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Deering on PS3

The former SCEE boss discusses Sony's future - and what he'd do if he had his old job back.

Ken Kutaragi may have been the father of PlayStation, but when it came to making the console a success in Europe Chris Deering was the big daddy. It was he who founded Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in 1995, and who went on to ensure not only PS1's success but that of its successor.

Deering left PlayStation behind to become head of Sony's consumer electronics division in 2004, the same year he won a BAFTA for his contribution to the interactive entertainment industry.

In September 2005 he left Sony altogether, and today holds a variety of roles including chairman's positions for Codemasters and the Edinburgh Interactive Festival.

However, Deering is still best known, and perhaps always will be, as Europe's PlayStation man. He clearly maintains an attachment to Sony, as demonstrated by his appearance at the London launch of PS3 in March.

But a lot has changed since Deering's time at SCEE - a new console has arrived and so have new rivals, bringing with them perhaps the biggest set of challenges the company has ever faced. talked to Deering to find out what he thinks of PlayStation 3, Sony's strategy and how much price matters - and what he'd do if he got his old job back. Visit the site tomorrow for part two of this feature, where Deering discusses how plans are shaping up for this year's Edinburgh Interactive Festival. What's your perception of how PlayStation 3 is performing at the moment?

Chris Deering: PlayStation 3 was an extremely ambitious undertaking. It goes way back to the year 2000 and the first iterations of the design concepts for the Cell chip. It's coming into existence at a time when there are a lot of changes going on with the Internet and broadband availability, and also with high def TVs and pre-recorded Blu-ray discs.

The price, which has clearly been circled as a major issue for PS3, is a bit of a sticker shock compared with traditional game devices. But if you think about PlayStation 1, which launched at GBP 299 in 1995 - that's 12 years ago, when the price of a pint of beer was a pound.

So in real money, EUR 600, USD 600 or even GBP 400, considering what you're getting, shouldn't be seen as such a terrifying number. It's certainly not helping the sales, but in terms of value for money, there's never been a better value.

[Consumers] are more likely to dig down for the 400 quid as they acquire high def TVs and see more high def programming on TV, and start to realise how much better a DVD looks when played on a high def TV via PS3.

People I know in the movie business say that PS3 is the best of all the new high def playback devices, and the only complaint I hear is that it's too bad they don't have a first-party remote control.

What's your take?

To be honest I have been extremely busy and although I've seen PS3 played many times, I have one at home but I haven't really explored all of its features, especially in the movie playback area - I just don't have time. But I will get around to it this summer.

With any console, the penetration and the adoption rate go in fits and starts related to iconic games. Every generation ends up having an iconic game which drives it forward - PS1 didn't really get driven forward until Lara Croft came along, and PS2 was heavily driven by Grand Theft Auto.

The new gens have a couple of new games which are definitely worth owning, and continuations of old franchises - sports games, Metal Gear Solid, Colin McRae, which is going to be great on PS3.

But we're still waiting for the Lara Croft equivalent, a totally new game that was not possible. That's what was great about the iconic games on PS1 and PS2; in each case the experience was not possible with the technology of the previous generation.

There's so much that's possible with PS3 that game developers are kind of riding the bicycle gently. But no doubt, for sure, whether it's in the AI area or the number of characters on screen or something related to the online community - PlayStation Home I think is maybe the killer app, in the long run, that distinguishes this generation.

What do you think of the sales figures so far?

The absolute number of units sold, five and a half million in the first year, is no slouch for something priced at EUR 600. We sold, I think, 5.8 million in the same time. It's still early days.

The true test of PS3's long term potential will be in the games that come out this Christmas season and what the price is then. There's been speculation by the chairman of Sony about a lower price - of course that doesn't do wonders for sales right now, but I'm sure there will be some movement in the value.

There will be a lot of movement in the creativity, the games, the online features like PlayStation Home, and when it's unique and you can't get this experience any other way the money issue will go away, I predict. Really, it's no more expensive in today's money than a PS1 was back in 1995.

