PlayStation 4 a "great redemption" - Jack Tretton
Former SCEA boss reflects on PlayStation years and looks forward to advancing tech with Genotaur
Many great athletes have a hard time giving up the game, playing well past their prime and staying beyond their welcome. Others would rather hang up their uniforms on their terms, going out on a high point rather than letting others tell them they're no longer good enough to compete. If we were to make an analogy to the sports world, former Sony Computer Entertainment boss Jack Tretton, who stepped down suddenly this past March, would fall into the latter category.
"I did want to go out on top. I feel really good about where I left PlayStation with PS4 and I wish them the best of luck going forward," he told GamesIndustry International in his first interview since leaving Sony.
Tretton spent almost two decades with Sony, since the inception of the PlayStation business in North America, and was involved with every major launch. It's easy to understand why someone might want to try something new after such a long time with one company.
"I spent 19 years with Sony and enjoyed it very much, but my original plan was three years and it just continued to get extended as the company was successful and I was successful. It just got to the point, especially with the success of PlayStation 4, that I'd done just about everything I could for them and I really wanted an opportunity to be more of a free agent as opposed to being dedicated to one platform and one company," Tretton explained.
"It was really to have an opportunity to branch out into any form of entertainment or consumer products, and specifically in gaming to get more involved in different platforms and get involved in technology. That's where Genotaur came in, which is a great opportunity to work with some incredibly smart people and some great technology that ultimately will create an engine that's going to improve gaming for all platforms and all developers around the world if things go according to plan."
"I have a lot of friends over at Microsoft but I really see myself more in a free agent role and really trying to branch out and smell the fresh air of being able to be platform agnostic and not just dedicated to console gaming"
It was announced last Wednesday that Tretton had joined Genotaur's advisory board, but you'd be forgiven for not knowing who Genotaur is. We didn't either. The startup deals with artificial intelligence and human-computer interfaces but there isn't a whole lot more to know about them just yet. The company is the brainchild of CCO Doug Johnson who had been ruminating on the idea since the mid '90s. "I had this idea of creating truly intelligent game characters which could be involved in various themes and be competitive. It was originally based on the idea of recreating the thoroughbred horse racing industry in a virtual environment so that everyone could have the experience of being a thoroughbred owner, raising horses, competing without actually being able to breed them," Johnson said.
Eventually Johnson came across the billion-dollar plus research organization at University of San Diego and he was led to Sheldon Brown, who is the Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. That's when things really got interesting.
"My original focus was on creating these game characters, but in working with Sheldon we saw that the opportunities are much broader than just in digital entertainment. Our ultimate goal is to create a seamless connection between artificial intelligence and human intelligence in a manner that can really leverage and multiply the capabilities of the human mind," Johnson continued.
Brown chimed in, "There's this convergence of capabilities of what the general computing environment is at large and the way people engage with multiple computing platforms that are interconnected... There are a number of threads that come together that allow us to do some things with evolutionary computing capabilities and human behavior data mining and the ability to offer new kinds of experiences where games become the real kind of leading edge approach to pulling these various threads together."
It's one thing to have interesting research and technology in development, and it's another to actually realize that in the games market or other industries. That's where Tretton's connections should be a big help.
"I'm just floored by the number of incredibly successful companies that I wasn't even aware of because they weren't on console or on PlayStation"
"Obviously the vast majority of my career has been in gaming. It's over 28 years now and I've gotten to know a lot of people and companies and I've been involved in developing and publishing hundreds of games - so I have an opportunity to connect a lot of the dots between the Genotaur team and the gaming community and ideally take my experience of the last 28 years and help bridge the gap between what the Genotaur team is looking to do and what the gaming community is going to be looking for. Hopefully I'll have some good gaming insights based on my years of experience," he said.
For Tretton, Genotaur is just one of several avenues he'll be pursuing in his post PlayStation days. And it was an old colleague that drew him in.
