Friday, 30 April 2021
Wednesday, 28 April 2021
WITCHER, EXPANSE, PUNISHER and SHADOW & BONE vets team up to develop a WORLD OF DARKNESS TV franchise
Tuesday, 27 April 2021
The great nation of Ravka is troubled by war with her neighbours and by the Shadow Fold, a mysterious force of darkness which has cut off the west coast from the rest of the kingdom. Only the Grisha, the magic-wielding servants of Ravka, can cross the Fold in safety. A young mapmaker, Alina Starkov, is recruited to help such a crossing but she manifests the powers of the Grisha along the way. Recruited into the order, Alina discovers she has the power to summon light, the power to perhaps destroy the Shadow Fold forever...and a power that some will do anything to possess.
Shadow and Bone is a Netflix fantasy TV show based on the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, a highly successful YA fantasy series originally published in 2012-14. The trilogy was enjoyable, if a bit lightweight, but veered towards the traditional and predictable. By itself, it's questionable if it would have been picked up for adaptation. However, Bargudo followed up the trilogy with two further duologies which dramatically expanded the scope and scale of the world, introducing many more interesting characters, locations and factions.
For the TV show, the writers have made the decision to incorporate characters and backstory from the sequel duologies into the events of the original narrative. Thus, as well as the struggle between Alina Starkov and the Darkling, we also meet the band of ne'er do wells known as the Dregs, or Crows (from the Six of Crows duology) and the character of Nina, who plays a key role in both that duology and the current King of Scars series.
This has the benefit of giving the story a lot more meat to its bones. By itself, the Shadow and Bone novel would have perhaps had enough material for four hours, maybe five, but the other subplots allow it to extend to eight reasonably well (even if there is a fair bit of portentous wheel-spinning in the final two episodes).
On the negative side of things, it does result in a fair bit of narrative dissonance: the three main plot threads (Alina, the Crows and Nina) have very little to do with one another across the episodes, and there's a distinct fanfiction-y feel whenever Alina and the Crows' storylines cross over. Nina and her decidedly thin narrative (which is a fairly odd tale of kidnap followed by Stockholm Syndrome romance) feel like they could have been ejected from the series with no problem whatsoever and introduced later on when more relevant to the plot. Certainly keeping the Crows involved, no matter how contrived it feels and how much their heist hijinks clash tonally with Alina's Chosen One narrative, is a good idea because they're the most fun characters in the series and bring a lot of energy to proceedings.
The actors all do a reasonable job (Jessie Mei Li is probably the standout, which is great as she's playing the protagonist, and The Punisher's Ben Barnes is pretty good as the antagonist), the pacing is pretty good and the sets and costumes are appropriately lavish. However, there's a distinct "Netflix house style" that's been pervading their shows for a few years now which this series definitely suffers from. The CGI is competent, but overly-digital, with a fairly fake sheen that often took me out of the show (doing flashy effects these days is easy; seating the effects in the environment so it looks like people can see and react them is much harder). The most impressive sequences are those in the Fold and involving the Volcra, but given those scenes rely on darkness for maximum impact, that's not as outstanding as it may sound. There's also a distinctly Netflix-ish thing going on of filming too many outdoor scenes on unconvincing indoor sound stages like it's a 1960s episode of Star Trek. The musical score is also surprisingly bland, and the show even lacks a title sequence: instead we just get a brief title card like it's a 2007 big network show urgently trying to keep as much time open as possible that would otherwise be lost to the credits and adverts.
The series also has its own tonal issue. It's based on YA material and for most of the TV version it leans into that (limited swearing, no sex or nudity), but it'll then pull off some scenes of ultraviolence that wouldn't be out of place on a HBO drama (someone needs to tell TV writers that decapitations are not as common as they'd like to think). It's odd because without just a few shows of brutal deaths, the show would be suitable for 10-year-olds, and genuine family-friendly fantasy is thin on the ground these days.
But the negatives feel like they're more than balanced out by the positives. Alina's relationship with Mal, the weakest part of the trilogy, is here fleshed out and Mal made a much more likeable character. Ben Barnes plays the Darkling with scene-chewing relish and you can almost sense his disappointment at not having a moustache to twirl. The Crows - Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita) and Jesper (Kit Young) - are great fun and it'd be interesting to see a show focused just on them. The "fantasy heist" storyline certainly made me wonder how much longer we're going to have to wait to see a Lies of Locke Lamora adaptation.
