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PlayStation: Launching a console during a pandemic “is a massive challenge on every front”

PlayStation reveals its first PlayStation 5 ad

PlayStation has debuted its first PlayStation 5 ad, which makes the pitch that the next generation is all about how games "feel".

That's been the case since the start with PS5. This new console will be less about how nice games look -- we've been seeing diminishing returns in that department with each passing generation -- but rather how they will sound, how it will feel to use the controller, and how fast it all is.

You saw that in Sony's big PS5 reveal in June, and you can see it in this TV ad, which opens with the line: "Welcome to a world where you can feel more."

Cover image for YouTube video

There is one considerable drawback with all this. Nobody can feel the PS5 right now. Sony can't take the console and its controller -- aptly titled DualSense -- to PAX or Gamescom or EGX. It can't take it on shopping mall tours or put demo stations into shops.

"It's a massive challenge on every front," says Eric Lempel, SVP and head of global marketing at Sony Interactive Entertainment. "Not just for the parts of the organisation that I oversee, but for all parts of the organisation. The nice thing is that we're pulling it together. We will launch this year -- that will happen -- and from my end we will absolutely make sure that we will bring all of the magic and all of the excitement of launches that we have had in the past.

"We are still committed to doing that. It's more challenging than ever, but our gamers expect a lot from us. It's a chance to celebrate the beginning of a new generation. This spot kicks off PlayStation 5 marketing efforts, and this is just the beginning. So you can see this as the initial entry. Hopefully it looks high quality, hopefully it captures the imagination of the viewer, and from here, it just gets bigger and better."

He continues: "If the world was in a normal place, we would be out there with demo stations at different events, with the ability for consumers to touch the product and interact with it, and really understand what we are talking about. The challenge, early on, became how do we try to express this with a spot, and at the same time, how do we create a spot given the current limitations presented by the global pandemic? So this was a challenge on all fronts for us.

"We will absolutely make sure that we bring all of the excitement and magic of launches that we've had in the past"

"The genesis of this is that we're moving into a new generation, and to us generations matter. It's a chance to raise the expectations from players and gamers, and really introduce something new. So for this spot in particular, we focused on three distinct areas: the haptic feedback, the adaptive dynamic triggers, and 3D audio. And we wanted to show what it would be like to be in the middle of all that."

The ad is certainly unique. It is almost entirely computer generated, with an actor who was filmed in her home for part of it. It was then created by different people from around the world, with the marketing team in one place, the director in another, and was then worked on by over 70 artists from a range of different visual effects disciplines. Anyone that has seen the making of Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian will have a good idea of how this was made.

"We really had to change how we do things," says Lempel. "If we weren't in the current situation, we would probably have produced a slightly different type of spot. This is going to become the new way of the world for the foreseeable future, and a lot of us had to adapt and shift and get innovative and creative. Although it is not the situation we would want in a launch year, we are pretty happy with how we've been able to pivot and create something like this."

The ad itself has been designed to try and convey a feeling to consumers. The crack of the ice, drawing back the bow, the firing of a rocket; it's all done through careful use of sound and imagery, but it's quite effective. And it's in aid of promoting three of PS5's features -- haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, and 3D audio -- that are central to Sony's vision for the new console.

"Just looking at the product, and talking to developers, and hearing from them about what makes PlayStation 5 special, there are a lot of things that they are excited about, but these three things are a major step change to where we've been in the past with interactive entertainment," Lempel says.

"I will add that this is probably the most literal part of the campaign, where we're really deliberately talking and trying to convey with feeling different parts of the product. There will be other parts of the campaign that will be much broader and generate the excitement of the world of interactive entertainment that PlayStation can bring you. We felt like this was a good way to kick off specifically talking about PlayStation 5 and what's different, and these three things are part of the big differences. There are more beyond this of course."

The PS5 campaign kicks off this week with a teaser showcasing the console's new technology

Lempel also plans to use developers talking about these features and what they bring to the games: "Talking with the Demon's Souls team, they've found that they could take simple things that were really not exciting moments in games in the past, and turn them into a sensory experience by using these features. It's something they're saying that the features of the past couldn't do in any way -- couldn't replicate the feeling of, in their words, opening a gate, or striking metal, or fire crackling in your hand. Those are the types of things that were kind of secondary in the past, but they've been brought to the forefront to immerse the player into the games in a bigger way."

Outside of the COVID restrictions making this a unique challenge for PlayStation, this is also the first hardware launch under the new company structure. In the past, PlayStation launches happened in individual territories, with different country teams creating and running their own ads and slogans. Beginning with the Spider-Man launch on PS4 in 2018, Sony now creates global campaigns that get localised for individual markets. This means the ad we're seeing here will be replicated around the globe, and the tagline "Play Has No Limits" will be the brand line everywhere.

"In recent years we've globalised the company in a number of ways, and one of the things that we wanted to do in anticipation of going into the next generation of consoles was to create one single unified brand line," Lempel says. "It's really important because good lines will stand the test of time, and will become a big part of the company's brand and communication.

"I would say that this is the best line-up that we've ever seen in the history of PlayStation"

"We worked for a long time on this and really thought about what type of line could we use that will resonate globally, and naturally it will be translated and localised to all the different languages around the world... But what is the sentiment that we want to pass along that really represents the ambition we have as PlayStation, and really represents the products that we offer? So that is how we came up with Play Has No Limits.

"We feel it leans into a little bit of everything we do as PlayStation. We are always pushing the boundaries -- that is one of the tenets of our brand -- we are always looking to deliver new and exciting experiences, and this is a line that really shows that we are not going to stop doing that."

Although clearing up and simplifying that marketing message seems to makes sense, Sony's previous approach to marketing did have its upsides. It meant the company could tailor its offering to individual territories in ways that its competitors could not. The challenge for Lempel and his team is to combine the benefits of centralisation with the local touch that has served the company so well in the past.

"It's different. We will have a lot of local executions to complement these bigger campaigns and bigger spots. And you will see in some of the subsequent parts of the campaign, there will be really big assets that in the past that we probably wouldn't have done because the activity would have been divided up amongst the different parts of the world... We think we are in a good place, and people are going to be excited about what they will see."

Going forward, we can expect the PS5 campaign to switch to areas outside of things like 3D audio and adaptive triggers, and towards more traditional elements. Namely: the games themselves.

"Once you get beyond all of the features of the PlayStation 5, which makes it a true next-generation product, It's about the content," Lempel concludes. "The content that will be in the launch window and beyond is incredibly exciting. I would say that this is the best line-up that we've ever seen in the history of PlayStation, between our Worldwide Studios groups and our partners from all the different publishers around the world. We've revealed some of that content, and naturally there will be more to come, but the way that the developers can engage with this platform, and create these new experiences with known IP as well as unknown IP, is incredibly exciting."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who