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Sony's focus on engagement time over units sold makes sense for PlayStation | Opinion

The move has provoked criticism, but the ethos this has created at PlayStation has largely been a force for good

Sony announced its full-year results for 2023 earlier this week, with the PlayStation business posting continued solid growth that was basically in line with its revised estimates from a few months ago, albeit significantly undershooting the sky-high estimates it had originally forecast at the start of the year.

As ever, there were various interesting bits and pieces in the results – I'm personally always struck by the long-term story Sony's financials tell of PlayStation's ever-growing dominance of the company's business – but the aspect of the annual financial report that seems to have stirred up the most interest is not in the substance of the details reported, but rather in their framing.

Specifically, during the results presentation, Sony senior vice president Naomi Matsuoka discussed the growth of operating income in the Games & Network Services division which houses PlayStation by mentioning a shift in internal strategic thinking – away from unit sales and hardware attach rate, and towards metrics of time spent on the console and its services.

In framing the business in this way, the company sparked off an admittedly predictable storm in the commentariat, who are hair-trigger primed to expect the worst from companies in terms of live-service and monetisation strategies when they hear terms like this.

In this instance, though, I think the concerns whipped up by Sony's statements missed the mark by quite a margin. People are understandably worried that a shift away from looking at unit sales and towards measuring engagement time instead will create a set of perverse incentives for Sony that will erode its interest in selling monolithic games that don't have a service component, for example – which would certainly be a great loss, since that's arguably the thing that Sony does best, and its first-party output in that category has been the solid backbone of PlayStation for more than a decade.

Unit sales no longer capture the PlayStation business in its totality

However, Sony wasn't really making a forward-looking statement about strategy here, so much as explaining a historic change.

The shift in thinking happened around the transition from PS3 to PS4, with attach rate being the holy grail of console success metrics up to the PS3 era, and minutes of engagement replacing it from that point onwards. In other words, the lion's share of Sony's "golden era" of first-party studio output has come during the time when the company was already chasing engagement rather than attach rate, to no apparent detriment.

Stepping back from the controversy caused by the comments and considering them on their own merits, it's hard to argue that engagement time shouldn't be considered a vital indicator for PlayStation.

It's not like software unit sales aren't still important – the company reports those every quarter as one of the headline figures for the gaming division – but unit sales no longer capture the PlayStation business in its totality, since there are now all sorts of ways people could be interacting with PlayStation software and services without actually buying a game in the traditional sense.

At some point quite a few years ago, the company realised that it achieved better growth overall if it focused on that metric rather than just chasing unit sales; this isn't new, it's just that it hasn't been focused on to quite the same extent in the company's financial results before now.

Sony has essentially been thinking about its business like this since the PS4 era, then, and while its current interest in service-based games definitely fits that focus – driven in no small part, I think, by the extent to which Genshin Impact has been the biggest third-party driver for the platform in recent years – there's no suggestion that it doesn't think games like God of War or Spider-Man also fit with this paradigm, or that games like that aren't still the core driver for Sony's first-party line-up in the future.

It's just that the paradigm is a bit broader now; it includes games people interact with for years on end (like the aforementioned Genshin Impact, or Fortnite, or Bungie's Destiny), and ways of accessing games that don't involve a direct purchase, like PS Plus subscriptions.

In some regards, the broader understanding of the PlayStation business suggested by a time-based rather than unit-based metric is reminiscent, in a funhouse mirror kind of way, of the ambitions of the Kutaragi-era PlayStation business.

In that era, Sony harboured far-from-secret ambitions to make PlayStation into the central hub for a household's media and entertainment – a device that far exceeded the bounds of simply playing games, and that directly challenged the then-nascent dominance of the home computer in those areas.

This was, more or less, the exact reason why Microsoft felt compelled to enter the console market in the first place, throwing the company's weight behind the quite maverick Xbox project in an attempt to ensure that Sony didn't gain a lead in what both companies assumed would be the battle for the future of consumer electronics.

They were both wrong, because smartphones ultimately pulled the rug out from underneath that entire vision of the future, but the ambition of that era still lingers to some degree – even if its most obvious recent emanation was the disastrous attempt to make the Xbox One into some kind of TV-watching powerhouse device.

Sony's focus now is dramatically narrower and more realistic. The PlayStation is still first, foremost, and almost exclusively a gaming device in the company's current thinking – but the definition of gaming has broadened considerably in the intervening years.

Sony now sees PlayStation as the core of the home entertainment experience once again, not because the console has become the hub device for all sorts of other media consumption, but because it sees gaming taking increasing time from other mediums and thus PlayStation having the potential to take time from other platforms.

The PlayStatin Portal makes far more sense if you think about the objective being to maximise engagement time

In this mode of thinking, tracking time spent across PlayStation software and services – including, increasingly, PlayStation games and services on other hardware platforms – is the only way to really measure success. Part of that vision for the expansion of gaming absolutely involves service-based games and online games that bring players back regularly, spurring steady revenue streams as they do so, but that's only one aspect.

"Pillar" games that sell the platform are another – an equally if not more important aspect. What's really interesting, though, is how many of Sony's decisions on hardware and services start to make more sense when considered in the context of increasing engagement time.

Being time-focused rather than unit-focused also expresses itself in terms of lowering barriers to access and removing friction in players' engagement. For example, the incredible amount of work Sony put into ensuring that the PS5's SSD would be as fast as possible makes more sense when you see it fuelled by a desire to reduce friction to a minimum.

Sony's focus now is narrower and more realistic. The PlayStation is almost exclusively a gaming device in the company's current thinking – but the definition of gaming has broadened in the intervening years

Eliminating load delays as much as possible means letting people quickly dive into a game and play for a bit when they have just a little free time, whereas tediously long load delays would likely push them to find something else to fill their time instead.

Similarly, the PS Portal device – a beautiful piece of hardware that many people, myself included, tend to view as a solution in search of a problem – makes far more sense if you think about the objective being to remove barriers (like someone else using the living room TV) and maximise engagement time.

All the same, we can't pretend that an excessive focus on minutes played – rather than units sold – lacks potential downsides. The whole reason why people reacted so negatively to Sony's framing is because we've all had far too many experiences of low-quality live service games in recent years, which stand as a grim testament to the fact that the temptation to juice engagement and revenue numbers with loot boxes and copy-pasted grind is ever-present, and even great developers can sometimes fall down that hole.

Nonetheless, the engagement-focused paradigm Sony is talking about is the one it's followed through more than a decade of incredibly high quality first party game output – and from a service and hardware engineering standpoint, reducing friction and barriers to access is a worthy goal in itself, whether that's through hardware tweaks or through new service offerings (the fantastic PS4 hits catalogue that Sony made available to new PS5 owners springs to mind here as a service clearly designed to increase engagement on the new platform).

The risk of turning the monetisation dial up too high on these efforts will never go away; but a general organisational focus on making hardware, software, and services that people want to spend more and more time on isn't a bad thing by any means.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: 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.
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