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Best of 08: Shuhei Yoshida

Sony's Worldwide Studios president on the future of the PS3, the PSP, internal studios and creative thinking

One of the biggest stories of 2008 was the departure of Phil Harrison from his post as president of Sony Worldwide Studios to join David Gardner at the ailing Atari. Shortly after broke the news of that move, Sony announced Shuhei Yoshida as Harrison's replacement.

A few weeks after move we spent some time with the new man in charge to find out what his plans were for the influential division. Here, combining two interview parts, he discusses the future of the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, first party studios and the importance of creatvitiy. Phil Harrison was with Sony for quite a long time - how would you evaluate his legacy?
Shuhei Yoshida

Well, I met Phil in January 1994. I'd joined Ken Kutaragi's team in February 1993, before Sony Computer Entertainment was established. So we were preparing for the launch of PlayStation, and we went to CES in Las Vegas, and we started trying to evangelise, showing the early demonstrations to major publishers.

Phil was doing the actual demonstrations, and at the time he was only about 23 or 24, he looked like a kid, but I was so impressed with how professional and how articulate he was already, talking to the execs of the major publishers.

So I guess he was chosen among all the people on the project as the best presenter, and since then he kept the role for all the main platforms we've made. So I've known him for a long time.

In 2005 Worldwide Studios was established and he became president, and my boss, but before that - about two or three years - Sato-san [Akira Sato, VP of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc] was a key man in Product Development, well-respected, and he started having meetings every quarter or so in different parts of the world, and that created quite nice, relaxed relations between the development groups across the regions.

So when Worldwide Studios was made official I was happy, because it was what we had been preparing for. Phil invited me to discuss the goals - he's a vision person, and he had a lot of ideas - and he asked me to act as part of Worldwide Studios management, while at the same time as managing the day-to-day US studios.

So to me, stepping into this role - I don't intend to fill his evangelist role, other people should be doing that. But in terms of managing the Worldwide Studios, for me it's a continuation of what I was helping Phil to do.

In the short term I don't intend to change anything, but there are lots of things we're already planning to implement - there are so many things that we are working on.

But in the longer term - three-to-five years - I believe I can contribute a little that perhaps Phil might not have tried. Because I came from Japan, I have connections with those people that started the PlayStation project, many of them are still there, and we started in the same way.

After Ken Kuturagi's departure, Kaz Hirai completely changed the way we worked internally. Before, because Ken was such a big visionary, he came up with something - a great technology - but then landed it on us as a finished article...but Kaz is involving Worldwide Studios members and regional headquarters people to inform strategy, for the company and the platforms.

That's a major, major change in how we work, and I think it's the right change. Looking at how we struggled with PlayStation 3, one visionary just can't get it perfect three times in a row.

Because of this change, in the long term, that's going to be a major responsibility for me - it's kind of outside of managing Worldwide Studios, but it's going to be part of life for senior management in the SCE group to participate in that strategy formation. How would you evaluate Worldwide Studios in terms of its assets?
Shuhei Yoshida

There are many ways to answer that. I think one strength or value we share - all studios - is that we totally believe in supporting creative people, and not from the top-down. We have some strategy, some direction, but we never look at the sales chart and say that we have to make sandbox games, or we have to make massively multiplayer online games.

We really support the creative vision in the people who have that, and help them to achieve it. Something unique like that must be easier to come out of our group, then perhaps with other publishers.

I believe that's a strength we share across studios, and that's one core value that we've kept from the very beginning, from 1993. It came from the founding members of the PlayStation project, and Sato-san was a big part of setting that direction. Explain the reasoning behind the cancellation of Eight Days and The Getaway.
Shuhei Yoshida

As you might know, starting and cancelling projects is just a normal part of our business. What's unusual about this case is that we usually don't announce titles until we have a really good feel, until they're getting ready and we have an idea of launch day.

The situation was that because we started talking about the PS3 in 2005-6, the idea concepts that became the Eight Days and The Getaway projects had something very representative of things that we think will define this generation of game development - the particles, the fantastic explosions, and so on.

So company management decided to show it as an example, as a demo, not necessarily meaning that they were titles to come. It could have been a little bit confusing because there were lots of announcements of actual titles, but because of timing we made the unusual decision to announce those two at a very early stage of development. In hindsight do you think it would have been better to announce them as tech demos instead?
Shuhei Yoshida

Well, I don't know - it must be disappointing to the people who worked really hard, but they know this is part of what we do. So I think it looks like big news, but it's really not. It happens, just usually without you knowing. Something that Microsoft managed to achieve with the Xbox 360 since launch was the regular roll-out of key titles over time. In comparison the PlayStation 3 hasn't necessarily managed that yet, and while there is now a core of key titles in the market, how important is it for you to keep up the software momentum?
Shuhei Yoshida

Talking about the launch year, the biggest disappointment was that because first party is very important and takes a certain share of titles, as well as a variety of third party titles - something that's very important for any platform to succeed, and something that's always been our plan at PlayStation - I'm sure that third party publishers had planned to release their titles day-and-date with the launch of the PlayStation 3, or day-and-date with the launch of the title on the Xbox 360, but because the 360 hardware was out earlier, the games were built based on 360 architecture.

