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A helicopter hovers inside an office, causing a mess
Sony Manchester’s helicopter project CSAR ran into numerous hurdles over five years of development.

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Sony spent five years building a new PlayStation VR studio, then abruptly shut it down

Sony Manchester’s CSAR: Combat, Search, and Rescue was to be a VR helicopter action game harking back to the old days, but it never ended up materializing

On Feb. 5, 2020, PlayStation head of Worldwide Studios Hermen Hulst visited Sony Manchester to tell employees the studio was closing. The news came as a shock to some inside the studio — a group made up of expats and locals, a few with decades of experience working at Sony. The studio had been advertising new positions at the time, and suddenly team members were looking for jobs, as Sony abandoned the project they had been working on for the last five years.

Mixed in with messages of solidarity and support from those within the industry were inevitable questions. People wanted to know what the studio had been working on, and what had led to its abrupt closure. Sony formed the Manchester studio to create games for PlayStation VR, but the team had never announced a project and kept its cards close to its chest during the five years it was open. The leadership at the studio, for instance, wouldn’t tell new hires anything about the project or its hierarchy until they joined — a huge leap of faith for those traveling from overseas.

At the time, a PlayStation representative told GamesIndustry.biz that the closure was “part of our efforts to improve efficiency and operational effectiveness.” But five individuals close to the studio and the project told us more about its development, speaking anonymously as they had signed NDAs regarding their work. They say that, despite being in development for roughly five years, the game they were making lingered in pre-production for much of that time, in part due to endless iteration and a lack of pressure from Sony leadership.

The birth of a studio

Sony Manchester opened in 2015, with the studio’s origins lying in Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe’s Creative Development Group — a small division of Sony responsible for user testing as well as research and development for future titles.

Sam Coates, the studio director at Sony Manchester, had previously been the senior manager of Sony’s Creative Development Group. He helped lay the foundation for the new Manchester studio throughout 2015, bringing onboard approximately 15 developers, many of whom had worked for other big game studios. The ultimate goal was to establish a new AAA VR studio within the region. Above Coates were Eric Matthews, then vice president of Sony Worldwide Studios (and a former Bitmap Brothers co-founder), and Sony research director Mark Green — both of whom were based in London.

Much like Coates, Matthews and Green had previously worked inside Sony’s Creative Development group, assisting on titles such as Tearaway Unfolded, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and Horizon Zero Dawn, and had extensive experience with product strategy and user testing.

News about the new studio wasn’t forthcoming publicly. Sony first acknowledged the studio in May 2015, in statements to Eurogamer and GameSpot, after fans spotted listings on PlayStation’s job website for a new Manchester location. It teased more information to come in the future. But the only details that came out were through other job listings, which referenced a “AAA VR game for PlayStation VR,” built in Unreal Engine 4.

Sources reveal that Sony Manchester was developing a throwback to old-school action games like Genesis shooter Desert Strike, albeit in 3D and utilizing modern technology on PlayStation 4. It even had a name — CSAR: Combat, Search, and Rescue, or Rescue for short. The concept had started at Evolution Studios, the group behind PS4 racing game DriveClub, as one of many ideas the studio had been conceptualizing for PlayStation VR. Evolution pitched a video of potential VR experiences, and the idea of a helicopter game caught the eyes of Matthews and Green, who decided to take the concept further at the new Manchester studio.

The game had players flying around, shooting at enemies and rescuing people from the cockpit of a helicopter. The player had a co-pilot and access to an aircraft carrier that acted as a central base. It was at this aircraft carrier where the player could select their next location and mission, before flying out into the world to complete objectives.

‘New enemy types would take months’

The team created multiple prototypes over the years to present to senior members at Worldwide Studios as well as Sony’s marketing department, but the leadership behind the project jumped between different design approaches as time went on, frustrating some on the team. The studio would work on one “flavor” of the game for six to 12 months, before changing something that sent the team backward. Some of the issues ranged from concerns about the art style and whether it was tinted “too blue,” to the placement of NPCs, to how the rescue and combat missions would play out.

Multiple former employees point to Matthews’ and Green’s micromanagement as a bottleneck to the project’s development. According to people who worked at the studio, Matthews and Green acted as the co-lead designers on CSAR early on, but they were not embedded with the team and didn’t have official job titles beyond their work elsewhere with the company. They would travel down to the studio roughly once a week, with those in Manchester responsible for implementing their design.

Tanks fall through an hourglass
While some team members loved the idea behind CSAR, they say changes to the project slowed its progress over time.

As a result, multiple former staff members recall joining the studio, expecting to be able to significantly contribute to the project like they had done at other studios — but running into a slow approval process when sending everything through London.

Sources claim the two had a habit of taking a particularly hands-on approach with the development process during their weekly visits, occasionally altering the work of artists and encouraging programmers to leave certain parameters exposed so they could tweak them later. Multiple former staff members said that this had a “demoralizing” effect on some members of the team, who felt like they weren’t trusted to do their job properly without outside interference.

