“Proper cause to celebrate”: Sony rediscovers its disruptive roots with PS4

Thursday, 26 September 2013 16:19 GMT By Dave Cook

Sony is ushering in a new, disruptive strategy with PlayStation 4. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with Sony UK’s Fergal Gara regarding how the firm is re-igniting its past to shake up the industry at large.

When PSone initially came out of the gate it did so in a hell-fire of dark, obscure marketing campaigns and purposely warped messages. To cite one example, the original Crash Bandicoot TV spots featured more live-action footage of a fat man in a tiki mask trashing a supermarket than actual gameplay. Sony was a risk taker back then, like a petulant upstart hawking flem into the eye of the established order and calling for anarchy in the ranks.

With PlayStation 4, that old feeling is back at Sony, and while the company’s image has become more palatable in recent years, it has taken a number of big bets that could create significant ripples in the industry at large. Combined with a strong family of triple-a studios, an aggressive investment in the indie market, the continual push of PS Vita, the incredible clout of PS4, the acquisition of Gaikai and more, and you have a company that wants you sit up and pay attention.

Today, in the deafening and shockingly under-soundproofed press rooms of Eurogamer Expo’s grand hall, I spoke with Sony’s UK VP and MD Fergal Gara to talk about the company’s strategy moving forward, and how it looks to rekindle its love of disruption.

VG247: Sony has delivered a clear, frank PS4 message from day one, while we’ve seen Microsoft twist in the wind a little. What’s your view on that?

Fergal Gara: It’s not my place to comment on what the competition are doing, but what I am delighted about is that we planned the message, we planned an approach and we stick to that approach. The reaction of gamers out there – which is most evident with their delight and pre-ordering of the machine – has shown that we’ve got a good relationship with customers.

VG247: PS4’s tech is impressive, and we’ve seen Microsoft announce the increase of Xbox One’s clock speed. What’s your view on this? How future-proofed is the PS4 for one?

Gara: Probably the biggest barometer I would pick out for where the tech is, is the feedback from publishers – both in-house and out-of-house – because they tell us it’s a dream to develop for. They tell us the way it’s configured, the architecture, it means they’re not hitting that glass ceiling hardly at all. Where as, if you look at the experiences coming out there on PlayStation 3 later this year – I can pick out Beyond or Gran Turismo 6 – they’re really pushing the envelope of what PS3 can do.

It is possible to create that level of experience on PS4 far more easily, so I guess the shackles are off for them. How far can they push it and when do they hit their glass ceiling? I’m not really the best person to ask, but they certainly feel hugely liberated and inspired right now.

“PlayStation 4 is a dedicated, specialist device that has become architecturally involved with the PC environment, but it’s configured in a way to deliver a rich experience above all others.”

That’s good to hear, as we heard a Nvidia exec yesterday stating that their PC tech – now – is more powerful than what PS4 or Xbox One can offer gamers. But, do you feel this new wave of PC tech will detract from next-gen consoles as the capabilities increase rapidly?

It doesn’t look like a concern at the moment. You always have to keep your eyes open to see where potential threats might come from. The only thing we know for sure is that the initial demand, and the initial weeks and months of PlayStation 4 is almost guaranteed to be exceptionally strong. That’s based on pre-order numbers that we’re delighted with. They’re the best we’ve ever seen, so that gives us huge confidence.

Let’s not forget that PlayStation 4 is a dedicated, specialist device that has become architecturally involved with the PC environment, but it’s configured in a way to deliver a rich experience above all others. It’s designed to deliver gameplay at the best possible level, which wasn’t compromised in terms of the decisions we’ve made.

The current cycle is still going, but given the speed at which PC tech is improving, do you see the next cycle being shorter?

People forget that the cycle before that is still going. We’re still selling PS2s now. We only stopped manufacturing them earlier this year, so Sony is adept at overlapping life-cycles. It shows a different regional profile, the fact that we’re a global brand means that the tail is longer in certain markets and the uptake is slower in certain markets. Then there are emergent markets. But that’s the great benefit of having a portfolio in places where – as one device gets cheaper and cheaper – it becomes more and more accessible to more different markets.

I think there’s a good question in there, which is, “How long is this next cycle?” But we go into it thinking it’s at least several years. What will the world look like in five to seven years time? It will undoubtedly have evolved even further. There’s innovations already in there like the double screen experience, and remote play on PS Vita, or whether it will be running apps and that is developing quite nicely.

But I’d also say that the Gaikai acquisition is taking cloud gaming to more devices over time. So how does that look in five to seven years? I think it will be really, really interesting. Playstation 4 has taken time to develop as it represents the top tier of the PlayStation experience, and it is liberating in many ways over a range of devices, so that’s really exciting.

The PlayStation brand does seem to be more accessible now, as you said, because of multiple platforms that support it. It’s also more accessible to indies now, and you have done a lot to ensure you snap up the talent.

And that will be developed right away. That is live from day one, and it’s not some time in the future. You’ll see several games available on day one, and many, many more in the months to follow. So that’s a sincere move that’s been made and planned over a considerable time, and we’re really delighted by it.

This is what I wanted to ask basically, because we saw Microsoft stating that its ID@Xbox program won’t see indie games launch until 2014 now. What’s your view on differentiating between triple-a and indie games in this manner? Is this positive discrimination needed at all?

