Why PlayStation London Studio is leaving VR to create a fantasy online battle game

Why PlayStation London Studio is leaving VR to create a fantasy online battle game

PlayStation’s London Studio has always been one of Sony’s most experimental teams

From SingStar to EyeToy, Wonderbook to PlayStation Home and most recently VR, the London Studio has a reputation for working with and often defining new technologies.

Not all of these projects succeeded, but those that did would go on to inspire the entire industry.

Today, London Studio has announced its next game: a currently untitled online co-op battle game set in a fantasy London. There’s not a plastic microphone or VR headset in sight. It’s certainly unique to the company, but it’s hardly the leap into the unknown it’s known for.

“We’re proud of the history and innovation that we’ve done over the years and support all kinds of PlayStation technology, whether it’s VR or AR, or microphones or whatever,” said studio head Stuart Whyte.

“With this project, we really wanted to explore some new paths and set ourselves some new challenges. We definitely wanted to try something a little different, and I think this new project really channels our ‘brave’ value and allows us to push ourselves on it “curious” front too. It’s an exciting future, it really is.”

Whyte refers to the developer’s key values ​​of ‘courageous’, ‘team-spirited’, ’empowered’, ‘inclusiveness’, ‘curious’ and ‘balance’. Those are values ​​that aren’t a million miles from those that Team Asobi – a PlayStation developer led by former London Studio alumnus Nicolas Doucet – shared in August. One of Asobi’s values ​​was ‘innovation’, which is a word that might previously have been associated with the London Studio. And Whyte insists innovation remains in the team’s DNA.

“Even if we’re not working on something that uses peripherals, it’s still about taking that DNA and putting it into our new game.”

Tara Saunders, London Studio

“Innovation will always be at the heart of what we do. If you look at our legacy and the titles we’ve made, there are a lot of first-timers out there. And that will continue.”

Co-studio head Tara Saunders adds: “What’s great about that legacy is the problem-solving aspect. We’ve taken different technologies and looked at how we’re changing the gaming industry and come up with concepts that haven’t been done before. That legacy means the team is comfortable throwing themselves outside their comfort zone.

“Even if we’re not working on something that uses all different bits of peripherals, it’s still about taking that DNA of innovation and putting it into any game concept.”

The game in question is this game that has been teased today, which Saunders says is being built specifically for the PlayStation 5.

“It’s our most ambitious game yet,” says Saunders. “We’re going to take all that innovation DNA and apply it to this online co-op battle game.

“[In our concept art] you see a version of a modern fantasy London. Our overarching theme is about bringing fantastical and magical elements and crossing that with familiar worlds, and you don’t get much more familiar to us than London.”

Whyte adds: “The idea for the game came out of an ideation process that we started with the whole team. We created a high-level briefing document, but with a lot of freedom and scope within it. And the team came up with lots and lots of ideas. We got the inspiration for the process by talking to our colleagues at Guerrilla Games, we were fascinated by how they went from Killzone to Horizon: Zero Dawn, and that was the exact process they went through.

“So the team came up with a bunch of ideas over a period of months, and we refined them and refined them until we got to a really small shortlist. Then we went out and talked to PlayStation management, we talked to other PlayStation studios… We spoke, very importantly, to our team about which they were most passionate about. This concept scored superbly in all these areas. We polled hundreds of players in the UK and US, through an anonymous poll, with some of the shortlisted ideas… This was the one who came up.”

Co-Studio is led by Stuart Whyte and Tara Saunders

It may not be a VR title, but Whyte says the game uses some of the tools from its virtual reality days.

“Our Soho Engine, our in-house game engine, is at the core of what we do here,” he says. “This is an engine that was built from the ground up for this generation of hardware and the needs of the game that we’re making. It’s designed to take full advantage of the PS5. But it’s fair to say that some of the toolset that we use goes back to the VR worlds and Blood & Truth technology that we had on PS4. Because at the end of the day, VR games have to have super efficient pipelines and engines.”

London Studio is one of the many PlayStation teams currently working on a live service product. This has been an important strategic move for Sony, with more than ten online multiplayer titles in the pipeline. So has there been a lot of collaboration with the other teams working on similar concepts?

