PlayStation Move, 3DTV support, Gran Turismo 5... It's a busy final quarter for Sony Worldwide Studios, the division which controls all of Sony's first-party development efforts. In its short existence, the group has become a major force in development, an umbrella organisation that oversees 15 studios around the world and holds the reins of IP including Killzone, LittleBigPlanet, Uncharted, God of War, Gran Turismo and eagerly-awaited title The Last Guardian.
Overseeing the group is Shuhei Yoshida, who took over as president in 2008 - not long after Sony Computer Entertainment was rocked by the departure of founder Ken Kutaragi and the elevation of Kaz Hirai to Group CEO. Taking a few moments away from the hectic show floor at the Tokyo Game Show, Yoshida discussed with GamesIndustry.biz how the division juggles its many priorities, why projects like GT5 and The Last Guardian are allowed to run and run - and why the changes at Sony since Kutaragi's departure mean that future PlayStation consoles will be very, very different.
Q: With new technologies like PlayStation Move and 3DTV on the way, is this a challenge for Worldwide Studios? You have to look at traditional games, at Move games, at implementing 3D games - how do you cope with your attention being divided?
Shuhei Yoshida: And on top of that, of course we have PSP to support, and the PS2 hardware is still selling. It's definitely a challenge to look at all of the games and all of the resources that we've got, and make sure that we're supporting all of the important initiatives that we have, be it PlayStation Move or 3DTV.
Luckily, though, these new technologies naturally excite developers, so we don't have to convince developers to make games that support 3DTV or Move. In the case of Killzone 3, that supports both Move and 3DTV, and many other Move products, such as EyePet, also support 3D. As long as the tech offers something positive, something of value to the game, and the team likes the idea of the technology... It's a natural fit. We don't have to push them to look at it.
The overall balance of our portfolio is a different thing. We can't just allow every team to decide what to make - we always have discussions with marketing groups, and sometimes adjust our focus. That's the job of the management level, including myself.
So yes, focus is a challenge, but it's a fun challenge.
Q: What you're saying is basically that because developers love new technology, it's not hard to get them to play with it.
Shuhei Yoshida: Right, right. And our job is to make sure that the right technology is supported by the right projects.
Q: Are you concerned that consumers who aren't interested in Move right now, and won't be upgrading to a 3DTV any time soon, will feel neglected or left behind? Is that something you worry about - making sure that those people are still happy as PlayStation consumers?
Shuhei Yoshida: There's a different answer for that depending on if we're looking at Move or 3DTV. 3DTV is a much larger investment for consumers - people usually use their TVs for five years or even longer. It has to come to the point where, when people are thinking of upgrading or changing their TV, they feel that it's about time to choose a TV that supports 3D technology.
We already know that 3D stereoscopic gaming is a longer-term initiative... But that 3D stereoscopic technology is one of the things that developers tend to be so curious about, they want to see their games in 3D.
The good thing is that supporting 3DTV is not a significant investment, if the technology is right - especially if the engine already supports 1080p or 60fps. It's a bit more challenging if your engine only supports 30 frames at 720p, but we are working on R&D to help reduce the amount of resources that hardware has to spare to support the two separate images.
In that sense, yes, we know that it will take time for lots of people to adapt to 3DTV at home - but it's very exciting technology. Plus, it's not like we're making exclusives for 3DTV. It's always in addition to regular TV support, so we don't feel that we are leaving people behind.
Q: So you don't see, at any point in the next few years at least, that you'll be doing a game that's exclusively for 3DTV?
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, never say never - but I don't think that makes sense. Stereoscopic 3D isn't adding something completely different, it's just making it a bit more natural for users to see 3D images. We just don't have to think about making games exclusive to 3DTV.
Q: Sony recently revealed that the PS3 is now breaking even on the hardware side. Does that take some pressure off the development side, perhaps freeing you up to take more risks because you're no longer compensating for big hardware losses every quarter?
Shuhei Yoshida: It's delightful to know that we're not losing money with every piece of hardware we sell! However, the SCE management - Kaz and all of those people - understand the importance of first-party software development. Even though the company overall had been losing money, mostly due to the hardware costs, they always tried to support Worldwide Studios' investment in software - especially as we are launching lots of new initiatives, including Move and 3D technologies.
