One year ago today at Sony’s PlayStation Meeting in New York, the platform holder went public with its plans to release PS4 in time for holiday 2013. We saw the new DualShock 4 pad, next-gen games and a vision: Sony pitched the new hardware as the videogame console built by game developers and laser-targeted at players. And as part of that February showcase, Sony explained that planning for the new console began to formulate at a very high level within Sony’s Japan HQ just after PS3’s troubled launch.
Only a small group of Sony execs were in on that plan right up until late 2012, when PlayStation UK’s managing director Fergal Gara became part of discussions around the new console. “The target was clearly to get out last year prior to Christmas, and that of course got communicated to the world in February,” he tells us. “It was still a little broad in February, in that the territories and pricepoint weren’t defined, but what’s really pleasing is that we managed to communicate our goals effectively.”
At PlayStation Meeting, Sony showed that it had been listening, careful to get developers onside with an approachable, accessible console while pleasing players with a tight focus on games. Though some complained of not seeing the console itself, very few inside Sony had seen a PS4 by that point; understandably, it was considered a risk to go too public too early with other details, too. “So things like price, for example, there are a lot of variables that go into that,” continues Gara. “If you announce the price ten months ahead of your launch there could be some moving parts that make that uncomfortable when it comes to launch – it was better to do that at E3.”
Press and player reaction afterwards was mostly positive, and tinged with a more than a little relief, as E3 2012 had left a vaguely unpleasant taste in the mouth. Rumours around Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles had reached a crescendo in the media, too – confirmation that 2013 would be the year we’d see a new PlayStation and Xbox was long overdue by that point.
“I think the judgement at the time both from social media feeds and partners was overwhelmingly positive,” says Gara. “The key reaction was ‘this now looks firm, Sony’s back on the front foot and it seems very well thought through.’”
Importantly, Sony’s PS4 plan was out in the open before its great rival Microsoft, which was also certain to unveil its contender in 2013. February was unusually early for a major reveal event like this – while one might presume that Sony was quite deliberate in moving first, Gara counters that notion.
“Competitive considerations are always important in any of these situations, but they should never be the primary guide,” he says. “The primary guide was what we believed to be the right year for the new console. Confidence was high and we wanted to go public in February right from the early planning stages. I don’t think that was dictated by the competition at all, because we would never have known what the competition was going to do. I remember rumours going around that they might discuss their plans in April, but that didn’t happen.”
It did happen eventually, but it took another three months for Microsoft to show its hand. On May 21 2013, like Sony had in February, Microsoft shipped hundreds of press and industry partners out to a high profile reveal event, but this one was different. By that stage, Microsoft had been at the centre of string of damaging rumour stories around the next Xbox’s always-online, second-hand and Kinect policies. Though technically nothing had been confirmed right up until its ‘next generation revealed’ event in May, we all knew the rumours were true. Our sources were well-placed, and ultimately, proven to be correct.
And yet Sony couldn’t risk planning around that kind of talk. “There were all kinds of rumours going both ways, many of which were unfounded,” says Gara. “It makes no sense to get too carried away with that. I’d describe last year as the year of laying out a plan and sticking to it – not listening to rumours or responding to anyone else’s plan.”
As it turned out, Sony needn’t have worried about the competition too much. Microsoft’s unveiling was an unconvincing muddle; core players didn’t want talk of interactive TV, Kinect and fantasy football, and the internet wasn’t afraid to voice its concerns over the direction of the next Xbox in the aftermath. Gara agrees that Microsoft’s May showcase was “a little bit confused.”
“We always respect our competition,” he says. “We thought it was a different angle and we wondered what it meant to consumers and what it meant to gamers, because ultimately they’re the judge. But yes, they weren’t presenting a games console and we were – that was the overwhelming observation. The judgement over whether that was better, worse or just different…we didn’t make one. We just watched and listened with intrigue. Right from the start they were clearly different approaches.”
And so onto E3. Sony’s neater, clearer PS4 pitch, allied with poisonous, still unanswered rumours surrounding Xbox One had given PlayStation the upper hand, but there were still plenty of mysteries yet to be solved. The stakes had never been higher; questions of price, launchdate and policy would be answered in a spectacular one-two punch of press conferences set for June 10 2013.
Microsoft went first, fleshing out its vision for Xbox One with a sharper focus on games this time around – Titanfall, Forza, Dead Rising, Killer Instinct, Project Spark, Quantum Break, Below – and a price, inclusive of Kinect. But there was certainly no reference to, or clarification of, the controversial policies that had consumed the conversation around Xbox One by then. It felt oddly hollow.
And Sony? Sony wiped the floor with Microsoft, pure and simple. A lower price, a strong set of game announcements, a clear set of policies and one infamous, incredibly cheeky video came together to hand PlayStation the most comprehensive E3 victory in industry history.
In the aftermath, you’d forgive PlayStation’s executive team for toasting the victory with dinner and a drink or two. Sony had sailed through a defining moment in the industry calendar and succeeded in pushing PS4 ahead of Xbox One in the hearts and minds of players.
