January couldn’t end with at least one more massive gaming acquisition it seems. Just a few short weeks after Xbox’s industry-shaking announcement of its plans to acquire Activision Blizzard, Sony has announced its decision to purchase Destiny developer Bungie; not as massive, but nonetheless monumental.
Immediately after the news, there was a lot of chatter framing it as an immediate, knee-jerk counter to Xbox, as if the two publishing giants were playing a game of tennis (of course, that’s not how acquisitions work).
I see Sony’s acquisition of Bungie as a clear encapsulation of Sony’s ambitions for the PlayStation brand we have seen over the last few years, and will likely only continue to see as the years progress.
Sony’s Acquisitions History
Before Bungie, Sony’s biggest acquisition was, arguably, bringing Insomniac Games in-house in 2019. But there have been less prolific moves made that speak to a bigger plan, and we can sort them into a few different buckets. Firstly, Sony has been concentrating on sealing the deal with studios it has a long history with to guarantee a steady stream of exclusives, like Insomniac, but more recently Returnal devs Housemarque, the makers of the Demon’s Souls remake, Bluepoint Games, and Firesprite, a studio founded by former Studio Liverpool leads that is already proving to be a big PSVR asset. These purchases are key to assuaging any fan’s concerns: even as PlayStation moves into new spaces, it is by no means giving up on the cinematic and action-focused exclusives that have come to define it.
Secondly, it’s focusing on deals with teams that can help bolster and support PlayStation’s brand both on and off PlayStation platforms, like Nixxes Software and Valkyrie Entertainment. Nixxes is well known for its PC porting prowess (the Tomb Raider and Deus Ex games for Square Enix), and Valkyrie has been supporting Sony studios already with both development on God of War 2018 and God of War Ragnarok. As PlayStation looks to PC as a new avenue for its games, Nixxes can help ensure the quality of those ports, while Valkyrie can assist teams in-house with developing their games and, hopefully, stave off delays or dry spells in the release calendar. Thirdly, it’s made a series of exclusivity deals, which is nothing new for Sony – after all, we’re expecting Forspoken and Ghostwire Tokyo among other console exclusives this year. But the most interesting of the bunch are its deals to actually publish games by new, independent studios headed by veteran talent: Firewalk Studios, Deviation Games, and Haven Studios.
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While the deals with the latter aren’t outright Sony acquisitions, as Worldwide Studios head Hermen Hulst told IGN last year, they allow these studios to work with PlayStation’s tools and services, letting fledgling new teams with veteran know-how gain access to years of refined technology. And in return, PlayStation is building a foundation of game types that aren’t necessarily synonymous with its brand, and offer live-service and multiplayer experiences. Firewalk, a studio made up of Destiny, Halo, and Apex Legends devs, is working on a console-exclusive multiplayer game; Jade Raymond’s first Haven Studios game will be built around some live-service elements; and Deviation Games is founded by former Call of Duty: Black Ops and Zombies leads. All of these studios speak to genres and ideas that haven’t been at the core of PlayStation’s exclusives for quite some time (some excellent multiplayer modes like Ghost of Tsushima Legends notwithstanding).
Internally we’re also seeing that shift into new territory, with Naughty Dog hard at work on a multiplayer experience and London Studio hiring for an online-focused PS5 exclusive. In fact, PlayStation has even confirmed it is aiming to launch at least 10 live-service games in the next four years, and it’s not hard to see why. In the last fiscal year, add-on content, DLC, and microtransactions accounted for a third of PlayStation’s net sales. Not every game can be a Fortnite or an Apex Legends, but if you can widen that slice of revenue with ambitious exclusives, there’s clearly a lot of money to be made. (And it’s good timing, too, since Call of Duty has been such a major piece of the PlayStation pie and its future after the next couple of years is murky at best given the Xbox-Activision acquisition.)
All of this focus on studios that can facilitate PC ports, on live-service games, or even the acquisition of a studio like Bungie, that isn’t going to be making exclusives, may seem antithetical to some of Sony’s messaging in recent years. It is certainly a huge shift from the days of Sony blocking cross-play because PlayStation was “the best place to play”, and Jim Ryan’s 2020 quote that Sony does “believe in generations.” But I still don’t believe that these expansionary moves are evidence of a scramble to match Xbox in every way and nothing else. In the last few years, Sony founded PlayStation Productions in 2019, released the Horizon PC port in 2020 and announced the Days Gone PC port in 2021 before the Nixxes acquisition, and began expanding its mobile interests in early 2021, long before Xbox acquired King (or even Take-Two nabbed Zynga). Sony has been taking small steps toward a bigger future for years; they just weren’t steps that seemed as thrilling for the future or as daring as Xbox’s.
However, in an era where big acquisitions by Xbox can cause massive stock tumbles for Sony, and Xbox games like Halo Infinite and Forza Motorsport are played by 18+ million players in just a few months, I think Sony has absolutely moved from dipping a toe in the waters of a PlayStation ecosystem to diving into it headfirst as it sees the increased competition and a more equal sharing of mindshare.
Compared to Xbox’s recent big swings, it might feel like PlayStation isn’t doing things fast enough (certainly, Xbox’s major acquisitions feel like they happened very quickly, though those deals would have been quietly worked through for some time), but PlayStation has a current reputation as a brand synonymous with quality cinematic action and story franchises, and that didn’t happen overnight, either. After the PS3 lagged behind the Xbox 360 in the mid-2000’s, Sony needed to forge a new identity for the players who did pick up its expensive console. And it spent not just that generation, but also the following, solidifying itself as a home for those iconic franchises. (That’s not to say Sony didn’t have great exclusives prior to the PS. It did, but the last two generations show a more focused era in this department.) Naturally, it can be said that the recent Xbox era of acquisitions, low-cost Game Pass, and renewed focus on its ecosystem that Xbox has delivered is an incredible course correction to the company’s stumbles at the start of the Xbox One generation. But rather than spend two generations building up new franchises, Xbox smartly invested in its services, and used acquisitions as a means to shore up its list of franchises players love.
