Inside The Mind Of PlayStation Studios' Hermen Hulst
From chasing high scores to leading PlayStation Studios, Hermen Hulst just loves games.
Hermen Hulst hasn’t been head of PlayStation Studios for long, only taking over the position from gaming industry veteran Shuhei Yoshida about a year and a half ago. However, in that time, he’s had to contend with a console launch, the complications of COVID-19 on game development, and helping studios launch some of Sony’s most successful and inventive games, such as The Last of Us Part II, Returnal, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
PlayStation Studios is an international network of development studios creating gaming experiences. Hulst is tasked with leading the 12 internal studios under the banner and ensuring the developers have the resources and support they need. The list of talent includes industry juggernauts, such as Insomniac Games (Ratchet and Clank), Guerrilla Games (Horizon Zero Dawn), Sucker Punch (Ghost of Tsushima), Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us), Santa Monica Studios (God of War), and Media Molecule (Dreams), to name a few.
Before taking the position at PlayStation Studios, Hulst was no stranger to the trials and tribulations of game development and what it takes for a studio to be successful. He was previously managing director of Guerrilla Games, playing a key role in shaping the Killzone series and supporting the studio’s shift to its new flagship IP, Horizon Zero Dawn. But who is the new man leading the charge at PlayStation Studios? We sat down with Hulst to learn more about his life, gaming philosophies, and the path he sees forward to keep PlayStation Studios at the top of its game.
Hulst lets his guard down at the Days Gone PSX booth.
Hulst grew up in the Netherlands, which wasn’t exactly a hot spot for video games, but he still found a way to the hobby thanks to his mom’s toy store. “I actually grew up in the Bible Belt, where there weren't any arcades,” Hulst says. “Luckily for me, [my mom’s toy store] had a Vectrex [game console] that had Mine Storm pre-installed. I must have been about nine or ten and I was pretty competitive, but I loved playing.” Hulst would watch the older, more seasoned players, then after the store closed for the day, he would sneak in after dinner to work on getting his initials on the high-score list. Hulst recalls just loving “the intensity” and losing himself for hours on end until it was bedtime.
Hulst cut his teeth playing arcade games, but soon expanded his horizons and now considers himself a jack-of-all trades – not being attached to any genre or series. “I play different things,” he says. “I am not a gamer that can be pigeonholed in one particular area.” Hulst often finds himself playing whatever aligns with his current area of focus in game development. “As a gamer now, it's really hard to not be a game designer or a game maker when you do what I do,” he explains. “I’ve gone through phases where I've played a ton of shooters, and there, I'm thinking about the concept of the power fantasy and the theater of war that you're in. Then I went through that whole phase where everything became about freedom of choice and agency and exploration when we moved with my old studio at Guerrilla Games from the Killzone days to the Horizon days.”
Hulst says he thinks about things very conceptually concerning designers’ intentions when he plays games, but he also gets those nostalgic feelings from his gaming childhood, too. He points to Housemarque’s Returnal as a recent game that gave him the best of both worlds. “When I pick up Returnal, I go straight back to that old experience on the Vectrex,” he says. “But then, I think, ‘Wow, so this is a very arcadey experience, but somehow we found a way to get a layered story on top of that.” In Hulst’s eyes, what makes a good, interesting game is in line with what PlayStation excels at. “I say this as the head of PlayStation Studios, and that's kind of the games we’re known for – a very meticulously crafted, beautifully directed story that takes place in a world that is really inviting to spend time in,” he says. “That's some of the most joy I’ve had in games. That definitely speaks to that single-player, narrative-driven, character-based experience that I’ve worked on a lot myself, that I now work on with a lot of the great studios at PlayStation Studios.”
The Road to PlayStation Studios
He’s as calm as Aloy! Hulst enjoys a walk with Horizon Zero Dawn's infamous Watcher.
Just like how Hulst didn’t have a lot of access to video games growing up in the Netherlands, neither were there opportunities to pursue a career in gaming. “I come from the Netherlands, and the games industry wasn’t necessarily, in the mid-’90s, considered to be a proper career,” he says. “There wasn’t actually such a thing as game development or game publishing for that matter that you could get into.” When it came time to decide on his career path, Hulst pursued mechanical engineering and business management degrees at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and later pursued a degree in philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. But once again, gaming would find him.
While completing his studies, he did an exchange program that landed him in California, and serendipity had its way as he met some people at Ubisoft, which led to him interning at the Ubisoft office in Sausalito. At the time, Hulst says there were only seven or eight people working out of that office and its members were primarily focused on Rayman and racing games. “I kind of worked as a researcher,” he says. “These days we have entire PhD-filled teams on user testing and consumer insights, but that was the job I had.” Hulst said his main area of research was platformers and racing games, and he would go to schools and recruit people to answer questions like, “What is the magic behind Mario Kart?”
