Since the original PlayStation launched in 1994, the Tokyo-based Sony Computer Entertainment (now Sony Interactive Entertainment) established itself as a leader in gaming hardware. Sony hadn’t merely released one of the most popular game consoles of all time, but it also had its own in-house video game developer, Japan Studio, to churn out popular titles.
This is why the slew of announcements over the past few months that numerous experienced veterans are leaving the studio is especially surprising.
Sony’s Japan Studio was founded in fall 1993 and debuted the following year with the role-playing game Crime Crackers for the original PlayStation’s launch. It was hardly a landmark title, but throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the studio churned out an array of iconic games, including music title PaRappa the Rapper (1996), sports title Everybody’s Golf (1997), platformer Ape Escape (1999) and more.
During the PlayStation 2 years, Japan Studio really started to come into its own. Some games, including Ico (2001) and Shadow of the Colossus (2005), can be counted among the most iconic, influential games ever. The PlayStation 3 era seemed fallow in comparison, but the studio still worked to release interesting titles that could not be found on other consoles.
Back in the fall of 2013, right before the PlayStation 4’s release, I visited Japan Studio at its Shinagawa office, located in Sony’s Tokyo headquarters. I had been in Sony’s offices many times prior, but heading into Japan Studio, I couldn’t help but feel like I was entering Sony’s inner sanctum. For example, to show off the power of the new PS4’s DualShock 4 controller and camera, one of Japan Studio’s internal development studios, Asobi Team, made The Playroom, a collection of minigames preloaded onto all PS4s. The same team followed up with a neat, well-received platformer called Astro’s Playroom for the PlayStation 5.
Yet, the pinnacle for Japan Studio was arguably Dec. 6, 2016, the day The Last Guardian was released. Developed by Japan Studio’s internal group, Team Ico, and designed by wunderkind Fumito Ueda, the game was the followup to his critically praised Ico and Shadow of the Colossus games, both of which exemplified how games could be artistically compelling while still retaining enjoyable gameplay elements.
Early footage of The Last Guardian was revealed in 2009, yet the game languished in development for years, with interest in the gaming community reaching fever pitch. Ueda ultimately left Sony as an official employee in 2011, but continued to work on The Last Guardian until its release. The Last Guardian was a critical success, and Japan Studio continued to release interesting games, but it never again achieved the same dizzying heights or fervent interest.
The latest employee exodus started in early December 2020 when Keiichiro Toyama, creator of the horror title Siren and inventive action game Gravity Rush, suddenly announced he had left Sony and was setting up a new company called Bokeh Game Studio.
Toyama had been at Japan Studio since 1999, and was one of the company’s most interesting talents. What stood out with his departure was that he took more Japan Studio colleagues with him, including Kazunobu Sato, who designed the excellent PS3 platformer Puppeteer and was a producer on The Last Guardian, and Junya Okura, a designer on Gravity Rush.
Initially, I thought this was a one-off, that a few veteran game creators were striking off on their own. But then, the exodus grew.
On Feb. 25, producer and 25-year-veteran Masaaki Yamagiwa, who produced Bloodborne and Tokyo Jungle, tweeted, “I’m leaving Sony Interactive Entertainment at the end of this month. I’m going to continue working hard on creating games. Many thanks to everyone!”
Then, they kept coming: producer Masami Yamamoto, Gravity Rush character designer Shunsuke Saito, senior producer Kentaro Motomura, executive producer Yasutaka Asakura and even 24-year-veteran Gavin Moore, who tweeted, “I will miss the great creative spirit and camaraderie of the studio that was a huge part of my life.”
Sony issued a statement to video game and entertainment website IGN about the status of Japan Studio, explaining that it was being reorganized as of April 1 around the single team behind Astro’s Playroom.
It’s hard to see what’s next for Japan Studio. The development branch has staged a comeback before, but with the reorganization and loss of institutional talent, its future is unclear. But the past, and all Japan Studio contributed to gaming, will live on.
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