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Forums - Sony Discussion - Creative freedom, bravery, and risk in games development/publishing

This post is inspired by the recent article posted on VGC's main page concerning PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan's philosophy on nurturing creative talent, which (I'm glad!) met with wide discussion and broad approval. In the referenced interview with Stephen Totilo, Ryan said that...

"In terms of areas we have improved, I'd call out the delivery schedule for PlayStation Studios games. Nurturing creative talent is not as simple as throwing money at it. You also must give them the freedom to be creative, to take risks and come up with new ideas. Just look at Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch. This was not the game we thought they were going to make, but we are not overly rigid or corporate with our talent. We want them to use our hardware as their creative palette."

He implicitly credits the company's improved first-party release schedule in recent and for upcoming years with an embrace of this philosophy, at least in part. Elsewhere in his reply to Totilo though, Ryan says some things that sound like they'd sometimes be contradictory. Namely, at one point he describes the company philosophy with respect to the PlayStation 4 era was to "put gamers first"...and also to "embrace the developer perspective". Well which is it? The reality is that consumers and content creators don't always have aligned interests and demands.

When I think of a company that "put[s] gamers first", if you will, as in providing non-stop fan service, these days I think mainly of Nintendo for a million reasons that are so self-evident they don't even need to be mentioned, and their astronomical system and first-party game sales look like it too. What you don't find a lot from Nintendo these days are a lot of Game of the Year award winners. That's because Nintendo is not known for affording content creators (or at least the ones directly on their payroll anyway) all that much creative freedom. Conversely, Sony tends to provide their content creators more leeway to make the games they want to make and often get unexpected or rather unconventional results, which gets them more Game of Year awards these days (in fact, as you can see at the link, Sony-published games won both the most GOTY awards AND the runner-up status as well last year) and in turn lends to Sony an image, I think, of often releasing more groundbreaking titles. I think that's the actual reality.

Now sometimes gamers receive creative new titles well, as in most of the cases that Ryan highlights in this interview, like Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Ghost of Tsushima, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. If we're being totally honest though, there are reasons why most of these particular examples were highlighted, which is because they were never the riskiest examples. While it certainly did take a few risks (especially narratively; I'm thinking about the ending in particular), Ghost of Tsushima was never controversial, for example. It sold exceptionally well for a new IP and generally met with even higher player review scores on MC and elsewhere than it did among critics. I'll tell you what PlayStation games I've liked the most in the last couple years: The Last of Us Part II, Death Stranding, and Returnal:

-TLOU2 appears to have lost about half the original's player base. Also broke the record for most Game of the Year awards won by a single title, among both critics and gamers themselves in player's choice awards alike.

-Death Stranding barely turned a profit. Also won the most Game of the Year awards in 2019.

-Returnal appears to be an abject commercial failure. It'll probably be Sony's strongest GOTY candidate this year, even though it's quite unlikely to actually win, I think.

These contrasts make it clear that it's not that those who play these games dislike them. Rather, it's that only so many people are willing to buy games as bold and daring as these examples in the first place (especially at a $70 price tag, but that's another issue) and give them a chance. Sony will tolerate the commercial failures if they improve the image of the company among developers with like GOTY awards and stuff, but maybe not if they get neither big sales nor big awards.

That these have been the most controversial first-party PlayStation releases in recent years also just becomes obvious pretty much any time you try and have a conversation about any of them, with detractors almost invariably pointing to the unorthodox things the particular example does rather than to the more conventional, safer things, as their points of objection. New and unorthodox lead characters. A new genre invention (or one that's rarely done in the AAA market). No strictly good/evil characters. No neat, clean happy ending. This sort of thing.

Well, I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade, I just mean to highlight that artistic advancement and capitalist economics in reality are only so compatible. Fan service has a place in the world, but what I appreciate the most are games that are from the heart. And making games that way won't always yield you the best sales. That's just a reality and truth of the world, whether it's fair or not. People like familiarity and universal appeal. It's why there are so many sequels and remakes, and why so few of them take many risks. I hope that Sony can continue to support developers even when the bold risks they may take with their creative freedom under the PlayStation umbrella don't succeed commercially. I guess that's all I really wanted to say.

