“Charity begins at home.”
I believe Sony should focus mostly on this philosophy going into the next generation of consoles, rather than seeking growth through external acquisitions. There’s only so much funding to go around, and I’m betting those precious dollars are used for a combination of internal investment and partnerships with outside teams rather than outright buyouts of major studios.
I’ll now get into why this is such a hot topic, then outline each of my reasons.
Within a mostly innocuous report from the Wall Street Journal on the Japanese gaming giant’s decision to focus on gamers for its next PlayStation gaming console which means building out its portfolio of games (surprise!), the stand-out quote is how its main strategy is bolstering its lineup of games only available on Sony devices.
Then, local site Gematsu got in on the action as it translated a Nikkei report containing somewhat vague comments from Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan about gaming content being of utmost importance and the company considering studio acquisitions as one of its strategies for this reason.
(I’ll note here that every major publisher, shoot every public company, has teams dedicated to merger and acquisition [M&A] research. There have been recent job postings from Sony seeking talent for its M&A team, though I’m not reading into this as much as others.)
Finally, PushSquare published a piece among other media sites on likely targets of Sony’s acquisition bucks. These and more sparked rampant speculation online as to which would be the best fits based on history and existing relationships. I’m here to say the ideal foundation going forward is not built on acquisitions, but rather more investment in what it does best. And that’s its current world class studios, upcoming hardware offerings and productive 3rd party partnerships.
The safer route is absolutely to spend its precious resources in its myriad of internal studios, which have produced modern classics such as The Last of Us by Naughty Dog and God of War from Santa Monica Studio, plus align itself with external companies through partnerships rather than outright acquisitions. The most notable recent example of such a fruitful team-up being Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games, which passed a staggering 10 million copies mere months after release last September.
Similarly, I’ll go as far to say I’m not hoping for or betting on acquisitions of any major developers or self-publishers in the near term. This list includes Bungie, Insomniac Games, Kojima Productions and Remedy Entertainment. Rather, there’s a much higher likelihood of one *maybe* two smaller teams that aren’t as cost prohibitive. If forced to pick, my bet is Housemarque. Known for arcade type shoot-em-ups such as Resogun and Alienation, I think it’s really the only smaller team suited for purchase now based on its proclamation that its style of games purely aren’t selling well, plus its affinity for working with the PlayStation team in the past.
Why? Here we go.
1. Major acquisitions are costly, time-consuming and risky.
I get it. It’s fun to speculate. To dream up scenarios where a favorite game developer gets purchased by a platform of choice. It’s just, in reality, acquisitions are usually not ideal compared to partnerships and are a truly massive undertaking presenting a variety of risks.
Acquisitions aren’t just about a big company throwing money at a smaller one. Both parties must consent, really except in the case of ugly hostile takeovers which should absolutely not be a part of Sony’s strategy. It often happens when a company is in need of a financial injection, its growth prospects have depleted or, in extreme cases, bankruptcy is looming. It’s especially trickier the more closely held a company gets, which is the case with many of the private game studios. Even those with hundreds of employees. The decision lies in the hands of a select few, normally with both financial and emotional investment from years of independent operation.
Then there’s the topics of what kind of premium the target will squeeze out of the acquirer, how well do company cultures mesh plus the whole regulatory side, all of which make this process time-consuming and expensive. M&A activity is inherently risky, blending folks that haven’t worked directly together so there’s no guaranteeing the company works as well as a subsidiary. Or there might be layoffs that happen due to redundancies. What I’m getting at is these involve many other factors than merely dollars and cents.
Let’s take a couple examples. One public, one private.
A team like Remedy Entertainment is publicly-traded. The Finnish developer is valued around $115 million in market capitalization. Not a huge figure in the context of Sony’s war chest, though certainly not pocket change compared to other names in this conversation. Not to mention that comes before any sort of projects even starting. And it has investors already. Lots of them. It doesn’t need to be injected with cash, especially with a new game Control next month and a collaboration with South Korea’s Smilegate on its CrossFire franchise. Every indication is Remedy wants to be independent. Even when Microsoft was publishing games like Alan Wake and Quantum Break, it was on its own. Why would execs and investors change their mind now, unless Sony throws some exorbitant amount of dough at it?
Then, our private example is Insomniac Games. Run by industry vet Ted Price, it’s a natural name thrown around due to its history of producing games for PlayStation like the aforementioned Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac is a heck of a studio, it’s been around for decades plus boasts a portfolio of Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Resistance and a personal favorite, 2014’s Sunset Overdrive. It’s also dabbling in virtual reality for the Oculus Rift. So, if it’s operated this long alongside PlayStation, why isn’t it a part of Sony? Exactly. As exhibited by its releases on Microsoft and Facebook (Oculus) platforms, Insomniac seems to value its creative independence above all else. And while we don’t know its valuation, to me this clearly shows its decision-makers haven’t seen a reason to become part of Sony Interactive Entertainment yet.
