PlayStation Studios Spotlight: Santa Monica Studio

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,

Update Log:
17/09/21 — Added new Ragnarök gameplay trailer to current project, Eric Williams role as director has been added to SM in 2021.

Santa Monica Studio overview

Santa Monic Studios spotlight

Back in 1999, Santa Monica Studio set up shop right next to then-closely-associated studio Naughty Dog. The team made Kinetica — a weird futuristic motorbike racing game — for PS2 in 2001. This taught the team a few lessons, enough that Santa Monica would feel confident enough to move onto the 2005 PS2 release God of War, the first of seven in the series. Following protagonist Kratos after the Greek god Ares fooled the angry Spartan into killing his family, we see Kratos killing his way up the Olympian ladder. The games were hack-and-slash action to their core, requiring combos and weapon chaining across set-camera angle stages.

Led by the bold and brash David Jaffe, Santa Monica followed up the success of the original with the confidence and swagger of a Greek god in God of War II in 2007. The game was memorable because it was excellent, but it also released a year into the PS3 lifecycle on the PS2 hardware. Current studio lead Cory Barlog started his work on the franchise alongside Jaffe at this point. Before Santa Monica would develop the PS3 release of God of War III in 2010, there were the prequel PSP games Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta that were developed by close allies Ready at Dawn. The PS3 era of God of War finished with Ascension in 2013, the first game with multiplayer in the series and the first prequel developed by Santa Monica. When 2018's God of War reboot and sequel hit — the game was set in Norse mythology with an older Kratos — the series took a turn away from the teenage-angst hack-and-slash style of old, and became a hyper-focused action game with a touching story and absurdly good cinematics. The game won GOTY at the Game Awards in 2018.

Within Santa Monica is an incubation team that helps publish smaller projects for Sony or assist development: these are the unseen depths of the studio that many fans forget about. The catalogue is massive and worth checking out yourself, but here is a small taster. The incubation unit helped unleash Lightbox Interactive's Warhawk and sequel Starhawk on the world, as well as Fun Bits' Fat Princess series and Superbot Entertainment's underrated PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Thatgamecompany produced Flow, Flower, and Journey out of Santa Monica and the larger development team helped bring Eat Sleep Play's Twisted Metal (2012) and Ready at Dawn's The Order: 1886 to life. Seriously, this lot have been busy over the years!

Santa Monica Studio's previous project: God of War (2018)

God of War Santa Monic Studios portrait

Game of the Year 2018, what more do you want? The echo of ‘Boy!’ will live on through gaming history, but underneath the booming aggression of Kratos’ voice is something we had never heard before from the protagonist: humanity. The game has a 94 from critics and a 9.2 from users on Metacritic denoting its universal praise. Throwing an axe has never felt that good, nor has exploring a tightly-knight environment. Simply glorious.

Santa Monica Studio's current project: God of War: Ragnarök

ragnarok logo

Before the big gameplay trailer reveal for Ragnarök, which we analysed in a Play-by-Play, nothing had really came out of the studio in early 2021: no footage, no screencaps, no story beats. Now we know that the game will be the last in the Norse saga. Hermen Hulst also casually delayed the game to 2022.

Santa Monica Studio in 2021

God of War vista

In 2020 it was suggested that creative lead — Cory Barlog — might be working on a sci-fi project either alongside Ragnarök, or instead of Ragnarök. This was then 'debunked' by Barlog himself, then debunked again after the frankly disgusting tweets that followed the confirmation of the delay, where Barlog said that he “called the shots” on Ragnarök. However, this is now all confused, because Barlog is not actually directing the game. Eric Williams has instead stepped up to the plate while Barlog works on a different project, possibly that sci-fi game.

Where does Santa Monica Studio rank?

The difficulty with grading Santa Monica is that God of War (2018) is its magnum opus; a combination of lots of little things that produced a perfect whole. Kratos and Atreus' story makes for a 5/5, an A*, a favourite that burns into an obsession. This is not a review of God of War, however. Santa Monica has talent, can make a game feel great, and exudes confidence right now. The studio has helped curate other development teams fantastic experiences too, some of which felt essential to the make-up of the PlayStation catalogue in the PS3 era. But, as of yet, the team has not replicated that outstanding God of War-level output like a Naughty Dog or an Insomniac. That feels very harsh to say, and harsher to give the team just a gold. Make no mistake though, a gold trophy is hard to earn and certainly the mark of a great developer. Of all the other teams on this list, Santa Monica is the closest to the next tier. If the team manages another great game with Ragnarok, then expect the developer to be amongst the elite PlayStation Studios with a platinum trophy.

Gold
Gold

Great games already notched for the studio and primed to make more

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.