In 2020, Sony closed its Manchester Studio that had spent five years working on a VR project for PlayStation. The reasoning it gave at the time was that the company was looking to “improve efficiency and operational effectiveness,” and according to a new report from Polygon, the Manchester team spent much of those five years in pre-production largely due to an endless cycle of iteration and a lack of urgency from Sony higher-ups.
Manchester Studio’s project never saw the light of day, both in that it was canceled and that the PlayStation VR game was never shown to the public. But the sources speaking to Polygon described it as a “throwback to old-school action games like Genesis shooter Desert Strike,” and said the title was named CSAR: Combat, Search, and Rescue. The project began at Driveclub developer Evolution Studios, where it was pitched as a helicopter game that would have players flying, shooting, and rescuing people from the aircraft.
As the report describes, the development process for CSAR was hindered by VP of Sony Worldwide Studios Eric Matthews and Sony Research Director Mark Green’s micromanagement, neither of whom were actually embedded with the team, despite acting as co-lead designers in early development. As such, multiple people attached to the game said iterations were constantly being run through a slow approval process as everything had to be sent to London, where both were based. Some of the developers who spoke to Polygon said Matthews and Green would alter the work of artists and programmers when they would visit the studio, which they described as “demoralizing.”
“Communication was an issue,” a former employee tells Polygon. “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.”
The slow development process meant that employees would come in excited to work on a new IP, and after six months to a year of pre-production, team members realized CSAR wasn’t getting off the ground and started to look into other prospects. Studio Director Sam Coates departed the Sony Manchester studio and Matthew and Green finally got actual positions at the company as studio director and creative director respectively. Following this, there was a new influx of hires, but in 2018, Matthew and Green made the call that the design team would move to London, splitting the studio between its Manchester office and London and making team-wide communication a larger struggle. However, Sony’s London studio didn’t get involved with the project, as online speculation assumed.
In 2019, when Hermen Hulst became the new head of Sony’s Worldwide Studios, the company’s portfolio underwent an evaluation, and given the lack of progress on CSAR, Sony Manchester was shut down in 2020. To the knowledge of ex-Manchester Studio employees, Sony isn’t continuing development on CSAR with another studio.
“I know from the outside looking in it was clearly abrupt,” a former employee told Polygon. “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.”