Shadow and Bone's first season (***½) on balance, is fine. It's enjoyable, reasonably well-paced and the integration of two different storylines works well (the attempt to add a third does not, though). The performances are solid and keep the show aloft whenever the over-expository dialogue and plastic effects threaten to bring it down. It does enough that I'd be interested in a second season. The season is available now worldwide on Netflix.
Sunday, 25 April 2021
Friday, 23 April 2021
Marvel and Disney have put a fourth Captain America film into development. Unlike previous instalments of the series, which saw Chris Evans starring as Steve Rogers in the title role, the new film will focus on Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson taking up the mantle.
Note: Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follow.
Malcolm Spellman, who executive produced and showran The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as well as writing the critically-acclaimed fifth episode, is developing the new script with Dalan Musson, a fellow writer on the show.
The TV series saw Sam, who'd been offered the shield and the name by an aged and retired Rogers at the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), struggling with the idea of taking on the mantle. He initially turns down the role, leading to the US government instead naming another soldier, John Walker, to the position. Walker turns out not to have the "right stuff" to be Captain America, leading Sam to finally accept the position at the end of the series.
To what degree the film will follow up on the TV series is unclear, but the TV series does put a lot of other balls in play, including having Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) back behind bars; Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) pardoned and returned to working for the US government, but having a shadowy agenda of her own; and Walker - having been injected with a milder form of Steve's super-serum - being recruited as a secret agent by the redoubtable Valentine Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Sam has also formed a strong working partnership with Bucky Barnes, the reformed Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).
This marks the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the title of one major superhero has passed to another. Marvel will no doubt be assessing the success of such a move to determine how long they can keep the MCU going in the current continuity before they feel they have to reboot.
With development of the film only just starting, it's likely we won't see the film until 2023 at the earliest. and maybe more likely 2024. Between now and then Marvel plans to release Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther II, Captain Marvel 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Fantastic Four and Blade.
Thursday, 22 April 2021
As with its forebear, the second volume of Love, Death + Robots is adapting a series of short stories by SFF authors into animation. We now have the list of which stories have been adapted.
- Pop Squad by Paolo Bacigalupi
- Life Hutch by Harlan Ellison
- Ice by Rich Larson
- The Tall Grass by Joe Lansdale
- Automated Customer Service by John Scalzi
- All Through the House by Joachim Heijndermans
- The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard
- Snow in the Desert by Neal Asher
Volume 2 of Love, Death + Robots will be released on Netflix on 14 May. Volume 3 will reportedly follow in 2022.
Wednesday, 21 April 2021
It has been clarified that HBO are not developing a Game of Thrones spin-off show about Robert's Rebellion, arguably the most important event in the backstory of the series. Instead, journalist James Hibberd has confirmed that rumours of this were the result of confusion over the recently-announced stage play project.
The stage play will tell the story of the Great Harrenhal Tourney in the Year of False Spring, where Lyanna Stark met Rhaegar Targaryen, sparking a chain of events leading to Robert's Rebellion. George R.R. Martin had previously said that the true story of the tourney and the Rebellion is something he is not interested in pursuing, as the Song of Ice and Fire novels will reveal the backstory of the Rebellion even as it expands the current-day storyline, and by the end of the novels readers will know all the important beats of the war. Creating a spin-off novel or TV show based on the Rebellion would simply be "joining the dots," and not interesting in itself.
Clearly he changed his mind on the tourney, perhaps because it takes place on a much smaller scale with a constrained cast of characters in one location, suiting the medium quite well. The Rebellion itself, however, sounds like it has returned to not being on the cards.
HBO are instead about to imminently start shooting House of the Dragon, a prequel series about the Dance of Dragons, a bloody civil war that raged within House Targaryen about 170 years before the events of the books and TV show. They are also in discussion on multiple other projects, including an animated series, a series about the great explorer Corlys Velaryon, a series set in the slums of Flea Bottom in King's Landing, and another epic show about Nymeria and her flight to Dorne after her homeland is destroyed by the Valyrians. HBO has also been developing ideas for adapting the Dunk & Egg prequel novellas, although Martin has also been reluctant to discuss that project before the novella series is complete.
