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E3: Phil Harrison on PS3 - software and hardware

In an exclusive interview with <i></i>, Sony Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison discusses the PS3, the fight to be market leader and the factors that will determine the winner of the next-gen console battle.

In recent years, Phil Harrison has not only been promoted within Sony to the point where he runs the firm's worldwide network of development studios, he has also become the de facto face of the company at industry events around the globe.

Despite his new-found high profile, however, Harrison remains a software man - so when we sat down with him for a brief chat at E3 this week in the wake of the firm's announcements, the company's hardware and software strategies were definitely top of the agenda, but its hugely controversial pricing announcement was not.

We hope to bring you more coverage of Sony's plans - and the reaction to them - in the coming days - in the meanwhile, we hope you enjoy these insights from the man in charge of what may be the most crucial component of all in the firm's bid to retain its market leadership in the next generation; the software. All three companies laid their cards on the table earlier this week - from your perspective, what do you make of the three conferences and the reaction to them so far?

Phil Harrison: Sadly, I haven't actually had a chance to watch the other two conferences, but I've heard enough reports. I think that if we think the industry or the future of the business is defined by this week of press conferences... Then, we're very much mistaken. I think it's going to be defined by what the consumer thinks and what the industry thinks, and what the game developers think. It's not just about the press conferences.

I think the pieces of the PlayStation 3 puzzle are now fully revealed. Obviously we did the hardware last year, this year it's confirming or re-asserting certain elements of it - obviously, people know about Blu-Ray, but confirming that every machine has a hard disc drive in it, I think, was an important step. Confirming that we've got a new controller strategy was an important step, and showing lots of games was an important step. So, those were the main take-outs, and I think that as far as that was concerned, we achieved our objectives.

Your strategy and Microsoft's strategy are very divergent, in that Microsoft is offering consumers a choice - whether to have HD-DVD or not, whether to have a hard drive or not - while you're putting everything into a very expensive box and saying that they take all or nothing. Why that direction? Why not have a system where people who don't want to pay that premium for Blu-Ray don't have to?

Leaving aside the movie debate about Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, purely from a game design point of view and a game production point of view, we have to have Blu-Ray. DVD is just not big enough; DVD9 is nowhere near big enough for the kind of games, the richness that we're going to be putting in the games, the variety, the detail, you name it.

So, we had to adopt Blu-Ray primarily as a game format. The second benefit of it is that it becomes a video format as well. Putting it all in one box, as you say, is also down to the fact that a hard disc drive is necessary to create a totally integrated network platform. We want every consumer to be able to download and install content on their hard disc drive. If you want to put all your music on your hard disc drive, you'll probably go for the 60GB version. If you're a complete music fan and video fan, and you want to have huge amounts of digital content, then you can upgrade to whatever size of drive you like. You can put any in that you like - it is a computer, after all.

So that hard drive is a standard PC drive?

ATA, bog standard, yeah.

You're not going to be selling Sony drive upgrades?

We've got no plan to. We may offer something, but we have no plan to at the moment.

Talking about software - how many titles do you actually have on the show floor this week? I think we counted a dozen...

I think it's fifteen playable games. At the conference, we had three titles from Japan - GT HD, Eye of Judgement and Genji 2, we had three from Europe - Singstar, Heavenly Sword and F1, and two from the US - Warhawk and Resistance. That was pretty evenly split.

The controller. You showed off the boomerang, then said it was a prototype, and now you've come back and done the Dual Shock but with a twist - no pun intended. How long have you known that this was the plan?

[The motion sensing controller] has been thought about since about 1994, but in reality, you can't make some of the ideas that we have because the technology is not available in sufficient quantity or at a low enough price, and you kind of have to wait for certain things to converge. We had the concept of PlayStation Portable for many years before we could actually deliver it at a price and at a standard that was acceptable.

The controller is obviously a surprise to the industry. We've been thinking about it for a while, but it's a relatively recent addition to the format. We didn't show it last year, because we weren't ready to. The boomerang, as you call it, was very clearly designed as a design concept, and was never intended to be the final controller, despite what everybody said about it.

