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How PlayStation’s Japan Studio Stands Out – IGN First – IGN

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How PlayStation’s Japan Studio Stands Out – IGN First – IGN

Shuhei Yoshida and Allan Becker on the creative risks and unique feeling of Sony’s Tokyo team.

This month’s IGN First is a bit different than usual. Rather than highlighting a single game — we’ll get back to that next month — we’re highlighting the Japanese game industry as a whole. We visited some of the biggest studios in Japan to focus on their games and creative processes. Check back all month for interviews, gameplay reveals, and more!

Find a list of everything we’ve published so far in our IGN First: Games of Japan hub!

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Within Sony’s Worldwide Studios, Japan Studio is a bit of an outlier. The team has worked on everything from small titles like Tokyo Jungle and Rain to major AAA releases like Bloodborne. On top of that, it’s taken its time with massive fan favorite projects like The Last Guardian, which was in development for seven years in various forms before finally being released.

With critical and commercial hits like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and Guerrilla’s recent Horizon: Zero Dawn, PlayStation has proven that its internal teams are among the best in the industry, and in that regard, Japan Studio is no exception. But its expansive focus has made it unique among PlayStation’s portfolio, balancing major mainstream successes with creative risks.

IGN recently visited Japan Studio and spoke to Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida along with senior vice president Allan Becker about the studio’s philosophy and how it differs from PlayStation’s other developers.

“I think that there is something special about games that are made in Japan,” Becker told IGN. “In my personal opinion, there’s a special attention that is paid. And it’s hard to say just what that is. I don’t know if it’s thoughtfulness or kindness. I think there are probably Japanese words that are more appropriate. It’s hard to find in English, but maybe thoughtfulness. And it’s the attention to detail and really thinking about the player.”

That thoughtfulness has led to unique passion projects at Japan Studio, titles that may not always find commercial success but are generally well-regarded among fans and critics for their distinctive sensibilities. Becker said he wants to see Japan Studio maintain that feeling, even if it means not targeting certain genres that could lead to more traditional commercial success.

There is something special about games that are made in Japan.

“We can’t crank out a Call of Duty or a Battlefield or a first-person shooter and make it sell. Number one, that’s not where our expertise is and we probably couldn’t do it if we tried,” he admitted. “And so our angle really needs to be a different one and that’s really…trying to give people emotion. We need to hit that universal component or feature in all humans.”

“Any new title, concept, or project that the Japan Studio starts is in a unique position. We cannot compete directly with big teams in the U.S. or Europe in the same genres,” Yoshida said. “So the Japanese developers have to find their own niche, and that becomes the killer features for some games that Western developers cannot match. I think we are in a really good time again in the PS4 generation, so anywhere in the world you can enjoy big triple-A Western games or some unique interesting Japanese games, and they can come out throughout the year.”

To Yoshida, it’s important to find a balance between running a business that leans into commercially viable games, but also taking risks on creator-driven projects, and especially those that are specific to Japan’s tastes. He acknowledges that Japan’s game industry has changed, and business decisions have to weigh sales prospects versus the passion of a particular team or creator.

We can’t crank out a Call of Duty or a Battlefield or a first-person shooter and make it sell.

“We always wanted, and continue to want, to create new IP and try new things. So from the management standpoint, I like to see pretty much equal effort we make on continuing on popular IPs like Gran Turismo or Hot Shots Golf and the Uncharted series, or to create new IP, Horizon and things like that. We have always wanted to do that, because we are fans of coming up with new ideas and supporting new creatives. So we’ve been doing that for the last 20 years,” he said.

“However, making console games in Japan these days is really, really challenging,” he continued. “The relative size of the Japanese console market is much smaller now than the U.S. or the European market, and the size of console development has grown much, much bigger. In the past, Japanese publishers including ourselves made games for the Japanese audience first, and then some of the games produced for the Japanese audience were picked up by our U.S. or European publishing arms, and the business was doing very well. But nowadays, because of the size, the investment required to make console games in the PS4 generation [is much greater].”

“Japanese creators and developers naturally have a passion and a sense to create games for the same culture, but we have to at the same time look at the feasibility of the concept to go beyond the Japanese market because of the much, much bigger size that the market is the U.S. and Europe have. So I think that’s the balance we have to strike, because we have Japanese fans of PlayStation we have to continue to satisfy, but at the same time we are in this business of making games, so we have to recoup the investment whether or not the local market size is limited.”