Tuesday, 20 April 2021
Sunday, 18 April 2021
AD 3015. The Inner Sphere is gripped by the Third Succession War, with the great powers clashing for control of human space. With the regular armies of the Great Houses stretched, it's a time of opportunity for mercenary companies to make money and gain a reputation for themselves.
Is there much more we can ask from video games than the ability to jump in a giant robot and use the giant robot to destroy other giant robots and occasionally just smash up a city for the sheer hell of it? It could be argued not, and, since 1989, the MechWarrior series of video games has satisfied that urge in a very enjoyable manner.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is the first single-player game in the series since 2002 and makes a ton of concessions for new players. It is set earlier in the timeline than any previous game and does not require foreknowledge of the wider BattleTech franchise. However, if you played the outstanding 2018 turn-based strategy game BattleTech (to which this is a real-time companion), you'll find a lot here that's familiar in terms of mechs, terminology, equipment and even UI, especially the menus and the systems for outfitting your mechs. MechWarrior 5 is also somewhat more forgiving than its brutally tough cousin, despite also being a lot more hectic.
MechWarrior 5 consists of two game modes. The first has you on board a Leopard dropship, where your mechs and mechwarriors are based. You can wander around the ship in first-person and explore the ship and inspect your mechs at the correct scale, which is very impressive. For certain campaign missions and story moments, you can also wander up to characters to engage in conversations which further the story. Using menus you can also select your next mission, move the ship to another system and engage in equipment and mech purchase, maintenance and selling. You can also hire and fire pilots or review your progress so far. This is similar to the metagame in BattleTech, although the ability to actually walk around the ship is cool for a bit; it later becomes a bit pointless and you can do everything through menus instead. There's also much less character here. In BattleTech you could talk to characters, even upgrade the social features of the ship to make your pilots happier. In MechWarrior 5 there's somewhat less to do other than selecting missions and maintaining your war machine.
Once you arrive at a star system with contracts available, you can choose which mission to take and then engage in negotiations with the faction in question. You can discuss pay for the mission, how much salvage you can claim and insurance for mech damage. There's some gambling here, since salvaging an enemy mech could net you several times the pay for the mission, but that only applies if you can disable an enemy mech without blowing its reactor, so upping the hard cash reward for the mission might be preferable. The more jobs you do for a faction, the more negotiating points you can get as your standing with them improves. However, sometimes a faction may direct you into combat against another faction, resulting in a corresponding drop in reputation with that faction, which might become a problem later on when you need that faction to give you more jobs. This system is fun and makes choosing which missions to take on and who to appease and who to annoy a rewarding and interesting system of choices.
Once a mission is locked in, the Leopard lands and deploys your lance of mechs into real-time combat: you can bring up to three fellow mechs into combat with you, which can be controlled by AI or other human players of your choosing. Sometimes the dropship dumps you straight into a mass firefight (with the dropship laying down impressive volumes of covering fire) but more often it drops you outside a combat zone and you have to head in, perhaps using the terrain for cover, going the long way around to take the enemy by surprise or just charging in all guns blazing.
Combat is fast, furious and frantic, but you have a good amount of feedback thanks to a radar and robust damage report models for your mechs plus the enemy and allied troops. You can be more tactical and hold back with a sniper mech to attack from a distance with gauss guns and long-range missiles, perhaps directing your more brawler-focused allies into close combat, or vice versa. Like a good space or air combat game, the game mixes real-time action and a more strategic element of commanding allies; MechWarrior 2 (the game that popularised the franchise) was consciously echoing contemporaries X-Wing and Wing Commander but in a giant robot, and MechWarrior 5 feels like a solid upgrade of that, feeling like a contemporary of Ace Combat 7 and Star Wars: Squadrons (but still in a giant robot). Combat is something the game nails very satisfyingly, which is important as you're going to be doing a hell of a lot of it.
