Andrew House felt he was heading into the lion’s den ahead of his first major press conference since becoming CEO of PlayStation.
SCEA president Jack Tretton had lapped up the whopping and adulation as he introduced violent action games to the bloodthirsty crowd. House’s job was to show the same audience an interactive book service. For kids.
“I think I had Jack behind me going: ‘Ok mate, you can go on stage for this one,’” laughs House.
“We were joking backstage and I said: ‘You do realise that we have forged a division of responsibility at E3. You are in charge of blood and mayhem, and I am family-friendly.’”
Not that House minds this role. He is a family man, after all. When MCV asks about his first nine months in the job, he tells us how great it’s been for his kids. “My son has loved the adjustment to Japan,” he says.
But House is not just about the family in the home, the Welshman is all about cultivating relationships at work, too.
On the surface PlayStation’s E3 press conference was what you’d expect. A new Move game, a few Vita projects, some ambitious new IP coupled with established brands. The only thing missing was 3D – another sign perhaps that the technology is on the wane.
Yet beneath the surface, and this year’s press conference was all about partnerships. House has built a strong reputation for forging relationships. In his career at Sony he helped bring GTA to PlayStation, he asked Mubi to bring its catalogue of indie films to European PS3s, and he was even instrumental in Sony’s lucrative deal with J.K Rowling for Harry Potter website Pottermore.
And building better relations with third parties is exactly what House has been doing in the nine months since we last spoke. Wonderbook is yet another partnership with Rowling, Ubisoft is developing exclusive PS3 and Vita content, HTC has teamed-up with PlayStation Mobile, and 2K has even let Sony use its ‘Big Daddy’ character in PlayStation All-Stars.
“When I took on the role one of the things that I wanted to do was leverage my experience of running third-party relations and to build a global framework about the way we work with publishers,” he explains.
“I put together a global meeting to hammer out issues and define them. It was different because we were putting people together to deal with issues in a really active way. But it was also married with the fact that most of us have great longevity with the company and know each other well. There was a great sense of team spirit with no real hierarchy in the room. That was a great moment for me. I thought: ‘Yeah, this is going to be fun and interesting.’”
Your E3 press conference started and ended with new IP. Why is it important for a company like Sony to create new ideas?
It is absolutely critical. We’ve always felt that the strength of our platform has been a kind of symbiotic relationship between the platform being created and strengthened by new experiences. And then that reinforcing the strength and one hopes the longevity of the platform overall. I’ve heard conventional wisdom in the industry that says – and it is kind of like an American presidency – that the first two years in a lifecycle is the only chance to innovate with a new audience. We take a different view. It is part of the role of a platform holder to have the confidence and to make the investment where necessary to show that six years into a lifecycle, there is a significant audience that is going to actively peruse new IP. And the onus on that is to deliver on those expectations.
Tell us about Wonderbook. Where did the idea come from?
The idea came out of our London Studio. There was a certain amount of serendipity around it. The guys from London Studio with Michael Denny [European studios SVP] were mulling this [Wonderbook] idea, and at the same time, we were at a corporate level starting to forge the partnership with J.K Rowling around Pottermore, which I was quite heavily involved with.
It was a case of myself working on that and Michael saying: “you should see this thing we are working on.” And both of us said there is just a phenomenal fit here. From there, the next step – in some senses to see if we could get some validation – was presenting it to J.K Rowling. And then she just became gradually more and more creatively involved. She was enthusiastic about it from the first time she saw it. She gave us great pointers around Book of Spells, because her commitment around kids reading delivered on the book aspect of Wonderbook. That is why there is a good focus on text. That came from her, and we embraced it.
We are extremely blessed in having an association with the most popular author of our time. But I think what is intriguing is the model around Wonderbook – the idea that the book, and PlayStation Eye, is something that you purchase once. You can then create a content flow behind that, that I think will surprise people in terms of the ease with which the content can be created, and also how cost-effectively it can be done.
Vita appeared to get short shrift on stage at E3. Where does this leave Vita?
We thought we gave Vita a good shout during the conference, there were two fantastic announcements which were designed to show that the platform can deliver very differentiated ‘only on Vita’ extensions of great console games. We demonstrated by highlighting things like YouTube, that there is commitment to give the range of network services, making sure that it has a multi-functional aspect. And then I think there is another opportunity, a sort of third pillar to the strategy, which is how we can fully take advantage of a digitally connected device. To explore access to different kinds of content and new content models – starting with PSOne and leveraging the assets that we already have. I joked that the movie studios have been doing this for 50 years. And we as an industry are starting to get to grips with that.
Has Vita’s slow start to life forced you to take another look at it? Or perhaps react to it in a way that Nintendo did with 3DS?
I don’t think there has been a need for a re-look. We are in what is a very competitive space. I think we need to put more emphasis on the kinds of experiences that define and differentiate Vita. That is always going to be one of its objectives. But there needs to be a reinforcement on that.
But also, because it is for us the first truly networked portable device in our proprietary gaming space, there is a need to think more broadly about the implications of that for our business model, and to think about how the consumer wants to acquire content.
20 per cent of Vita content is being downloaded. That tells you that the consumer has an appetite in this space. It just creates a need for us to think through our business model in a broader way than before.
Why did you rebrand PlayStation Suite to PlayStation Mobile?
I felt that PlayStation Suite was a confusing name. It referred to a set of development tools that underpinned the system, which is great, but we were going to struggle to get consumer traction unless there was an easily understandable proposition. It now says what it does on the tin, which is a PlayStation experience that is available on mobile devices. And there was also the idea of the mobility of the PlayStation experience into other areas. That’s the idea we are trying to get across.
Has the PlayStation Mobile strategy changed then?
We are trying to marry some of our strengths in games interfaces and developer relations and knowledge, with the large install base of mobile Android devices. We said right from the start – but I think a lot of people didn’t quite believe us – that this was going to be an open strategy, and would have breadth beyond just Sony mobile devices. And we feel we have secured the first step in what we hope is a set of partnerships with HTC. HTC is a strong manufacturer, it has a lot of enthusiasm for PlayStation Mobile, and on a very pragmatic basis it has a strong presence in North America, which dovetails rather nicely with the traditional strength of Sony mobile or Sony Ericsson, which is more centred around Europe and Japan.
PS4, then. Why is now not the time to talk about a new PlayStation?
The right time to talk about new advances in hardware is when you can demonstrate a significant leap on the current experience, and something that is going to be attractive. That remains our philosophy. Beyond that we have nothing to say at this point.
Have the wider financial struggles which Sony has faced impacted the PlayStation business?
No. In Kaz [Hirai, Sony CEO]‘s first strategy meeting he pointed out three core businesses that he felt was critical to Sony’s future and we were honoured and somewhat pressured to be highlighted as one of them. I see my role, in part of my return to Sony corporation, is to serve Kaz best by building bridges with the other divisions, which is critical for any large corporation. And also to banish the idea that SCE is somehow a separate island, which sits apart from the rest of the organisation.