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PlayStation boss Jim Ryan needs to create a better narrative

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Some PlayStation fans are feeling angsty about the company’s strategy under Sony Interactive Entertainment boss Jim Ryan. And that is understandable. Many of the company’s most enthusiastic supporters just spent $500 or more on a PlayStation 5. And now those same fans are staring down the barrel of a generation of $70 games. With that kind of skin in the game, many consumers are justifiably concerned about getting their money’s worth. And that has turned into skepticism surrounding Ryan.

But what are PlayStation fans worried about specifically, and are those criticisms legitimate? Let’s try to understand.

It’s important to start by recognizing Sony’s position in games. By many metrics, it is the industry leader. And while that is something that others might envy, it also has Sony in an inherently defensive position. Many already understands Microsoft’s weaknesses. Fans spent the entire last generation examining the mistakes. And that means it is less exciting to fixate on those blunders — especially when the company is so often going on the attack with major acquisitions and disruptive business models like Game Pass.

PlayStation’s weaknesses, however, are less obvious, and its strengths are well known. And that means when the company doubles down on those same strengths, it is easy for fans and industry observers to take the company’s achievements for granted. And that creates a lot of extra space for folks to speculate and imagine perceived areas where PlayStation underperforms.

That is what is happening now. But that doesn’t mean these concerns are only happening in the over-active imaginations of PlayStation fans. Sony is making conservative choices under Ryan, and that could have real consequences.

Sony is retreating from smaller games

To be fair to Sony and Ryan, the company seems laser-focused on the games PlayStation fans are most excited about. These include sequels to popular PlayStation 4 franchises like God of War and Horizon: Zero Dawn. But the new wrinkle in the strategy is that Sony is emphasizing these massive blockbusters to the exclusion of almost everything else.

One example of this is PlayStation’s shrinking relationship with indie games. At the start of the PlayStation 4, Sony embraced indies as a way to fill out the consoles release schedule while the company developed its own projects. Now, the publisher is far less willing to associate itself with indies. While Nintendo and Microsoft have regular events where they highlight upcoming indie games, Sony relegates its indie efforts to blog posts (although something like Spelunky 2 does still show up in a State of Play).

And you don’t have to wonder if Sony is deliberately keeping indies at a distance. Ryan confirmed that is the company’s position.

“There was a time and a place, in the early stages of the life of PS4, to make statements [using indie games],” Ryan said in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz in 2017. “It was more about making a statement that we are serious about the indies, and that we are doing this and that with the indies … it was just good to talk about in 2013/2014. It’s less relevant now.”

Indie games rarely sell millions of copies, but they add variety and new experiences to a console library. Of course, those games will continue coming to PlayStation without direct support from Sony. And that’s a good thing, because the company also seems less interested in experimenting itself.

Sony recently disbanded Japan Studios. That is the team responsible for classics like Ape Escape and Gravity Rush. And while Ryan was still overseeing PlayStation in Europe, the company also closed Guerrilla Cambridge and Evolutions Studios.

For the players? Try ‘For the Blockbusters’

Skepticism of Ryan isn’t solely about his focus on profitable software. That is something every company does. But it is notable at Sony because the shift comes while Sony also seems less determined to deliver features that fans want.

To that point, Sony recently announced it is closing the digital stores for the PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita. And Sony continues to forego investment into backward compatibility solutions.

Again, Sony is making these decisions to preserve profitability, but it’s also something that a company might decide to do “For the Players” even if it were losing money.

Now, “For the Players” was always just a PS4 marketing slogan, and we don’t have to fall into the trap of believing marketing. But you could almost buy into that throughout the life of the PS4. The company built the console that players were asking for when Microsoft wouldn’t. That made gamers more confident in PlayStation even when it didn’t have any major releases for the first two years of that consoles.

But the emphasis has shifted from the players to the games.

PlayStation’s new slogan is “Play Has No Limits,” and it’s easy to read into that as well. But the subtext this time is that Sony’s games are so prestigious and so important that there is no limit to what people will do to play them.

Ryan believes that Sony must make every PlayStation game an event. And part of that means not associating the PlayStation brand with smaller games that might diminish the public perception of the value of a PS5 release. But it also means that Sony doesn’t need to do things for the players because the players will be so hungry to do things to get PlayStation.

This safe strategy is still a risk

Sony is making bigger bets on fewer games. One of the reasons this makes sense is because Sony is one of the only companies in the world that has the money and skill to deliver on those bets. That makes this a conservative strategy in the short run, but it’s one that could go sideways on PlayStation and Ryan.

Sony should keep making massive games like The Last of Us and God of War. But by emphasizing them above all else, the company is foregoing a chance to come up with creative new ways to find its next big thing. And that next big thing is likely going to be necessary.

The game industry changes rapidly. Genres go in and out of style. And even something as massive and popular as God of War and The Last of Us could start to feel stale after the third or fourth entries. At that time, the company may have to turn to younger and fresher talent to try something new. That’s how it got God of War and The Last of Us in the first place.

But the problem is that Sony’s strategy could squeeze out that talent. A Bloomberg report last week detailed unrest among some PlayStation studios regarding the focus on the biggest blockbusters. I can confirm that I’ve heard similar tales about angst among senior developers at non-Naughty Dog studios.

If Sony isn’t careful and isn’t fostering the next generation of creativity, then it could find itself in a situation where its blockbuster well runs dry.

Jim Ryan needs to tell a better story

Again, it’s easy to imagine a dramatic stumble for Sony because it is riding so high. It’s still in a strong position. PlayStation does make some of the most beloved games, and the company has even started tying them together with a Marvel Studios-style logo animation.

Ryan clearly understands how important it is to tell a strong story as a brand. But the problem is that it’s hard to believe him when he attempts to sell that narrative. And that is really his role: to act as the chief storyteller for the brand.

Six years ago, former PlayStation boss Shawn Layden took a moment out of the company’s E3 presentation to talk about a cult rhythm action game Vib Ribbon. He explained that the game wasn’t a multimillion-copy seller, but it was worth it because it tried to give players new experiences. It was lip service to a game that Layden once worked on, but it was clear that he was actually proud of it. And it was part of a story that Sony was telling about taking chances on game.

I don’t think Sony ever cared about Vib Ribbon. But Layden knew that if he could convince us that he cared about the games, it would be easier to convince us that the games were worth caring about.

Ryan, meanwhile, is trying to convince us that the games are worth caring about because they’re $70, and that means they must be important.

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