E3 always has winners and losers.
This year, Sony had one of the most spectacularly successful shows in its history, at the expense of its biggest rival in the videogames market, Microsoft. You could argue that confusion over Xbox One's used games policy led to the machine's PR defeat, but Sony brilliantly appealed to angry gamers in its conference, assuring global audiences that PS4 would feature no invasive DRM measures.
So who better to approach for Sony's perspective than Andrew House, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment (and thereby the ultimate boss of the PlayStation business)? We caught up with the genial, articulate Welshman a day and a half after that triumphant E3 press event, and he was understandably buoyant: "We've been very pleased with the reaction. It's been a very positive show for us."
At Sony's E3 press conference on the evening of 10 June, all the speculation surrounded whether the Japanese company would follow Microsoft's unpopular lead and detail some form of online registration or digital rights management aimed at killing off the second-hand games market – the presumption being that Microsoft would not have gone out on such a limb without having roped in Sony to follow suit. But Sony announced, to much surprise, and the gratification of hardcore gamers, that the PS4's used games policy would be exactly the same as that of the PS3.
House explains why Sony decided to leave well alone: "There's an interesting backstory on that. I guess, dating from about our February event, there had been questions about what our online policy would be. And I have to say that we were slightly perplexed, because we had no intention of changing from a model that I think has served us really well for several platform life-cycles. And then, of course, it was really the actions of others, and the reaction coming from consumers, which led to more speculation. So we felt that with E3, and Monday night's press conference, it was a really good opportunity to set the record straight. But there weren't any changes that we'd been considering."
Had the third-party publishers, who hate not getting a cut when games are sold on by those who have played them, lobbied Sony to change that model? "Not that I've been aware of, no. And we didn't feel any sense that we needed to respond to any external pressure."
Later on, House happily grappled with the thorny issue of second-hand games: "I think there's a very careful balance to strike. We're a game publisher ourselves, so there's a certain argument for us that there should be something of a model for content-creators to participate in second sales. Having said that, however, the consumer sees ownership as a very key benefit when purchasing a physical product. And the flipside of the argument is that retailers will tell you that the vast majority of trade-in value gets immediately repurposed into new purchases of games, and those people in turn generate word of mouth and create more interest."
Clearly, Sony, at the very highest levels, has put more thought into the subject than Microsoft, whose executives contradicted each other alarmingly in interviews conducted after the Xbox One was originally revealed. House generated rapturous applause at Sony's press conference with comments to the effect that the consumer is king, and was happy to flesh them out.
"What you saw coming from gamers is not just, in my view, the views of the vocal minority. It became an expression of a little bit of concern bubbling up around the subject of what ownership means in an age of digital content overall. We and other entertainment industry players need to be very conscious of that and very careful. Bringing it back to the fundamentals again, we need to be fair and to think of the consumer experience first."
With the Xbox One, Microsoft committed the cardinal sin of introducing unnecessary complications (such as the now-rescinded need to go online every day), whereas with the PS4, Sony kept it simple from the off. House contends that that approach extends beyond gamers to developers (who famously found it tricky to get to grips with the PS3's programming demands, as he tacitly acknowledges): "I see our approach on PS4 as really taking Sony Computer Entertainment back to our original roots.
"When we first launched with the PS1 and certainly the PS2, the goal was to give the consumer more choice, and lots of flexibility at a time when the delivery mechanism of games, on cartridges, placed a lot of restrictions on the industry. And also, by shifting to disks, to give developers – and particularly smaller ones – the chance to take risks and build a business. I think you're seeing exactly those kinds of principles applied to PS4."
Reluctant though he clearly is to get into a slanging match with Microsoft, House can't resist a sly dig at one complication the Xbox One will retain – the forced purchase of a Kinect motion-sensing system (which surely accounts for why the PS4 will be £80 cheaper than the Xbox One when they arrive this Christmas).
"There's consumer flexibility. We have a camera which will build some great consumer experiences, especially when it's used in conjunction with the Dual-Shock 4, but we're not mandating that, or forcing that purchase on the consumer.
"Secondly, we have a new development environment, that developers are telling us is significantly easier to make great games for, and we've undertaken a significant amount of outreach to smaller developers. And the net result is that we're seeing a lot of developers coming out of the mobile space, and I think that's a tremendously positive trend for console gaming. Essentially, we have access to a whole new set of talent in gaming that we didn't have before."
In recent years, House has frequently spoken of his desire to get the disparate parts of Sony operating in a more joined-up manner, and the presence of Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton on stage at the E3 press conference offered an illustration of that. But it was difficult to translate Lynton's rather nebulous address into anything concrete. Could House explain?
"It was important that he was on stage: it's a testament to how far we've come with PlayStation 3 in building a really substantial community of networked gamers, who are also interested in other forms of entertainment. Whereas I think you could have slightly accused Sony of a bit of forced synergy, if we'd been trying to enact this collaboration several years ago, the fact is now, with 110 million PlayStation Network (PSN) accounts worldwide, that's a substantial business opportunity for Sony Pictures to reach a different audience.
"So he was talking about two things. One is significant interest and work which is already under way to develop original TV-style programming content, which could be made available with some form of exclusivity to people on the PSN – essentially using PSN as a distribution network. The second point was to find ways to give earlier or exclusive access to other forms of content that Sony Pictures has – again, for people who are on PSN and particularly for members of PlayStation Plus."
Such collaborations, however, seem rather at odds with recent (mainly analyst-led) talk about the possibility of splitting Sony up into its constituent parts. House seems to suggest that, at the very least, Sony Computer Entertainment, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Music Entertainment will stick together: "We've been clear, and [Sony corporation president and CEO] Kaz Hirai has been very clear, that the entertainment businesses are a core component of Sony's overall strategy.
"Where that starts to come together is that once you have a large, global network of consumers, then having access to entertainment content assets can enhance the services that you're providing, differentiate you from the competition and provide consumers with something new and potentially exclusive. That makes our entertainment businesses even more important to Sony's overall strategy than perhaps they had been in the past."
Perhaps the only area in which the Xbox One looked to have a slight edge over the PlayStation 4 concerned the respective quality of the two consoles' launch games – a tad unsurprising, since the Xbox One's developers' kits were distributed before the PS4's equivalents.
House hints that there will be more to come before Christmas, though – which will almost certainly break cover at the Gamescom show in Cologne in late August, along with a launch date for the PS4: "I think there are additives to what is shaping up to be a great launch line-up of traditional blockbuster titles.
"We've got something like 140 titles in active development for the first year after the launch, which is really substantial. Again, because of the architecture decisions we've made, developers have told us that they are so far ahead compared to previous launches."
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