Hulst’s job was to essentially “unpack what made a game great,” and he instantly fell in love with it. It allowed him to not only think about the appeal of games and what worked about them, but also hear from other people’s insights. Because the team was so small at the time, Hulst also worked a bit on the marketing side, most notably helping with the marketing plan in North America for Rayman. It was a fun time in Hulst’s life, which he still looks back on fondly. Unfortunately, once he returned to the Netherlands, the gaming opportunities still weren’t there, so he worked as a strategy consultant until about 2000 when things started to take shape in what would become Guerrilla Games, the studio he co-founded and would stay at for 18 years. Even back then, his ambitions were big: “We decided, ‘Let’s go build this thing out. Let's try to become the best studio in Europe.’” The rest is history. Guerrilla Games made a name for itself with the Killzone series, then surprised many by taking a chance on a new IP and genre with Horizon Zero Dawn, which catapulted the studio to new heights.
Leading The Best And BrightestCrunch & Company Culture
As head of PlayStation Studios, Hermen Hulst’s job has him constantly interacting with developers, searching for new talent, and finding new ways to innovate in the game space. However, Hulst also takes his job of ensuring the members of PlayStation Studios are happy and healthy just as seriously. When asked about crunch specifically, Hulst didn’t hold back, saying there’s so much more to the issue that needs to be done. “I read quite a bit of coverage on the topic of crunch and crunch culture,” says Hulst. “And to me, I always think that’s such a simplification of everything you need to do. I could easily say, ‘We don’t do crunch,’ and ‘I don’t like crunch one bit.’ But that’s not enough.”
Hulst speaks to a slew of issues facing developers and the different layers to them. “It can be just as stressful for a developer to be underutilized as it is to be working too many hours, or to work on something that is not clear. Or for a developer to join a studio and feel unseen, like [they’re] at home and nobody knows what [they’re] doing. There’s so many problems and so many issues that impact the well-being of our staff.” Team Asobi experienced firsthand Hulst’s care for members’ well-being. “Hermen was there for us in the early days of Team Asobi as a careful mentor, making sure we struck a good balance between work and personal time,” says studio and creative director Nicolas Doucet. “I think he takes great consideration towards the well-being of his people.”
Hulst stresses that healthy career progression and transparency are important, as is making sure to celebrate a team’s successes. “Every team does it differently because they have their own culture, but they’re learning from each other,” Hulst says, referencing the benefits of virtual meetings between him and the studio heads. “But I can tell you that just not doing crunches is not enough for the well-being of our developers. We have to do a hell of a lot more. And it’s a very important topic.”
Hulst’s role as head of PlayStation Studios was announced in November of 2019. He wears many hats, mainly working on long-term plans for Sony’s games, including new IP and long-established franchises. When he’s not acquiring new developers and keeping an eye toward innovation, he works with various studio heads on the company culture [see sidebar]. As Sony makes the move to turn more of its video game franchises into multimedia entities, he’s also a key voice in their adaptations. And this is only scratching the surface of his responsibilities. In many ways, Hulst considers Guerrilla Games a great primer for his role, which has him constantly interacting with developers and striving for ways to inspire and help them do their jobs better. “I think it’s very helpful to have been a very active developer, and to understand all the intricacies of what it takes to make games,” he says.
“[Hermen’s] a philosopher and approaches decision-making through a process of curation, study, and analysis,” says Guerrilla Games’ studio and art director Jan-Bart van Beek. “He takes great care to find a wide and diverse set of viewpoints, arguments, and opinions in order to craft a bigger framework that allows him to make the best possible decision. It’s a very ‘Dutch’ management style – inclusive, transparent, level-headed and carefully considered.”
It’s clear Hulst is passionate about games and thinking about how they work, but he’s also just as passionate about risk-taking and making bold decisions. Shifting from the Killzone series to Horizon Zero Dawn was a significant learning experience for Hulst, and he takes the lessons from it into how he leads at PlayStation Studios. “I encourage our teams to be fiercely daring in their choices, and they are, but it also means that I have to back them,” he says. “I think that our teams have been really brave, and that that's not just with entire franchise pivots, but it's also going into Norse mythology on God of War, it's The Last of Us Part II’s narrative structure and creating an experience that is incredibly compelling but not necessarily comfortable for the player at all times. I back that; I want us to push the envelope and seek the boundaries of our medium and the state of the art of storytelling. I think that is why we do what we do with PlayStation."