"I've spent the last few months attending endless meetings, meeting a lot of people and learning a lot about a lot of different companies. I've really enjoyed every minute of it. There are several companies that I'll ultimately be working with. My goal is to help as many companies make better games as possible and find fits where I can lend assistance. With Genotaur there's a founding member by the name of Jim Bull that I worked with briefly back in the Activision days in the mid '80s and he was somebody that I really admired and have a lot of respect for - he reached out to me before I even left Sony and said I'd really love for you to come work with us and I think you'd have a great opportunity here," Tretton noted.
Brown said that Genotaur is aiming to have something in the public's hands within a year. During that same time, virtual reality from Oculus, Sony and others is no doubt also going to get closer to hitting the market. While Genotaur didn't specifically say they'd be working in VR, the synergies with computer-human interfaces seem obvious. And much like VR, the potential applications are vast. But the games industry seems overly protective of such groundbreaking technologies. We asked Tretton why that is.
"The thing that really attracted me to gaming is the fact that it's so driven by technology and that it innovates so much quicker than many other industries... I gravitate towards anything that looks to be cutting edge and forward thinking technology and if you talk to Sheldon and the team at Genotaur they'll tell you there are so many different directions you can go with this technology but gaming really rises to the front of the pack. I don't know that gaming is too insular or protective of the technology but the people that are in the industry, myself included, are so focused on gaming that you tend to create a 'by gamers, for gamers' [mentality]. It's just that they are so focused on gaming that that's where it begins and ends," Tretton said.
"I think that's one of the exciting things about Genotaur - gaming will be on the leading edge of this but it'll go in so many different directions. I'm not only looking to break out of the box of a one-platform, one console company but I'm also looking to break out of the box of just being in gaming. Ultimately I'm really interested in entertainment consumer products, so anything that improves the entertainment experience for people, and anything that caters to gamers is what gets me excited."
If Tretton's learned anything in the last two months, it's that he's really enjoying no longer being tied to a single large corporation. So don't expect him to suddenly pull a Phil Harrison and go to Microsoft, for example.
"I think I've done the big company dedicated console experience and I've enjoyed it. I have a lot of friends over at Microsoft but I really see myself more in a free agent role and really trying to branch out and smell the fresh air of being able to be platform agnostic and not just dedicated to console gaming; I've really been spending more of my time during the last couple months looking into mobile gaming and other forms of entertainment that I haven't had the time or ability to focus on. I would tend to gravitate away from a traditional big console company and more towards independent gaming companies and other platforms," he said.
While Tretton is eager to explore other gaming platforms like mobile, he's not worried in the least about the console industry.
"I've spent my entire career with consoles and I've been told since the beginning that the console was going away and it would be replaced by something; it was the PC early on and most recently smartphones and tablets. I think there's always going to be a place for a console type of device in the living room," he said.
For Tretton and companies he hopes to get involved with, the exciting opportunity is that gaming is expanding. It's everywhere and all sorts of people are playing whether or not they consider themselves "gamers."
"I do think gaming is becoming ubiquitous. Now people expect that they can have a great gaming experience on just about any device and quite frankly they can, it's just going to come down to what they want to play and when," Tretton continued. "I think the thing that's so exciting is gaming is not limited at all; any consumer can play on some of these different devices and the gaming experience and the quality of graphics and the interactivity that you get now on a smartphone is tremendous. So if I'm a futurist, I'm saying that there's no longer people that don't game. Everybody games just like they watch TV and do a lot of things that you consider mainstream entertainment... In the near future, you'll be hard pressed to find someone who's never played a video game."
As someone who's watched the console business evolve for nearly 20 years at PlayStation, Tretton has also seen development and marketing budgets balloon to astronomical figures. The impact has been felt in recent years with many publishers laying off employees and scaling back the number of AAA releases they'll ship. Despite the changing landscape of AAA, Tretton sees a healthy video game marketplace overall.
