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Interview: Phil Harrison on the future of PlayStation

As president of Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Studios, Phil Harrison is one of the key architects of the future of the PlayStation brand - overseeing the company's software development efforts for all of the consoles in the PlayStation family. Few people are better-placed to talk not only about the success of PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, but about the firm's plans, hopes and ambitions for next year's PlayStation 3. spoke to Harrison this week about the status of PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, what the company has chosen to reveal about PlayStation 3 - and perhaps more importantly, why it's chosen to reveal what it has. Read on for a glimpse at the thinking informing the decisions of the most important company in the videogames business from one of the key figures in the impending console war. It's been an amazing year for the PlayStation brand. What's the feeling like internally now you've gone past the 100 million unit mark with PS2?

Phil Harrison: I don't know whether we're supposed to be satisfied or elated. Obviously it's a significant milestone by any objective measure; to get to 100 million units of anything is impressive.

I think what is more impressive is the speed at which we did it. PlayStation 1 was the first console to get to 100 million units and it did that in about eight years, I think, and PlayStation 2 did it in five years and nine months - so that's two years and three months faster than PlayStation 1. What that says is that we're reaching more people more quickly, and actually at a comparatively higher price point than PlayStation 1.

I think that shows a lot of very positive signs. Sorry - long answer to a short question, but I think it shows that the fundamental foundations of the business are incredibly healthy.

How many PS2s do you think you'll eventually sell?

We have already shipped over 100 million PlayStation 2s globally, which is a fantastic achievement. Next year, we are releasing a number of titles such as 24: The Game, SOCOM 3 and Shadow of the Colossus, as well as new software which look to continue to expand the PS2's userbase. With continued support from third party publishers also, I'd imagine there is a lot of life in the PS2 yet.

You've just acquired Guerrilla - is that a sign of how you plan to operate in the coming years, or did you just feel it was the right time to bring the developer into the fold?

We've had a long time and a great working relationship with Guerrilla and they were an exclusive developer working with us. To all intents and purposes they were part of the family anyway, so it was just a very natural progression to bring them in to be our partners as our employees, and really part of the team.

Obviously in order to acquire, the company itself has to want to sell, and in this particular case the founders and shareholders of the company were looking to sell, we were looking to expand our development talent, so it was a great fit.

As to what that says about our future strategy, I think I'd just say that we're always looking for the best developer talent, whether it's hiring them individually or working with teams, and continuing strongly. It may not be the last time we acquire a company but we have no plans at the moment.

What can we expect to see from the PS2 in the next year now that we're gearing up for the PS3 launch? What does the machine's support look like in the next 12 months?

The software line-up from first- and third-party is as strong as ever, and I think that this is something the industry has learned from the transition from PSone to PS2 - that a number of publishers jumped off the PSone format prematurely. What we're seeing with PS2 is developers and publishers around the world continuing to make strategic-level investment in the format.

Obviously we'll find the kind of consumer who is buying a PlayStation 2 in year six is very different to the kind of person who bought a PlayStation 2 in year 2000 - the sixth and the seventh year of the format are clearly reaching the mass market, not necessarily younger consumers but definitely more mass-market consumers. Hence the success of things like Buzz, Singstar and EyeToy, which are continuing to be core parts of our release schedule going forward.

So you don't think that the demographic in terms of the age range is going to fall as it did with PSone?

There is inevitably some element of the demographic that gets younger, but the reality is that it just gets wider. You see, some element of PlayStation 2 being handed down to younger members of the family when older brother or sister buys a PlayStation 3 - we saw that with PSone - but what we also saw with PSone is that it just gets wider; we get 78-year-olds enjoying games as well as three and four-year-olds.

I think that one of the things our industry's achieved in the last generation cycle is genuine mass-market acceptance and the average age of a PlayStation user is kind of an irrelevance now - it's really as prevalent as watching television.

Do you think that Europe's become increasingly important to Sony over the PlayStation's life cycle, and if so is this a trend we can see continuing as you get ready to launch the PS3?

Well, to the first part of that question, the answer is that Europe has always been a key part of the PlayStation success story; the PlayStation 2 business [is] getting up to 40 million units now in Europe and that's an astonishing achievement. As to what that means for the launch of the next generation, it obviously means that Europe will be a vital part of the launch strategy. Whether there's a subtext to your question or not I can't answer.

Not really...

I mean, whether you were trying to suggest that Europe would be getting the console first as a result...

Well, there's been a lot of speculation about that in the press lately. From what has been said, spring 2006 is still a key date, but from what I understand Kaz Hirai said you're still deciding whether to go with a worldwide launch?

Well you'll have to ask David Reeves - I can't speak for Europe in when they would launch PlayStation 3, but we haven't made any announcements and I don't think it's right to speculate.

Moving on to the PSP, how do you think it's gone now we're three months on from launch? What do you make of the reports Nintendo DS is outselling it?

Well that's factually incorrect. PlayStation Portable has been the fastest-selling machine to ten million units. We are bringing in plane-loads of PSPs into Europe and the US as we speak in order to satisfy the demand in the run-up to Christmas, and if you talk to retail they'll tell you it's the hottest-selling piece of hardware right now - by far and away the number one demanded product in stores this Christmas.

You launched the PSP Giga Pack recently - are there any similar plans in the pipeline?

We've only just introduced the Giga Pack so we're very pleased with the take-up on that and it's great to see that users value the 1GB Memory Stick as an important way of storing music and video and other multimedia content on the PSP.