Last edited by Jaicee - on 26 June 2021

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This is a very you thread. Sounds silly these days when there's avatars on the home screen, but I knew this was yours.

Anyways.

I think you're getting a bit too carried away with the idea of game awards there. Something winning game of the year doesn't mean it's the best thing that came out that year, and certainly does not mean it's the most innovative or creative. Every year you see many games in the running for these awards that don't really do anything interesting for the industry, and also don't feel genuine. It's ironic and kinda funny how you like the idea of games coming from the heart, yet use a completely arbitrary and commercially-centric thing for determining which ones are the best.

Other than that, yeah, I agree. Nintendo certainly feels like the strongest definition of fanservice at the moment - not only in giving fans things they want that often don't feel genuine, but also in how they're methodically and carefully releasing these things at strategic times to hype up interest and demand, as so to continually overprice everything and get away with it. On their end, one such game that concerns me is Metroid Prime 4 - something pretty much all of us can be very excited for, but it's hard to believe that its existence didn't come solely from fan demand, and the state of its development leaves a lot to worry about, from a technical perspective surely but also a creative one.



I don't know if I have anything else to add on your thread. I think it's common sense humans don't like challenges and innovation, they like familiarity and routine. Most of people want things to stay the same forever so they can never be disappointed or surprised  that goes for every industry

But I also don't quite get the purpose of this thread. Do you just want to rant about how bad are customers habits? And how customers actually are the worst enemies for creativity, innovation, variety and boldness? Yes, they absolutely are 

But I think most of people don't want (nor care) for this reality check, they just want to have some fun playing video games, if for them fun means to keep playing Mario Kart 15 in the future, so be it, not really a thing for me to be bothered 



Without any numbers, I wouldn’t call Returnal a commercial failure. Don’t know what people expectations were for the type of game it is. Even if the game is close or above 1 million units, Sony would be happy with only 9 million PS5 units WW.


As for Part II, is clear that it lost a “lot” of the original fan base, but it’s also clear that it GAINED a lot of new fans, A LOT. But I’m pretty confident the game is between 10-15 million units sold by this time and Sony are pretty happy about it despite the tons of backlash they received when the game launched.

As for Death Stranding, the same, people expected something else. A failure? Again, without numbers I can’t say if it was or not.

I’m finding a bit contradictory that some people complain about Sony not delivering new experiences and different experiences that made Sony “different”, and when they release the different experiences, players don’t support them.



kazuyamishima said:

As for Part II, is clear that it lost a “lot” of the original fan base, but it’s also clear that it GAINED a lot of new fans, A LOT. 

Can confirm. I find the first one good, but that's about it. It didn't touch my feelings nearly as much and I would be actually OK if it never got a sequel. The second one is a masterpiece from storytelling and playtrough experience and left me absolutely desperate for a new game 



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I have to say, I disagree with you on this one. Sony is in my opinion the least innovative they have been since entering console gaming. Just let me add: I don't think games like TLOU2 or Ghost of Tsushima are bad games, on the contrary. But they are games based on safe formulas.

I also have to say, that Game of the Year awards are a bad indicator. That is because reviewers these days tend to prefer one pattern of game: games like movies with elaborate plots, awesome visuals and safe well-known gameplay finely polished. These games are fine - but if they always end up with the GOTY, it gets a bit predictable. For four years the game awards were won by the winner of the action adventure category, and all fit more or less the description I gave above: BOTW, God of War, Sekiro and TLOU2. Again, all are fine games, but where is the innovation, if it is always an action adventure, always with the same basic patterns of focus on plot and probably dark themes.