The game provides context for what you're doing through three tiers of missions. The first is story missions, which propel the game's main storyline forward. The storyline isn't fantastic (and certainly not as good as BattleTech's) but it does have some solid voice acting from Elias Toufexis (Adam Jensen from the Deus Ex franchise) and it does have some excellently-designed mission setpieces. These missions are triggered intermittently when you gain reputation levels. There are 15 such levels in the game and you gain rep from completing jobs for factions. Once you get to a new level, new story missions appear and you can get those underway.
The second tier of mission is quests, marked on the map by yellow circles. These are, effectively, side-quests with their own storyline and characters, along with unique dialogue, with quite large reputation and cash rewards. These questlines take you back and forth across an entire warzone with twists and turns in the story, and sometimes the ability to switch sides and work for the opposition who may contact you with a much better offer. Quests are not necessary to proceed, but bulk out the game in terms of giving you meaningful stuff to do.
The lowest tier are procedurally-generated missions which are simply infinite in number, randomly generating rewards, opposition and terrain and throwing you into battle. These missions are good for picking up salvage, cash and grinding smaller amounts of reputation, though for those who want to make faster progress, quests are a better bet.
These combine into a fairly compelling experience: you do missions to increase reputation, salvage and cash; you spend those resources to improve your pilots, mechs and equipment; and then you unlock the next part of the story and move on. You can complete MechWarrior 5 in around 30 hours (roughly half the length of a BattleTech campaign) but also expand it out for much longer than that as you track down rare mechs and equipment and exhaustively try to complete every quest chain in the game.
So, with great combat, the ability to co-op every single mission and solid upgrading and loot mechanics, it'd be easy to recommend the game unambiguously. However, there are a fair few problems with the game. None of these are massive by themselves but the accumulated array of them can be fairly vexing.
The first is how fresh enemy mechs are spawned mid-mission. Originally they appeared out of nowhere way too close to your lance, resulting in damage and mission losses for no apparent reason. Patches improved this by making the enemy appear a lot further away, but it's still a disconcerting experience that feels a bit weird.
The second is that your radar works in the weirdest way imaginable, with it working based on line of sight. So you have to see something before your radar can lock on, with enemy mechs vanishing from view if they just pass behind a boulder for a few seconds. Even worse is the low range of your radar, with you sometimes able to see a bunch of enemy mechs a couple of kilometres away and even hit them with dumb-fire weapons (like gauss guns and plasma cannons), but not able to actually lock onto them with missiles until they're much closer. This is all pretty dumb, and a let-down on how radar worked in BattleTech, where you could use sensor abilities to target enemies from much further away and you could also use telemetry feeds, so one scout mech on a recon mission could allow all your troops to lock on from much further away.
The third is that AI in general could be a bit stronger. The enemy default stance is to bum-rush you, sometimes allowing you to wipe out what would be a formidable enemy force because their light mechs outrun their heavier support, allowing you to destroy them piecemeal as they arrive. Enemy AI also seems reluctant to use long-range weapons or jump jets. Allied AI can also be ropey, particularly in base defence missions where you allies sometimes careen through allied structures without a care in the world (resulting in amusing screams of rage from your employers) and happily discharge their plasma cannons and missiles at the enemy even if you're standing right in front of them (which can be fatal).
These problems are annoying and frustrating but - very happily - they've also mostly been fixed by MechWarrior 5's outstanding modding community. As I related previously, I installed a number of mods which fixed almost all of the above problems instantly. Better Spawns removes random mech spawns altogether and replaces them with an enemy dropship arriving and dropping the mechs manually. The AI fix mods make both allied and enemy AI much stronger, so your allies stop shooting you and blowing up allied bases and the enemy will use missiles and jumpjets from time to time. The 3D Hud dramatically improves weapons and damage feedback. Max Tonnage removes the very arbitrary-feeling weight limits on missions that feels nonsensical (given that enemy spawns seem to be based on your tonnage, this doesn't make the game a cakewalk either), and the JumpShip Animation dramatically speeds up the game by removing unskippable cut scenes. The only outstanding problem is the radar, which apparently will be addressed in the forthcoming expansions.
Without the mods, MechWarrior 5 (***½) is a great game beset by annoyances. With those mods, MechWarrior 5 (****½) becomes a rich, compelling game experience mixing fun mech management with satisfying, crunchy combat.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is available right now on PC via Epic Game Store, which easily allows for modding, and on the Xbox Game Pass, which very much does not. The game will launch on Steam on 27 May alongside a new expansion, Heroes of the Inner Sphere, and an Xbox One/Series X version of the game.
