There’s something quite refreshing about the executives at Sony.
They haven’t had their personalities media trained out of them. They will give you a straight answer (most of the time). They do appear nervous on stage in front of thousands of journalists. They are more than happy to mock their rivals.
As a result, PlayStation has managed to charm an industry over the last eight months. And this may be a reason why the press has warmed so much to Sony – why the likes of Edge and GamesTM have tipped PS4 to beat Xbox One, even before a console has been sold.
But it’s not all been about Sony’s charm and personality. The firm has done everything right so far with PS4, from its price to its business strategy. Regardless of what Microsoft has or hasn’t done.
Yet at Gamescom, as Microsoft announced plans to give away FIFA 14 with every Xbox One (Day One) pre-order, Sony took a gamble with an eccentric press conference that was filled to the brim with unique indie titles.
Was it enough to keep them ahead of Microsoft? We speak to SCEE boss Jim Ryan.
It was certainly a different Gamescom conference. How do you feel it went?
I was very happy with it. It was nice to do it a little bit differently. It was a bit risky to do that so close to an extremely important platform launch. But I think people enjoyed it. I have been to Gamescoms when the predominantly German audience has been quite flat and difficult to get going, but there seemed to be a good vibe this year.
Are you going to react to the FIFA 14 giveaway with Xbox One at all?
No, no. We have over 1m pre-orders, so why would we need to do that? We had to switch off day one pre-orders, we are now onto day two, so why would we pour gasoline onto the fire? Platform holders and publishers run pre-order campaigns, and if you need to increase momentum then they dial it up a little bit with some promotional stuff, it’s a rational thing to do. But do we need to do that? No.
EA has aggressively partnered with Xbox. Have there been problem between PlayStation and EA?
No, not at all. It’s common knowledge that EA has done a deal with Microsoft, but all of its games – Battlefield, Need for Speed, FIFA – are all on PS4. In fact, the only platform you could play Battlefield 4 at Gamescom was on PS4. Try and find that on Xbox One.
You announced over 1m pre-orders worldwide. How much of that are European pre-orders?
Europe is right up there. We are not disclosing the split, but MCV readers probably have a good idea of the relevant weight of day-to-day business between ourselves and North America, and the pre-order trend is very much in-line with that. The European component of that 1m is very significant.
Andrew House [SCE President] delivered a little jab at Xbox.
[Laughs] I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Well, he praised the fact that Sony had been consistent with its strategy, whereas others have not. Why is that important?
Andy was making a serious point that we have learnt a lot of lessons from last time around. There were a number of things we did on PS3 that we would not knowingly repeat. We sat and reflected and soul searched a lot. And we decided early on that we wanted to be single-minded in our pursuit of the gamer with PS4. And that is what we’ve done, and we have set our policies, our design principles and the rest of it with that in mind.
From the start, people have had a clear idea of what PS4 stands for and they can either take it or leave it, and it seems like lots of people want to take it. There’s no ambiguity. There’s no confusion. And it has helped us gain momentum ahead of launch.
Outside of just gut instinct, what makes you think that the momentum is with PlayStation?
Any metric that you care to look at, we have it. Whether it is pre-order numbers, or what the consumers are saying It could all be wrong, but the feedback we are getting is that we are not in bad shape. We are not going to be complacent or arrogant about this. We have not sold a single one yet. If a console cycle is a mountain, we are in the foothills and there are plenty of potential pitfalls.
What do you think will be the deciding factor in this next-generation console battle?
[Long pause] Content and price are two very fundamental things, and the quality of online experience is becoming increasingly important. We feel we’ve learned a lot in that area, because we were frankly poor in the beginning. And now we have come a long way in catching up and we are going to make a further step-change come PS4 launch.
There’s that and then there’s content. That is why we were keen for Michael Denny [Sony Studios Europe VP] to show that map of all of our development capabilities around the world. Day one the line-up of exclusive games looks comparable between us and Xbox, there are some ups and downs on both sides. Denny made the point that all of our studios are working on unnanounced PS4 games.
Do you feel your conference lacked a big announcement like an Uncharted or God of War?
You are on a never-ending treadmill of these events and you have to get the balance between doing too much at one and not having enough at the next. We felt having that slightly different approach at Gamescom worked. But then you will have different days, when someone – hopefully me – will get on a stage and announce a triple-A exclusive, because those games are being made.
Vita received some stage time at Gamescom. With all your PS3/PS4 news, we were worried Vita might get overlooked.
Not at all. And you gave me a hard time at E3 about that, I remember. We showed interesting new content for Vita. Obviously the price adjustment, which we are pleased to announce. And I was happy to have had the chance to clearly explain the Remote Play between PS4 and Vita, because it needed explaining.
On the entirely reasonable assumption that there will be cross-over between PS4 owners and Vita owners and potential Vita owners, the ability to play all 32 launch titles using Remote Play does a lot for the Vita catalogue.
One of the things we wanted to do at Gamescom is gauge reaction to it, and people I’ve talked too have been intrigued by this concept. By getting a symbiotic thing going between the two platforms, it really adds weight to the Vita proposition.
You announced three free-to-play games at Gamescom: War Thunder, LittleBigPlanet Hub and BigFest. What is your strategy here?
There are two distinct areas here, and we are finding our way a little bit. I’d hesitate to say that we have all the answers, because we certainly do not. On the one hand there are games like BigFest and War Thunder, which were developed as free-to-play games. But on the other hand, there are initiatives where we are taking essentially existing boxed product and kludged a free-to-play proposition out of it. A good example of that would be the Killzone multiplayer, which has the free-to-play model. And LittleBigPlanet Hub falls a bit in that category.
Logic doesn’t always prevail, but logic would dictate that the category where the games have been designed with free-to-play in mind might be more successful. But on the other hand when you have strong, successful IP, trying to experiment in the free-to-play space with that is sensible. We are pursuing both elements, and keeping an open mind about it.
Why are indie games so important? They don’t sell consoles, do they?
With the big games and the teams getting bigger, there’s a real risk that the industry stagnates and gets into endless, repetitive cycles of annual iterations of well-known and well-loved franchises.
Regeneration and reinvigoration can only come about through new blood and trying different things when the stakes are lower, where failure doesn’t result in bankruptcy and mass redundancies and all those terrible things. On an industry level this is really critical.
Three examples of the role indie games can play on consoles are Thatgamecompany’s Flower, Flow and Journey. I’d argue with anybody that those games have definitely been platform enhancing. Will all the indies games that you saw from us at Gamescom fall into that category? Of course not. But if we get two or three like that, you have something that will definitely be an asset to our platform, and we are in the business of exploiting assets like that.
What do you hope the industry will take away from PlayStation’s Gamescom announcements?
People have to look at the PS4 story very holistically. Look at what we said on February 20th when we showed the console, what we said at E3 when we revealed the price and business model, and then at Gamescom we put down the final pieces of the jigsaw. And when you put the whole lot together, I think we have done a good job of having a consistent, coherent message, and now we can look forward to November 29th.