One of the most innovative, risky and creative games of all time has to be Katamari Damacy. But I don't see todays reviewers showering it with GOTYs. More innovative or creative games of the last years are games like Minecraft, Undertale, Return of the Obra Dinn, Persona 5, Dragon Quest Builders, Untitled Goose Game, Among Us, Outer Wilds, Octopath Traveler. These games tried new things - in gameplay, plots, visual style. The likes of TLOU2 and God of War are great games, but not exactly innvoative, brave or creative, as they follow a formula that jibes well with reviewers.

Jaicee said:

This post is inspired by the recent article posted on VGC's main page concerning PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan's philosophy on nurturing creative talent, which (I'm glad!) met with wide discussion and broad approval. In the referenced interview with Stephen Totilo, Ryan said that...

"In terms of areas we have improved, I'd call out the delivery schedule for PlayStation Studios games. Nurturing creative talent is not as simple as throwing money at it. You also must give them the freedom to be creative, to take risks and come up with new ideas. Just look at Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch. This was not the game we thought they were going to make, but we are not overly rigid or corporate with our talent. We want them to use our hardware as their creative palette."

And this is a joke of Ryan. Sony was in the past way more willing to support creativity. Gravity Rush, Loco Roco, Parappa the Rapper and the absolutely lovely Patapon. There are these games today? Sony just isn't willing to risk anything anymore. It's the next Naughty Dog game and Santa Monica game, which looks gorgeous, no question, but is playing the same formula.

And because you mentioned Nintendo is about the fanservice. Actually Nintendo is doing all of this risky and creative stuff still today. Games like Arms, 1-2-Switch, Labo, Game Builder Garage or Ring Fit Adventure are showing off, that devs at Nintendo indeed have a lot of creative freedom to come up with new ways to play. A lot of it is hated by 'classic hardcore' gamers, because it is different, weird, quirky. But different, weird, quirky are exactly properties of creativity. And sometimes that ends becoming a Splatoon.

But hardcore gamers usually love the more safe games they are used to, like TLOU2 and God of War. And reviewers are in the end hardcore gamers that play for a long time. But the reality of gaming these days is, that we have more and more gamers that don't fit that classic hardcore gamer box. They don't care if you now murder another human being with more realistic blood spatter, they want a fun exercise experience like Ring Fit Adventure, or feel their creativity with Minecraft or lie to their friends in Among Us.

So, all your rant is telling me is that you are finally a hardcore gamers that looks down on all these new gamers that have fun with games taht you see as inferior. Welcome! I am a hardcore gamer for quite some time now and I know the feeling. But I also learned, that it is quite wrong. If people have fun, let them. And letting it go to see the inferiority in some games, I found stuff I loved as well and wouldn't have touched because of my core gamer instincts.

EDIT: Oh, by the way, Death Stranding has indeed some interesting ideas, probably the reason it is hated a lot.

Last edited by Mnementh - on 26 June 2021

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This is kind of confusing. It states that Nintendo has less Game of the Year Awards, and that is because they don't give their developers creative freedom. And I have no idea how we got from point A to point B.

The games that have won game of the year over the past five years are TLOU 2, Death Stranding, God of War, Breath of the Wild, and Uncharted 4. Death Stranding is the only one that wasn't part of an established IP. TLOU2, Got of War, Uncharted 4, TLOU 2, and BOTW are all sequels to hugely popular franchises. Doubt the devs had to twist Sony or Nintendo's arms to get them to make it. Aside from Death Stranding, and maybe BOTW, none of them were especially risky in terms of gameplay. Looking further into the games that have won GOTY awards, most of them were fairly safe choices (Skyrim, Oblivion, Dragon Age, Uncharted 2, RE:4, Halflife 2, etc.)

