In the first part of our interview with Michael Denny, the senior vice president of Worldwide Studios Europe discussed Sony's achievements in 2008, why he beleves Sony is at the forefront of user-generated content on home consoles, and the future of the Sony London studio.
In the second part of this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry.biz, he discusses the group's focus for 2009, including recruitment opportunities, developing new intellectual property, collaboration between studios and working with new start-ups.
Q: What are your internal recruitment plans for for 2009? Is there going to be a push for new staff, or are you holding back on recruitment because of the current economic climate?
Michael Denny: At the moment we have six internal studios and including internal QA we have about 1000 staff in Europe. Our policy is to work with the best talent and use the best practices because that's the way to make the best quality games. We've always had a balanced strategy of working with internal and external studios. Our internal studio policy at the moment is to grow with opportunity. If there are opportunities, if there are great products that are relevant, we will make those.
Q: And how does that affect your work with external studios – again, are you likely to increase that in the next couple of years, or is there a change in what content you expect from external and internal development teams?
Michael Denny: Equally, working with external studios – we're working with 16 external studios throughout about nine countries. Many of those external studios are new start-ups. We have a track record; going back to the days of working with Psygnosis, Bizarre Creations, Traveller's Tales and Reflections. Move that forward to start-ups like Evolution, or when Guerilla were Lost Boys, or Relentless. And to current times with Media Molecule, Epos in Sweden, Housemarque in Finland. I don't think there are many other studio set-ups that take on what is a high risk profile, by looking at new studios and new IPs. But it's something that we passionately believe in, we have to innovate and we have to try new things, and more often than not new studios help us do that.
But equally all internal studios now have their own IP concepting groups, so along with their existing franchises they will try and create new IP as well. So as those come through and become strong, there is every possibility of extension within external studios.
Q: Is that the main attraction of working with newer, start-up studios – the enthusiasm and the fresh ideas?
Michael Denny: Some times the entrepreneurial spirit of new start-ups is infectious and they can come up with some great new concepts. And we have a track record of bringing that through, although we're always going to keep that balanced approach in our production.
Q: Last year Sony release Siren as a digital, episodic download, and it wasn't a small title compared to the majority of titles on the PlayStation Network. What's feedback been of that delivery method to your games developers?
Michael Denny: Episodic gaming is something we've all talked about for a while. For me, true episodic gaming needs to be more than just selling a traditional game split into chunks. It needs to be games that are specifically designed from the outset to be very story driven, to be very cliffhanger-orientated. Almost to follow some of the ideas based on some of the best TV series' like Lost or Heroes. Certainly, those are areas we want to look at further.
Q: Is that delivery method influencing the design of games from your internal studios?
Michael Denny: It has to, to some degree. But it's not really just about delivery method. Look at the PSN store now and we make choices how we deliver games there, I think we have about nearly 40 first-party and 40 third-party titles up there. In 2008 something like Wipeout HD has been the fastest-selling PSN game we've had, and it was very highly rated. It's about the choice of channels we have now. If there are some games, games that are designed episodically, that suit that delivery method better then of course that would be the natural delivery method for it.
Q: Can we expect European developed titles to be delivered that way in the near future? It's a method that a lot of publishers are eyeing closely, as we saw with EA releasing the latest Burnout title over PSN. Are you conscious of leading in that respect?
Michael Denny: What we have now is a choice of delivery channels and every company has to look at products individually and decide what is the best way to deliver those. Those 40 PSN titles online are doing great business, but clearly we do great business through retail with our blockbuster titles that are better served at the moment on Blu-ray disc.
Q: So you don't see a time in the near future where you'll be delivering titles day and date as boxed product and digital release?
Michael Denny: That's not the important issue for us right now – the actual delivery method. It's about getting the content right. When we're talking about the network at the moment it's also about having network experiences as well. One thing we're looking at as a big step-change for us is that move from products to services. Going back a couple of years when we launched a game on a disc, you developed it, you tested it, you put it on disc and marketed it, and that was the end of the game. Now, for some games it's only the start of the game and the service. With LittleBigPlanet's user-generated content we have to service that correctly, we have to learn what the community needs and we have to make sure we're providing additional content along the way. So it's more about the network experience for us.
Q: How is the integration of Home with other internally developed titles coming along? The Home team must be working closely with every other internal Sony studio at the moment?
Michael Denny: With every first party game, we're discussing how we support Home - whether game launching, it's own games space, trophies, rewards etcetera. It's important for us that we do support Home and we're excited that Home is with the community, and the experience is going to evolve naturally over time. Each project is involved to a degree depending on current resources.
Q: Can you give us specific examples of how a game will work with Home in the future, other than the obvious examples of trophies or in-game lobbies?
Michael Denny: Well you call them obvious but they're non-trivial. We've already gone on record as saying that Home, whilst being a 3D representation of the PlayStation community and an evolving service, is going to be game-centric to start with. As well as being a social place, it's is a place where people will go to decide what game they want to launch. If I want to have a different experience, meet new people, and then decide what game to play, Home is the natural choice for me. So game launching is very important for that. And having your own space and being able to show off your own trophies in Home is important as well.
Q: You bought Evolution Studios back in 2007, and they've settled in very well with the MotorStorm brand for PS3. Can we expect more new IP from Evolution, or are they going to stick with yearly iterations of MotorStorm in the way they stuck with the WRC series for the PlayStation 2?
Michael Denny: What we and Evolution achieved is a great example of how worldwide studios has worked. We worked with Evolution on PlayStation 2 exclusively for four years on World Rally Championship products that were very Euro-centric. When PS3 was on the horizon and we wanted to go more global with products we gave them the brief of coming up with an IP that was more relevant globally.
Obviously, they've now moved that original concept on with MotorStorm: Pacific Rift and they'll be looking at future iterations of MotorStorm. But, you may be aware that Evolution and our Liverpool Studio have now merged in terms of management structure and using combined resources. Liverpool had great success this year with Wipeout HD and they also helped on MotorStorm as well. Each studio has its own internal concepting group which will always be looking at new opportunities and new IPs, and we'll continue to extend and innovate within our existing franchises as well.
Q: Is there a plan to merge those two studios completely in the near future – the whole team in one place?
Michael Denny: Yes, it was always the intention with them being in the same geographic location and working so closely together, it would be ideal if they could be housed at some point within the same site, but it's not happening overnight.
Q: Finally, Sony Online Entertainment has now become part of the Sony Computer Entertainment group. Are you sharing technology and business practices with those guys, as they have strong skills in MMOs and online gaming?
Michael Denny: We are working with them and clearly their expertise is great to have now within the group. Some of their titles are coming to PlayStation 3, and in other areas we're exploring how we can learn from them as well. Those are very exciting developments.
Q: Do you see a time when your European studios will be working on MMO projects for the PS3? Wouldn't it be interesting to see what European developers could do in the MMO space?
Michael Denny: I couldn't agree more, but again it's about studios concentrating on their particular strengths as well. It's certainly an area that we're not ignoring
Michael Denny is senior vice president of Worldwide Studios Europe. Interview by Matt Martin.