We have never felt that because hardware is losing money, we can't make the games that we want to. We never felt that. But, as a part of the company, it's delightful to know.
Q: You sleep better at night now?
Shuhei Yoshida: Oh yes, absolutely! [laughs]
Q: I suppose the proof that you've never been prevented from making the games you want to lies in games like Gran Turismo 5, which... Which you're smiling about, I see, and which we're finally seeing in a couple of months' time. We also saw today that Last Guardian is now scheduled for Holiday 2011, which is later than expected. Is that just part of the company culture? Do you look at certain titles and say, we're willing to put in as much time and money as this requires?
Shuhei Yoshida: It's our company culture to try to support the vision of the creative minds - but it's more about the team culture, and the team's personality, almost. Some teams are really good at hitting milestones and release timings.
Other teams experiment more. They can never tell the final schedule until they do a lot of trial and error work. As a part of management, I do wish that all teams would hit all their milestones... But it's extremely difficult to ask people to try something new, and still keep to a schedule. Some teams can actually do that - that's an amazing ability - but not everybody is perfect. We have to look at the strengths of the team, rather than trying to get everybody to focus on one aspect of development. It's always a balance.
Q: It feels like these developers are very lucky to be working for Sony - I don't think very many other publisher executives would sit across the table and say "oh, you know, we just have to let them experiment"...
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, these people - I'd say - have earned their voice within the organisation through the products that they have made. We always talk, including the marketing groups, about the status of the project, the vision of the project... You know, thank you for that. I take it as a compliment. [laughs]
Q: With regard to Move, it feels a little unfortunate that it's launching around the same period as Kinect. Won't that cause confusion for consumers? How do you convey the differences between the two technologies to mainstream consumers?
Shuhei Yoshida: It's very interesting that you say that - because ever since we announced Move at E3 last year, I've always felt like we were lucky that Microsoft made such a big deal with Project Natal. In a broader sense, we are categorised as "motion gaming" - if we were just doing Move, we wouldn't have had as much coverage and attention from media and consumers.
Because you have Kinect versus Move, or Natal versus Motion Controller... I've always felt that that helps to convey our message in terms of what's unique about Move. In our mind, from the beginning, we clearly understood the difference between what Microsoft is trying to do and what we have been doing. I feel like it's a great thing, to have the Kinect versus Move versus Wii comparison.
Q: Nintendo has suggested in the past that they actually experimented with Kinect-style technology before settling on their motion control. Did Sony ever try the same sort of thing that Kinect is doing?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think that 3D cameras, technology-wise, are not anything like a secret. There are lots of technologies being presented by tech companies. I have no doubt that all companies have tried it and evaluated it, and have come to their own decisions.
Yes, including ourselves - we've been doing camera research from the PS2 days, and of course we looked at 3D cameras. If you remember, we once did a presentation during one of our industry events using an early prototype of a 3DV or Primesense camera - talking about new technology directions. So yes, we're very, very familiar with the technology.
Q: But you decided not to bring that to market.
Shuhei Yoshida: Yes. We decided that that's not the right technology for what we want to do.
Q: Talking about the technology of rivals - Nintendo's 3DS is coming, and the PlayStation Portable is quite a few years old now. You must be looking to the future of that platform - what can you tell me about where you stand with regard to PSP now? Are you winding down what you're doing on the current one and looking to the future?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yeah, there's no denying that - it's about six years since the launch of the PlayStation Portable. When we launched PSP it was the newest, biggest, brightest thing that we had - and after five or six years, and releasing many games, there's no denying that people start to see that it's getting a bit old.
But we're always trying to expand the market - now our focus is on shifting to a younger audience and a more casual audience, and we're making games for that audience.
In terms of looking at new technology, it's always the case that as soon as we look at a new platform or new tech, our R&D teams start looking at what's new in the general space. So yes, we have been looking at new technologies, and looking at the options that we have. It's not the right time for me to say anything about it.
Q: When you look at where you want to go next in handheld, even in terms of software development - leaving hardware out of it - do you see your biggest rival as being Nintendo? Or is it Apple now?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think both are. Clearly, Apple has been communicating that iPod and iPhone are game machines, or support games. Some people, consumers, may choose to buy an iPod, or be given one as a Christmas present from parents, and make do with it in terms of their need to play games.