The specific examples highlighted, aside from the potential cherry picking issue, don't make a ton of sense to me. TLOU2 was a sequel to an incredibly popular franchise. Doubt Naughty Dog struggled to get Sony to greenlight it. Death Stranding was a divisive game, but it had a huge name behind it and a ton of buzz from being Kojima's first game since his leaving Konami. Don't see how it was inherently more risky than publishing something like Wonderful 101 or Astral Chain. I don't really see what's inherently risky about Returnal either. Haven't played it yet but from what I've seen it's a Rouguelike (or rougelite) style game that's mixed with a shooter. And, I'm not trying to knock the game, but I don't see anything hugely risky about it.

This thread is kind of all conclusions without anything defined or explained. What makes a game risky, brave, or creatively free? How do we tell when games are such? How did you conclude that GOTY awards are signs that games had creative freedom? Why are putting gamers first and giving developers freedom contradictory? How risky and brave are Sony's titles outside the small segment of games that will win GOTY awards? Nintendo's?



mZuzek said:

[1] This is a very you thread. Sounds silly these days when there's avatars on the home screen, but I knew this was yours.

Anyways.

[2] I think you're getting a bit too carried away with the idea of game awards there. Something winning game of the year doesn't mean it's the best thing that came out that year, and certainly does not mean it's the most innovative or creative. Every year you see many games in the running for these awards that don't really do anything interesting for the industry, and also don't feel genuine. It's ironic and kinda funny how you like the idea of games coming from the heart, yet use a completely arbitrary and commercially-centric thing for determining which ones are the best.

[3] Other than that, yeah, I agree. Nintendo certainly feels like the strongest definition of fanservice at the moment - not only in giving fans things they want that often don't feel genuine, but also in how they're methodically and carefully releasing these things at strategic times to hype up interest and demand, as so to continually overprice everything and get away with it. On their end, one such game that concerns me is Metroid Prime 4 - something pretty much all of us can be very excited for, but it's hard to believe that its existence didn't come solely from fan demand, and the state of its development leaves a lot to worry about, from a technical perspective surely but also a creative one.

[1] You're welcome.

[2] There's to date been literally no overlap between my personal favorite games from any given year and the overall GOTY winners thereof except for the unique case of The Last of Us Part II. I don't think I put undo weight on such judgments myself, but there are those who do, and many of them are called video game developers. That's because it's like a film winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes a little. There's a difference between films that are recognized in that way and those that like sell the most tickets for a given year. There's rarely overlap, especially nowadays. That's because Hollywood is no longer in the business of making art house movies like they used to be. So my point anyway was that many of Sony's first-party games get recognized for artistic achievement, while Nintendo's sell more units. That's all I was really getting at with that. Wasn't saying that GOTY judgments are like objectively correct or something.

I mean seriously, I find that the GOTY winners -- especially the ones favored in the player's choice ballots -- tend to belong to familiar franchises and whatnot and check a lot boxes themselves. There's no universe in which a game like Celeste or Undertale ever had the remotest chance against the new God of War or The Witcher III in either sales OR awards, for example, purely because of the former's smaller budgets, and that just makes me roll my eyes at people's lack of imagination. Capitalism buys artistic achievement awards for established publishers for all intents and purposes. You think some little indie game or upstart publisher has a fair shot? I mean TLOU2 is literally the only overall GOTY winner for any year in history even to so much as use a female lead character. That's how imaginative these things actually are. I often feel similarly about the Oscars, incidentally, because there are clearly favored filmmakers who seem keep winning every time they make a new movie, and so on an so on.

At the same time though, there's also clearly a gulf of creative merit between the winners of such awards on the one hand and that of the Call of Dutys and the annualized sports simulations that are obviously made for competitions and the blockbuster Cyberpunk 2077s who's launch dates are practically international holidays and frankly most Nintendo games that typically outsell them because those institutions are even more entrenched, to the point of being largely insulated from professional criticism. Well you get what I'm saying.