How Bungie Fits into Sony’s PlayStation Plan
So how does Bungie fit in? While it will operate outside of the Worldwide Studios stable, its ownership under Sony does allow it access to all of the development service perks of PlayStation Studios, and Sony now has an in-house partner who has been through the ringer when it comes to developing online multiplayer and ongoing game ecosystems. Though Destiny 2 has found its footing, the early days of Destiny are infamous for the troubles Bungie went through in trying to establish an ongoing, engaging universe, and its comeback is one of the biggest in recent memory. Bungie has learned an incredible amount in almost a decade of Destiny under its belt – that’s learnings and innovations you can’t just create overnight…unless of course, you buy them. As Sony looks to expand what PlayStation means for players with new genres, ongoing games, and more, Bungie is a natural fit to marry that ambition with concrete tools, more revenue, and a dedicated userbase. And that seems to be exactly what Sony’s intentions are given recent statements.
“In addition, we view the deployment of our game IP on multiple platforms as a major growth opportunity for Sony, as has been evidenced by the success of the PC version of God of War and other first-party games. Through this acquisition we intend to acquire new users and increased engagement on platforms other than PlayStation, which will enable us to significantly advance our long-term growth strategy for further expanding the ecosystem of our game business,” Sony’s Hiroki Totoki said in the company’s most recent earnings call.
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On the flipside, it has to be mutually beneficial beyond the obvious $3.6 billion price tag. Bungie has ambitions of its own that PlayStation, and its multimedia arm PlayStation Productions, can help facilitate – namely in making Destiny more than a game.
“Today, Bungie begins our journey to become a global multi-media entertainment company,” is how Bungie’s announcement of the deal reads, while Totoki said “Bungie want to nurture the IP they have in a multi-dimensional manner, and that’s their hope. For that, we believe we can help that – we have [Sony] Pictures and [Sony] Music, and Bungie can leverage our platform so that their IP can flourish and grow big” in Sony’s earnings call.
But beyond multimedia ambitions, PlayStation clearly provides Bungie with stability and financial backing to help live up to all its ambitions, as Bungie has noted “the most immediate change you will see is an acceleration in hiring talent across the entire studio to support our ambitious vision.”
IGN’s own John Davison said after the Activision acquisition, these companies are in a war for content, not consoles. And to push it even a bit further, it’s content that will cause audiences to associate their time and money with a brand over a box, and that means competing not just for shelf-space in a TV console table but in mindshare, screentime, and more. It’s why we’ve seen Netflix say Fortnite is a bigger competitor than HBO in the past, or why companies like WB and Disney are doubling down on their biggest franchises as their identities, pumping out universes of content that can keep users not just coming back, but specifically associating their love of a medium with certain brands. PlayStation and Xbox want the same thing, but are going about it in different ways, at least for now.
And, at the moment, the clear gap in its plans is something PlayStation is seemingly planning to address in the near future. Xbox’s attempts to bring people into its ecosystem have been through the tremendously user-friendly Game Pass subscription service. The allure of a program that guarantees every Xbox-owned studio’s games comes to the service day one, along with dozens and dozens of other AAA, indie, and everywhere in between games for a monthly flat rate is currently an unmatched deal for consumers. Xbox’s acquisitions have clearly been in service of, well, this service, and with such a wide stable of teams now under its control, Xbox can ensure there’s a steady stream of games you’d be a fool not to subscribe to Game Pass to play. (And in fact, just a few years ago, Xbox’s Matt Booty told us of Xbox’s intention to have a consistent cadence of exclusives to draw people to Game Pass).
We’re still very much waiting to see PlayStation’s answer to this, and we know some alleged details about Project Spartacus, the codename for PlayStation’s more expanded PlayStation Plus subscription service that we know is in the works but have very few official details on. Supposedly, the higher tiers of the plan will offer somewhat of a Game Pass-like catalog, but it also largely seems aimed at leveraging its legacy library of PS1 – PS3 games than be a driver to bring new players into the PlayStation ecosystem. There’s no word yet if day-one launches of PlayStation exclusives will be part of the service, and plans could obviously change when the service is officially announced, of course. But PlayStation just doesn’t have the low-cost, expansive gaming option at the moment that brings players into the PlayStation world, builds allegiance, and retains them with a consistent slate of new releases. This might be a case where Sony needs to have a more direct response to Microsoft depending on how the service plays out.
SIE CEO Jim Ryan has said the hope is to expand the 10s of millions of players to PlayStation exclusives into 100s of millions – and that plan isn’t something the company has rushed together in the days since the Activision acquisition, or even the Bethesda deal. But it’s understandable why some may think Sony hasn’t been making as concerted an effort as Xbox or responding quickly to their moves – the massive amounts of money Microsoft has invested, the justly celebrated low cost of Game Pass, and the volume around the conversations those moves generate. These have all been more consumer-facing moves that the player can immediately see the repercussions of. Sony partnering with studios for games years in the future, or an acquisition that doesn’t necessarily bring more exclusives to PlayStation players? It’s more difficult to parse, but, ultimately, done in service of the same goal: giving more players a reason to invest in the PlayStation ecosystem. We just won’t quite know the full extent of whether Sony’s plans have paid out for years to come, but deals like the Bungie acquisition and Sony’s investment in new and longtime studios the last few years has all been leading PlayStation and its players toward the same destination.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He’s the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.