Talking Point: Why Sony's Right to Retain the Franchises It Funds
Posted by Sammy Barker
Insomniac Games announced its soda-based sandbox excursion Sunset Overdrive to an explosion of goodwill this week. The colourful Xbox One exclusive harks back to the Dreamcast era, boasting oversaturated skylines and some decidedly SEGA gameplay mechanics. Sporting a system that sees your firepower increase as you combo tricks, it looks like a cross between Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Ratchet & Clank, and inFAMOUS – a concoction tantalising enough to make this editor thirst for a taste of its bonkers blend. Sadly, with Microsoft publishing, it’s very unlikely that the game will ever arrive on the PlayStation 4 – but with the veteran Burbank-based studio insisting on brand ownership, that is something that could theoretically change.
For many of you, it’s probably strange seeing the seminal Spyro the Dragon studio flogging a non-Sony format in interviews with various multiplatform publications. Despite never being wholly owned by the Japanese giant, the Resistance maker has remained a part of the PlayStation furniture through three entire generations, starting out with Super Mario 64-inspired platformers, before cutting its teeth on the more mature world of the aforementioned first-person property. Whether or not you have an emotional attachment to the outfit’s output, it’s sad to see the seeming breakdown of the company’s longstanding relationship with PlayStation and its fans.
Of course, the firm insists that there’s no bad blood between itself and the platform holder – and we’d hazard that it’s telling the truth. After all, the studio released the middling mini-adventure Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus less than six months ago, while it’s still supposedly working hard with the manufacturer to ensure that its delightful double-act’s silver screen debut is a success. However, in all of the interviews that we’ve perused – particularly those where the question about exclusivity has popped up – our snidey sensor couldn’t help but stand on end. This is particularly true in IGN’s report on the situation, where it talks about presenting the property to a variety of publishers.
“We pitched it a few different places, and it was really important to [Insomniac Games’ gaffer] Ted [Price] that we own the intellectual property, so some of the conversations broke down over that,” said co-creator Marcus Smith, who previously worked on Resistance 3. Given the history between the two firms, one of those organisations is almost certain to have been Sony, meaning that there’s probably a good chance that the game could have come to the Japanese giant’s latest machine. However, the PlayStation maker almost always requests ownership of any franchises that it funds, and that’s where the talks are likely to have closed.
“Most publisher conversations begin and end with IP ownership,” added fellow co-creator Drew Murray. “I think that [Microsoft] has been talking to Ted for a while, and at some point it was like, 'You can retain the IP.’ Suddenly, it was a conversation point." While we’re certainly not privy to the binding documents behind the brand, this theoretically means that Insomniac Games can more or less do as it pleases with the property moving forwards, such as producing licensed toys or creating spin-off comic books or cartoon shows. It also means that it would, potentially, be able to take a sequel anywhere, and while it’s likely that Microsoft will have dibs, that’ll depend on the deal.
Considering that it’s currently obligatory to want to take Sony down a peg or two, this has prompted some online pundits to criticise the console maker’s decision to demand control of the franchise – particularly seeing as it’s potentially missed out on a promising exclusive as a result. However, while we’re sad to see Insomniac Games take its wares elsewhere, we’re not sure that we agree – and the Californian company should understand the organisation’s stance better than anyone else. Indeed, back in the early PSone days, the platform holder entered a contract with the Mark Cerny led Universal Interactive Studios, which spawned two household names: the aforementioned Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot.
While the specifics of that deal are a little hazy, history informs us that the manufacturer – a newcomer to the industry at the time – didn’t retain the rights to either brand, prompting both to more or less wither and die under the ownership of Vivendi Games, which was later to be merged with Activision. It’s the Spyro the Dragon series – originally created by Insomniac Games – that’s seen the most activity of late, acting as a Trojan horse for the Skylanders property which has since become its own thing. Meanwhile, the Naughty Dog developed Crash Bandicoot franchise has been stagnant since the late 2000s, with only rumours of a Sony acquisition lending hope to a comeback.
So, why does this matter? Well, it demonstrates why IP ownership is important after all. PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale was, for many, a hotly anticipated game, but the absence of two of the brand’s most iconic characters hurt it immeasurably in the build up to release. While we don’t know the full extent of the behind closed doors conversations, we have to imagine that developer SuperBot Entertainment begged Activision to allow it to put Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot in the game, but the immovable publisher clearly wouldn’t budge. True, the loss of these brands paved the way for properties like Jak & Daxter, but the firm will forever regret not holding on to the icons discussed above.
As good as the game looks, it’s unlikely that Sunset Overdrive will have the lasting legacy of any of the aforementioned games, but this instance hopefully illustrates why it’s important for the publisher to maintain IP ownership. And yet, there’s more. It’s not surprising to see Microsoft be so loose with retaining rights, as this is not the first time that it’s acted in this way. Many of you will recall Mass Effect starting life as one of the Redmond-based manufacturer’s bold new properties, before eventually crash landing on Sony’s citadel a few years later. Gears of War, despite its ties to the Xbox brand, is another franchise that, until recently, was free to go multiformat as well. It cost a rumoured $100 million to finally lock it down.
And while it’s a slightly different situation, there’s the recently released Titanfall, too. This is a franchise that’s almost certainly going to come to the PS4 in the future – in fact, some supposed industry insiders claim that it’s happening faster than you think – which makes Microsoft’s investment look worthless. Some may argue that the exclusivity arrangement hammered out for this game has served the manufacturer well by maintaining mindshare, but that doesn’t seem like a sound investment to us. With the likes of Uncharted, God of War, and Killzone, you know that you’re going to need a PlayStation platform to play them.
So while it’s clear that Insomniac Games and Microsoft are happy with the arrangement regarding the Xbox One’s latest exclusive game, we don’t think that the situation discredits Sony’s policy of retaining IP ownership. The former would probably point to poorly outsourced outings like PlayStation Move Heroes and Resistance: Burning Skies as an example of why it’s unwilling to let the Japanese giant control its franchises moving forwards, while the latter would no doubt highlight the extra exclusive in its console’s catalogue as evidence of why the scenario works. Neither would be wrong, but that doesn’t mean that the PlayStation maker is either. After all, last year’s digital rights management debacle taught us that very few people are willing to pay for something that they don’t really own, so why would a major company happily buck that trend?
Do you think that Sony’s right to retain ownership of the franchises that it funds, or does Sunset Overdrive’s exclusivity demonstrate that it needs to be a little looser with its rules? Shake us up like a can of orange soda in the comments section below.
Do you think that Sony should retain franchise IP ownership? (66 votes)
Yes, this makes simple business sense
Hmm, I’m not really sure
No, all I want are great games to play
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