“Some people have been critical of PS Vita. The potential killer app might well be the remote play with PS4. Watch Dogs is playable on PS Vita over wi-fi and that is exciting. To say we should write-off PS Vita … absolutely not. We’re hitting the numbers we want to hit today.”

Well yeah, and let’s not forget we’re incredibly proud of our network of studios like Naughty Dog and Polyphony, Guerrilla. It’s just three examples of amazing output this year. Sometimes the most creative and innovative experiences aren’t just about big budgets and triple-a developers.

They are about a great idea executed in a new and interesting way, and indies can be brilliant at that. I’d also say that another observation of how the market has evolved in recent years is, we’ve seen a trend towards bigger and bigger titles and a really open middle ground, with – unfortunately – a lot of middle ground publishers falling out of the market. But we see the indie market as the new middle ground.

They can develop quickly, easily and economically in a much more entrepreneurial style, and I think what we’ll see is a new middle ground again with great games and experiences. Some of them will be at low price-points, some of them at medium-to-high price-points, but all of them relatively easy to develop. I’ll give you a good example; the interaction of the DualShock 4 and the PlayStation camera. We’re bringing out a really interesting experience called Playroom.

That’s as much a tech demo as it is a great interactive experience. You can see that going on in different directions in regards to the gameplay. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was an indie developer that produced a killer application from that technology.

Would Sony, then, be prepared to use such tech or ideas across the Sony family of in-house studios, and of course enlist new indies into that group?

Yeah, we aim to be a broad church. We have been a broad church for all of our existence really, and we’re setting ourselves up to be that again.

Am I right in saying that these indie developers will help fill the gaps between the big ‘blockbuster’ games? Because it seems to me that these big titles are now so expensive that there’s simply can’t be as many of them in a year as we’ve seen in the past.

You don’t want it to be too heavy either. Every Christmas is just the next big franchise, the next big iteration of a big franchise. At some stage yeah, gamers are going to get very tired of that, and even if they become just more shiny, more sparkly because it’s a next-gen console, I don’t think that alone is enough. So it’s interesting to see the next set of triple-a franchises coming through and two of the rising ones are Watch Dogs and Destiny, and we’re working really closely with them. That’s good but it isn’t – on its own – enough.

You mentioned Gaikai earlier and I interviewed Dave Perry a few times before Sony bought the company, and even then it sounded like genuinely exciting, disruptive tech. Shuhei Yoshida said recently that the European launch is being held back by broadband concerns in the region. Can you share any more on that issue?

With anything new you have to pick a place to start, and the US was a more obvious place to start with using Gaikai technology, due to the more consistently high-performance broadband you see in the US. There are areas in broader Europe where broadband is excellent, and in the UK, but there are parts of Europe where it’s more patchy. So it’s simply a starting place. We see it as an exciting source of development that will grow and evolve over time, and we’re excited that this stuff is happening.

“The Gaikai acquisition is taking cloud gaming to more devices over time. I think it will be really, really interesting.”

What is the nature of Gaikai on PS4? Is it like Spotify where I can pay a monthly fee and access the classic PlayStation back catalogue?

We haven’t decided. It’s early days.

Not to worry. We saw this week that Valve announced SteamOS and a line of branded hardware. Sony has dealt with the company before, so I wondered if perhaps you had spoken with them about bringing the tech to PS4 at some point.

Not personally, I don’t know if there’s a conversation going on about it.

What do you think of it personally?

I haven’t studied it I’m afraid.

In some ways Sony and Valve share similar traits in your desire to roll out the brand over multiple devices that work together, like PS Vita cross-play, remote play and mobile. Some people still say Vita lacks a killer app, but it’s not exactly content-poor.

Some people have been critical of PS Vita, and if it wasn’t for the fact that lots of gamers really, really enjoy it, and the feedback has been very good on the device, maybe we’ve been a little less confident. But of course there have been concerns that we’ve progressed from. Chief concerns were the cost of the system and the cost of games. The cost of the machine; it’s now selling in the UK at £50-70 less than it was a year ago, and it’s growing year-on-year. We’re really pleased. It’s been hard work, but we’ve got there.

Secondly, the price of games; you know,first-party games are now coming out at a lower price than they were a year ago. But not only that, we’ve got the Mega Packs, which is up to ten of games and a memory card included in the price of the console for free. And then of course PlayStation Plus offers an instant game collection across three platforms now, well, as off November 29 when you will get games for PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.

The potential killer app might well be the remote play with PlayStation 4. For example, Watch Dogs is playable on PS Vita over wi-fi and that is very, very exciting. To say we should write-off PS Vita … absolutely not. We’re hitting the numbers we want to hit today. We’re pleased, it’s very ambitious going into the big season.

In general then, what’s your view on Sony’s readiness as you build towards the PS4’s UK launch?

The demand is absolutely there, and there’s lots of finishing touches to the launch plan, but right now, a lot of what we’re doing is a bit of returning to what made PlayStation great originally. It’s about revisiting those key moments in our history and trying to reignite some of those. You can expect to see a non-corporate strategy from us, for want of a better word. I don’t want to reveal everything now, but it’ll be proper cause to celebrate, and to celebrate our history. We’ve been going 20 years, six consoles, and we’re really pleased about it.

PlayStation 4 hits the US on November 15, and Europe November 29.