But still, they must have been planning, thinking they have enough time, to port the second game to PS3 and release at the same time with the same quality. So they massively underestimated the effort that was needed to re-architect the game to properly take advantage of the PS3's multi-core architecture.

That was last year, and if you just look at first party products and how they came out, not everything quite came out on time, but we're pretty happy with how the titles supported the launch and during the first year.

But it's impossible to bring the level of support that we feel is important for the PlayStation 3 platform without the third parties' continued support. That was the miscalculation by both us, and from third parties.

But I think after the end of last year, there are more and more titles are coming out on the same day [as Xbox 360] and the same quality, and we can start to see some additional things on PS3 because of the space available on Blu-ray.

That re-architecture only needs to happen once, and once you pass that, you have the foundation ready. Moving forward I'm totally confident that developers will start to use more from the PlayStation 3 platform. This year is the year of parity, next year is the year of differentiation in favour of the PS3 platform. With the PlayStation 2 we saw titles such as Gran Turismo and Metal Gear Solid push people to buy consoles - and now, crucially, those products are in the market for the PS3 as well.
Shuhei Yoshida

Yes - last week was the launch of Metal Gear, and we're totally enthused and excited. These key titles that are coming out now, like LittleBigPlanet will as well. How important was the Blu-ray victory over HD DVD for the PlayStation 3?
Shuhei Yoshida

Over time I think it'll have a massive impact. As you know, the video format doesn't change as quickly as game formats. Game formats may take five or six years to change, and a successful one may last ten years. But with video, it's much longer.

So Blu-ray becoming the de facto standard of high definition video is going to have a major, major impact on consumers' decision making, when they're looking at different choices of games consoles.

That's what happened with PS2 - when it launched it was after a few years of the launch of DVD, but DVD wasn't at that tipping point. And actually when the PS2 came out with the low end DVD player that really helped the adoption of the technology, and really made the PS2 attractive.

Timing-wise the unfortunate situation for the PS3 was that it didn't come out after a few years of the Blu-ray learning curve - it was almost the launch of Blu-ray in a way, so we had massive amounts of work to do and that really hit the profitability of the company. We tried as much as possible not to pass that cost on to consumers, but we do feel that the early adapters of the PS3 are getting good value [with the integrated Blu-ray]. The PS2 can now be firmly considered as a mainstream, mass-market product, and while there are some mainstream titles slated for the PS3, such as Singstar and Buzz!, how long do you think that the PS3 really acquires that mainstream tag?
Shuhei Yoshida

I think it's a really crucial factor for the PS3's success going forward to be seen as a machine that everyone in the family can enjoy. That might not be the only reason that people choose the PS3, it may not be the biggest reason initially, but having that variety of titles like Singstar, Buzz!, Guitar Hero or LittleBigPlanet are hugely important for the success of the PS3 going forward.

And as more and more people start moving from the last generation of consoles to make their choice for this generation of platforms, having Blu-ray and all this software for PlayStation 3 will be a real key factor. The PlayStation Portable is doing fantastically in Japan right now, but it's not really finding its role in Europe. How do you feel about the performance of the PSP? Is it between roles right now?
Shuhei Yoshida

The PSP is outperforming our short-term expectation, which is why we're short on stock and we don't have enough units to supply. That mainly comes from the major success in Japan - week after week the PSP is the highest-selling platform - so we're really pleased that it's the most exciting games platform in a major territory.

Because we've always thought that the PSP as a platform is standing on its own - there's no direct competition, although some people think that the DS is its rival simply because it's portable, but the positioning and the main user base are totally different.

It's just been a question of how to take the best out of the platform and deliver it to consumers, so they understand that they can use it every day for many things. So I think we're still early on the curve.

Like when we started with PlayStation One, with videogames as being a toy, and looking at the individual countries when it comes to introducing new aspects to the platform - in our minds we're doing the same sort of thing with the PSP since 2005.

It's too early to make judgements - we know there's a lot more that we can do, and with the massive growth of the industry we understand that third party publishers have so many choices, many more than they have resources. Sometimes we struggle to convince them to put more resources into the PSP.

But when they really focus on what they can do with the platform, there are still lots of good business opportunities that are still viable, and will continue to be, because there are no competing platforms.

So we continue to support the platform, and we've been doing really well with first party software, and I hope that more developers and publishers see some of the things that the PSP can uniquely offer to them, and its reach into consumers' lives.

Shuhei Yoshida is the president of Sony Worldwide Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott. Originally published in two parts in June 2008.

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