At XO18 last week, Microsoft announced two more studio acquisitions – having picked up InXile Entertainment and Obsidian Entertainment. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of online debate about where this leaves them in comparison with Sony going into the next generation of hardware which most people seem to agree will be kicking off in 2020. Some are arguing that Sony’s dominance will continue and that Microsoft will stifle these new studios, others the polar opposite. Being someone who’s more interested in facts and realities than fanboy’s opinions though, I thought it might be rather fun to do some digging around on the subject.
Let’s start off with Sony - seeing as they're leading in terms of console sales by a mile and a half this gen, it seems only fair that they go first. Looking at Wikipedia, Sony Studios currently consists of fifteen different studios based all over the world.
Bend – these are the guys who made Syphon Filter, and have been busy with Days Gone for the last few years. They also made Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which was the game I bought a PS Vita for.
ForwardWorks – working on stuff for ‘smart device’ market, which explains why I’d never heard of them before starting putting this together.
Foster City Studio – these guys are a co-development studio, lending assistance in development of third party games by devs that are independent of Sony.
Guerilla Games – Killzone. Horizon Zero Dawn. This is one of Sony’s heavyweights.
Japan Studio – consists of multiple teams, in the past they delivered Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Gravity Rush.
London Studio – they make SingStar. I guess someone has to.
Media Molecule – UK based makers of Little Big Planet and Tearaway, all of which were awesome. Tearaway stands to this day as the BEST game for PS Vita, ever. And no, that’s not debatable.
Naughty Dog – Crash Bandicoot. Uncharted. The Last of Us. When people think “Sony Game Studios”, these are normally the guys they’re thinking of.
Manchester Studio – another UK studio, they make PSVR games.
PixelOpus – they made Entwined, apparently. I haven’t heard of it, but apparently it’s a rhythm action game.
Polyphony Digital – they occasionally ship Gran Turismo games.
San Diego Studio – the makers of MLB: The Show, a game which is (let's face it) popular in the US and basically irrelevant everywhere else in the world.
San Mateo Studio – set up in 2016, yet to ship anything by the look of it.
Santa Monica Studio – mainly involved with the development of the God of War series, but also involved with co-development of some of the best indie games to appear on Playstation platforms, including The Unfinished Swan and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. They also helped Ready At Dawn out with The Order: 1886 – a game which I enjoyed far more than reviews suggested I should.
Sucker Punch Productions – they were acquired back in 2011 and made Sly Cooper and Infamous. They’re currently working on Ghost of Tsushima.
Looking at the list, Sony have a big collection of studios that between them have shipped some absolutely monster games. Microsoft have dragged their heels this generation, shipping fewer exclusive games - and the ones that have shipped have often been of lower quality than the Sony exclusives. However, it really looks like they’re aiming to change all of that for the next generation. Here’s the list of who they currently have:
343 Industries – these guys are the custodian of the Halo franchise, which Microsoft obtained when Bungie made their bid for independence. Halo 4 was pretty good. Halo 5’s campaign was a mess, but the multiplayer was outstanding (apparently – I’ve never played it!). Currently working on Halo: Infinite.
Compulsion Games – maker of Playstation 4 launch title Contrast, and developer of We Happy Few.
InXile Entertainment – one of two studio’s now in Microsoft’s portfolio that was born from the ashes of Interplay. These guys most recently made Wasteland 2, an isometric RPG that was crowdfunded on Kickstarter.
Lift London – apparently has games in production for Microsoft’s “Hololens” augmented reality tech, and collaborates with the development of mobile and indie games.
Microsoft Casual Games – make Solitaire, Mahjong, Minesweeper. If it’s pre-installed on your computer, it was probably these guys.
Mojang – Minecraft. If you’ve not heard of it, I’m not sure how you even found your way here.
Ninja Theory – another 2018 acquisition, this Cambridge, UK based studio is famous for DmC: Devil May Cry, Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey The The West, and most recently the BAFTA winning Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. With a solid back-catalogue, it’s going to be really interesting to see what this studio can do with the weight of Microsoft behind it.
Obisidian Entertainment – the other studio now owned by Microsoft that rose from the ashes of Interplay, these guys developed Pillars of Eternity, and before that South Park: The Stick of Truth and Fallout: New Vegas. They’re another highly respected RPG-maker.