Still, Yoshida said that PS4’s huge success has helped Japanese games find more popularity in Western markets, which has helped make it easier to justify maintaining a major Japanese development presence. “Many developers in Japan try to copy what seems to be popular outside of Japan, but it’s not authentic. What the fans of Japanese games outside of Japan want is a really authentic Japanese game, and that works very well,” he explained.

“I think it’s a difference in culture,” Becker said. “Humans are basically all the same, but when you have such a difference in culture, these emotions and thoughts go through this filter and get a certain form or shape.”

To Becker, Japan Studio has done a good job of maintaining that culture and making creator-driven games, but hasn’t always embraced new tools as quickly as other studios. “At Japan Studio I think we have a lot of talented people, but for whatever reason I think we fell behind in terms of technology, and that started way back in the PS2 days and PS3,” he said. “Japan Studio wasn’t producing that many titles. And so with PS4, we’re really starting to build the technology back up.”

While he didn’t name any specific projects, Becker did hint that plenty of new games are in the works with new technology in mind. “Without having to state too much more, with Gravity Rush 2 finishing up and The Last Guardian finishing up, we reached this big milestone within Japan Studio, and so finally we feel like we’re free to do new things,” he said. “We’re going to finish up Knack 2 as well, so, as for the internal team, they’re much more freed up, so we are thinking about starting up several new titles.”

What the fans of Japanese games outside of Japan want is a really authentic Japanese game.

When it comes to The Last Guardian, Becker admits that it was “a really difficult and heavy title to complete,” but credits Yoshida and the rest of Sony for believing in the vision enough to keep the project alive even as development stretched on. When asked why they continued to have faith, Becker said it was simply a matter of the emotions that even early versions of the project were capable of creating.

“I saw the PS3 version when I got here and there were bits and pieces of it, and it wasn’t a full game, but some of these bits and pieces were developed to where you could experience the emotions of the characters,” he recalled, saying he told the studio, “‘We have to make this. We just have to. No matter what it takes, we’ve gotta make it.’ It’s because I work at a place like Sony, which is very tolerant, and Shu is extremely tolerant with letting the game sort of find itself. It’s a difficult process, and a lot of times you’re really in the mud for a long time. But when it gets out of the ground and sees the sky, it’s well worth it. But, once again, it’s thanks to patience on the part of Sony and Shu.”

For Yoshida, that patience factors into how Sony decides which projects to continue to pour time and resources into, whether it’s major AAA experiences, experimental tech like VR, small indie titles, or anything in between.

“I have to manage the budget. And we have a finite number of teams, so we are very carefully planning and investing in the regular console games and VR content,” he explained. “We’ll continue to invest in VR content and VR games, but we are also going to strike the balance to be able to continue to make big triple-A regular TV kinds of games.”

That’s the culture that we’re still maintaining, to defy conventions.

For now, those “regular,” traditional game experiences remain Japan Studio’s focus, with Knack 2 and Everybody’s Golf due later this year and a newly-announced remake of Shadow of the Colossus coming down the road. As always, Yoshida hopes to balance those with smaller, creative endeavors from external talent. Projects like those, he said, help to maintain the culture the studio established nearly 20 years ago.

“The culture of Japan Studio came from the very, very beginning of the PlayStation 1 days. Sony Computer Entertainment was founded as a joint venture between Sony Corporation’s group and Sony Music Entertainment Japan,” Yoshida recalled. “The team from Sony Music Entertainment Japan brought in the culture of the music industry. For the music industry, the core vision is to find talented musicians and support them to become popular and create hit songs. In the same way, Japan Studio at the time had a group of mostly external producers behave like music directors, and produce external developer talent like Matsuda-san for PaRappa the Rapper or Muramori-san for Hot Shots Golf, to really create something really new.”

“We were a new kid on the block, a new entrance to the video game industry, and because we didn’t have very many franchises to continue…the team in Japan opted to find new talent and create a new concept like PaRappa,” he continued. “So that’s the culture that we’re still maintaining, to defy conventions, so to speak, and find and support and help the talent to create new entertainment. That’s why I think why you feel there’s some common feel from games produced by Japan Studio, even today.”

Andrew is IGN’s executive editor of news and has a cool plush PaRappa holding a bag of McDonald’s french fries on his desk. You can find him rambling about Persona and cute animals on Twitter.


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