That is really the direction we wanted to go with the format - to expand it from being just a game system into being the must-have gaming device you would take with you at all times - and the Gigapack's success has backed that up. As to future plans, you know what we're like - we always try to keep our cards pretty close to our chest till we're ready to share them.

The Xbox 360's just launched, and with it comes downloadable content on a meaningful scale - how do you see the face of retail changing over the next generation?

I think it will change tremendously. I mean, I think that PSP showed that you can have a successful network format with writable media - in the first three months of the PSP's life we handled over a million downloads - or we're just crossing the million, probably last week.

That's a million downloads from our own website of content to expand the user's experience, and I think as soon as you have a network-ready device - PSP, obviously PlayStation 3 - the extension and expansion of the user experience beyond the retail purchase becomes a reality. I think this is a very good trend for our industry.

Would you say Sony missed the boat with online gaming in this generation, given the relative success of Live compared to PS2 Online? Is that a balance you're hoping to redress in the next generation?

I've always been very admiring of some of the things Microsoft has managed to do with their branding and some of the consumer elements of their service, but it's always important to remember that more people play online games through PlayStation 2 than any other consoles. On a worldwide basis it is the most popular online console by virtue of the size of the installed base.

Are you planning to make more of it in the next-generation, particularly in Europe?

I think we will always look to delivering the best experience to the consumer that we can and part of that is going to be in the fact the PlayStation 3 from the beginning is a network device; it's an always on network device with many writable media formats supported as part of the format. When we launched PlayStation 2 it did not have network functionality built in as standard, and it was obviously a challenge to add that capability to the format after the launch.

What do you think about the Xbox 360 generally, and things like the shortages of the console at the moment? Do you believe the theories that it's just a marketing ploy?

No, I don't believe that for a second. I think that it's clear that they're making every unit that they can - whether that is enough for demand or they can't make enough is a question you'll have to put to Microsoft. It's definitely not done on purpose, I can assure you of that.

Do you have an Xbox 360?

Personally no, but there are a few in the office and obviously I've been checking it out.

What are you general impressions?

[Laughs] I think I'll say what David [Reeves] said. When you ask David he says, "Sorry, I don't do impressions." He's going to be at the end of the pier all week by the way! I think it's a lot better than their first introduction to the console business.

You showed PS3 for the first time at E3 this year and the reaction was very positive - we know that you're not ready to discuss 2006 in detail yet, but how important a year would you consider 2005 in terms of the PlayStation 3 story?

I think there were three key events in the PlayStation 3 story during 2005.

The first was the ISSCC, which is the semiconductor conference that took place in February where the Cell processor was announced, and from that the world could see that our intentions were to build a super-computer for entertainment. It was a very academic conference but the specifications and information that we revealed on Cell back then showed that our intentions were to build the most powerful consumer-focused computing device on the planet, and we have obviously achieved that.

The second key event was E3, coupled with the announcement that we were working with NVIDIA to provide a graphics chip - obviously the response to E3 was overwhelmingly positive and we were delighted with the response that we got, but I think there were also a few key messages there. The development community responded very strongly to the fact that we were working with NVIDIA and that the developers gained access to a very mature tool-chain from the beginning that allowed them to build on their expertise that they had developed in the PC area, particularly shaders, e.g. the graphics language.

And then the third key event was Tokyo Game Show where not only did we show a lot of forward momentum from a content point of view but you could see from the breadth of support that the PlayStation 3 has garnered from the industry that this is going to be the major format choice for the industry going forward.

Why is it that you don't want to talk about the PS3 at the moment?

I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that we always have a strategy for when we share particular new information with the world, and we're in a period when we would rather focus on selling PSPs and PS2s - obviously this Christmas is a huge Christmas for retail. PlayStation-branded products, hardware and software, are the most important thing to retail around the world right now - that's where they're making their money - and it's important that we remain focused on exploiting our current business to the absolute maximum.

Clearly next year the emphasis will start to shift, and we will start to share with you at the appropriate time a lot of the cool things about PS3. We also perhaps didn't feel the need to be overly scared into making any announcements just because somebody else had launched beforehand - that wasn't part of our plans and isn't part of our plans.

HD is obviously a big topic in gaming at the moment. Microsoft has made 720p the default, Nintendo is kind of ignoring it - Sony seems to be taking a middle route, would you say that's true?

I think it really has to be redefined as to what you mean by high definition. High definition as far as the consumer is concerned means high definition movies, which means Blu-ray disc, and that is the reason that people will buy high definition display coupled with a player that is capable of playing movies and games, which is obviously PlayStation 3.

The true definition of HD is the three elements of the HD value chain - the display, the content and the hardware to play back that content, and PlayStation and Sony is the only organisation that has all three bits of the value chain together. As you well know the Xbox 360 doesn't play high definition movies and doesn't have true HD functionality - PlayStation 3 is the only format that has 1080-progressive, which is the true definition of HD, so it's really premature to be talking about the HD era. The HD era really only starts when we are on the market.

Would you say that 2006 is a make or break year for PlayStation?

I think we've already made it - I don't think there's any risk of it being broken. Clearly it is an important year for the continuing growth of PSP, which will be probably the fastest-growing format during the year. Clearly it will be an important year for the furthering spread of PlayStation 2. As far as the world is concerned the big news will be the launch of PlayStation 3, so it's going to be a PlayStation year whichever way we look at it.

Phil Harrison is president of Worldwide Studios at Sony Computer Entertainment. Interviewed by Ellie Gibson.

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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.