"Four years ago was a dark time for this studio," Sony Santa Monica chief Shannon Studstill told an assembled group of journalists last month. The press was in Santa Monica to see a playable version of God of War for the first time, and this was to be Sony Santa Monica's big moment.
It might not seem like it now that reviews are showering God of War with praise, but this revival was a hail mary of sorts for Sony Santa Monica. At its nadir in 2014, Sony Santa Monica was rudderless and racked with layoffs amid the cancellation of its new IP. The studio behind some of PlayStation's most successful franchises had been relegated to a supporting role on the likes of Fat Princess: Piece of Cake, The Order: 1886, and Bound. Tomorrow's release of God of War will be its first internally developed game since 2013's God of War: Ascension.
It's the end that awaits many studios if they aren't careful. Consider Raven Software—formerly known for high quality shooters like Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Raven has long since been relegated the role of support for Activision's various Call of Duty ventures. Its most notable project in recent years is the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remaster that was controversially bundled with Infinite Warfare.
In 2014, Sony Santa Monica seemed in danger of suffering a similar fate. The God of War franchise had clearly run out of gas by this time, with God of War: Ascension and its new multiplayer mode being met with middling reviews. Having resolved Kratos' story in God of War 3, the follow-ups were mainly prequels, which made the series feel increasingly stale.
Kratos as the angry antihero was likewise becoming a relic of the past. God of War director Cory Barlog acknowledged as much in an interview with USgamer last month, "I think Kratos in his original incarnation reflected how we viewed things and the time period. The time period had not a lot of anti-hero icons, and it kind of began something in a way. Over time, though, things change. They need to change. I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago. I don't think he should be either. But I think he's a lot of the reflection of us: who [David Jaffe] was, who I was, who the team was."
Sony Santa Monica needed something fresh and new. The studio's answer was a sci-fi game reportedly codenamed "Darkside," which purportedly featured dinosaur-like enemies and a heavy emphasis on exploration. Concept art that was rumored to be from the game leaked in early 2017.
When Barlog returned to the studio in 2013, development on the new project was in "full swing," he remembers. Coming off of the successful reboot of Tomb Raider for Crystal Dynamics, he wanted to have a crack at reviving God of War. Sony's leadership was resistant, believing that God of War needed to lay dormant after exhausting its momentum with Ascension. Barlog got his way, though, and God of War was greenlit.
Less than a year after his return, layoffs rocked Sony Santa Monica. The studio's new IP was canceled, triggering a round of cuts that included veteran level designer Jonathan Hawkins and others. God of War 3 director Stig Asmussen, who was leading the project, subsequently departed to join Respawn Entertainment.
Barlog remembers it as a tough time for Sony Santa Monica. "We had never experienced that level of getting knocked down. I do feel like we got knocked down twice. I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility because I had been part of the studio since basically the beginning. God of War 1 was when the studio really started to find its way, and I was part of that. So much of this studio is part of my own creative legacy, and it's important to me that we all stay on the path I feel we all want to be on."
Barlog says he doesn't ever want to experience those days again. "There were a lot of good people we don't get work with anymore because we went and made some decisions that we probably look back on and think we have to do better. That line, 'Do better,' has motivated us. There's no point in us worrying whether or not what we did was good or bad. We just need to do better, we need to push, and every single day be true to that vision we had. Accessibility, pick up and play, fun. Deliver on the promise of the back of the box."
With Sony Santa Monica's new IP dead and buried, all of the studio's eggs were essentially in one basket. It may be an exaggeration to call God of War the studio's final shot, but in the unpredictable and cutthroat world of triple-A development, one failure can put any studio on the brink. Sony Santa Monica couldn't make its new IP work, and suffered layoffs as a result. Failing to hit the mark with God of War would have hurt even more.
Now with less than 24 hours to go before God of War officially launches, it appears that Sony Santa Monica can breathe a sigh of relief. It is currently enjoying a 95 on Metacritic, making it the highest-rated PlayStation exclusive of all time. Strong sales are almost certain to follow.
It's not easy to completely update a faded IP. Recent attempts to bring back Gears of War, Mass Effect, and other notable franchises have been met with shrugs or even disaster. And Barlog wasn't shooting for just an update—he was shooting for a complete and total overhaul. For all of Sony Santa Monica's experience, God of War could have easily missed the mark.
Indeed, in talking about God of War back in 2015, I wrote, "Another God of War is inevitable, if only because the name still means something, which is currency in this day and age. But as for whether it will ever reach the heights of the three numbered games, it's kind of doubtful."
Now it seems as if God of War is destined to not only meet the high standard set by the original trilogy, but greatly exceed it. Four years after the period Studstill characterized as a "dark time," it appears that Sony Santa Monica is all the way back. And even with all the advantages conferred on it by being a first-party studio with a high-quality IP, that qualifies as a minor miracle in this unstable industry of ours.