After a year of watching Microsoft throw around billions buying up game studios, Sony has returned fire with a small acquisition of its own. The purchase of Returnal developer Housemarque is only the second studio Sony has acquired over the last decade, however, marking a clear difference in the two companies’ strategies around media consolidation.
“We’re very selective about the developers that we bring in,” PlayStation Studios boss Hermen Hulst said in an interview today with British GQ. “Our last new acquisition was Insomniac [for $229 million in 2019], which has worked out very well. I’m always looking for people that have a similar set of values, similar creative ambitions and work very well with our team that we can further invest in and help grow as creators. It’s not like we’re going around and just making random acquisitions.”
Hulst was responding to a question about the current arms-race around gaming studios, tech, and IP deals, and although he didn’t mention Microsoft by name, it’s hard not to interpret “random acquisitions” as a dig at Xbox’s recent spending spree. It wasn’t the only shot Hulst took at the PlayStation rivals either.
“They’re very, very targeted acquisitions of teams that we know well,” he said of Insomniac and Housemarque. “The amount of collaboration between our external development group and Housemarque on the technical side, the production management side and even on the creative side has been so deep. So for us, it just makes so much sense to do that. Obviously, this is not something you do overnight.”
That’s in contrast to Microsoft’s recent $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda Game Studios. While head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, and Bethesda leaders, Todd Howard and Pete Hines, have played up the two companies long history together, the deal itself seemed to unfold quite quickly. Talks for a sale began last summer, according to Bloomberg, leading to an announcement by September, and finalization of the deal in March of this year.
In Sony’s case, a studio proves it can deliver strong console exclusives and then it decides to integrate them into its first-party network. In Microsoft’s case, it sees the types of games it would like to become exclusives and then goes out and buys them. At least that’s how it looks right now from the outside. The latest example of this would be Blue Point Games, an acquisition Sony accidentally hinted at earlier today but which hasn’t yet been confirmed. If accurate, the studio behind the successful Shadow of the Colossus and Demon’s Souls remasters would have no shortage of other PlayStation franchises to repackage and resell.
Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be struggling with some of the output of its older first-party studios. 343 Industries’ Halo: Infinite lost its creative director in 2019, didn’t look great last summer, was subsequently delayed, and then lost a second director. Similarly Rare’s Everwild lost its creative director last year, was subsequently rebooted according to VGC, and was then missing from this year’s E3 showcase. On the other hand, Playground games has turned Forza Horizon into one of Microsoft’s top-tier homegrown exclusives. Maybe that’s why they were put in charge of bringing back Fable. Whatever the outcome of those projects, Microsoft now has Bethesda’s Starfield to lean back on in 2022.
Of course, there have been murmurs of discontent at Sony as well. In April, Bloomberg reported that a “fixation on teams that churn out hits is creating unrest” at its first-party studios. As one example of this, Sony Bend’s pitch to make Days Gone 2 was rejected, and its teams were instead put to work supporting Naughty Dog’s projects.
Hulst paints a much rosier picture of collaboration within the PlayStation family. ”[Housemarque will] be invited to forums such as a studio head forum, where we share a lot of initiatives, ideas and technology,” he told GQ today. “It’s entirely voluntary. He gets to run his team, gets to maintain the culture and we’ll obviously protect that. But we’re going to be able to offer a lot to Housemarque going forward.” Time will tell.