“There’s always been a good community at the studio executive levels, where we all get together a couple of times a year,” says Whyte. “But with the advent of video conferencing, we’ve found that there are connections between lots of people at all levels. It’s been really good to see how it’s come on leaps and bounds because of hybrid working.”

“Guerrilla game [inspired us]. We were fascinated by how they went from Killzone to Horizon”

Stuart Whyte, London Studio

Saunders adds: “There’s a great development community across the PlayStation studios on many levels. Stu talked about how Guerrilla made that transition as a studio and how we sought lessons from them. It’s happening all the time now.”

London Studio turns 20 this year. Saunders has been in the studio the entire time. In fact, she joined the company 22 years ago as part of Team Soho, before it combined with Psygnosis to become the developer we know today.

By comparison, Whyte is a relative novice. But since the two took control of the studio, they’ve taken the team on quite a change, and not just in terms of the game they’re making.

“We’ve been on a bit of a journey, both from a product perspective but also culturally,” says Saunders. “It’s been a positive journey of change. We’ve been working a lot on just establishing who we are and what studio we want going forward.”

The employees seem to have responded well. London Studio was one of the big winners at the GamesIndustry.biz Best Places To Work Awards and received a glowing report from its team.

London Studio is a winner of the Best Places To Work Awards 2022

“When Tara and I took over as co-studio heads, we both basically agreed that for the future of the studio, we needed to get the people and the cultural side right,” adds Whyte. “It’s truer than ever that great games are made by great teams, made up of great people. It’s about taking care of the people. And the Best Places To Work Awards really help highlight the progress we’ve made. Overall.”

The company received high marks for its management team (Saunders was even nominated for the Best Boss award). But one of the biggest improvements was in its diversity and inclusion rating.

“We’re pushing the diversity front in so many ways,” Whyte continues. “And that goes through our hiring pipelines—we make sure we have gender-neutral job postings—to make sure we’re inclusive in the game we make. And we also have connections and partnerships with organizations like Coding Black Females and Urban Synergy. We have also a new trainee program.

“One thing we’re super proud of is that we mandated that everyone on the team needed to have a diversity goal. That meant that as a group we all address that. It could be going to an all-girls school to talking about working in games or attending a conference on accessibility… There are so many different aspects.”

Saunders adds: “The key to that diversity goal is to make everyone accountable for it. And I think that has been achieved. It takes a lot of time to make a significant change in this area, but the seeds that have been sown over the last few years and we starting to see results. It was really great to see in the Best Places To Work Awards survey that those were our biggest growth areas.”

“The key to that diversity goal is to make everyone accountable for it”

Tara Saunders, London Studio

Whyte says that early on there was some push back on certain roles that the studio was filling.

“We were told that there is no point in spending time looking for different candidates, because there are very few people who would fill that role,” he explains. “But we spent that time and we’ve found that we’ve secured some great candidates that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. It’s really been worth the effort and the time.”

Saunders continues: “It leads to finding better creative content with more thoughtful ideas when you have a team that is diverse enough to challenge themselves on thinking.”

Of course, one of the biggest changes has been driven by covid. London Studio is now a fully hybrid team and employees can decide for themselves where they want to work. It’s a move that might seem to contradict the developer’s “team spirit” value, and Whyte and Saunders admit this was a problem.

“We were pretty proud of our culture going into covid, and we were definitely worried about how we can maintain that with the hybrid model,” Whyte says. “We do things like monthly lunches where we invite people to come in. We don’t enforce any rules. We don’t require people to come in for a certain number of days.”

Instead, it’s about ‘the moments that matter’. This includes the studio’s recent creative days, where the team put down tools to work on whatever creative project they choose. It has resulted in everything from cake decorating to soldering. And it is through things like this that London Studio hopes to maintain and develop that team spirit.

“As a nation, not just as game developers, we’ve become focused on how they want to work,” concludes Saunders. “And it’s up to us as a leadership team to define the cultural beats that bring the team back together. To make sure we keep a good pulse and that the team isn’t just working with each other on a transactional basis. They have to come back for those moments that matter something.”

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