PlayStation is Winning – But What Next?

PlayStation is Winning – But What Next?

Glixel

PlayStation bosses from U.S. and Europe on the success of the Pro and PSVR, and why 'Singstar' is as important as 'God of War'

PlayStation bosses from U.S. and Europe on the success of the Pro and PSVR, and why 'Singstar' is as important as 'God of War'

All of the platform holders face unique challenges this year, and nowhere will these be more apparent than during E3, the biggest media blitz of the year for video games. Nintendo is under pressure to show that the Switch is more than a blip on the radar and Microsoft has to convince us as to why it's making a more powerful console – "Scorpio" – when that's not really its problem. Sony has a different problem though: it's winning – big time – and needs to show us what it's going to do with that.

With close to 60 million units sold worldwide since its release in November 2013, the PlayStation 4 is enjoying a significant lead. When the PlayStation 2 achieved that number back in 2003, its price point was already considerably less – $179 versus the PS4's current base price of $299 – and it went on to sell nearly 160 million units before the end of its life.

2016 was a big "innovation year" for PlayStation according to Sony Interactive Entertainment America president Shawn Layden. The company launched the PlayStation VR headset in October and the more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro in November, alongside a redesigned workhorse PlayStation 4, affectionately referred to as the "Slim" which does "most of the heavy lifting."

Sony's virtual reality tech, PSVR, has been a surprising success. According to Sony Europe boss Jim Ryan – who also serves as the global head of sales and marketing – this is largely down to the fact that Sony treated it like a platform launch rather than a peripheral, and this led to over a million headsets being sold, along with more than 5 million VR games. "To be honest we didn't know how well it would do," Ryan admits. "We were optimistic, but something as completely different as virtual reality is tough to predict."

The success of the PS4 Pro – whose 4K powers come with a premium pricetag – was similarly difficult to anticipate. "In some ways it was just as radical as VR," says Ryan. "We were confident about the product but have really been taken aback by how well it's done. Almost one in five PlayStations sold since that launch in November has been a Pro. That's significantly ahead of our expectations. We're feeling pretty good about that."

Around 40 percent of PS4 Pro sales are people upgrading to the more powerful box from their vanilla PS4s. "Sometimes I think we can be guilty of ascribing too much rationality to gamers," says Ryan. "People just want the best. Maybe they just want to future proof? I think we see the same thing from Apple customers too – there are people that want the best that you can buy."

With all the hardware tinkering now behind them, the focus for 2017 is entirely on games and expanding the audience. To prepare for this, the company went through a massive overhaul and reinvented itself a year ago as Sony Interactive Entertainment (replacing the previous word jumbles it used for its corporate identity, mixing and matching the words Sony, Interactive, Computer, Network and Entertainment in seemingly endless random combinations), something that Ryan describes as "a fairly seismic bit of corporate reengineering." A big part of this involved the relocation of the main PlayStation headquarters from Tokyo to San Mateo in California. "Having the epicenter of PlayStation closer to Hollywood and closer to where all the online action is has been really beneficial," he says, noting that the partnership with Sony Pictures and show creator Vince Gilligan for the upcoming Breaking Bad PlayStation VR experience probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. "The move was a really big deal for a Japanese company. For many years we've had very strong regional organizations and identities, but a complete absence of any kind of global view. We realized this was becoming a bit of a weakness for us. So, with true brilliance, this problem was solved by giving Shawn and me two jobs each."

As well as running the US division, Layden serves as the chairman of Sony's global game development efforts. "We have 12 studios worldwide – in Europe, America and Japan," he says. "I'm pretty sure there's no other studio that can claim that kind of footprint. Some are good in America and Japan, some in Europe and America, but to have all three is really rare. By having three territories that all make great games, whether it's Gran Turismo in Japan, or Guerrilla making Horizon and then all of the amazing VR stuff in Europe, and then of course Naughty Dog and Sucker Punch here in the States, it all really gives us a chance to play globally."

We always try and keep it very simple when thinking about the games we should move towards, and we've condensed it down to a formula that's basically 'first, best or must.'

So far, so good – 2017 got off to a strong start with the release of open world action RPG Horizon Zero Dawn from Sony's Guerrilla Games studio in Amsterdam, which has now sold 3.4 million copies. "We've been so proud of what that studio has been able to do," he says. "It's a brave step for that studio to go from making shooters like Killzone to an open world game."

The success of Horizon has been a proof point for Sony that gamers still want large-scale, epic narrative games. With so many studios talking about "games as a service" and large online experiences that rely on player interaction rather than scripted narrative, it's refreshing to see that Sony still firmly believes in games like Uncharted, Horizon and upcoming titles like God of War. "That's what we do well," Layden says. "We'd hate to force a mechanic on something. Can you have online arena tournament play? Well...only if it needs it."

