The Sony Worldwide Studios president reacts to the PS3 price cut, and talks internal comms and external developer relations
Since the arrival of new president Shuhei Yoshida last year, Sony Worldwide Studios has worked hard on improving internal communications and relationships with other Sony Computer Entertainment departments - something which is becoming apparent as new products (such as the forthcoming motion control system) will demonstrate.
Here, the man himself reacts to the PlayStation 3 price cut and new Slim SKU, discusses the progress of that internal communication, and outlines the philosophy to working well with external development studios.
Q: From the Worldwide Studios perspective, what impact do you expect the PlayStation 3 price cut and new SKU introduction to have?
Shuhei Yoshida: Do you want the official answer, or my honest answer? [smiles]
My honest answer is that we're so excited about the products we're working on for release this year, but if there was one thing that could have prevented the success of our titles we felt that would be the price point - so we're relieved to see it finally happen.
Q: The economic downturn has been particularly tough on Sony in the past year or so, but if recovery continues it could come at just the right time for the PS3 Slim?
Shuhei Yoshida: Yes, I totally agree. Games like MAG, or those hardcore games, we have no concerns over. But games like EyePet, or Heavy Rain, or ModNation Racers - they're targeted to grow the audience, and it's crucial to make the hardware more approachable to those consumers.
Q: The PlayStation 2 slimline version had a strong impact on sales - does the PS3 Slim increase the pressure on rivals in terms of a sense of living room chic?
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, our hardware design guys will totally talk about design philosophies and differentiation, and all that. But from a software side, I think once people purchase, the hardware almost falls away from their vision, and all that they see is what's on the TV. So it's nicer that it takes up less space - and also less power... it's eco-friendly, so you can be happier about that.
But other than that, I like the new design, but as far as the game experience is concerned it'll offer exactly the same functionality.
Q: Has the process of collaboration between the software and hardware sides of SCE been better in the past year or so?
Shuhei Yoshida: Absolutely, yes. As far as the new PS3 is concerned it's purely the hardware team's extra effort, and they've done a fantastic job of consolidating some of the components and developing new ones to make it smaller and less expensive to make.
But something new, like the motion controller we demonstrated at E3 - from the very beginning of the project, the idea that we wanted something like this came from the software development teams, so it was a totally collaborative process between the game development teams at Worldwide Studios, those at the SCEA R&D team that worked on the vision technology and the hardware team in Tokyo.
So three groups formed a team to develop new technology - and it's been a great experience for all three of us. It's interesting - we added a new process for the hardware guys, who are very, very busy, to talk to game teams and give feedback.
I wasn't sure how they'd accept those additional steps, but as soon as they started to see some of the things they'd had to make choices on - without really understanding the impact they had - it's now really that at every step they can talk to the game teams. They can find out that one thing is more important than another, or that something doesn't work, and immediately they loved it.
So when you talk to the hardware guys in Tokyo now I think they're saying that there's no other way to develop. I think we've made lots of progress.
Q: I know that was one of the reasons you moved back to Tokyo, to improve that communication. Is there more to do, or are you pretty happy with how it's going?
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, there's always more to do, but compared to when I moved back to Tokyo there are lots of channels that have now opened up between the different groups - hardware and the planning teams, and different parts of the organisation... also Worldwide Studios as well as the marketing groups.
So I think as a whole organisation we're a lot more co-operative, and we're taking more advantage of the talent we have.
Q: The external studios you work with - MediaMolecule, Quantic Dream, Relentless to name a few - all seem to consider the relationship with Sony as a publisher as very strong. Given that there are plenty of developer-publisher horror stories around, how much of a priority is a positive experience for you?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think being in product development on the publisher side, there's something that everybody has to strive for. It's like the ABC of our work - if we're not doing that, we're not doing our job, that's our philosophy.
It's not machines that make games, it's individuals - ideas, passion and personalities - so we approach each product uniquely, and each team has its own personalities, chemistries and cultures, and that's reflected in what they produce.
We really take it seriously, because the creative process demands a lot and it's hard. We want people to trust everything we do, from communications to concepts - whether we like it or not - and without that trust that everybody is trying to help create a great product, the developers wouldn't put their best efforts into creation. They might get distracted, or confused, or divert their focus to something else.
So our job on the product development side of publishing is to remove all of those barriers, as much as possible, and deploy the resources we have to help the vision become reality.
Q: And is that philosophy you've looked to develop and evolve, or do you feel it's something that Worldwide Studios has had previously?
Shuhei Yoshida: I don't think we've necessarily changed - we're learning as the technology changes and we have to adapt to new development processes. We're constantly learning how better we can do things.
There was a time that we approached development a bit more independently, because technology was simpler and the work needed to get a product out was more straightforward. People didn't see the need to help each other or adapt to other people's workings. I think that prevented some of the sharing of best practices or some philosophies.
But by nature and by need we're working and approaching development from all angles now, and I think that helps communication more - philosophies or best practices that are working well with one team can be transferred to others teams too.
In a sense I think we're a bit more efficient in improving what we do.
Q: When a studio such as Relentless, which has been working on the Buzz franchise for a long time, has an idea for something new - Blue Toad Murder Files - how do you respond to that desire to branch out more? Are you concerned the team might lose focus, and that you'd have to look at other parties?
Shuhei Yoshida: Well, if we see them losing focus, on balance we'll be very up front about it. But the thing is, they're really becoming ambitious on how to move Buzz forward, so we're really excited about their passion.
They're not happy just to see what they've achieved so far and do more of the same - they're approaching it in some radical ways.
So with that, the other things they do is no problem, and actually they're spending their own money and taking the risk to create a new digitally distributed product. I applaud that, and I'd like to see them very successful in that, so they can become examples for other developers - yes, this can be done, and if you really focus on what you do, and understand the medium, the users, and the content that works, then it's a viable business model for developers.
I think that's fantastic, and something I hope we will always develop on PSN - digitally downloaded games.
Q: As long as they choose PSN, and not another downloadable platform...
Shuhei Yoshida: [smiles] That's an additional preference...
Q: Just finally, we've been canvassing opinion on release dates and new IP - how do you see the Holiday season this year, as compared with last year?
Shuhei Yoshida: I think publishers are learning, as are we - we spaced Resistance and Killzone out, because they were in the same genre this past year, and it seemed to work very well. Each title had its own space, and consumers had renewed interest to look at these games post-Christmas.
Especially some new IPs, which need more understanding and communication for consumers, using the first three months of the year totally makes sense.
The challenge is, because everybody is realising that and moving potentially successful titles to that timeframe, it could become the new Christmas... So we're looking carefully at what could happen.
Shuhei Yoshida is president of Sony Worldwide Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.