PlayStation sits on top of the gaming world right now.
The PS4 has been an incredible success, with Sony recently announcing that it’s shipped over 86m consoles in the five years since launch. Given that the device launched amid some predicting the death of the console due to the rise of mobile gaming, that’s a huge vindication of Sony’s confidence in, and execution of, its strategy.
“We listen to the needs and wants of our players and try to fulfil them,” Warwick Light, PlayStation VP for Northern Europe and Australasia, states simply. “We’re running a business, and like any business we have to operate within commercial restraints. But we’ll always try to do our best for our players.”
And when it has made a misstep, such as with the Fortnite crossplay situation, it has come around to side with its audience in the end. And gamers are certainly rewarding the brand for its player-centric outlook, as it celebrates a record-breaking year in the UK – the brand’s biggest to date.
ADDING IT UP
“There’s much to be pleased about,” Light says, “PlayStation continues to be Britain’s best-selling console. This year’s exclusive games Spider-Man, God of War and Detroit have really delighted our players. And our streaming service PlayStation Now, which now also allows you to download games, has really started to take off,” he tells us, without offering any hard numbers.
PlayStation Now has somewhat sat in the shadow of Xbox Game Pass in terms of industry buzz, but that’s likely down to the way the service has evolved over a number of years, from its origins as a way to stream PS3 games to your TV or PC. But with PS4 downloads added in September of this year, it’s now in direct competition with Microsoft’s service.
Of course it’s PlayStation Plus that’s still the mainstay of the platform’s subscriber services, arguably being a more illuminating indicator of the platform’s health than hardware sales.
“They’re both important,” Light replies. “PlayStation Plus is easily the largest online community of console gamers in the world and its sales are an indicator of our players’ high engagement within the community. Meanwhile our continued strong performance in hardware sales is an indicator of our players’ love for the PlayStation brand.
“With 80 million monthly active users globally, we’re really happy with the health of Plus,” he continues. But is he concerned that by giving away so many games with the service it could cannibalises sales of bigger digital titles?
“We are focused on offering a great value subscription service to our players and the monthly games are a part of that. If we continue to get the service offering right then the business side will take care of itself.”
It’s easy for Sony to be calm about the balance between its subscription and digital games of course, as the platform had done some seriously big numbers, with the company shifting 778m units of software to date this generation (digital and physical, globally). That said, physical retail looks to be having another tricky year at best, as digital shift continues to progress at speed.
“Some players prefer to buy digitally, some prefer physical, and many buy both formats. We’ll continue to listen carefully to what our players tell us they want, and respond accordingly,” Light says. He still sees a big role for retail, if it’s executed correctly: “We love the theatre that retail are able to provide gaming; as long as they continue to evolve this to provide tangible benefits to players and gifters in-store then I’m sure there’ll be a big role for them.”
That said, the shift to digital sales undoubtedly favours the platform, and a lack of High Street presence could impact hardware sales in the long run, reducing public awareness of the available platforms.
Of course there are plenty of other ways to reach consumers these days, though the costs of social media advertising, or any effective online advertising for that matter, are rising.
“Fortunately we’re able to effectively reach players through our own channels,” he reminds us, adding: “Social is a constantly evolving beast that we will continue to invest in. We’re currently the third most relevant brand in the UK.”
That’s from the Prophet Brand Relevance Index 2018, which places PlayStation ahead of Google and Netflix, as well as all its console rivals.
“Social is one of the tools we will continue to use to maintain or exceed that,” Light continues.
More traditionally, outdoor media is still an effective way to reach new or lapsed gamers, or introduce a big new brand. A great example was Sony’s brilliant UK-specific Horizon Zero Dawn campaign last year, which reimagined UK cities in Aloy’s world – we tell Light it’s our favourite of the generation to date.
“Thanks, we had fun with that one! Dog of War [Sony’s pooch-centric God of War spoof] is a more recent example of us injecting some UK humour into a campaign. We do these things to entertain our UK players; as long as they appreciate them, we’ll carry on pushing ourselves to create them.”
It’s certainly good to hear enthusiasm for UK-specific creative in an industry that increasingly relies on pretty straightforward campaigns made for a global audience.
While PlayStation has had a great 12 months, that success has been both shared with, and bolstered by, Fortnite. Which is undoubtedly the game of the year in terms of revenue and its broad social impact.
“While 2018 was indisputably a big year for Fortnite, it was also a year which saw us really act like a publisher and focus on our exclusive titles whether it was God of War, Spider-Man, Detroit or VR titles such as Astro Bot,” Light says.
Discussing the battle royale title and Sony’s own output in the same sentence makes clear the gulf in strategy between them. Sony’s studios have continued to concentrate on single-player, narrative-driven titles, at odds with the industry buzz around games-as-a-service and long-term engagement.
“Buzzwords are one thing, what our players are demanding is another,” he begins. “There’s still a huge audience for games that offer the best in single player narrative with stunning gameplay, as witnessed by the enormous popularity of both Spider-Man and God of War in this year’s charts. I was just at the Golden Joysticks – God of War won five!” he exclaims.
