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Psygnosis, we hardly knew ye

Psygnosis, we hardly knew ye Exclusive

August 23, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

August 23, 2012 | By Colin Campbell
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Gamasutra contributor Colin Campbell asks: After a decade of nothing but racing games, what other ending could there have been for SCE Studio Liverpool, formerly known as creative powerhouse Psygnosis?

The closure of Sony's Liverpool Studio, formerly known as Psygnosis, is yet another sorry lesson in what can happen to great entrepreneurial outfits that become subsumed by careless corporate sugar-daddies.

Time and again we've seen developers and publishers sucked up by the likes of Sony, Microsoft, EA, THQ and Activision, only to lose their identity and their esprit de corps, that quality of originality that made them so attractive to the buying entity.

Of course, these things are never black and white. It is not possible to pinpoint a single moment when Psygnosis or SCE Studio Liverpool went from being something of immense value to something that apparently needed to be put down.

In recent years, the studio has delivered some great iterations of its Wipeout franchise. Bringing Wipeout 2048 to Vita, featuring cross-play with PS3, was a work of technological and artistic excellence. It is hardly the fault of the developers that Vita has been, and will likely continue to be, a commercial failure unable to sustain a publishing and development ecosystem.

Wipeout HD (2008) for PS3 was another highly competent piece of work, a rejigging of the firm's two really good PSP racing-combat games of the middle part of the last decade. And stretching back to the PS2 hit Wipeout Fusion (2002) we saw how the developers were still able to bring something fresh to a game-world that had seemed to lose its way.

Interspersed with that was a series of Formula One games for PS2 and PSP, all of which were competent licenses, although nothing to write home about.

You can see a pattern here of limited ambition and limited horizons. Focusing a large studio on racing and racing-combat over the period of an entire decade just doesn't seem like a smart way to utilize a group of talent. It's a little like giving Rare nothing to do but Kinect games (imagine that).

Life before Sony

The comparison between SCE Liverpool's output between 1999 and 2012 with the work Psygnosis - the original name of the studio - did in the previous decade is revealing.

The original company was born from the disaster of Imagine, a rags-to-rich Northern English publisher that enjoyed enormous success before imploding under weak management. Psygnosis sought to do things right. It focused its energies on three things.

First, it made really good-looking games that mostly played well. It brought its efforts to bear on new, emerging platforms. And it marketed the hell out of the games it published, very often brought in from indie developers like DMA Design and Reflections.

Founder Ian Hetherington and his partners understood that gaming was growing, and that they were surrounded by a pool of extreme talent that needed access to these markets. The company worked the media, placed its games in flashy boxes with neat pack-in gifts, and created a brand-identity that still lasts today (that logo, it makes you feel something, right?).

Games like Shadow of the Beast and Lemmings were part of an energetic few years when Psygnosis was a major player in the burgeoning games scene on Amiga and Atari ST.

Sony, looking for some development muscle and managerial expertise for its PlayStation launch,  saw the potential and bought the company, a smart move that paid dividends for years to come.

The biggest payoff was in the PlayStation launch game, Wipeout, an ultra-fast, colorful, cool racing game that lit up fashionable magazines of the day, and was featured in trendy nightclubs. This was the game that allowed Sony to market its new console as something for grown-ups, for the hip kids who had grown up with the NES, wanted to keep playing, but needed an identity other than that projected by home computer-owning enthusiasts.

Over the next few years Psygnosis was a prolific provider of awesome hits for PlayStation including Destruction Derby, Colony Wars, G-Police and Rollcage, to name a few.

But as the PlayStation era gave way to PlayStation 2, as the people who had founded Psygnosis moved onto new challenges, and as the company was renamed as part of a corporate restructuring, something was lost.

One of Sony's core strengths over the past 15 years has been its network of studios, and the games they have produced. Studios like Media Molecule and Naughty Dog have retained their identity, perhaps because they missed the late '90s mania for conformity and perhaps for other, internal reasons.

Another of Sony's strengths, one that has come to light recently and has been something of a surprise, has been the creative and smart ways it has embraced PSN as a retail outlet, as a promotional tool and as a place for creative excellence. The recent launch of Sound Shapes, from tiny indie outfit Queasy Games as well as the company's love-affair with thatgamecompany, has shown an ability to work with small teams and allow them to flourish artistically.

At present it is unclear what will happen to all of the development staff at SCE Liverpool. It would be nice to think that developers are being invited, and supported, in efforts to create their own indie developments that can go on and help PlayStation shine through PSN. Because studio closures do have a habit of releasing talented individuals and teams who go onto great things.

Here's hoping that the spirit that made Psygnosis such a fascinating story can still inspire those game developers who are today considering their next move.

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