But in terms of the kind of games that are on iPhone or iPod, or DS, or PSP... I think there's a clear definition and distinction in the kind of things that each hardware platform does well. In a broader sense, playing games on a handheld device, yes, we are competing - and in some cases, we must be competing for the same target. But in terms of the kind of games, the game experiences we are trying to bring to market through PSP seems to be quite different from what Nintendo has been doing with DS, and what Apple is doing with iPhone and iPod Touch.
Q: In terms of the overall culture at Sony Computer Entertainment, it feels from the outside like there's a big difference between SCE now, and how you were when you launched the PlayStation 3 - which is of course that back then, SCE's boss was an engineer, and now it's a software guy, a marketing guy. Does that make a big day-to-day difference in how things work inside the company?
Shuhei Yoshida: That has made a huge, huge day to day difference, and a month-to-month and year-to-year difference!
Actually, I'd say that Move was the first platform project that, from day one, from the very conceptual stage, had Worldwide Studios involved. Actually, WWS was involved before SCE's hardware guys were involved. It was between Richard Marks, the SCEA R&D group and Worldwide Studios teams - they started looking into next-gen motion gaming, and tried every different kind of technology, including 3D cameras and other motion capture technologies like magnetics or ultrasound.
We settled on Richard Marks' new invention, and he actually hand-carried his hand-made Move prototype to Japan and asked them if they could make it, if it was possible to manufacture it.
That's a totally, totally different approach from the days when Ken was running the company. As soon as Kaz took over Ken's position, Kaz told the people in Japan that from now on, they had to talk to Worldwide Studios about anything about the platform, and get our feedback on any decisions. I thought, "wow"!
That was the time when I was appointed as president of Worldwide Studios, and I discussed it and agreed to move my base from the US to Japan. Running Worldwide Studios, if it was just the studios, I could be anywhere, right? I could be in Europe, or the US, or Japan. But I realised that with Kaz' new initiative, he wants to run his company's platform-side development as a collaboration between WWS and the hardware teams.
But there had never been that kind of process. People understood Kaz' vision, but they didn't know what to do, or who to talk to. They had set milestones in terms of developing hardware. I felt like I could uniquely go into that group of engineers in Japan and suggest a new process - interject the right kind of software teams to the right kind of hardware issues that need solutions.
I felt that, because they didn't have to talk to us when they were making hardware decisions previously, they might feel like the process took too long if they had to go through additional steps. I was afraid that they might not like it. But what's really exciting, for me, is that I have found that they really, really embraced the relationship. They always wanted to make hardware that great games could be made for - but they didn't know who to talk to. They were making decisions with very limited insight from the software side, regarding what kind of hardware features or tools would make game developers happy.
Not only were we able to say, yes, this feature is good, or this other feature won't be necessary - we could show examples, the reasons why some features are more important than others. We could use our game concepts, our prototypes, and show them the reasons. Then it becomes really clear in their minds - they understood that they had to make Move's response time as good as Dual Shock, in order to make it adaptable to all kinds of games. That kind of technical decision can now be made with direct insight from gaming teams.
The engineers say that they're so glad to hear these things - they can't think of any other way of making new hardware, now.
Q: Presumably, this culture will carry through when Sony next builds a platform, rather than an accessory.
Shuhei Yoshida: Right, right.
Q: PS2 and PS3 were criticised consistently over the fact that it took developers a long time to get up to speed on the hardware - it was too tough, too difficult. Next time you do a platform, that's going to be different?
Shuhei Yoshida: Oh, that should be different! Not only do we give them input, but Worldwide Studios' tech teams are part of the platform OS and tools development. That's a completely new world as well.
Our central tech groups, the WWS tech groups, have been making game engines or tools for the studios in the group - but now they are part of the tools of development and the low-level middleware library development. That means the future platform, the PlayStation platform tools and OS... At least part of those will actually be developed by game developers! [laughs]
We have unique talent on the game side, different from the hardware guys. We're trying to combine all of the talent from our global organisation.
Shuhei Yoshida is president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. Interview by Rob Fahey.