"I try not to be too prescriptive when it comes to what the studios are doing," Layden says. "We always try and keep it very simple when thinking about the games we should move towards, and we've condensed it down to a formula that's basically 'first, best or must.' Is it the first of its kind in a new genre? Is it the best of its kind in an established genre? Or is it a must do? Like we must support the launch of VR. By and large, all of our titles fall under one or two of those caps. Right now, part of our 'must' category is to create – for lack of a better term – we call it audience broadening. As Jim likes to say, the first 50 million is easy. But the second is where it really gets tough, so our 'must' category is about growing the pie. We don't want to steal players from EA or Take Two, we have to grow the whole thing so we'll be doing a lot more in that category this year and next."

Making the pie bigger means looking at where the biggest games audience in the world currently plays most. "There's be an explosion of people that games around the world, and a lot of that has come from mobile," Ryan says, shaking his (Sony brand, of course) phone. "A big part of what we need to do is convince people that have been getting their gaming fix on their phone to buy a PS4. They want something more accessible, something that's a less intensive time commitment. If we can do what we did on PS2 and access that more social kind of experience – we had games like Singstar and Buzz that did phenomenally well, especially in Europe – that'll really help us broaden."

Hack and slash games tend to not do so well in Europe, so the narrative this time around will make a big difference. European gamers love narrative games. And Singstar.

Digital sales will be a big part of this – Sony's own digital store is now the single largest retailer for PlayStation games in the world, and close to 40 percent of new game sales are now digital rather than boxed copies. "Of the 3.4 million copies of Horizon we sold, about 915,000 were digital," Layden explains. "This kind of shift changes everything. It changes the publishing model, it allows smaller players to put out games, it affects DLC and it has a huge impact." Indie games were always a big part of this for Sony, but this year it seems like Sony backing away. "We still work with a lot of indies," says Layden, "but it's slowing down. It ebbs and flows. We're seeing a lot of indie activity in VR, because they can do meaningful content with smaller teams there."

If all this talk of games that sound a lot more casual has you squirming a little, it doesn't mean we'll be seeing a shift in emphasis from Sony, especially at E3 this year. With the success of Horizon already established, and the top games on the platform being FIFA, Grand Theft Auto V, and Final Fantasy XV, we'll be seeing lots of big, epic games – although many of them were shown last year at either E3 or Sony's own event in December. The God of War reboot from Sony's Santa Monica studio will be central to this – its new, more narrative-focused, open-world approach with a grizzled, bearded Kratos coming as a direct result of Sony's new global thinking. While always popular in North America, past games in the series just didn't do it for players elsewhere. "It's a franchise that has historically acutely underperformed in Europe," Ryan says. "Hack and slash games tend to not do so well in Europe, so the narrative this time around will make a big difference. European gamers love narrative games. And Singstar."

Alongside God of War Layden confirmed that we'll also see Naughty Dog's Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Insomniac's Spider-Man, Days Gone from Sony's Bend Studio, and Polyphony's Gran Turismo Sport. Sadly, we couldn't get a rise out of him on what InFamous and Sly Cooper developer Sucker Punch is working on, or whether there'll be any word of Sony partnering with FromSoftware on Bloodborne 2. "You can ask," he quipped – but wouldn't say anything further. We may get another glimpse of Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding, though. "We're partnering with him and financing development of Death Stranding. His team has taken the Decima engine that Guerrilla built for Horizon Zero Dawn and they're using that as the base for Death Stranding. Both teams are working from a joint code base now and building on it. It's kind of like a holy grail in game development. Some studios outside of my world have invoked that kind of discipline – "thou shalt all use this engine" – but we've sort of left it to our studios to find the engine they need within the technologies that we have available."

Switch is interesting. You should never, ever doubt Nintendo.

Sony will also be pushing its partnerships, "We have a Call of Duty partnership, a Destiny 2 partnership, Red Dead partnership with Take-Two and Star Wars with EA," says Ryan. While unwilling to specify the nature of these deals, it's likely we'll see trailer premieres at the very least.

One thing we definitely won't see at E3 is any kind of resurgence of the handheld PlayStation Vita. While Nintendo's Switch has definitely prompted many gamers to re-evaluate Sony's under-appreciated handheld, that doesn't mean it's going to be revived any day soon. "The Vita still sells in Japan and some parts of Asia, but it's not an active line for us in the west," says Ryan. "Switch is interesting. You should never, ever doubt Nintendo. It'll be interesting to see how they do this holiday. They're clearly out of stock. They've had some really big first party franchises to support them – Zelda is so powerful."