea was to expand upon some of the company’s most successful franchises and the team began working on a remake of the 2013 hit The Last of Us for the PlayStation 5. But Sony never fully acknowledged the team’s existence or gave them the funding and support needed to succeed in the highly competitive video game market, according to people involved. The studio never even got its own name. Instead, Sony moved ownership of the The Last of Us remake to its original creator, Naughty Dog, a Sony-owned studio behind many of the company’s best-selling games and an HBO television series in development.
Deflated, the small group’s leadership has largely disbanded, according to interviews with eight people familiar with the operation. Many, including Mumbauer, have left the company entirely. Mumbauer declined to comment and others asked not to be named discussing private information. A representative for Sony declined to comment or provide interviews.
The team’s failure highlights the complex hierarchy of video game development and in particular, Sony’s conservative approach to making games for the PlayStation 5. The Japanese conglomerate owns about a dozen studios across the world as part of its PlayStation Studios label, but in recent years it has prioritized games made by its most successful developers. Studios such as Santa Monica, California-based Naughty Dog and Amsterdam-based Guerrilla Games spend tens of millions of dollars to make games with the expectation that the investments will pay off exponentially. And they usually do. Hits including 2018’s God of War and 2020’s The Last of Us Part II are exclusive to PlayStation consoles, helping Sony sell some 114 million of the PS4. Rival Microsoft Corp. has taken the opposite approach, relying on a wide array of studios to feed its Netflix-like subscription service, Xbox Game Pass, which allows users to pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to a variety of games.
Sony’s focus on exclusive blockbusters has come at the expense of niche teams and studios within the PlayStation organization, leading to high turnover and less choice for players. Last week, Sony reorganized a development office in Japan, resulting in mass departures of people who worked on less well-known but acclaimed games such as Gravity Rush and Everybody's Golf. The company has informed developers that it no longer wants to produce smaller games that are only successful in Japan, Bloomberg has reported.
This fixation on teams that churn out hits is creating unrest across Sony's portfolio of game studios. Oregon-based Sony Bend, best known for the 2019 open-world action game Days Gone, tried unsuccessfully to pitch a sequel that year, according to people familiar with the proposal. Although the first game had been profitable, its development had been lengthy and critical reception was mixed, so a Days Gone 2 wasn’t seen as a viable option.
Instead, one team at the studio was assigned to help Naughty Dog with a multiplayer game while a second group was assigned to work on a new Uncharted game with supervision from Naughty Dog. Some staff, including top leads, were unhappy with this arrangement and left. Bend's developers feared they might be absorbed into Naughty Dog, and the studio’s leadership asked to be taken off the Uncharted project. They got their wish last month and are now working on a new game of their own that will be part of a brand new franchise.