How much are the sales figures affected by price? How much is it also about things like the quality of the games, the quality of the online service and so on?

It's no longer the new kid on the block, it's no longer the underdog fighting for visibility and recognition status. Wii will, I think in some ways, have a shorter life cycle. It's not high def, that's not hurting it right now. It has a unique player interface which is helping it right now, but there are many other unique interfaces for other consoles - Guitar Hero, EyeToy...

So all the congratulations to Wii, it's a fabulous creative achievement, technical, business and strategic achievement, but I think PlayStation 3 will prevail on its merits. Yes, it's not benefitting from the hearthrob of the PR world, because it's been around a while. But as soon as there's a game where people say, 'Wow, that's really fantastic,' this will rapidly subside and there will be plenty of positive PR.

Even now if you look at some of the magazine coverage for some of the games in development for PS3, there's a growing swell of enthusiasm. Of course there are games that aren't out yet, so we'll all see.

Going back to what you were saying about titles which drove PS1 and PS2, like Tomb Raider and GTA III - those were platform exclusives, in effect. Now things have changed, the new GTA is coming out on Xbox 360 at the same time as PS3. How much of a risk is this to Sony?

Well, Lara Croft was exclusive to PS1 but not really PS2. I think when franchises move from one generation to the next generation the bulk of the publishers make sure they optimise their return.

I don't know if it's true, but I read that Microsoft paid USD 50 million for [exclusive episodic content]. To be honest, if somebody's waving those kind of cheques around it's hard to say no.

But there hasn't been a new iconic game. There will be an iconic game, for sure. Whether that game is exclusive to PS3... There certainly are a number of large investments in first-party games by Sony that are exclusive.

You're right that if there are no iconic, exclusive games, then some of the tailwind PS2 had may not be there for PS3. But I think there's more of an issue related to how people are spending their time in gaming and the availability of casual gaming, mobile gaming, all the fun things people do on the Internet; they're also competing for the limelight.

The console itself is no longer the wonder child of high tech. Even though in real, true, technical terms PS3 is an amazing wonder child, the fact is it's in a category that's not like the iPhone.

But I'm optimistic about PlayStation. Of course there was the changing of the guard with Ken [Kutaragi] retiring and Kaz [Hirai] moving. There's a resource of very experienced management in PlayStation which perhaps up to now hasn't been fully tapped, and deserves to move into executive status and to strut their stuff. I think it's appropriate that there's a new energy, new faces and an approach that's contemporary.

Suppose you woke up tomorrow in your old office, in your old job as head of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe... How would you change the strategy for PS3? What's the first thing you would do?

Well... That's a very hypothetical situation... If the hypothesis were true, I'd have access to a lot of information I don't have access to right now.

I think that there's been a bit of a downer on the PR front, and that may be partly the way that PR is co-ordinated around the world, between Japan, the US and Europe. PR-wise, this is a slow season, summer blues as they say in the games industry.

I'm sure there's an amazing swell of positive statements and wow factors that will become clear as the autumn arrives. So I'm not sure there's very much that isn't being done now.

I think I'd be much more aggressive in blowing our Sony horn [laughs]. Some of the things that have been publicised as bumbling or mistakes - it may have been economically adventurous to undertake the development of the Cell chip, which underpins PS3.

It may have been adventurous to include a Blu-ray playback feature, which has cost aspects. You can make judgements as to whether it was adventurous or even a mistake in a classic, simple business sense.

But if you look at what the Edinburgh Interactive Festival stands for - which is moving the bar of creativity, achivement and excitement - I think PlayStation 3 will be looked back upon ten years from now as a fabulous, life-changing invention.

Chris Deering is the chairman of the Edinburgh Interactive Festival. Interview by Ellie Gibson. To find out more about this year's EIF, visit tomorrow for more from Deering.

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Ellie Gibson avatar
Ellie Gibson: Ellie spent nearly a decade working at Eurogamer, specialising in hard-hitting executive interviews and nob jokes. These days she does a comedy show and podcast. She pops back now and again to write the odd article and steal our biscuits.
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