It certainly seems to be a winning combination, and not just of publicly-voted plaudits, with Sony providing incredible solo titles to complement the warring masses of service-based and competitive games – a side of the mix that Light stresses is still crucial to the platform: “We also remained focused on adding value to our third-party partners and worked closely with the likes of EA, Activision and Rockstar.”
While God of War’s Golden Joystick haul was impressive, it was Fortnite which predictably won the Ultimate Game of Year. Something few would have predicted even 12 months earlier.
“That’s the joy of working in such a creative and ever-evolving industry,” Light enthuses. “What Fortnite has reminded everyone is that gaming has the ability to impact popular culture in a similar way to music, film or TV, and that the next ‘big thing’ can come from games. Interacting will always be more engaging than passively watching; there’s now several generations of players who appreciate that.”
The game’s impact was so great it affected even the strategy of its key console partner in some ways.
“We’re always listening to our community and what they’re excited about. With this in mind, we partnered with Epic on a console bundle released during the summer months and featured Fortnite at our larger events… And crossplay you know about!”
Fornite’s impact is undeniable, but Light is not convinced that the game necessarily signposts a bigger future for free-to-play titles on console: “I’m not sure anyone knows the answer to that… Ultimately the players will decide.”
One decision that players haven’t got a say in is the company’s choice to skip E3 this year, with no press conference and no stand on the show floor – for the first time in 24 years. Industry sources have told us that Sony US hasn’t ruled out holding business meetings at the show though. However, that still leaves the high-point of the industry calendar without a public presence from its current biggest brand.
“We’re always looking for new ways to innovate and to delight our players and this decision really was just a reflection of this,” Light comments on the decision. “While we don’t have anything we can tell you just yet, we’re looking forward to sharing our plans with you at a later date.”
That suggests, as do other comments from the company, that the industry can expect something in terms of an event or announcement in 2019. Which in turn leads obviously to speculation over next-generation hardware.
Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida recently confirmed to the Financial Times that a successor to the PS4 is definitely happening: “At this point, what I can say is it’s necessary to have next-generation hardware.”
Another console is hardly a surprise given the runaway success of the current hardware, and with PlayStation breaking the habit of a lifetime in skipping E3, it seems likely now that an initial announcement will come next year.
LIKE A PRO
It’s been five years since the PS4 launch, though the release of the PS4 Pro two years ago has undoubtedly helped to extend the lifespan of the current generation, with Light commenting that hardware generations are “evolving.”
He explains: “The mid-lifecycle upgrade of PS4 to PS4 Pro is a good example of necessary evolution. In enabling the community to upgrade mid-lifecycle it has allowed our most engaged players an even more immersive experience that compliments the latest advancements in TV technology,” namely the explosion in 4K sets over the last few years.
“We’ve found that around one in five PS4s sold has been a PS4 Pro since it launched and around 40 per cent of these have been from existing players upgrading so it’s definitely having a positive impact on the industry as well as on our players.”
Console gamers buying new devices mid-generation is obviously good news for retailers. And hopefully it keeps them more engaged across the whole hardware cycle of the generation.
And of course, PS4 Pro isn’t Sony’s only hardware launch since the PS4; there’s PSVR too. The perception of VR as a whole has undoubtedly suffered from the huge hype that built around the format before it even reached consumers. Sales of 3m headsets (as of August) aren’t to be scoffed at but they are steady rather than accelerating. All that being said, we shouldn’t knock Sony’s continued efforts in the fledgling sector.
“The last two years has allowed VR to establish itself, both in terms of the potential of the technology and building a community around it,” Light says. “Our VR solution has a very affordable price point and is ready to plug and play with any model of PS4. We’ve also built a really strong catalogue of titles – there are now over 200 games and experiences – with more on the way.
“With the likes of Astro Bot, Tetris Effect, Farpoint, Resident Evil 7, Batman Arkham VR and Moss, we’re ensuring there are games that will appeal to everyone’s tastes. One of the features players are really engaging with is cinematic mode, where you can play any game or film on a virtual huge cinema screen through the headset! We’re excited to see where VR will take us next.”
Coming back to the future growth of PlayStation, Light comments: “We’ll be continuing to do what we’ve done during PS4’s lifecycle to date… And that’s focusing on making PlayStation the best place to play.”
It’s a familiar line but with the next-gen transition upon us, it’s one that Sony should hold dear and not be distracted by the hubris of the PlayStation 3 or Xbox One’s broader home entertainment aspirations.
“We’re really proud of the journey that we’ve been on with PS4 so far. The console really has been ‘for our players’ and we’ve been delighted with its performance,” Light concludes.
And that journey looks to have a good number of years left in it, despite any possible next-gen announcement. With new hardware almost certain to be fully back-compatible with the current generation, the PS4 would then receive continued support, both in terms of indie titles and big franchises, for many years to come.