Back in 2013, when Allan Becker – the former head of Sony Santa Monica – was convinced by then-Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida to run Japan Studio, he told Kotaku his ultimate ambition: “For Japan Studio to be relevant globally in two and a half years.” In the seven plus years since that interview was published, the team released the following internally developed games: Gravity Rush Remastered, The Playroom VR, LocoRoco Remastered, Knack 2, Gravity Rush 2, LocoRoco 2 Remastered, Astro Bot Rescue Mission, and Astro’s Playroom. It also did much of the heavy-lifting on The Last Guardian, a project ten years in the making.
While it’s disappointing to learn of the developer’s effective disbandment, few could argue that Becker achieved his goal. Japan Studio had more success as a support team, aiding developers like FromSoftware on releases like Bloodborne and Clap-Hanz on Everybody’s Golf. A statement released overnight said that Sony will integrate these roles within its global PlayStation Studios framework, effectively neutering its oldest first-party developer and rendering it closed. Team ASOBI, the small division responsible for the excellent Astro Bot games, will live on – but the rest, as of 1st April, will be gone.
Obviously, we extend our thoughts to any employees affected, and we sincerely hope everyone lands on their feet – but it doesn’t take a genius to see why Sony has made this decision. In the aforementioned interview, Becker painted a frightening picture of Japan Studio at the start of the PS4 generation: “The thing I was shocked by was the number of titles in production,” he said. “That completely blew my mind.” He described it as a “free-for-all”, with more than 40 games in production.
His first task was to consolidate the studio’s efforts; his second was to transform the team into a powerhouse on par with Naughty Dog and Guerrilla Games. That never happened. While its output did show signs of improvement over the course of the PS4 era, it failed to create any real commercial hits – both on a domestic and international scale. Knack 2, the sequel to a game that sold incredibly well in its native Japan due to being bundled with the PS4 at release, sold a meagre 2,106 units at launch according to Dengeki.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Japan Studio added variety to PlayStation’s output, but that hasn’t really been true since the PS3 era. Games like Trash Panic and Tokyo Jungle helped pad out the PlayStation Store’s offering in its early days, but the surge in indie projects has rendered these kind of endeavours obsolete; the likes of Bugsnax and Fall Guys fill the space of these quirky creative releases in 2021. And while titles like Gravity Rush 2 have achieved cult status, it debuted 16th in the UK charts before disappearing, failed to make the NPD best-sellers list in the US, and couldn’t even cross 75k units in its native Japan.
One recurring theme among PlayStation fans seems to be that, without a vibrant Japan Studio, there will be reduced support from third-party Japanese publishers. But this seems to ignore the reality: the developer hasn’t released a domestic hit in decades, and it hasn’t prevented franchises like Final Fantasy and Persona from releasing on Sony’s consoles. Obviously, with PlayStation hardware struggling in its home territory, it’s guaranteed to cede some software support to the more popular Nintendo Switch, and that’s a shame – but this is about much more than Japan Studio, as tastes change overseas.
There’s an argument that says Sony should have tried harder; that Japan Studio deserved bigger budgets, better projects, and stronger marketing support. But cast your eyes back to that Allan Becker quote: we’ll probably never know what happened internally, but it’s clear that the ambition was there once upon a time. The output speaks for itself, and it never became the “globally relevant” powerhouse that PlayStation wanted it to be.
The one shining beacon in Japan Studio’s internally developed output recently has been its Astro Bot projects, and it sounds like there are plans to double-down on this franchise. “Japan Studio will be re-centred to Team ASOBI, the creative team behind Astro's Playroom, allowing the team to focus on a single vision and build on the popularity of Astro’s Playroom,” the manufacturer said in a statement. This is the positive part of the story, as there’s no question that the PS5 pack-in and PSVR exclusive Astro Bot Rescue Mission are among the best titles that Sony has produced in years.
There’s nothing wrong with being disappointed about Japan Studio’s demise, and it’s concerning at a time when competitors are gobbling up entire publishers that PlayStation is seen to be scaling back – but it’s hard to question the decision once you look at the reality of the studio. The team, a favourite as it may be among some fans, was simply not creating content that was relevant on a domestic or international scale. It sucks, but there should be no surprise.
Are you still reeling from Japan Studio’s disbandment? What went wrong at the developer and what do you think could have been done differently to prevent it? Pour one out for Ape Escape in the comments section below.