"I'm not worried about it at all. The smart companies figure out how to make it work. There are better opportunities to create great games today than there were several years ago. There was a fear that it was going to be a limited number of big budget studios creating big budget games and there wouldn't be as much expansion of the genres because everybody would stick to the tried and true. The reality today though is you've got thousands if not millions of developers that have come up through the ranks of smartphone and tablet development and you've got indie developers creating great games on the PC and consoles for much smaller budgets than the AAA games, but there is also an audience there for the dedicated AAA game that people could play for weeks, months or years depending on the code - and if you get the right game there's a big windfall," he said.
"I think you see a wider range now - you've got the Call of Dutys on the high end and you've also got tremendous indie games coming out that are driving consumer interest. I think as long as there's an audience willing to pay $60 and a developer willing to bring a great game to market and invest $100 million plus, then that market is going to remain. I think for the people that do create those hits, the return is wonderful but you do have to have a balanced portfolio and you have make sure you don't have all your eggs in one basket. Even though companies are producing fewer games they still have fairly diversified portfolios and they are hoping their big bets are going to return for them."
And while Tretton expects consoles to continue, he's now opening his eyes to a whole new world in the games space. "In my travels over the last couple months I'm just floored by the number of incredibly successful companies that I wasn't even aware of because they weren't on console or on PlayStation. There's a huge number of successful companies out there making great games," he enthused.
Tretton also acknowledged that the console space could be changing with the rise of the cloud. Clearly, PlayStation Now could be a big factor for Sony, but interestingly, the former SCEA chief told us that the cloud probably still isn't fully ready for prime time. He said a PlayStation service like Netflix streaming is "certainly possible" in the future but "right now I think cloud technology is a little bit limited to do that as effectively as a console does."
"It comes down to is it more effective to do that in a one-to-one relationship with the individual console in the home or a bunch of servers that are streaming it somewhere on a server farm? ... I think what people will ultimately focus on is the entertainment experience, not the device that brings it to them. So whatever brings the best entertainment for people's individual tastes is what people will invest dollars in. I think that's what technology companies have to figure out. And I want to be associated with people who have great ideas about how to improve that experience," he added.
Tretton was reluctant to reminisce with us on PlayStation for too long, commenting that, "to be honest, I've spent very little of my time reflecting on PlayStation since April 1," but he did look back at some highs and lows. It's clear that Tretton felt PS4 vindicated a lot of Sony's past troubles.
"PlayStation 4 was such a great redemption. Figuring everything out and making that platform such a success quite frankly contributed to me being more comfortable with getting on to the rest of my career"
"The high point was that it was great to be part of establishing the PlayStation brand and really going into a very competitive market with Nintendo and Sega really splitting the market, and Sony having zero shelf space and very limited heritage in gaming to ultimately establishing that brand and bringing them to a leadership position. The most challenging time I think was establishing PlayStation 3 and establishing Blu-ray technology and the financial challenges that went along with the PS3. But that's where PlayStation 4 was such a great redemption. Figuring everything out and making that platform such a success quite frankly contributed to me being more comfortable with getting on to the rest of my career," he commented.
Whether it was Nintendo, Sega or Microsoft, Tretton enjoyed the competition. Much like in sports, having good competition brings the best out of everyone, and Tretton said it's only helped the industry.
"I think every company has their challenges but I have a tremendous amount of respect for Microsoft and Nintendo. I think they both have tremendous resources and strengths and they've had their successes in the past and they'll have their successes in the future. I think both companies will ultimately be around for a long time to come and will continue to have success in gaming. I've always said I think a rising tide lifts all boats, so if gaming is going to be healthy it needs as many healthy companies as possible," he remarked.
"A world where there's only one successful console manufacturer is not necessarily a healthy world. You need multiple people bringing multiple ideas and technologies to bear. I think it's great to have strong players like Nintendo and Microsoft in the business. Ultimately, every company in the business benefits if they're successful. I think everybody's rooting for them whether they work there or not. If they're a gamer, they want as many choices as possible and they want to determine what's best for their gaming interests, whether it's consoles, or smartphones, tablets, PC, you name it. As long as someone's a gamer they are potentially an opportunity for someone to do business with."