[3] Yeah, I thought it was kind of sadly hilarious when Nintendo announced they'd given up and handed off development to Retro Studios for safe keeping because they couldn't come up with any ideas they actually liked for a new Prime game but wanted to make one anyway. Well it's for the best if their heart isn't in it, but...ya know, why would you dedicate yourself to a game you didn't want to make in the first place? Well we know the answer instinctively: there's money it it, or perceived to be anyway. Well anyway, based on their past record, I trust Retro Studios with a new Prime game a lot more I do Nintendo themselves with any Metroid game anymore, so my only hope is that there's minimal publisher intervention in this project. And that it actually gets released.

Last edited by Jaicee - on 26 June 2021

Jaicee said:

You think some little indie game or upstart publisher has a fair shot? I mean TLOU2 is literally the only overall GOTY winner for any year in history even to so much as use a female lead character. That's how imaginative these things actually are.

I don't know if you're including older awards from back when there wasn't much of a concise ceremony, but I'd be very surprised if Metroid Prime didn't win more than a handful.



JWeinCom said:

This is kind of confusing. It states that Nintendo has less Game of the Year Awards, and that is because they don't give their developers creative freedom. And I have no idea how we got from point A to point B.

The games that have won game of the year over the past five years are TLOU 2, Death Stranding, God of War, Breath of the Wild, and Uncharted 4. Death Stranding is the only one that wasn't part of an established IP. TLOU2, Got of War, Uncharted 4, TLOU 2, and BOTW are all sequels to hugely popular franchises. Doubt the devs had to twist Sony or Nintendo's arms to get them to make it. Aside from Death Stranding, and maybe BOTW, none of them were especially risky in terms of gameplay. Looking further into the games that have won GOTY awards, most of them were fairly safe choices (Skyrim, Oblivion, Dragon Age, Uncharted 2, RE:4, Halflife 2, etc.)

The specific examples highlighted, aside from the potential cherry picking issue, don't make a ton of sense to me. TLOU2 was a sequel to an incredibly popular franchise. Doubt Naughty Dog struggled to get Sony to greenlight it. Death Stranding was a divisive game, but it had a huge name behind it and a ton of buzz from being Kojima's first game since his leaving Konami. Don't see how it was inherently more risky than publishing something like Wonderful 101 or Astral Chain. I don't really see what's inherently risky about Returnal either. Haven't played it yet but from what I've seen it's a Rouguelike (or rougelite) style game that's mixed with a shooter. And, I'm not trying to knock the game, but I don't see anything hugely risky about it.

This thread is kind of all conclusions without anything defined or explained. What makes a game risky, brave, or creatively free? How do we tell when games are such? How did you conclude that GOTY awards are signs that games had creative freedom? Why are putting gamers first and giving developers freedom contradictory? How risky and brave are Sony's titles outside the small segment of games that will win GOTY awards? Nintendo's?

For most of this (because I don't feel like repeating myself), I'll refer you to my reply to mZuzek above. My thoughts are tough enough to put into words the first time, let alone many times, many ways.

For the bolded part though, some of the commercial risks I see connected to Returnal:

1) It's a roguelike type game. In a AAA space. With an actual budget. That doesn't exactly happen very often for a very real reason: the difficulty level of such games tends to be fairly high since they tend to lack many modern conveniences people are now used to (e.g. by forcing you to start over after every death), which can be a turn-off for many people.

2) It's an original IP, so it doesn't come with a pre-established fan base attached that's guaranteed to buy it.

3) It's got a female lead (with short hair and everything), which also tends to reduce sales since most gamers are male.

4) The choice of story structure and themes here. Enough said.

5) The unusually high starting price tag. This one I don't sympathize with.

It seems like cumulatively these were just too many chances to take for even most PS5 owners. I can think of one that might've been better scrapped, but I still like the game and can't help feeling like Housemarque clearly had the creative freedom they wanted to make exactly the game they wanted to make. Now that doesn't by itself make a game good by any means, but to me it sure makes a difference anyway. And I hope that, in the aftermath of Returnal's commercial failure, Sony will still be willing to maintain their relatively hands-off approach to the content creators they subsidize.

Last edited by Jaicee - on 26 June 2021