World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.
2. Investment in internal teams is a better use of cash.
At present, Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios features a suite of more than a dozen teams. Guerilla Games. Naughty Dog. San Diego. Santa Monica. Media Molecule. Sucker Punch. And more, with a legit laundry list of projects under their belts that define what PlayStation is more than anything else. These will also be the main contributors to Sony’s launch lineup next generation when the (probably named) PlayStation 5 (likely) releases in late 2020.
This is a dazzling entourage of the most talented, prolific teams in all of gaming. They make games specifically for a single company’s platforms, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR presently. Which means they are experts. If the big focus is appealing to the hardcore audience, that means investing in the personnel that make up these excellent studios is of much more importance than trying to attract external talent. Not to mention, it’s more cost effective to retain individual team members at existing studios than to integrate entire teams.
Sony is known for its first party content. It’s why there are 96 million PlayStation 4 consoles shipped to date, not to mention the absurd numbers for prior generations where Sony has 5 of the top 10 best-selling pieces of hardware ever made. World class first party games are impossible without investing in internal teams before anything else. Instead of dropping $100 million or more on a Remedy or Insomniac, those funds can be funneled internally towards high quality projects for existing teams.
A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.
3. External partnerships are attractive for both parties.
When we talk partnerships in gaming, this includes stuff like marketing deals, exclusive content, pre-order bonuses and similar incentives to attract players towards one platform above another. As much as exclusives are not ideal, especially for those without multiple systems, it’s a reality.
The reason I think Sony should opt for partnerships over purchases is that from a corporate standpoint, these deals allow for the best of both worlds. Development teams benefit from the backing of a major console manufacturer, especially for advertising spend, while they also remain independent to pursue experimental projects or titles for multiple platforms.
Need a concrete example? Well, I already mentioned one in Insomniac Games. This time, I’d like to bring up Square Enix. I don’t hear anyone calling for Sony to scoop it up just because games like NieR: Automata or Final Fantasy VII Remake have an alignment with PlayStation as timed exclusives. A preexisting agreement or relationship between a larger company and a smaller development studio or self-publisher doesn’t necessarily precipitate a buyout, or even open the door to discussions on the possibility of one.
While a team like Remedy certainly has less output and lower valuation than Square, I view it similarly because of its standing as publicly-traded plus a history with manufacturers other than Sony. Then there’s the case of Kojima Productions. Game design legend Hideo Kojima had an infamous falling out with Konami a few years back, which led to him founding a private studio. When a company is used to being independent, or recently has become so, and it’s not facing financial instability, its asking price goes up plus the attractiveness of being owned by a parent company plummets.
4. Finally, hardware R&D will be the focus of Sony’s gaming budget.
While Sony’s gaming division now leads the overall firm in both sales and operating income, it’s just one of many considerations when budgets are drawn up. All signs point to it being the final year of the PlayStation 4’s life cycle. In the lead-up to a new generation, research and development costs naturally ramp up especially for a console targeting the “core” demographic of gamers, as illustrated above from executive comments. Design and construction aren’t cheap. Not to mention the massive marketing push that will take the better part of next year.
If Sony intends to put out a powerful console in late 2020 with a quality launch lineup, we’re talking a sizeable chunk of its budget dedicated to this endeavor. How much is leftover to use on merger activity? What’s the most effective way for it to balance hardware and software demands? My thought is that most of its budget must be allocated to its next PlayStation and a core offering of exclusive games, which leaves less for M&A prospects at the risk of being spread thin.
To wrap up this admittedly lengthy post, while I’d never entirely rule out the possibility of acquisitions, I think the contingent calling for Sony to dole out cash on multiple studios has unrealistic expectations. Namely because of where the firm is at in the console cycle. It already has so many talented studios in which it should invest to spur growth, then continue to reinforce its relationships with third parties. This is the ideal route to meet its goal of strengthening its software portfolio, plus has added benefits for external companies that have fought hard for self-sufficiency over the years.
It’s flashy to talk about studio acquisitions, almost casually tossing around names. And it’s certainly more boring to hope that a company stays consistent with its current strategy even when it’s doing quite well. In this case, I’m both hoping and betting that Sony keeps it boring like Proposition Joe said (The Wire hear me). Because its business ain’t broke, literally and figuratively, so it doesn’t need fixing.
Sources: Bloomberg, GamesPress, Gematsu, Kazuhiro Nog/AFP/Getty Images, NVIDIA, PushSquare, Road to VR, Sony Corp, Wall Street Journal.