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Retrospective: Phil Harrison

A look back at the career of Sony Computer Entertainment's president of Worldwide Studios

There are three distinct types of people who sit at the high tables of the console business - those who started out in engineering, those who started out in sales and management, and those who started out in development and design. You can, if you want to apply broad brushstrokes to the whole market, divide up the three platform holders according to those definitions.

If Nintendo is the company primarily run by executives who started out making games, and Microsoft's top dogs mostly walked the marketing and sales path to their seats of power, then Sony's story in recent years is one of transition - from the engineers who started up SCE, to the sales and management guys who have gradually replaced them. With dyed-in-the-wool engineer Ken Kutaragi removed in favour of lifetime sales and marketing type Kaz Hirai, the transition seems complete.

In the midst of all this, Phil Harrison has been an anomaly. Twenty years ago, Harrison took early steps into the games business as a graphic artist and game designer, working for hire in the flourishing UK development scene. By the time he became one of the most public faces of the PlayStation, he was a seasoned executive - but Harrison's roots in development have always been evident, and have always made him into a distinctive part of the Sony machine.

Development Roots

After spending five years heading up development for the then-successful British publisher Mindscape International, Harrison joined Sony in 1992 - an early arrival to the firm's nascent games business. Sony Computer Entertainment hadn't even been officially formed at that point, and it would be another two years before the PlayStation launched in Japan.

Harrison's job was to sell the concept of the PlayStation to the European game development industry, convincing a market largely beholden to SEGA and Nintendo that there could be a third way - and that Sony was very, very serious about games. At the same time, he was also responsible for building Sony's in-house development abilities, in the form of the SCEE London Studio.

Years later, that same studio would be instrumental in making Harrison into a figurehead for a new kind of gaming, precipitating a radical shift in how the PlayStation - and gaming as a whole - is seen by the public, and possibly even driving a serious wedge between Harrison and his bosses in Japan. In the early nineties, however, as the launch of the PlayStation approached and Sony began to secure its place at the heart of the industry, that was still a long way down the road - and for now, Harrison's sights were set a long way from London.

In 1996, with the PlayStation successfully launched all around the world, Harrison crossed the Atlantic and took up a position at SCEA. For the next four years, he would work there as Vice President of Third Party Relations and Research and Development - a similar role to the one he had held in London, but on a larger scale, with all of Sony's North American software development, both internal and external, under his control.

When Harrison returned to the UK, Sony's place in the games industry had been transformed. He left in 1996, when a promising launch for the PlayStation was allowing the company to establish itself as a serious player. By 2000, Sony wasn't just a serious player - it was the only serious player. PlayStation had demolished the opposition in the previous generation, and even the threat of its successor, PS2, had been enough to cripple SEGA's Dreamcast. With Nintendo's re-entry to the market still far off on the horizon, and Microsoft finding it tough to garner any credibility for its Xbox plans, Sony was on top of the world.

For the next five years, Harrison reprised his role once more in Europe - keeping a watchful eye on both the firm's third-party developers, and its first-party products. With thirteen years of managing software development in Europe and North America for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 behind him by 2005, there can be no doubt that Phil Harrison put his stamp firmly on the success of both consoles - even if, within the global, sprawling entity that is Sony, it can be hard to establish exactly where one man's contribution ends and another's begins.

"Target Renders"

We don't mean to gloss over Harrison's achievements as head of development for SCEE, by any means, and we'll return to them in due course - but 2005 is the year that most readers will want to hear about. It was the year when two major changes brought Phil Harrison to the attention of the gaming world, turning him from one of the backroom powerhouses behind the success of the PlayStation into a global figurehead for Sony.

Internally, he was promoted to head up SCE's new Worldwide Studios operation, taking responsibility for all of Sony's game development, all over the world. Externally - and very publicly - he also became the face of the company's most controversial E3 press conference ever.

Only Harrison himself can possibly know if he felt a sense of trepidation before taking the stage in Los Angeles in May 2005 to demonstrate the PlayStation 3 for the first time. Beyond simple stage nerves, there was the fact that Sony was taking a radically different approach to Microsoft - with the PS3's game line-up being shown off as "target renders", essentially CG movies that approximated the power of the console, while Microsoft's stable was being demonstrated in underwhelming but honest form on development hardware.

Even though senior Microsoft executives privately conceded that they'd made a mistake by showing raw, unfinished and underpowered code rather than slick renders, it's Sony whose performance is still lambasted almost three years later. The media was impressed by what was really their first taste of next-gen graphics; Sony's presentation, ironically, was closer visually to the final quality of games on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 than anything Microsoft showed on its development hardware. However, once it became clear how little of the presentation had been run on PS3 hardware, the backlash against Sony's perceived dishonesty was swift, and unforgiving.

For Harrison, it was an ignominious beginning to what was to be a very public few years. It seems unlikely that he anticipated the backlash against the rendered footage, and indeed, he was perfectly honest about the nature of "target renders", as they're known, in the immediate wake of the conference. Despite his development background, his career as an executive has left Harrison no stranger to corporate double-speak - which makes it all the more ironic that in this famous incident, he genuinely seemed to intend no subterfuge.

Despite the backlash against Sony's perceived dishonesty, however, Harrison went on to become the lynchpin of the firm's PR plans at conferences such as E3 and GDC - and in the wake of the PS3's announcement, he was an even more regular face in interviews and speeches than former PR figureheads Kaz Hirai and Ken Kutaragi. Affable, well-spoken and passionate about his games, Harrison was reinvented as a great public speaker and cornerstone of Sony's next-gen ambitions.

