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Sony's studios continue their winning streak

The success of the PS4's excellent first-party experiences belie the commercial challenges single-player titles still face

Like many of you, I imagine, I experienced a strange and unexpected new feeling this week; there's a new God of War game coming out and is this... could this be... excitement?

While I'd enjoyed Kratos' early outings as much as the next man, it felt like a franchise I'd distinctly outgrown; it's an immense pleasure to discover that it, too, has grown, and the rapturous (and often somewhat surprised-sounding) critical response thus far makes it hard to escape feeling genuinely excited about the prospect of getting stuck into the game this weekend. Everything we've seen thus far suggests that Sony Santa Monica has crafted something truly special, one of those rare and wonderful single-player games that elevates itself to the level of being something you experience rather than just something you play.

I say "rare", but actually, that's rather the point; while this kind of single-player game is indeed rare, there's one company that seems to knock them out on a pretty regular basis, and that's Sony. God of War comes on the tails of last year's stunning Horizon: Zero Dawn, which itself followed both the fantastic latest instalment in the Uncharted series and the long-awaited Last Guardian. With Insomnaic's Spider-Man on its way later in the year, and looking pretty much set to do for the web-slinger what the Arkham series did for the dark knight, Sony is really cementing itself in a position of knocking out a couple of these enormous, heavy-hitting and largely superb single-player experiences every year, interspersed with a handful of more niche or experimental titles (which have a lower hit-rate, but when they're good can also be very, very good indeed).

"Sony has built up a roster of first-party published games which stands among the finest any company has ever enjoyed"

The ascension of Sony as a developer and publisher is a story that's taken a back seat to the commercial and creative triumph of the PS4 overall, but it's an important and fascinating one. While Sony has always had major titles from partners and internal studios, it's never dominated or defined its own platforms in the way Nintendo does, or even really had the kind of headline, instantly identifiable core title that Microsoft once had with Halo.

Sony's focus on its own games began to build up in the PS3 era, perhaps due to a recognition that the platform's unexpected second-fiddle role to Xbox meant that it could no longer rely on third-party publishers pushing out PlayStation exclusives. But the real payoff has come on PS4, where the firm has built up a roster of first-party published games which stands among the finest any company has ever enjoyed.

It's how Sony has done that - and what it tells us about the status of the rest of the industry - that's really interesting. One of the criticisms often made of Nintendo's first-party approach, by the industry rather than by consumers, is that it can serve to steamroller third-parties who want to make headway on Nintendo platforms. That's largely not Nintendo's fault - consumers buy Nintendo platforms to play Nintendo games, for the most part - but for a third-party publisher who wants to carve out a niche on Switch or 3DS, the prospect of being steamrollered by a first-party launch is very real and very frustrating.

Sony, however, has largely avoided directly competing with third parties on PS4, despite launching some of the biggest games for its own platform; and it's done so simply by becoming effectively the only major player in a field that many of its third-party partners have, through preference or necessity, chosen to leave behind.

Sony's big games are tied together by a single clear thread: they are extremely polished, expensively developed titles that stick to a concept of the single-player experience with something that borders on ideological purity. They're straight down the line traditional console titles. They might almost be crafted as a direct answer to consumers who complain about no longer getting the complete experience when you buy a game, as they pointedly feature no new business models, no microtransactions, no season passes.

"Sony can lavish resources, time and attention on these products because it recognises them as pillars holding up the console business"

There isn't even any multiplayer in most of Sony's titles; you pay a fixed amount of money for a fantastic single-player experience with magnificent production values, and that's it. Where DLC exists, it hews to an equally traditional set of values; Horizon's Frozen Wilds DLC was very much a standalone, add-on experience, and certainly not the kind of 'here's the actual ending to the story' DLC some companies have taken to releasing in recent years.

It's hard to say how many companies find themselves in a position where making games like this is even within their reach any more. There are, of course, superb single-player games coming from many different places at the moment - Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, for example, is an excellent single-player experience and for all intents and purposes an indie title - but practically none of them can match the sort of investment that's going into titles like God of War or Horizon. The gap between what Sony can do with single-player games and what others - including quite big publishers in some cases - can do is opening up to the point where it starts to resemble the difference between Hollywood and indie film-making. Truly great things can come from both sides, but the polish, spectacle and star power of a Hollywood blockbuster is tough to match.

God of War follows Horizon: Zero Dawn, another excellent single-player exclusive from Sony's studios

The reason for this expanding gulf is, simply put, that Sony's economic incentives are different. Sony's blockbuster single-player games are both commercial products in themselves, and incredibly powerful marketing tools for PlayStation. Their existence is justified not just by their sales, but by the halo effect they create for the platform as a whole. Horizon, God of War, The Last of Us, Uncharted, The Last Guardian; these aren't just great games, they're intrinsic parts of what PlayStation is to consumers and to Sony itself. The company can lavish resources, time and attention on these products because it recognises them as pillars holding up the console business - itself the pillar which holds up Sony Corporation.

For any other publisher or developer thinking of creating a game on the same scale, with the same level of resourcing, polish and focus, the commercial calculation is far tougher to square away. The sheer level of investment required to create something so technologically and artistically impressive may be impossible to justify without loading the dice somewhat by adding season passes, microtransactions and lord knows what else to the equation.

Most publishers have been backing away from this kind of 'pure' single-player experience for precisely that reason. They fear that the audience hasn't grown as fast as the development budgets required for this sort of game, but they're also aware that microtransactions, DLC and season passes have a bad rap and can limit the audience even further. This Catch-22 has led many firms to tap out of making this kind of game entirely. Sony, by merit of being a platform holder, can rise above that fray, and has done so to great effect in recent years.

The consumer, of course, doesn't care that Sony can only make these games because it's playing a different commercial ball-game to other game creators. They only care that the PS4 has had arguably one of the finest streaks of high-profile exclusive titles of any console in history. It's worth considering the tough situation of other firms working on single-player titles, however; the success of Horizon, Uncharted 4 or God of War doesn't necessarily stand as proof, as some might claim, that pure single-player titles are just as commercially viable as ever. Rather, they're proof only that the appeal of these titles is still powerful; that as showcases and system-sellers, they are almost unrivalled, but that's not the same thing as being commercially attractive to a third-party who doesn't have a vested financial interest in system sales.

That very logic means Sony is presently operating on a level that's simply out of reach to most third parties. It's great news for Sony and its studios; but for those wishing that the commercial logic of single-player games will find a healthy balance, Sony's blockbusters are a false hope.

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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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