With Ian Stringer as CEO, Kaz Hirai in charge of PlayStation and now yourself in charge of SCE studios, plus other key promotions at SCE Worldwide Studios (WWS) lately, it seems like there is a brand new management team in place to oversee the topline games strategy for Sony. Is that a fair assumption?
The new strategy Kaz has been implementing internally is a total departure from what it was under Ken Kutaragi, who himself was a visionary and a technologist.
What Kaz is changing means that all the parts of SCE group, including the Worldwide Studios and the International Headquarters, participate and collaborate in forming the future strategy of the PlayStation. That means future strategy for the company as well. That’s the major massive change to how we work internally.
Kaz expects and demands me, going forward, as well as managing Worldwide Studios, to contribute to the SCEI management group. That’s why I am moving my base from the US to Japan later this year.
What advantage does pushing for more communication between the studios provide?
Well, that was always the strategy behind the Worldwide Studios. And I was managing studios in the US and Phil was managing studio in Europe – so we were peers, but when he became president of the worldwide studios, there were key things we wanted to accomplish, such as getting the technology teams in each regions to collaborate to help create a technology base for our use for the launch of PS3. That went pretty well; so much so that we realised that perhaps we should share all this with third parties. That’s a good example of what Phil and I worked hard to achieve.
And now, as you say, all the studios must now communicate better to share things like best practices. So one studio might be really good at user testing the game – and our other studios in other region should learn from them. Or a studio in another territory might be doing really good project management – so we should really all learn how they are doing it so well.
Are there any specific examples you can give of where one studio has learnt from another?
A good, small example is from towards the end of the development of Heavenly Sword. The God of War team members, the technical and design team, were working with the Heavenly Sword team to give feedback and share how they do things. Because they were working on the same kinds of issues such as AI and character animation.
You’ve been with PlayStation since its very beginning. I’m keen to know how you’ve seen PlayStation and Sony change in those years.
When I joined Sony, right out of college, it was 1986. I was a big gamer – video gaming was a big hobby of mine, but the video game industry was not an attractive place to join at that point, and I really liked the atmosphere at Sony and the people I met there. And even then, it’s strange to say it, but when I joined I suspected that Sony would eventually enter the games industry.
So when I joined Ken’s group, it was a team of engineers developing the very first PlayStation. My first role there was to present the case at Sony as to why they should invest in games at this time – because many people in the Sony management considered games like the toy industry and they thought that we shouldn’t get into this ‘kiddie’ thing that would have a Sony brand on it. What we presented was not only way beyond what was available, but also a very cool thing.
What’s interesting is that the PlayStation aimed to provide sophisticated high-end games, and that still seems to be the Sony games philosophy today…
Yes, so that was in the genes of the founding of PlayStation. At the time I remember we were saying that every household has a TV, and a VCR – but only 40 per cent had a games machine. That was wrong – and we wanted to change it. Back then we had a huge vision, but didn’t yet know how to do the business.
So what was the experience like launching the PlayStation into an industry which already had a big dominant Japanese company like Nintendo involved?
When we started he PlayStation project we didn’t consider Nintendo a competitor. We thought it was too much to think that – because we were a newcomer, coming from nowhere. And also the rest of the video game industry didn’t take us too seriously – other electronics companies had tried to get into games, and all of them failed.
At the time the main competitor for PlayStation was Sega, because we had similar systems. We spent a lot of that time in the early years thinking about what it was they would do.
You’ve spent time at both SCEA and Sony Japan – how do they compare? And how will you use those experiences to inform what you do going forward?
There are major cultural differences between the two and also different ways to how people work. I really enjoyed working in the Japan studio with people like Kazunori or Ueda-san – there are lots of great creative and ambitious people there. But it was very difficult to form a team because people in Japan do not think to move, they are more loyal. That’s great if you have people employed, because they will not leave but because we were a newcomer to the industry and I was in charge of growing he internal team I really struggled to bring in experienced people in Japan. But in the States, because people are always moving around, if you have a good company reputation and good strategy and good position it is much easier to attract talent.
Prior to the formation of WWS there was a perception that there was conflict between SCEA and SCEE. At the least they were competing. As you’ve been working across Sony would you say that still exists? Or has WWS helped iron that out?
Well, I think healthy competition is really good because we want people, each team, to know that their game will be a big hit around the world. So we want teams to have high aspirations – that kind of competition is really good. But because development is now such a big effort unless we collaborate and share we cannot compete in terms of larger things or we will be very inefficient when we make games. There is a realisation in this generation that we as an industry cannot do what we were doing before – which was make things in more isolated, smaller teams. Phil and I worked hard on getting that major culture shift within the Worldwide Studios.
And is that culture in place now?
Yes, I feel really good about how people are working together.
Are you having to think more globally in terms of releases now, so that no matter when a game gets made in the Sony Worldwide Studios operation wherever it comes from it has global appeal? Or can you still make territory-specific releases?
We are pushing more and more titles to think global, but we also know that there are major cultural differences. Especially between the Asian markets. And there are of course differences between the US and Europe, as well. So we continue to support local tastes because each region has to be successful. But from a commercial standpoint we want as many titles to appeal to as many regions. That’s the balance – we’ve been pushing for more games to have global appeal.
Comparing the titles released on PS3 with those on PS2 and PSP, the interesting thing is that, for games made by Worldwide Studios, the top ten games were released in all markets. But for PS2 and PSP only three or four were made by internal teams. So the strategy is working – but without compromising what we make.