The recent major Sony exclusives are starting to fascinate me less and less. This opinion isn’t always appreciated, but I’m just not into those big AAA productions in open worlds – often the type of game that I’ll mix thirty-five again in November.
And I’m not alone, as the discussion about Sony’s focus is in full swing. The acclaimed American journalist Jason Schreier wrote that there is internal bickering about the company’s strategy. Sony emphasizes big blockbuster titles, which means that ambitious projects have little chance. That bumps the developer side of Sony in particular.
A small team taking on a remake of The Last of Us was slowly thrown the door, only to be told to be gobbled up by Naughty Dog months later. Because yes, that is just a bit safer. A pitch from Sony Bend for a follow-up to Days Gone also went into the trash. The first part took a long time to be made and apparently did not generate enough sales. Why bother?
Schreier writes that some developers internally question this attitude. In their view, flexibility is needed in the investment spectrum: ambitious, small projects have the potential to become ‘great’, and that with relatively little investment. But then you have to take the gamble. If Sony doesn’t dare to do that, will the company remain relevant?
A predictable publisher is rarely a high-profile publisher. It can move quickly in that regard. Assassin’s Creed was once an innovative game as well. Okay, Sony isn’t as creatively lost as Ubisoft, but everything has an expiration date. How many times can a scrambling Nathan Drake fall off a crumbling ledge before the collective enthusiasm for an Uncharted adventure sinks into the abyss?
The answer to that question: endlessly, as long as enough games like Returnal are released on the PlayStation 5.
Returnal is a game that you rarely see in the portfolio of major publishers these days. Difficult, unfair, punitive: Returnal is not for everyone. But just like Demon’s Souls, Returnal is the type of game with which Sony wins a certain type of gamer for itself. Returnal is an (almost) AAA title that is widely marketed, but at the same time shows that the company dares to invest in a game that excludes part of its supporters.
Accessible games are the future, but Returnal is the type of game I personally miss. Also because I have nothing to do with soul slikes (yes, we do exist). Tough AAA games are risky projects. There are not many really big publishers who dare to narrow their audience so much anymore. Except Sony apparently. That does not mean that all (internal) criticism can be dismissed, but Returnal could not have appeared at a better time for Sony.
Even more timing
And then there is the developer himself. Housemarque is a crowd favorite, but apparently that audience is smaller than we think. After the studio’s previous game, Nex Machina, Housemarque said he had to stop with his characteristic little bullet-hell-like shooters. Sales were too small and arcade games have no future. It was time for something different. And so Housemarque made a… characterful bullet hell-like shooter, only more expensive. You’re not making it up.
Returnal did not have to be made at all. Think about it: What major publisher do you envision making a console-exclusive AAA game like Returnal these days? And that in a period when daring pitches at Sony would have no right to exist. The timing of Returnal’s release is unsurpassed. And gamers also benefit from Sony’s guts, because Returnal is a very good game.
But if you ask me, Returnal is especially important because this game sends a signal. Many AAA games have degenerated into open world games filled with recognizable characters and emotions. Returnal proves there is commercial space for a much less accessible type of AAA game. Even if it isn’t a Dark Souls clone. Because yes, of course Returnal will be a sales success. In this procrastination-tormented gaming climate, Returnal comes at just the right time in that respect too.
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