It could be argued that 2008 has been a disruptive year for Sony's internal studios, with the departure of two high-profile executives, Phil Harrison and Paulina Bozek, and the public cancellation of games at the company's London studio.
But the group has kept on track with its intended goals for 2008, of moving two of its biggest franchises, SingStar and Buzz online, and launching one of its most ambitious projects to date – LittleBigPlanet.
Here, in the first part of an exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Michael Denny, senior vice president of Worldwide Studio Europe, discusses the achievements of the year, why Sony is at the forefront of user-generated content on consoles, the future of Sony London and expectations for the externally produced project, Heavy Rain.
Q: Can you give us a brief overview of the Worldwide Studios group, and its work within Sony Computer Entertainment?
Michael Denny: When we formed Worldwide Studios with Phil Harrison and Shuhei (Yoshida, president of SCE Worldwide Studios), the remit was clear. As a first-party studio, to first and foremost produce exclusive high-quality software to further expand the market for PlayStation formats. But along with that, it was about moving to a global structure to look at the deployment of global resources in the most efficient way.
In terms of structure, Worldwide Studios still has a regional structure in terms of Japan, America and Europe, but we have a worldwide studio management that oversees it so we can plan portfolio's and share many things from knowledge to technology. On the technology side we've formed a global technology team, and we will continue to invest in shared technologies that either increase the quality of our software or lessen the costs, or shorten the time to market. We also formed a global platform group to globalise QA process and hosting processes. So we've been looking at many efficiencies there.
Q: And how has Worldwide Studios changed since you took up the new role at Sony after the departure of Phil Harrison, and what has been the focus amongst your internal studios in 2008?
Michael Denny: In terms of my role this year changing, it's really just evolved. I was always involved in running Europe, but now I have the opportunity of working more closely with the London and Cambridge studios in particular, and furthering the work with many more talented teams both internally and externally.
Q: Have those franchise now fully moved over to PS3 – is that it for the PlayStation 2?
Michael Denny: It's still important that they continue on PlayStation 2. For SingStar we still have over eight SKUs planned for next year on PlayStation 2. Buzz as well will still continue on PlayStation 2, it's still a very active format for us.
In terms of the other titles it was also important to focus on – the sequel to MotorStorm, we're pleased with the high Metacritic rating of 82 per cent and it's sold over a million units worldwide. And then of course there was the big one, LittleBigPlanet, where that's taken us to new spaces with user-generated content. We're over 150,000 user-generated levels with over 20 million plays of those levels. So clearly with titles like those, and the PSN titles, such as Crash Commando which we have real high hopes for, we've really focused on making sure we delivered those to the right quality. (Editor's note: the most recent online stats for LittleBigPlanet can be read here.
But for me, it was the focus of the internal studios. Earlier in the year we had some high-profile cancellations of projects. And so we've been really trying to focus on two things; when we have created successful franchises, that we really continue to innovate within those franchises. And with that, finding new IPs and focusing on each studio's strength. The London studio has a great heritage in social gaming, and really looks at at how we innovate in and define social gaming as a richer, connected experience.
Q: What did the internal studios learn from cancelling Eight Days and The Getaway for PlayStation 3? Will you be keeping projects under wraps longer in future?
Michael Denny: There's always a balance to reach. Clearly, when we have what can be deemed exciting concepts and projects, there's a natural want to talk about them. But you're right, some of these projects that are looking to compete in highly competitive genres need a lot of prototyping, need a lot of work to get them right. If you're going to compete in those genres they have to be absolutely right. So, the review process goes on. But it's really the normal course of business in a way, and these things do happen. What that resulted in was us refocusing the London studio and I think it's a stronger, more motivated studio for that.
Q: So London Studio is concentrating purely on social gaming now?
Michael Denny: Absolutely. But it it trying to move it on and reinvent social gaming in a more connected world. We have a number of big franchises within the London studio – SingStar, EyeToy – but we're also looking at new IPs to move forward with as well.
Q: Are those new projects something we're going to see more of next year? Can you tell us if they are at concept or development stages?
Michael Denny: There are a number of unannounced projects, and they'll remain unannounced until we're happy with them. The one that has been unannounced is really an innovation in an existing franchise – EyePet. We're excited at where that can take us in that genre. I'm sure we'll be showing more of that in the new year.
Q: You've mentioned the SingStar franchise and it's importance to Sony. Paulina Bozek also left Sony this year, and also joined Phil Harrison at Atari. To put it bluntly, where you annoyed when Atari poached her?
Michael Denny: Paulina's a very talented individual and we have a lot of respect for her. In this industry, there are exciting opportunities and Paulina chose to move on. I think the most important thing is that we have strengthened up within our studios with talented and creative leaders. With Dave Ranyard coming in to head up SingStar as game director we're sure that series will go on from strength to strength.
Q: You've taken SingStar online successfully, can you talk about where you'd like the franchise to go next?
Michael Denny: While we've discussed taking SingStar online and into more community areas, we shouldn't forget the success it's still going to have on PlayStation 2. There are over 15 million discs in on that product and the music genre is still an expanding space. What's important when we have these large, successful franchises, is that we concentrate on innovating within them, as well as defending them from lots of competition, because that's natural.
Q: Do you feel you've got the balance right with Sony's internal studios in producing hardcore and social products? Do you see internal studios leaning more in one direction over the next 12, 24 months?
Michael Denny: We're not over prescriptive in these things. It's all about looking at each studio's strengths. It's about looking at a balanced portfolio to some degree but we always want to leave open the opportunity for new disruptive and innovative games.
I think if you look at Worldwide Studios heritage in Europe, we always - whether it's internally or externally - work on innovative new products. Although we've had the success in the social genre we want to move that on as well, like finding new experiences with LittleBigPlanet and user-generated content. In the console field that's an area we can rightly claim leadership to now. We want to look at more areas of that.
And in some of the more established genres, like shooters with Killzone 2 – we've had some great results in the beta trial, certainly in the online space. I don't think people have really seen enough of Killzone 2 - the customisability, the clan support, the tournament support. We're really excited where that can go. Looking forward to next year, a game like Heavy Rain, it's trying to do something very new, whether you call that the adventure genre, action adventure, we're calling it interactive drama and it's about trying to create an emotional connection with the game.
Q: That's one of the most exciting aspects of Heavy Rain, right? It's not easy to define so it becomes interesting because it doesn't fit into a preconceived idea.. how's that relationship with Quantic Dream coming along, and what are your hopes for Heavy Rain?
Michael Denny: They're very passionate, they're very excited. And that's what drew us to them. When you look at the game it is difficult to pigeon hole, and sometimes we talk about looking for new audiences. But sometimes it's about creating a product that can may be cross over to a number of different audiences. We have a hope for that product that both core and casual can get into it. It's a game that when you look about and when you understand it, it's really not played on the control pad, as in your head. It's about making choices and consequences, it's not about twitch gaming and how good you are. We feel that the mature nature of the content can appeal to the core and then the consequence based gameplay can appeal to a newer audience, a more casual audience as well.
Michael Denny is senior vice president of Worldwide Studios Europe. Interview by Matt Martin. The second part of this interview, where Denny discusses how digital delivery is influencing development, the future of Evolution Studios and internal growth at Sony, will be published in early January.