Friday, 16 April 2021
RUMOUR: The first 1-2 seasons of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE have cost almost half a billion dollars
The Hollywood Reporter has indicated that the upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series, The Second Age*, has cost almost half a billion dollars so far. In fact, they put the figure at $465 million.
The Reporter is pretty reliable in these matters, but I've filed this under "rumour" because the source is the New Zealand government and they did not precisely break down the costs involved.
We know there are eight episodes in each of the first two seasons of the show, and the first two seasons have been commissioned together and completely written. There were also reports a while back that the LotR team were shooting up to 20 episodes in the first extended filming bloc (which began in February 2020 and is expected to continue for several months to come, although there was an extended break last year for writing), which some took to mean they were filming the first two seasons - 16 episodes - back-to-back, which makes sense. As a result, the cost may be spread across two seasons rather than one. This is backed up by a Reuters report where they learned that Amazon was earmarking $500 million for the first two seasons in combined production and marketing costs.
Back in 2017, it was widely reported that Amazon had paid $250 million to the Tolkien Estate for enhanced rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's books not previously covered by any prior deal, now believed to consist of all Numenor and Second Age-related material in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Amazon had also tapped Warner Brothers and their subsidiary New Line to cooperate on the project, giving them access to the Lord of the Rings rights (used previously to make Peter Jackson's 2001-03 movie trilogy). It was reported that Amazon would be spending up to $150 million per season on five seasons of the series, for a total expenditure of $1 billion.
This new report indicates that that ceiling will be hit considerably sooner than expected. Assuming the costs are indeed divided between two seasons, that would make the cost of each season around $232.5 million, or $29 million per episode. The previous most expensive TV show of all time was either HBO's The Pacific, which cost over $20 million per episode, or Disney+'s currently-airing Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with a reported budget of $25 million per episode, although these are both classified as mini-series. The most expensive ongoing TV show of all time is HBO's Game of Thrones, where the budget reached $16 million per episode in the final season.
This would easily make Lord of the Rings: The Second Age the most expensive TV show of all time, if not quite by as much as some people are saying. However, if the original quote was correct and those costs are just for the first season, the first eight episodes by themselves, then obviously they would rocket up to insanity: $465 million for the season, or $58,125,000 per hour. Each of the three Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies had a budget of around $90 million for three hours, for comparison.
Lord of the Rings Colon Undisclosed Subtitle is currently shooting in New Zealand and expected to air on Amazon Prime Video, probably in early 2022.
* My placeholder title to stop people constantly asking why they're remaking the movies, which they're not; not the likely final title of the series.
The UK cover art for Joe Abercrombie's next novel, The Wisdom of Crowds, has been revealed.
Thursday, 15 April 2021
"The irritating imbroglio with Disney, which you may have read about, is moving towards a mutually agreeable conclusion. A formal statement will be forthcoming."
Tuesday, 13 April 2021
The King of Lancre has died of natural causes. As everyone knows, it is very normal and even traditional for a king to die naturally from a stab wound to the back followed by a swift plummet down a steep staircase. As is also traditional, the king's heir and his crown have mysteriously disappeared and it's no doubt only a matter of time before he grows up and returns to reclaim his birthright etc etc. Some things are Traditional. Unfortunately, the new king and his scheming wife aren't hot followers of Tradition and as a reign of terror falls on Lancre, it falls to three local witches, a psychotic cat and a Fool to take a hand in events...
Six books into his Discworld series, Terry Pratchett decided to take on Bill Shakespeare. Wyrd Sisters mashes together the plot of MacBeth with influence from Hamlet and a subplot about making plays (including a Shakespeare-ish analogue character). It's also the first time that Pratchett seems to have consciously built up an entire community of characters in a book, with a view to revisiting them later on.
