How Sony's secret weapon resurrected PlayStation

Christopher Dring
How Sony's secret weapon resurrected PlayStation

It was Gamescom 2009 and Andrew House had just finished his first press conference as SCEE boss. His first extended stay on stage in front of millions.

A fellow journalist and I were hovering outside when House came out to greet us. “How did I do?” he said.

It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a question borne out of any need for validation, but a desire for feedback. He may as well have asked: “How can I do better next time?”

This is House’s style summed up. He’s happy to leave ego at the door in favour of constructive criticism.

In fact, he recruited PS4 lead architect Mark Cerny for that very purpose. He gave Cerny a job to travel all around the world and speak to developers. Let them criticise and complain, so that Sony can get things right with their console.

The results speak for themselves.

“Our original goal for PS4 was 5m units sold into retail. 7m have now been sold through to consumers,” says House. “And the momentum is sustaining itself. Having a great holiday season is one thing, but to see a continual cadence of sales in all of our major markets is really gratifying. 

“It has been well beyond our wildest expectations in terms of how consumers have embraced with the platform, but also how studios have, too. Getting developers to engage early on in the platform’s design, to create a console that is easy to build on, has really borne fruit.”

Prior to House taking the CEO role, he didn’t have much of a profile. If you were to Google his name, he wouldn’t come top. There was no Andrew House on Wikipedia.

“If I am doing my job then I have to be a bit disruptive
internally. 
If the decisions are easy to make then we
are probably not making the right decisions, given how
fast technology changes. Hence the need to have a
strong relationship if we are going to get the right
product out. It’s so much easier to have a conversation
when you have that much history together.”

Mark Cerny, Sony


You get the impression he likes it that way. During an on-stage interview at Develop in Brighton, he spoke plainly about the need to have the best colleagues and to let them lead the way where they know best. He called out many of those executives he believes deserved credit. And that evening he attended the Develop Awards to hand one of them, Mark Cerny, the Development Legend prize.

Cerny and House first met on Crash Bandicoot. House was head of marketing and had travelled to LA to pitch an advertising campaign for the title. They’ve had a strong relationship ever since. And that’s been important, says Cerny.  

“If I am doing my job then I have to be a bit disruptive internally. If the decisions are easy to make then we are probably not making the right decisions, given how fast technology changes. Hence the need to have a strong relationship if we are going to get the right product out. It’s so much easier to have a conversation when you have that much history together.”

House adds: “It has been great when Mark challenges the status quo and the organisation. My role is to act as somewhat of a counterbalance to that. To choose which aspects we embrace and need to change, and also the parts we retain, the good parts of the way that we do things. But it has been very easy given the length of the relationship we have had. We can have a very forthright and open discussion and get much more quickly to the right answer.”

House’s open policy where he lets his creators lead the way is continuing with the firm’s latest hardware, Project Morpheus. There’s no timeline for release of the VR headset yet, but Sony has no problem with showing the world an unfinished device.

“What we have learnt is that the earlier you can engage development teams, the better opportunity you have to get a variety of those experiences,” says House.

“What is really encouraging is the degree of enthusiasm there is in the development community for VR right now. A lot of people are working essentially in their spare time on it.”

It may be a prototype for now, but it seems inevitable that Morpheus will soon become a consumer product. Sony just needs to tighten the tech and get devs on board.

“Since we unveiled Morpheus we have seen such a variety of creative impulses and things that people want to do with it,” House states. “The challenge is to narrow that down to a set of killer apps that are going to demonstrate the full purpose of VR.”

Morpheus has other challenges to overcome, too. It is likely to be pricey, and also requires the PlayStation Camera. And then there are concerns about VR causing sickness.

“We have already talked about VR as a new way of
storytelling. Beyond that, there is a range of
developments in sensors and you 
are going to see
a point where these 
will get down to a physical size
and a low-cost element so they could be part of a
mass-market entertainment experience. What 
that
looks like is to be seen, but it’s 
something
I’m very excited about.”

Andrew House, Sony


“That’s all down to the design of whatever it is your are doing in VR,” says Cerny. “If your player view is moving differently to what your head is doing, then yes, a lot of people get sick. If the experience is structured so that your experience in the virtual world is the primary thing, then very few people have issues with that kind of thing.”

For all Sony’s success now, House is laying the foundation for its future – even if consoles die.

“It is very hard to tell where technology is going to take us,” admits Cerny. “When PS3 launched we didn’t have tablets. When PS2 launched we didn’t have MP3 players or smartphones. There is going to be disruptive technology that is almost guaranteed to come in during the PS4 years. So it’s very hard to say where we are heading, even six years out. Having said that, I think we have an organisation that’s ready for the challenge.”

House concludes: “The instant gratification people are getting from streaming is going to play a part in the gaming ecosystem in some way, shape or form. 

“We have already talked about VR as a new way of storytelling. Beyond that, there is a range of developments in sensors and you are going to see a point where these will get down to a physical size and a low-cost element so they could be part of a mass-market entertainment experience. What that looks like is to be seen, but it’s something I’m very excited about.”

Interview conducted by Richard Wilcox at That Video Company
richardw@thatvideocompany.com

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Tags: Sony , PS4 , andrew house , secret weapon

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