Internal Divides

The negative aura that had been generated by E3 2005's target renders, however, never quite went away. Even as Harrison demonstrated groundbreaking, exciting software like Singstar, LittleBigPlanet and PlayStation Home (only one of which would actually make it into consumers' hands before his departure from Sony), there was still a strong whiff of cynicism and mistrust in coverage of his statements.

Harrison himself was by no means oblivious to this, but Sony's own stifling corporate environment prevented him from using the kind of direct, honest speech that could have dispelled the atmosphere of cynicism. Many journalists who interviewed Harrison noted that once the tape stopped rolling, he was honest and direct to the extent of actually being incredibly blunt, even about Sony's own failings.

On the record, however, he was corporate through and through - guarded, carefully worded and professional. In the absence of the relatively free rein given to rival executives like Peter Moore to speak bluntly and in plain language, Harrison unquestionably faced a tougher struggle to win respect from his audience.

It certainly didn't help, either, that while Harrison's statements - be they in speeches or in interviews - tended to be comparatively modest and conciliatory, those of his bosses and colleagues at Sony were quite the opposite. Ken Kutaragi's astonishing claims that people would get second jobs to pay for PS3s, Kaz Hirai's litany of boastful, over the top presentations and statements, Jack Tretton's dishonesty (or ignorance, take your pick) over PS3 stock levels - it occasionally felt like the altogether more diplomatic Harrison was being wheeled out simply to take the flak and to smooth the ruffled feathers caused by the rest of Sony's execs' inability to open their mouths without sticking their feet in.

Once the PS3 had launched and some - although not all - of the hardware questions were settled, Harrison could at least fall back on doing what he did best - software. His presentations no longer carried any hint of target renders or question marks over the abilities of the console. Instead, he has been responsible in no small part for rekindling interest in a console whose thunder, among hardcore fans, had been stolen by Microsoft - and while the PS3's software promise is still only partially fulfilled, Harrison's unveiling of titles such as Home and LittleBigPlanet have played a major role in igniting interest since the launch of the hardware.

However, recent months and years have also revealed a divide between Harrison and his compatriots at Sony - a divide which may have been even wider than the gulf which separates his measured, British presentations from their bombastic, immodest proclamations.

This is a divide which has its roots back in 2003, when Harrison really made his debut at Sony's E3 conference - not leading the presentation, a task which fell to Kaz Hirai, but as the executive whose backing had kept the green light lit for an intriguing new concept called Eye Toy.

Keeping Social

Eye Toy was the first of a series of concepts to emerge from SCEE's development offices (and their close third-party partners) which, slowly but surely, began to reinvent the PlayStation as a casual, social device that could be the life and soul of a party, rather than being a solitary, anti-social pursuit. While Microsoft chased the idea of playing together online, SCEE's development efforts went into getting people to play together on the same sofa, in the same living room, and with the whole household involved.

Although Kaz Hirai expressed great enthusiasm for Eye Toy on stage at E3 2003, however, the rest of Sony never quite understood the great social gaming experiment being undertaken at SCEE. Singstar followed Eye Toy, and quiz game Buzz followed Singstar - and in Europe, at least, incredibly strong sales of PlayStation 2 hardware and software, even late into the life of the console, followed those franchises. Just as Sony had reinvented the public perception of gaming when it put Tekken and WipEout into night clubs in the mid-nineties, so too did it reinvent public perception by putting Singstar and Buzz into living rooms across Europe.

Outside Europe, it was a different story. SCEA and SCEI simply never picked up on the products with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts, and seemed all too ready to dismiss them as a quirky British phenomenon when less impressive sales inevitably followed half-hearted promotion efforts.

It's only in the past week, with the end of his tenure at Sony on the horizon, that Harrison has revealed a glimpse at the frustration he felt with the rest of Sony over this issue. Speaking at a lunch event during GDC, he recounted being told by Japanese colleagues that there was simply no such thing as social gaming in Japan, and that people do not sit around on each other's sofas to play games.

Despite these rebuffs, Harrison continued to pursue the idea of social gaming - putting online-enabled versions of Singstar and Buzz for the PS3 into development, driving the vision for PlayStation Home, and evangelising the power of user-generated content in LittleBigPlanet. Meanwhile, of course, he also oversaw the creation of the firm's hardcore portfolio - headline titles like Killzone 2, MotorStorm and their ilk - but it's social gaming that is Harrison's real legacy to Sony.

And yet it is a bittersweet legacy. While Sony's consoles are still the product of choice for social games of some types - karaoke and quizzes, especially - the fact that Harrison's exhortations fell on deaf ears in Japan has seen Sony lose huge amounts of ground to its oldest rival in the games business, Nintendo. The Wii has destroyed any notion that people don't sit on one another's sofas to play games, or at least stand in front of them - but a little too late for Sony, who must now play catch-up to position the PS3 as a desirable platform for casual gamers.

Harrison's tenure at Sony has, at least, given it the tools to do exactly that. While Microsoft struggles to come up with a response to the Wii, Sony has healthy franchises that could - in time - make the PS3 into a welcome part of every social living room. It will happen, however, without Harrison himself.

His resignation, like Peter Moore's last year, leaves the game console business without one of its best-known and most respected figureheads - but we don't believe for a second that Harrison's ambitions for social and connected gaming have been fully realised, nor that he is simply abandoning them. Those in the industry who are concerned with reaching the mass-market and building the social credibility of gaming will watch carefully to see where Phil Harrison reappears.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

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