Our leading protagonist is Granny Weatherwax, who previously appeared (in a simpler form) in Equal Rites. This time around she's one of a coven of three witches, alongside the matriarchal Nanny Ogg and the young and (misleadingly) wet-behind-the-ears Magrat Garlick. Effectively having three leads is a new idea for Pratchett and allows him to spread the story out a bit more, even if Granny does come across as the effective leader of the group. Pratchett's characterisation is splendid as always, with the realisation of Magrat's anger issues at being constantly underestimated making for fun scenes and Nanny Ogg highly contradictory character tics being oddly compelling: she's a kind-hearted and funny person who inexplicably likes making life miserable for her extended relations and harbours a strong relationship with a cat she thinks is a fluffy kitten rather than a homicidal threat to the peace.
The wider community of Lancre is also established, with its vertiginous geography, literally-minded inhabitants (at least 25% of whom seem to be related by blood or terrifying marriage into Nanny Ogg's clan) and local colour, becoming, after Ankh-Morpork, clearly Pratchett's favourite place to write about on the Disc.
Those with a working knowledge of epic fantasy tropes, Shakespeare in general and MacBeth in particular can likely see where the story is going, which is something that Pratchett anticipates and has fun with, especially how he overcomes the issue of the witches not wanting to wait fifteen years for the Hidden Heir™ to make his unexpected reappearance, resulting in arguably the most impressive display of magic in the entire series (we'll perhaps ignore the apparent issues this causes with the timeline, as Pratchett subsequently does).
There is a lot of great comedy here as Pratchett riffs off various ideas and tropes (not to mention some nods to the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin), but there's also splendid use of a real-world theme, in this case propaganda. Words have power of their own, and can be a greater force than armies, and the deployment of the idea is intelligent and well-handled, and also done with relative subtlety, tying into the main storyline's use of a theatre troupe and their ability to create stories that are more memorable than real history.
Wyrd Sisters (****½) sees Pratchett evolving the Discworld setting even further away from the simple fantasy parody it started out as and into much more interesting territory, with a corresponding deepening and complicating of the worldbuilding and characters, whilst remaining funny. The novel is available in the UK and USA.
I wrote a previous review of the novel here.
As an added bonus, the 1997 Cosgrove Hall animated film version of Wyrd Sisters is freely available on YouTube.
Monday, 12 April 2021
Friday, 9 April 2021
Harmony Gold and Studio Nue confirm collaboration for the continuation of the ROBOTECH and MACROSS franchises
Paramount has set a release date of 9 June 2023 for the next Star Trek movie, but they have not yet revealed what that movie actually is.
Paramount have spent the five years since the release of Star Trek Beyond developing a large number of potential new film projects to no avail. A direct follow-up to Beyond, focusing on Chris Pine's Captain Kirk teaming up with his father, played by Chris Hemsworth via time travel, was in development for a time before being dropped over a pay dispute. The film was later put back into development again, and then paused a second time.
At the same time, Quentin Tarantino started developing new project. This was eventually revealed as a remake of the classic Star Trek episode A Piece of the Action, in which the Enterprise crew arrive on a planet that's developed into a parody of early 20th Century gangster movies. Tarantino was very enthusiastic about the project, even considering directing, but later committed only to writing and producing. Without Tarantino directing, Paramount's interest in the idea seemed to dry up.
Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley then committed to a new Star Trek movie idea, one which would apparently revolve around a whole new crew and a whole new story. With Hawley much in-demand for Hollywood projects, Paramount seems to have entertained the idea for a while before passing on it, due to a lack of an exciting hook to get people interested.
Finally, just a few weeks ago, Star Trek: Discovery writer Kalinda Vazquez was hired to put together a new proposal, the details of which remain unknown.
According to io9, this new project is not related to any of these ideas. The only thing that is known is that J.J. Abrams will be producing (but not directing) and to get it out in just over two years, they're going to need to put it into production shortly. Very mysterious.
Jason Schreier at Bloomberg has a fascinating report on unrest and uncertainty at the Sony Studios group of video game developers.
Sony's PlayStation video game console has been the leading console in four successive generations of hardware: the original PlayStation (1994) emerged triumphant over the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn, whilst the PlayStation 2 (2000) outsold the original Microsoft Xbox, Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube. The PlayStation 3 (2006) initially lost ground to the Microsoft Xbox 360 (released a year earlier), but clawed back the lead to emerge the more successful console, although both were outsold by the Nintendo Wii, which had pivoted to focus on younger gamers. The PlayStation 4 (2013) much more comfortably defeated the Xbox One and Wii U.