The PlayStation Way
PlayStation Studios houses a global network of developers, and there is a wide variety of staff in each studio and how they approach things is unique from place to place. “We’re a bunch of uniquely different creators,” Hulst says. “All studios have their own name; they all often have their own technology. They have their own style, which I nurture. I like that diversity. And at the same time, I do think that our studios are better together. We share a lot of ideas, sometimes we share technology with each other. We try to make each other better and strive for making the best possible games and upping the quality at all times.”
Now in a new console generation, leveraging the PS5 tech is essential, and Hulst is constantly having conversations with developers about how to use this new power to their advantage. Team Asobi, which created Astro’s Playroom, really helped set a precedent for what’s possible with the PlayStation 5. “Technology sharing is not always engine sharings, it’s often also ideas on implementations,” Hulst says. “A really good example is what Team Asobi did. They made, I believe, 80 prototypes, and many of those ended up in Astro’s Playroom. But in those early prototypes, that team was kind enough to evangelize and pretty much do a roadshow for other teams, in this case, particularly showcasing the DualSense controller.” Hulst says it’s very inspirational for teams to see this success early on, and also spoke to Housemarque’s great work using the 3D audio in Returnal, setting a standard going forward.
Hulst recently revealed that PlayStation Studios currently has 25 titles in development, with over half being new IP. “I want us to develop a wide variety of games,” he says. “We’re a truly global organization, developing [games] in Japan, Europe, and America. I want the games to be both bigger and smaller and in different genres.” Hulst says the PS5 launch lineup showcased this variety with a mix of internal and external developers of different team sizes creating widely different experiences, such as a triple-A juggernaut Insomniac launching Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales to a smaller studio like Team Asobi creating a family-friendly 3D platformer introducing the PS5’s capabilities.
Horizon Forbidden West, the God of War sequel, and Gran Turismo 7 are all currently in development, but Hulst also teased some new projects. “There’s a lot more that we've got in store that’s still unannounced,” he notes. “We have discussed a new partnership with Jade Raymond’s new Haven studio. I met with her and some of her team and I’m really excited about what they are working on now." As Hulst looks into the future, he still sees Sony’s exclusives as a big part of it, so don’t expect core franchises to jump ship to Xbox Series X/S. However, there is a chance for some titles to appear on PC sometime later, like we saw with Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone. “The one exception to the rule, that was MLB The Show; I think what people have to realize is that it’s actually [MLB Advanced Media] that’s the publisher on Xbox, so it’s not us,” he explains. “I honestly can’t see us doing that with one of the platform-defining experiences that we're making at PlayStation Studios.”
The Future of Japan Studio
Japan Studio, responsible for gems like Gravity Rush, The Last Guardian, and Ape Escape, went through a restructuring just this past April that re-centered the studio around Team Asobi, developer of Astro’s Playroom. As Head of PlayStation Studios, Hermen Hulst says that Japanese games are core to Sony’s identity, despite rumors of the contrary.“I will say that we are in some ways very much a Japanese company still,” says Hulst. “That’s our heritage. That’s still part of who we are. We love our Japanese games.”
When asked what the restructuring of Japan Studio means for the future, Hulst was enthusiastic about continuing to move forward in the Japanese development scene. “We’re building out Team Asobi under Nicolas Doucet, so we’re actually investing in that team. People forget sometimes that we have Polyphony Digital, which is a team in two locations. We are investing in our external development group out of Tokyo as well, and that’s a team that has obviously worked with the likes of From Software and Kojima Productions. So we are very invested in Japanese development and Japanese development is something that we love ... I think it’s such a core part of the PlayStation identity that I can’t ever see us shy away from Japanese or even Asian development.”
Hulst says that while PlayStation games have had great success on PC, the console versions still are the priority and games will hit there first. “Typically, there have been about two years between the release on our platform and the PC platform,” he says. “But you can rely on us to continue to create platform-defining exclusive content for PlayStation – that's part of the reason why we exist. It’s really important for us to squeeze the maximum out of the platform, to build showcases for the platform, and really let the audience see what these great features are contributing to the overall experience.”
Sony has been able to stay at the top of its game, and Hulst wants to keep that momentum going. “We are growing PlayStation Studios,” he says. “We are investing in the amazing teams we have. We are signing up new developers. We continue to focus on quality. We continue to focus on experiences that in my mind are experiences that matter – that sometimes only could have been created by us. That’s what I stand for. And I will ensure that we're going to carry on making those.”