Two years ago, industry pundits were declaring the inevitable death of the specialist games console. Before the launch of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it looked like consumers had moved on from expensive specialist games hardware, toward smartphones, tablets and other formats.
But Andrew House, who as president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment is the ultimate boss of Sony’s PlayStation division, always had faith. And now he has the sale figures too. In November, PlayStation 4 passed the 30m global sales milestone, two months earlier in its lifecycle than the PlayStation 2, which ended up selling more than 155m units, making it officially the best-selling console in history.
House is clearly feeling somewhat vindicated.
“With this generation, we launched against a background of considerable media scepticism about the role of consoles overall,” he says, in an exclusive interview with the Guardian. “People were saying that consoles were dead, and that mobiles and tablets were the only gaming platforms around. But what I see in the developer and publisher community is a sense of returned confidence. That translates into something great for the gamer, because if developers are feeling confident that there’s a fan-base that wants their content, then they will tend to take more creative risks. They will feel more comfortable about launching brand-new IP, which I think is the life-blood of the industry.”
We caught up with House at Paris Games Week in late October, where Sony unveiled an array of PS4 games scheduled to arrive in 2016 and beyond, including Detroit and WiLD, new efforts from superstar developers David Cage and Michel Ancel, plus Gran Turismo Sport; the hotly anticipated No Man’s Sky was also pinned down to a June 2016 launch date. Then on Tuesday, Sony announced that the first game from Meta Gear creator Hideo Kojima since his departure from Konami, would be a PlayStation 4 exclusive.
2016’s packed release schedule should pacify PlayStation 4 owners after a surprisingly barren Christmas 2015 period for PS4 exclusives. “Usually it’s in the second or third year of a lifecycle that you see developers really getting into their stride around a new platform,” he says. His contention is that the likes of No Man’s Sky and Media Molecule’s bizarre game-creation sandbox Dreams show that Sony is still willing to publish more edgy games than its rivals. “When we started out in the business, the founders of the organisation had a very strong focus on taking creative risks, and believed that bringing something new to games was what we should be all about,” he says.
“You look back at some of the early Artdink games that came out, like Aquanaut’s Holiday and PaRappa The Rapper; the latter wasn’t a huge seller, but we all still talk about it. It’s great to see that spirit still in the organisation: it’s certainly something I encourage.”
That could be the essence of House – he speaks slickly, and has an air of impishness that sets him apart from the sort of corporate stuffed shirt you would normally expect to find in the upper echelons of this industry. He avoids the temptation to plumb Apprentice-style depths of aggression when talking about his competitors, for example, even though the PlayStation 4 is locked in a fierce battle against Microsoft’s Xbox One. “It’s reached a point of what I would describe as really healthy competition – and I use the word ‘healthy’ very deliberately,” he says.
“I think since Phil Spencer took on leadership of [Microsoft’s Xbox division], he has been very honest about their approach. He’s been, in a very gentlemanly way, complimentary about us in the past. But if you look at something like Augmented Reality for them or virtual reality for us, we’re both trying to build a category overall. At the end of the day, there is a shared goal of great experiences for gamers.”
2016: the VR tipping point?
One key feature of the coming year will be the arrival of virtual reality as a mainstream consumer technology. 2016 will be the year in which Oculus launches its Rift headset – and Sony launches its PlayStation VR. Given that the Rift will require a high-specification PC, whereas PlayStation VR works with a PlayStation 4, it’s likely that many people’s first experience of virtual reality will be via Sony’s machine.
Sony still hasn’t announced when exactly PlayStation VR will arrive or how much it will cost. House, however, is keen to talk about what the experience will be like. “In its early iteration, the principal audience will probably be enthusiast gamers looking for something brand-new,” he says. “I tend to see the first phase as providing short-form but very intense experiences – I use the analogy of a theme park ride. It’s something you’ll do for 10 or 15 minutes and go, ‘Whoa, that was fantastic.’ Even those short-form experiences, which don’t necessarily have massive development costs, can be very magical and exciting. So there’s an opportunity for indie developers to be more prominent in the VR life-cycle than they are on console.”
One can visualise VR going beyond games, into areas like music and sports, and it has many marketing possibilities, such as virtual tours around new buildings or tourist attractions. As a conglomerate, Sony boasts music and film wings, so will we see those sorts of things on PlayStation VR? “That’s something we’re definitely investigating,” says House. “But it will probably come in a second phase of VR development for use, because our first focus is on games. And when it comes to high production-value, 360-degree, camera-generated live action experiences, there’s still, in my view, a lot of work to be done on the back-end production, before they get to a point where you’d say they’re ready for primetime. But that’s an area where I think Sony can bring a lot to bear from other divisions within the corporation.”
PlayStation Now and backwards compatibility
House is clearly pleased with the PlayStation 4 design decisions that he and system designer Mark Cerny (a veteran game developer) took, which mean that, unlike the over-complicated PlayStation 3, it has been making money for Sony since day one. “I tried to get us talking about the PlayStation business, to get it to be much more focused again on the gamer and the end-consumer,” he explains. “That’s not just our marketing message: it informed a lot of the decisions we made around the development of PlayStation 4. I saw Mark Cerny as the advocate for the developer and that constituency, and I saw myself as needing to be the advocate for the consumer whenever I could.”
But one such decision created a lot of flak: the removal of backwards compatibility – and that opprobrium has intensified since Microsoft unexpectedly brought Xbox 360 compatibility to the Xbox One. However, Sony recently announced limited PS2 compatibility, and has attempted to address the problem more widely with its streaming service PlayStation Now.
The latter requires a paid subscription – a somewhat controversial decision. But has it been a success in Sony’s eyes? “In the US it took a little bit longer than we’d anticipated, but since E3, it has really started to gain traction,” claims House. “There are a couple of factors in that. In the beta phase – and we took a little bit of flak for this – we looked at what different rental prices should be. What we heard very loud and clear was that people want a very robust subscription service; ‘I want the Netflix of games,’ was what a lot of the users said. So we worked hard on getting the right value proposition for that, but more importantly, building out a great content selection. There are well over 200 games available on it now, and that has created a tipping point in the US.”
“We’re obviously doing this in a staggered way, so we’re launching in what I’d call commercial beta in the UK. We’ve got work that we need to do in the UK, again in building up the right content selection. For Sony, PlayStation Now is very much about a long-term play. I’ve always believed that with the sense of convenience and immediacy that people get from streaming, whether it’s in music or video, that same attraction will be there in games eventually. Increasingly in service businesses, it’s a case of launching the service, listening to what your consumers are telling you and then iterating on that and making it better.”
In the UK, which traditional gets a raw deal on pricing models within the games industry, coming up with the right figure early is going to be key to success. The company should probably also think about higher value six-month and annual subscriptions, going beyond the three-month maximum period available in the US. Time will tell whether we Brits warm to it.
Overall, House is understandably content with how PlayStation 4 has done in its first two years of life, especially with passing the 30m sales milestone. In his view, it’s good for the games industry as a whole. “We remain well ahead of the PlayStation 2 at the same point in its life-cycle,” he says. “That, to me, is almost more important than market share and rivalry with Microsoft. The question is whether you’re growing the category overall, and whether it is vibrant.”
This article was written by Steve Boxer, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th December 2015 10.35 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010