The PlayStation 5 was launched at the end of 2020, almost simultaneously with the Xbox Series X, with sales of both consoles being surprisingly comparable. There was a widespread expectation that the PlayStation 5 would, again, comfortably outsell the Microsoft rival. Sony's success is rooted in two factors: their utter market domination in Japan and other parts of Asia, where Xbox sales are almost negligible; and their catalogue of exclusive titles not available on other systems, including the Uncharted, Last of Us, God of War, Horizon, Gran Turismo, Tekken, Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man franchises.
However, in recent years Xbox has deployed a formidable new asset to make their brand more attractive: Xbox Game Pass. Best summed-up as "Netflix for video games," the pass allows gamers to play a large catalogue of hundreds of games for a monthly subscription fee which is far less than the cost of a single video game. With many people buying a game, playing it through once and never touching it again, such a service is hugely more attractive than a much bigger, one-off payment for a title of limited utility. The Xbox Game Pass is also platform-agnostic, being available not just on the Xbox console but also on PC, tablet and smartphones. Microsoft has even offered to make the service available on competitor consoles, including PlayStation and Nintendo Switch, indicating they see the Game Pass as being the future of their video game strategy rather than constantly escalating (and ever-more-expensive) hardware battles.
Simultaneously, Microsoft has gone on an immense spending spree, buying up video game studios by the dozen, to bolster their exclusive games library. This is an area where Microsoft has struggled, with only a small number of popular, exclusive franchises such as Gears of War, Halo and Forza. Their recent acquisition of Bethesda has given them access to several massive franchises, including Fallout, The Elder Scrolls and Doom, as well as critically respected series such as Wolfenstein, Dishonored and Prey. Their acquisition of Obsidian and inXile Studios has also given them access to credible studios with an interest in making challenging RPGs with reactive gameplay.
These moves seem to have given Microsoft a leg-up over the previous generation, resulting in a much closer race between Microsoft and Sony this time out. In addition, both consoles are being negatively impacted by global chip shortages leading to a lack of stock being available, with Microsoft perhaps edging it slightly with console availability, giving Microsoft a chance to make a better case for their console.
None of these things are fatal for Sony - whose dependence on their PlayStation range of products has increased dramatically in recent decades as their former dominance in the TV and hi-fi sectors has collapsed - but clearly they have the company somewhat rattled, and looking for steps they can take to compete.
Sony have their own subscription service, PlayStation Plus, as well as a streaming service called PlayStation Now, which allows gamers to stream PS games without a console at all, but both services feel limited compared to Xbox Game Pass and Sony has shown limited enthusiasm for turning the services into a real competitor. This is because Microsoft have a lot of financial firepower coming in from other quarters and are happier to become platform-agnostic, whilst Sony's business model does rely on their hardware becoming profitable, at least in the second half of its shelf life. Still, the competition of Game Pass will likely force Sony to develop these services further.
Sony have also taken the unprecedented step of making some of their former exclusives available on other platforms. Horizon Zero Dawn had a successful launch on PC in 2020, and Days Gone will launch on PC this year. The real test will be if Sony brings out the Uncharted or Last of Us series on PC, or the much-requested 2015 PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, but there is no sign of this as yet.
Based on Schreier's report, Sony's main response to Microsoft's growing momentum is to double down on the areas where they are already strong: exclusive franchises developed by strong teams. To do this, they are reducing the number of sub-AAA games they're making, apparently dropping "small games that only sell in Japan" (a market that they've probably lost out to the Switch on anyway) and prioritising AAA blockbusters, as well as tightly controlling costs. It sounds like Sony are becoming incredibly risk-averse, which seems like a bad idea when the next generation of video games will require innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, even moreso than normal. The result has been a brain drain as developers at several Sony studios have quit.
Schreier's report does reveal some additional information of note: a thorough Last of Us remaster/remake for PS5 is currently in the works at Naughty Dog, with a remake of the original Uncharted possibly to follow. A fifth Uncharted game is also early in development, with some reports it might be a prequel. A Days Gone 2 has apparently been proposed and turned down, with the development team responsible for that game working on a new project instead.