PS4, next gen rivalry and the Vita rescue plan: in conversation with PlayStation’s Jim Ryan

We meet SCEE president and CEO Jim Ryan in ebullient mood the day after Sony’s Gamescom presentation, at which the platform holder seemed very confident in its next gen proposition. Microsoft is increasingly turning up the heat, though, and with a series of policy changes and the offer of a free copy of FIFA with every Xbox One, the choice between the two consoles isn’t as clear as it once was. Here, we discuss PlayStation’s Gamescom announcements, what they mean for PS4 and Vita and how the next gen race is shaping up.

Your Gamescom showcase was very heavy on indie games, while Microsoft, with its Call Of Duty bundle and FIFA deal, feels like the blockbuster games console. Do you ever think you’re pushing this indie thing too hard?

No I don’t think so. I can see how that vibe could kind of come out but it’s a fact that FIFA and Battlefield and Need For Speed – they’re all going to be on PS4. And you know, by the way, if you want to play Battlefield on a next gen console then the only one you can do it on is PS4.

So they’re all going to be there, Call Of Duty’s going to be there, platform holders tie up with publishers for what is perceived to be mutual benefit. We’re doing it with Ubisoft and we’re doing it with Activision with Destiny. But at the end of the day these big games, they’re all multiformat and you’re talking about Windows of 60 or 30 days for one piece of DLC – it’s not the end of the world.

And equally we gave prominence to the indie stuff yesterday and I think we were right to do that because I think there could be some very interesting things come out of that and it’d be nice if the sort of classical platform model with the big publishers getting ever bigger…if that was somehow broken and new stuff came from leftfield, it would reinvigorate something that’s at risk of possibly becoming a bit stale.

But is it enough? Do you think the average guy on the street cares about indie games?

That obviously is the job of marketing and I think you’re right, if you take any one of those games in isolation – nobody’s going to shell out 400 Euros just to buy that – it would be naïve of us to suppose that, but I think if you get a decent roster of that sort of stuff I think that enhances the platform. I’d point to the stuff that Thatgamecompany has brought – Flower, Flow and Journey – I would argue with anybody that that stuff has been platform enhancing.

And I would argue that that stuff has been platform enhancing to the extent that a thirty day window on some DLC that’s quickly caught up by the competitor platform can’t be.

You’re depicting PS4 as a games console for launch, but this time next year will you be pushing it as a wider entertainment device?

The console model, historically, has always evolved with time and the audience has changed over time. That’s a historic fact. It starts off appealing to the core gamer and then hopefully as the price comes down then the audience broadens, and I don’t think there’s any particular reason to think that that model will change on this particular cycle. I think it’s likely that history will repeat itself to a greater or lesser degree.

If you’re talking about twelve months’ time I think we will stil be messaging very strongly about the gaming capabilities of PS4. Factories are going to be running flat out the way demand is looking. There’s an awful lot of core gamers out there now and we will be selling to them certainly in this part of the world.

There was no mention on Gaikai’s services in the conference, can you give us an update on when that will roll out?

Yeah sure and I’ll tell you why is wasn’t touched upon last night. So the plan is to begin with North America next year and the plan is to provide a streaming service that will allow for PS3 content initially to be streamed to firstly PS4 then PS Vita and then PS3.

And so that will happen in 2014 in North America initially. Now, and I touched upon these issues of broadband in Europe during the presentation – Europe is of course on the roadmap for that service to be deployed at some point in the future, but for reasons outside of our control we don’t yet have a timeline for it. So at a show which is now pretty global in its reach but primarily aimed at a European audience, we didn’t really want to start talking about the virtues of this great cloud-based service without knowing exactly when it’ll come to Europe.

We’ve got a roadmap, there’s just a few bumps along the road that need to be ironed out.

So it’s next year?

2014 – early-ish for North America.

No word on Europe?

Nothing to say yet.

It was interesting to see you have a little fun at Microsoft’s expense during the show…

[laughs] I don’t know what you’re talking about!

…what’s the atmosphere like between you and Microsoft when you meet at shows like Gamescom and E3?

Sure, you know, on the way back from E3 I sat very close on the plane to Phil Harrison who I’ve known for many years, I worked very closely with him at Sony and we kind of had a chat and it was all very friendly.

What Andy was doing [in referencing Microsoft’s various post E3 U-turns] was really making a point that we set these policies very early on and we have been clear and consistent and we haven’t deviated a millimetre from them over the course of the year. And it’s been a very busy year – and that’s really the point he was making. Yes, he had a bit of a dig at Microsoft and they’ve done that to us on occasion as well. So I don’t see any harm in it. If it gets people interested, why not?

Does that reflect your approach more generally? You seem to be trying to make PlayStation more human – through social media and pushing guys like Shahid Ahmad.

We learned a lot from the PS3 cycle. I mean we were probably touched by a little bit of hubris following the success that we had on PS2. I think some mistakes were made in the architecture of the system and we’ve sat and reflected very carefully on things that could be improved this time around and I think you see that reflected in some of the things we’ve done and the decisions we’ve taken.

A lesson learned: Ryan says there was a touch of hubris about PS3′s launch.

When PS3 launched there were these weird ads all set in a hotel and the message was very broad, not really about gaming at all – do you think Microsoft is making that same mistake?

You said that, not me… I just focus on what we’re doing and we’re certainly have learned a lot of lessons from last time around. I think we’ve got a better idea of what to focus on. And I think you’ll see that in the coming weeks and months as we start to message more actively and aggressively in above the line media. So I don’t think you’re going to see a reprise of the hotel, don’t worry.

So the Vita rescue plan. I heard a great rumour about you guys potentially bundling a Vita in with a PS4…

Sure, I mean it’s the sort of thing we’re discussing. Now I’m not saying we’re going to do it, but one of the things I was pleased about yesterday is that we had the chance to really properly explain and demonstrate Remote Play. It was touched on at the New York event and it was touched upon at E3 but there was so much other stuff going on that it didn’t really get the time that I think it warranted. When I was crafting the script I made a real effort to carefully explain it with my little analogy of how it might all happen at home.

People have been intrigued by this, and there’s going to be a great deal of crossover between potential Vita owners and PS4 owners and we’re going to spent a lot of time reflecting on feedback. Clearly, finding ways for consumers to access both devices is a logical thing to do. Whether you put them together in a bundle, that’s one way of doing it – you might get a bit of a problem with the price, but there are a variety of ways and means to do that but it’s definitely something we’re talking about.

The price cut will help Vita, but have thirdparties lost interest? Does it need more big name software?

I think we have big name software, bringing Killzone to Vita is going to help a lot in the same way that Killzone on PSP all those years ago helped a lot. And Tearaway is actually really cool and innovative.

We do have stuff coming from third parties, we do have indie stuff, so I think the combination of that, the Remote Play story – the thought that all of those PS4 games are also on PS Vita and the price cut – hopefully we’ll start to get some meaningful traction.

I thought your presentation was really confident, but has Microsoft’s FIFA deal changed your outlook at all?

No. I think every business looks at pre-orders and if you need to you dial stuff up to stimulate demand, and we’re not in a situation where we need to do that. We don’t yet have a fix on supply but matching supply to demand is going to be our challenge.

So you don’t feel the need to bundle a game with PS4?

No. We’ll have some bundles at launch and we’ve always done that but they will be value added and they’ll be priced to provide a proper consumer saving but we’re not going to … I mean, giving stuff away, day one, at launch?

I guess you need a big chequebook to do that?

Yeah, you need a big chequebook but I think that almost says something… I don’t want to be critical of anybody but we don’t feel that we need to do that. Let’s leave it at that.

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