There might have been the odd beer that evening, says Gara, but the following day senior Sony execs gathered together for an all-day meeting to share feedback so far. “It was never party time,” says Gara. “It was: ‘look, another stage in the plan has gone well’. We had loads of conversations with the media, with retail, with various colleagues and asked each other: ‘what did you pick up? What was good, bad, what’s been asked about, criticised, complimented…on that occasion it was overwhelmingly positive. The questions at the time were about [launch dates for] Japan and Asia.”
The Japan launch would later be confirmed for February 22. It marked quite a shift in priorities for Sony, as every previous PlayStation had launched in its homeland first. Why? “Timing for Japan was better served in terms of software by going for February,” says Gara. “That made better sense for the gamer and certainly speaking for the UK, the desire for a next-gen console was looking very, very acute.”
It must have also helped that with Nintendo’s Wii U struggling and Xbox almost completely anonymous in Japan, Sony could afford to be a little more relaxed about launching in the territory. Gara prefers to look at it as catering for the strong demand in western markets instead. “I’m not sure how much [Wii U and Xbox’s presence] would have influenced the decision, but if you take a reading of western markets it was very clear that we were squeezing the towel on the last cycle,” he tells us. “The hunger for the next generation was especially fervent in the west, and that’s been proven in the spectacular sales of PS4.”
Had Microsoft not run into so many of Sony’s punches at E3, there might have been more of a backlash to the news that PS Plus would now effectively be mandatory on PS4, too. Those without a subscription would be locked out of online multiplayer on the new console, bringing it in line with Xbox Live. “That was just one of those commercial trade-offs in the whole economic equation,” explains Gara. “Getting out there with a keenly priced console was very important, but so was having the opportunity to have a subscription business of a bigger size. We’re always conscious that the gamer would get value overall, so in maintaining the Instant Game Collection, we felt confident that whilst there is a charge for online multiplayer on PS4, the gamer was getting a good package overall.”
Sony glided through E3, then, and PS4 pre-orders took a “quantum leap” after the press conferences, says Gara. Alongside all of the other PlayStation territory bosses, Gara had drawn up regional sales forecasts to feed into a global picture of demand for the new console before E3; a spike around the trade show was expected, but pre-order patterns throughout the rest of the summer took everyone by surprise. “A week later, you’re thinking ‘well, it’ll settle down’… but it didn’t,” says Gara. “We got into July and then August thinking ‘oh my God, these forecasts are rubbish – they’re just way too low.’
“We’re talking about numbers we’ve never seen before,” he continues. “We started from quite a conservative position because all of our reference points – the best part of 20 years in the business – are based on much lower numbers.”
It meant that Gara’s office in the UK and others across the world would have to revise their launchplans significantly, each territory lobbying for stock based on local demand. “There were some proactive and sometimes quite fraught conversations,” says Gara. “Everyone was just trying to do the best job they could.”
It wasn’t a bad problem to have. Contrast Sony’s fortunes with Microsoft’s after E3 2013 and it’s doubtful the PlayStation team would have wanted to swap places. Don Mattrick’s surprise departure and Microsoft’s famous policy U-turns painted Xbox One as a console in turmoil, and Microsoft a platform holder in crisis. And it hadn’t even launched yet.
All that considered, what was the feeling internally about PS4’s great rival at that point? “We’re a very proud team and we’re very ambitious,” says Gara. “So of course when there’s news from someone else that’s less favourable than our own position you gain some confidence, but at no point did we ever take anything for granted. We always knew we were on a very ambitious roadmap too, in terms of timings and technological boundaries. We kept focused on what we were doing and it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that there might have been some wobble in our plan. Our worry was that we’d be unable to meet the production volumes.”
The careful management of expectations at retail were vital ahead of launch day, which proved to be a record-breaker for Sony. Right now, three months after PS4’s launch in the US and across Europe, there are still territories without sufficient stock, says Gara. With the Japan launch still to come, PS4s playerbase now stands at 5.3 million; Sony has been helped somewhat by Microsoft’s initial struggles, absolutely, but it can happily characterise the last 12 months as a resounding success. “For me the biggest theme that has run through right from February last year to now is what became our strapline at launch – this is for the players,” says Gara.
That launch messaging will change as the console matures, however. From February 20 2013 through to today, Sony’s focus has been on winning over the industry and the hardcore, but PlayStation’s branding will inevitably broaden out to reach beyond those dedicated audiences. “They remain and will continue to be very important, but yes, expect to see the marketing reach out a bit more and touch more people over time,” says Gara. “Our next big firstparty release Infamous: Second Son fits the style and tone to date, so there’s no need for wholesale change. But clearly we will be looking to reach more people and you’ll see the communications evolve over time.”
One year ago, Sony’s PlayStation Meeting was the opening chapter in 2013’s extraordinary next-gen console face off, one which has ended twelve months later with Sony in the lead, and Microsoft playing catch-up.
UK boss Gara is keen to conclude our discussion by paying tribute to the hardware team who created the console itself – a feat of engineering which delivered a potent balance of price and performance, he says. “It’s the result of some deep soul searching, very hard work, eager listening – and some very clever people putting together a plan, and sticking to it.”