We reached out to both Matthews and Green to answer questions for this story. Green issued a “no comment” and Matthews didn’t respond prior to publication.

“Communication was an issue,” says one former employee. “Eric and Mark were not open to it at all. People tried to offer small ideas on how to do the tasks they had on their plates, but [they] often got rejected, unless it was done exactly how they wanted. […] We had a producer but she couldn’t really do her job as they didn’t like any detailed plans. I’m sure that this infinite tweaking and iteration worked fine for the Bitmap Brothers games in the 80s, but it was a bit out of place here. New enemy types would take months — and we’re talking blocky tanks. It was all just a pre-production concept. It was just a graybox for years.”

Out of sight, out of mind

Sony left the studio alone for most of the project’s development. Due to the relatively small number of staff, the studio didn’t cost as much as most of Sony’s other studios. Matthews, meanwhile, held a senior position at Sony, while simultaneously working on the game.

Several sources described the studio as Matthews’ “pet project,” and stated that it felt like they were working at an outsourcing studio as opposed to Sony’s next big AAA developer, as the true project leads were rarely on site and the Manchester team lacked creative control. Adding to this, for much of the project’s development, the team worked out of a rented space with no branding, which it had to share with other businesses. The team was meant to move onto a separate floor with Sony branding, with this shared space only being temporary. But the move kept being pushed back, despite the other office sitting unoccupied.

These issues had a knock-on effect on morale, with three sources mentioning people would join the studio, excited by the prospect of working at Sony on a new IP, only to work on the project for a number of months and for reality to set in. Despite the studio’s AAA aspirations, the team never numbered more than 30 people. Though the team frequently advertised for positions, higher-ups were reluctant to increase the numbers significantly until the project entered full production — a decision that kept getting delayed. Meanwhile, members of the studio kept leaving throughout 2016, with original lead designer Gary Napper departing in June to join Supermassive Games, former Evolution staff such as principal VFX artist Richard Heasman and principal environment artist Amrish Wadekar moving to Codemasters, and the studio director Sam Coates joining the Lego Group in July, to list only a few.

“On paper, it sounds amazing,” one former employee says. “You had the backing of Sony. You were going to create a new IP, and we haven’t entered production yet so you are there from the start. But after six months to a year, people would realize this isn’t going anywhere and would then face a decision of what to do next.”

After Coates left, Matthews and Green took on official roles with the team, but remained in London. Matthews became the new studio director, while Green assumed a role as creative director. The two added staff, hiring artists and programmers who had previously worked for studios such as Ubisoft Reflections, Sony Liverpool, Sony XDev, and Electronic Arts. But the project still struggled to progress.

In late 2018, to try and remedy the situation, Matthews and Green moved the design team to London to join them and effectively split the studio. The company started hiring for positions in Manchester and London, which sparked speculation online that Sony London was involved with the project — though our sources deny this. The split also led to a further breakdown in communication between the two teams.

The death of Sony Manchester

2019 was a transformative year for Sony in many ways. In November, Guerrilla Games’ Hermen Hulst became PlayStation’s new head of Worldwide Studios, managing its internal development teams. Meanwhile, Shuhei Yoshida, Worldwide Studios’ former president, stepped down from the role and moved into a new position as head of independent developer initiatives.

As is typical with any restructuring, the new hierarchy led to a review of the company’s portfolio and changes from the leadership. For one, Sony started to place more scrutiny on the Manchester studio to show progress, with team members also becoming increasingly worried about the inevitable arrival of a new console generation and the uncertain future of PSVR. The team made some progress, but unfortunately, it was all too little, too late. Sony announced in February of the following year that it was closing the Manchester studio, along with the London portion of the team.

Since then, many of the studio’s former employees have moved on to other studios in the region, including Firesprite and Lucid Games — two studios who worked closely with Sony on games like The Persistence VR and Destruction AllStars. Matthews and Green, meanwhile, work together as the head of game development and director of game development at TT Games, which primarily makes games based on the Lego license.

“I know from the outside looking in it was clearly abrupt,” says a former Sony Manchester employee. “But there was a change in the top management in Sony. [We were] suddenly … unprotected. Someone looked in detail at what was happening and since there was nothing tangible after five or so years, they shut it down.”

Fans have speculated online that Sony could revive the project at another one of its first-party developers, but this currently isn’t the case. Some on the team say that although it’s frustrating that they’ll never get to show what they were working on, it’s an experience that they’re used to, working in the games industry.

Now whenever people mention Sony Manchester online, it’s often alongside other studios that Sony has closed, such as Guerrilla Cambridge, Evolution Studios, Sony Liverpool, and Japan Studio. But while many developers at the studio consider Sony Manchester a missed opportunity, those we spoke to don’t blame Sony for pulling the plug. Instead, their biggest concern is still for those that they worked alongside, due to the precarious nature of employment in the games industry where mass redundancies and studio closures are commonplace.