Head of PlayStation on straddling the line between indie and first-party

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,
Hermen Hulst — head of PlayStation Studios — has talked to GamesIndustry.biz about creating games with newly-formed studios Haven Entertainment, Firewalk Studios, and Deviation games.

e3 2018 trailer screens

For a bit of context before we leap in, Assassin's Creed producer Jade Raymond is scouting for talent for Haven Entertainment Studios. The Firewalk Studios team has ex-Destiny developers coming out its ears and is suitably making a AAA multiplayer game. At the pre-E3 Summer Game Fest event, Sony announced a partnership with Deviation Games. The team is working on a new IP and is headed up by Call of Duty: Black Ops project leads Dave Anthony and Jason Blundell. Sony will be working in a support role with all of these groups, which sounds in line with the company's strategy of working with teams closely before picking and choosing who it might add to their roster of 14 first-party studios. These are currently managed by Hermen Hulst, the guy giving the interview to GamesIndustry.biz alongside Deviation's Anthony and Blundell. It must be noted, though, that these studios are apparently "independently backed and financed," and entirely culturally unique from in-house Sony. And yet, they are in bed with the company? It feels like one foot in either camp and I can't make head nor tail. Maybe some help in the comments with this one? Ta.

Anthony starts out with plenty of compliments, but not much substance until the end section. "What they do is promote a culture and an environment where it's fearless to create. And the way they do that is with mutual transparency with the teams," Anthony says.

"It's absolutely mind-blowing. For us, we have never been in a situation like this before, where we've got everything we could possibly ask for. From day one of the studio we have complete financial security for years and years to come. Now, with this partnership with Sony, we can be ourselves. And not only that, when we bring people into the studio, we can promise them that this is our culture. And we can fearlessly create and innovate and be groundbreaking."

Let's just pause for a moment. Anthony actually gives us great insight into what Sony is doing with these relationships quite unlike anything we have heard before. Sony is prepared to give financial backing — total financial backing, it seems, but I am really struggling with the phraseology Anthony used — and allow the teams to make what they want, however they want. These teams also seem to be getting access to other Sony studios with 'mutual transparency.' Hideo Kojima, if you will remember, had a similar deal. Sony backed him and then XDEV set him up with Guerrilla's Enigma engine for Death Stranding. An educated guess says that Sony is willing to do the same for these three additions: provide an engine and guidance in exchange for a product from exciting creatives. In essence, Sony gives the studios a foundation to build a house upon as the studio pleases, but then Sony get the keys to it. That sounds harsher than intended, but Sony is offering absolute security for creatives.

Blundell then chips in. "Sony's background, its facilities, the things that it opens up to us has been amazing. I don't want to give away the secret sauce, but Sony has the ability to speak to game developers in a way that we're used to talking. That's really where the magic happens. Not only do we have all these facilities, and this history of game development at Sony, but also they can speak in the way that we speak. And they know how to deal with imagination and how to embrace risk and how to manage it."

Dreams 5

Strip away the courtesy and it shows that Sony is willing to strike the right balance between management and creative freedom, otherwise these teams might not have partnered. In some ways, this explains a little of why Media Molecule was even allowed to make a game like Dreams despite an obvious lack of immediate financial potential. Later in the article, it is clarified by Hulst that "Guerrilla Games, Naughty Dog, Santa Monica, [are all] available to them. We have incredible producers that are invited by Dave and Jason to give the harshest possible feedback. And then they ask us to give them more." Again, these are teams that produce top-tier games. So it seems that PlayStation is quietly opening up its studios in order to help push the newly created studios as far along as they can.

Hermen Hulst opens up a little on this process. "It's about the trust, and not squeezing them into unworkable deadlines, or making them do trailers when they're not ready," he told the interviewer. "Me and my leadership team, we've all been in the trenches. I've worked on design documents. I've made games, I've designed games, I've spent hours and hours with narrative directors..."

Again, we haven't had too much public acknowledgement of what Hulst has been up to since he stepped in for Shuhei Yoshida. This makes it sound like the folks running the studios are no longer executives. Hulst has pushed to ensure the developers are being run by developers with a carefully constructed plan to ensure that it is about feeding creativity and not pushing products, hence the "trust." Remember that this is all self-advertisement from Hulst to other studios, so take the hyperbole with a little bit of salt. However, it must be said with Hulst pushing PixelOpus into the limelight his point is exemplified. Though Studio Japan did disappear, so checks and balances. Anthony backs this, of course, saying that "you always start by dreaming as wide as you want. It's just now when we come to narrowing it in, we don't have to narrow it into the restrictions we've had in the past."

The last little bit from Hulst in this interview again mixes the pot when it comes to that blurred line between independence and Sony feeding a new studio for purchase at the market. "We are growing as PlayStation Studios quite rapidly. But teams like this need to come together. We're actively in conversations. We have a very wide network of veterans and young people. I talk to Shuhei Yoshida a lot about the talent coming up in the indie world. And it's really across all sorts of genres and all sizes and geographical locations that we look. In this instance, we stumbled upon a couple of English blokes in fancy LA. Which is great. But yeah, I would say you see a pattern. And I would be the last to deny that there's some intention behind that. They're all best in class talent in what they've made before. They're all fresh and new. And we can jointly innovate, focus on quality and try new things."

Last bit before we can wrap up, promise. This is a spectacular nugget. Though it might have been very quietly been doing so before, PlayStation seems to be fighting on a unified front on the first-party and indie scenes. Shuhei's role is explained — finally! — as more of a talent-spotter within the independent games scene, rather than a major management demotion. In addition, PlayStation is using the larger independent studios as a place to bed in this personnel while keeping an eye on them for the future. In many ways, it can be seen as the smart response to Xbox's mega-purchases. PlayStation doesn't want the Bethesda-style brand: it wants the talent of both today and tomorrow that would go on to make that kind of IP come to the company naturally. This method will never be as stylish or headline-grabbing as Microsoft's, but it might be financially efficient for Sony's size and could be perceived as a creator-friendly move. Not that Xbox aren't friendly, it just seems like the team in green occasionally struggles to get its first-party chickens in a row.

How about all of this news? I would love some takes on the interview in the comments — I'll be in there with you!
Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Hey, I'm Kes! I'm a Staff Writer, and I've been here since 2021. What do I like? The Outer Wilds is top notch. The Witcher 3 blew my mind over the course of five years completing it. I want Burnout back — I really miss crunching mechanical wonders into walls to the sound of Guns N' Roses. Cool, now we are acquainted, I'll see you around.