Sony is winding down original game development at its oldest first-party developer, Japan Studio, multiple sources have told VGC.
The iconic developer behind Ape Escape, Gravity Rush and Knack has seen the vast majority of its development staff let go, the sources said, after their annual contracts were not renewed ahead of the company’s next business year, which begins April 1.
Localisation and business staff will remain in place and ASOBI Team – the group responsible for the Astro Bot games – will continue as a standalone studio within Sony Japan, it’s claimed.
Some Japan Studio staff will join ASOBI, we were told, while others have followed Silent Hill and Gravity Rush director Keiichiro Toyama – who left Japan Studio last year – to his new studio Bokeh.
It’s not entirely clear if the restructure has affected the studio’s External Development Department, which collaborated on games such as last year’s Demon’s Souls, but one person VGC spoke to suggested it would continue.
UPDATE: Sony Interactive Entertainment has sent VGC a statement confirming that what remains of Japan Studio will be absorbed into Team ASOBI, as per our report.
It also stated that external development and other divisions will be relocated within the PlayStation business on April 1. A spokesperson said:
“In an effort to further strengthen business operations, SIE can confirm PlayStation Studios JAPAN Studio will be re-organized into a new organization on April 1. JAPAN Studio will be re-centered to Team ASOBI, the creative team behind Astro’s PLAYROOM, allowing the team to focus on a single vision and build on the popularity of Astro’s PLAYROOM.
“In addition, the roles of external production, software localization, and IP management of JAPAN Studio titles will be concentrated within the global functions of PlayStation Studios.”
ORIGINAL STORY CONTINUES: Multiple Japan Studio developers have announced their departure from the company on social media in the last few days, including Bloodborne producer Masaaki Yamagiwa and video manager Ryo Sogabe – who are both leaving at the end of February – while a cryptic tweet from executive producer Masami Yamamoto also hints at his departure.
This also follows several high profile staff at the studio leaving. At the end of 2020, Silent Hill and Gravity Rush series director Keiichiro Toyama announced his departure to set up Bokeh Game Studio. He founded this new venture with fellow Sony Japan veterans Kazunobu Sato and Junya Okura.
Meanwhile, the producer of Bloodborne and the Demons Souls remake Teruyuki Toriyama said he was leaving SIE Japan at the end of 2020.
People with knowledge of the matter told VGC that Sony Japan Studio simply hasn’t been profitable enough in recent years; the developer wanted to create games that appealed to the Japanese market first with hopes of having global appeal, while PlayStation wants the kind of global hits that its other first-party studios produce.
PlayStation 5 at retail
One person VGC spoke to said that Japan Studio’s fate had been sealed over a year ago, following the departure of its long-time president Allan Becker, who was replaced by Astro Bot: Rescue Mission director Nicolas Doucet, allegedly due to frustration over the developer’s lack of hits.
Another source said that this was part of PlayStation shifting more power from its native Japan to its new US headquarters. Since the company moved its HQ to California in 2016, it has been centralising power there, leading to layoffs and restructuring in SIE’s regional offices.
VGC’s reporting corroborates a Bloomberg article from November of last year, which said that Sony Japan had been “sidelined” and its development teams had been cut.
PlayStation boss Jim Ryan has downplayed this narrative several times; in December, he claimed that Japan continued to be a hugely important market for Sony Interactive Entertainment.
This week Famitsu published an interview with Ryan in which he said he considered all of SIE’s studios to be important and that he continued to support Japanese game development for PS5.
Bloomberg’s earlier report claimed that, as of November last year, many Japan Studio creators had already been informed that they would not have their rolling contracts renewed.
PlayStation’s US office has held a critical view of the Japanese operation, the publication claimed, and believed that the PlayStation business didn’t need ‘games that only do well in Japan’.
Responding to the November Bloomberg report, Sony spokeswoman Natsumi Atarashi said at the time that “our home market remains of utmost importance” and claimed that any suggestion Sony was shifting its focus away from Japan was incorrect and “doesn’t reflect the company’s strategy”.
Speaking to VGC’s network partners at GamesIndustry.biz about PlayStation’s globalisation efforts in 2019, Ryan said we shouldn’t expect its Worldwide Studios to create games designed for specific territories going forwards.
“The nature of AAA PlayStation 4 and certainly PlayStation 5 development… We’re obviously not going to have Worldwide Studios make a game for one specific European country,” he said.
“And that might have been the case back in the PSP times with Invizimals [which was popular in Spain]. I think this will be where Shuhei Yoshida’s new task [of working with indies] will come in. If we are nimble, flexible and global, we can work with smaller developers to allow those countries’ specific needs to be met.”
Japan Studio was founded in 1993 and has created iconic PlayStation IP like Ape Escape, Patapon and Gravity Rush, in addition to assisting other developers such as FromSoftware, Bluepoint and Q-Games.
Japan Studio is Sony Interactive Entertainment‘s oldest first-party studio, with a focus on introducing new styles of gameplay.
The developer is known for games such as Knack, LocoRoco and Ape Escape, as well as its collaborations on the likes of Bloodborne, The Last Guardian and Everybody’s Golf. It most recently worked on PS5’s Demon’s Souls with US studio Bluepoint.
SIE Japan Studio also housed Project Siren – aka Team Gravity – which had worked on the Siren and Gravity Rush series.