I think we certainly saw the strength of feeling that existed about the boomerang - even though nobody in the world ever held it in their hand. I thought that was very interesting, that people were criticising it for what it looked like, not how it felt.

When you made the decision to put the tilt functions into the pad, how heavily influenced was that by the great response Nintendo has had to the same kind of technology in the Wii controller?

I think that some of the research that we've done, clearly other companies have been doing as well - so there's nothing completely surprising about that. But I know that the strategy was to take what was already a winning formula - to have a controller as well regarded as it, and kind of the de facto industry standard that this PlayStation shape controller has become. If you include the ones that are packed in, the secondary ones and the knock-offs that are the same shape, there are probably around 400 million of these things that have been sold on PSone and PS2.

So, we kind of took an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" strategy - but by adding motion sensitivity to the controller... Well, we didn't start the wave, but we've kind of jumped onto that wave. I'm quite happy to admit that, but that will be one of the defining characteristics of next-generation gaming, the complexity and sophistication of input that you can get from a very simple device.

What I'm really keen to communicate is the fact that by sticking with the PlayStation controller, you have this very comfortable, two-handed approach that gamers are very familiar with - and it allows you to have two channels of input. You've got your primary input that may be normal buttons, normal sticks, nothing particularly revolutionary - no pun intended - but we can also add secondary motion, and we can detect the secondary movement of the pad in addition to the primary buttons.

When you play games, everybody does the same thing - they always move the controller around. Well, we can now start to add that secondary motion into the game design, and the way that the game reacts to the user.

Is this also an attempt on your part to give a bit of a kick in the teeth to cross-platform development? Now all three next-gen consoles will have different control systems, it's going to make it much harder to port the same games between them while taking advantage of those systems.

I think you're right, but I don't think that was actually the plan. I think that that is the outcome - you want to make the games and the experiences that you offer on your platform as unique and as defendable as you possibly can, and obviously that innovation is one of them.

That said, I think that with some exceptions, first party will probably be the majority of the exclusives on PlayStation 3. It's just the reality of the world that we live in - and it was very kind of Microsoft to announce one of those [multi-platform titles] for us.

Looking again at the software line-up, are you happy with where you are with development on the system at the moment?

Happy, but not satisfied. We can always do better, we can always have more - but I think we've shown enough breadth and we've shown enough quality, and we've shown a direction of where we're going to end up at launch. We're six months away from launch, remember, and there are some very polished games on our stand, which I don't think you've ever seen from another platform launch. That includes our own - PSone and PS2 - this far out from launch.

Aren't you concerned though that in November, your launch titles - which have traditionally been pretty rocky - are going to be going head to head with second and even third wave games on the Xbox 360?

Am I concerned... Well, I wouldn't say concerned, but I'm certainly conscious of that. I think that we will have games that are really compelling and are really going to deliver on the promise, but I don't think it'll be an issue.

On PlayStation 2, we didn't start to see really impressive stuff until a couple of years into the life of the console, because it took that long for developers to get up to speed. The guys at Microsoft make a lot of allusions to how easy their console is to develop to compared to yours; how do you respond to that? Is it true of PlayStation 3, as it was of PS2? Is there going to be a one or two year cycle where developers are still just getting to grips with this platform?

I think the PlayStation 2 was a difficult machine to write for, especially to really maximise what it was capable of on the vector units, VU0 and VU1, the proprietary SIMD engines, because they used fairly low-level programming techniques to program for them. However, that didn't stop us selling a hundred and something million, and having a billion plus software units sold for the machine, and global average of 77 per cent plus market share.

On PlayStation 3, however, the Cell SPUs are programmed with high-level programming languages, and that allows us to get great performance with general-purpose programming techniques. So, the short answer is, it's much, much easier to program for. Witness the fact that we've got so much software up and running, and playable, this far out from launch.

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.