Playground Games – another 2018 acquisition, this team are just up the road from where this is being written, in Leamington Spa. They deliver the Forza Horizon games, and are rumoured to be developing the next game in Microsoft’s Fable series.
Rare – built themselves a reputation across the NES, SNES, and N64 eras delivering classics such as Goldeneye and Banjo-Kazooie. These days, they’re leading the charge on Microsoft’s Game Pass service by delivering constant updates to Sea of Thieves.
The Coalition – look after Microsoft’s other big shooter franchise, Gears of War. The fourth shipped in 2016, Gears 5 will ship next year. Hulking character models, epic set pieces and chainsaw bayonets are their speciality.
The Initiative – little is known about this studio other than that it’s in Santa Monica and is working on “AAAA” games that are expected to be at the bleeding edge of gaming technology.
Turn 10 Studios – makers of the Forza Motorsport series, delivered bi-annually with Forza Horizon. If Horizon is the arcade racer, Motorsport is the serious simulator.
Undead Labs – makers of online zombie apocalypse survival games, most recently State of Decay 2.
Why does any of this matter? Well, it's a simple fact that the quality of exclusive games can veer a consumer's purchasing decision in the direction of one gaming console or another. Put simply, when it comes to sales, the more high quality exclusive games your platform can offer, the more demand you can drive... and provided you can meet the demand with supply, you'll make sales. Sony have done a fantastic job of it this gen, Microsoft less so. However, all of that might be set to change. Microsoft currently owns 14 studios to Sony’s 15 – but where it gets interesting is when you break down these studios by the genres of games they make.
Looking at racing games, Sony have the highly respected but notoriously slow Polyphony Digital, but that is the only studio they have - Microsoft have both Turn 10 Studios and Playground Games who between them pump out a massive racing game every October as regularly as clockwork.
Regarding the shooter genre, Microsoft have 343 Industries and The Coalition in their pockets - while Sony no longer has a dedicated shooter maker now that Guerilla have transitioned from Killzone to Horizon. Given the popularity of shooters, this must be something being viewed as an issue within Sony. RPG games are in a similar position - where Microsoft now have InXile Entertainment and Obsidian Entertainment to ship role playing games on their systems, Sony have a gap in the portfolio.
Where Sony undoubtedly have the edge going into the next generation is in action/adventure game developers. Between the efforts of Bend, Santa Monica, Guerilla Games, Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch, and Japan Studios, this is where Sony's real strength has been in this generation; despite their best efforts (Tomb Raider timed exclusivity, we're looking at you), Microsoft simply hasn't had anyone in their stable capable of making games that could stand up against the might of God of War, or Uncharted 4. That might change moving into next gen, with the acquisitions of Ninja Theory and Compulsion Games - but for my money, this will be the most interesting area to watch. With so many studios operating in the same broad genre, Sony potentially face setting up their own titles to compete with each other, which is an issue Microsoft are unlikely to face. However, given that these games are the bread-and-butter games that attract many players to the Playstation brand (including myself!) it will be interesting to see if their volume leads to continued dominance in the next generation or if Ninja Theory and Compulsion Games can produce games that will challenge that authority.
In the expanding area of online games/games as a service, Microsoft have Rare and Undead Labs - both of which are dropping regular updates to their established titles. Sony, to the best of my knowledge, have no first party games that can be compared to either Sea of Thieves or State of Decay 2 - and critically don't appear to have any in development either. In Manchester Studio and Lift London respectively, both of them appear to have studios dedicated to creating games in new tech, indicating that PSVR isn't going anywhere in spite of lacklustre sales, and that Hololens is likely to eventually become a reality.
Overall, it feels as though Sony have breadth but lack depth in their studio portfolio moving into next gen. Microsoft seem at the moment to be laser-focused on correcting the mistakes they made that have seen the Xbox One settle for a distant second place in this round of the console wars. They own fewer studios - but assuming each of these studios continues to make games in the genres they're known for, moving into the next generation, Microsoft Game Studios will be offering a more diverse set of experiences than those that can be offered by Sony Game Studios. Time will tell whether or not this translates into the dominance that Microsoft desire - but it's pretty clear what their intentions are for the future.
I'll be right here, with my tea. Watching. And playing as many of them as I can.