With the PlayStation 4 around the corner, Gamasutra sat down with Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida to get a bead on what his strategy for Sony's software development organization is as the next gen begins to unfold.
Convincing players to choose PS4The future of the dedicated game console is up in the air. We know that they'll continue to sell -- for now. But we don't know what the demand is like overall. Will it eventually outstrip the current generation, or sell to a diehard core only? With so many other options, will players stay interested in what Sony is offering?
"Analysts and media people tend to say that with all these mobile devices there's no future for consoles; people don't need these game-dedicated devices," Yoshida acknowledges, though he doesn't sound too perturbed. Why? "The great thing is we have all the millions of people we can ask that question, who have preordered the PlayStation 4, and are getting it on day one."
"The fact that we are getting the largest amount of preorders for PS4 for any past launch of a PlayStation platform, it's amazing how there's so many people who choose to spend hundreds of dollars to get a game-dedicated console."
But in the face of huge competition from every corner, Yoshida knows there has to justify that faith, and lure in more reluctant buyers: "There has to be something very special in playing games on PS4 or any PlayStation platform, that people have to spend hundreds of dollars before they can play any game at all. Our approach is always, 'Let's make a game experience very special.'"
This philosophy extends to how he runs his whole organization: which studios get cut, which get expanded, and what games get signed.
Yoshida, in fact, has deeply embedded himself in the hardware teams since he moved to Sony Japan, after taking on the role of Worldwide Studios head: "The primary reason was to work with the hardware team. I inserted myself into the process of designing, making the hardware and system software. I've spent lots of time, maybe half [of my] personal time working with the hardware teams," he notes.
The death of mid-sized studiosThe desire to entice players with something special has forced Yoshida to acknowledge some hard realities. The mid-sized console studio has faced major challenges across the industry, and Sony's Worldwide Studios is no exception.
"Shutting some of the studios" and then "investing in our top teams" became his strategy. Worldwide Studios thus has put its bets for full-priced titles on bigger games, and the expansion of successful studios over startups.
"So we have supported some studios -- Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, and Guerrilla -- to become able to produce multiple projects at the same time, while we shut down mid-sized studios who were struggling to compete... that's in reaction to the changes of the time," Yoshida says.
When it comes to running a mid-sized team, "that's a really tough position," says Yoshida. "It's been a bloodbath of medium-sized games for the last two years... the market is extremely hard for smaller, mid-sized games these days."
The "something very special" that compels consumers to buy PlayStation platforms is harder for Yoshida to identify in mid-tier boxed games. $60 is a lot of money to spend, he says, when free-to-play games exist.
"I think that's the reason the bigger titles are getting even bigger, because people supported them, and the publishers can afford it, and the level of quality of these games is way beyond these mid-sized games," says Yoshida. "On the other hand, the smaller digital games are amazing, great -- because they try to do something that big teams won't do. Because they are smart, they won't try to compete with Call of Duty."
Trapped between these successful (if scrappy) indies and the mega-studios, mid-sized studios, says Yoshida, are caught in a difficult spot: "if you are making a studio, like a 40- or 50-person studio, it's a really tough age -- whether they try to grow and compete to become triple-A, or if they try to do indie-style small development. It's really a good, critical question for many of the mid-sized studios."
For Sony's part, says Yoshida, "we encourage mid-sized studios to come up with some digital concept titles, new titles. If they can do multiple projects, that's even better."
Getting the best developersBut don't mistake this for a total reliance only on triple-A games. Worldwide Studios is the organization that oversaw the development of Journey, and the company at large has been very aggressive about getting indies onto PlayStation.
"Indie developers tend to choose, by necessity, mobile or PC as platforms of choice, because these platforms offer the lowest barrier of entry, and also the digital distribution for these small guys," Yoshida recognizes.
"What our third-party relationships guys have been working on his talking to these developers, and trying to find the best developers on these platforms, and trying to help them to bring over their work, their games, onto PlayStation."
"The ideal scenario is, of course, the best games out of all these platforms and developers will come out on PlayStation," Yoshida says, with a laugh -- and then follows it up with a clarification. "I'm half-joking, but half-serious," he says.
As "many, many indie games" are "best played with controllers," and "with the very stable, uniform platform of console, they can really focus on creating the best experience," says Yoshida, it makes sense for developers to move their games to the PlayStation systems.
It isn't just third party deals that Sony is signing with indies. At Gamescom, Sony announced it's publishing Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, the latest game from thechineseroom (Dear Esther) as a PlayStation 4 exclusive. It's a Worldwide Studios title, unlike indie ports such as Hotline Miami that fall under the third party banner.
"The difference is who is funding," says Yoshida. "When we fund 100 percent, we publish. That doesn't mean that we're going to dictate the creative development of thechineseroom team. We don't think that's good for the project. We just support the team and probably help them. We have lots of resources, in terms of tech, or services, or testing -- whatever it fits with the needs of the team, a small team like thechineseroom, we want to provide support so they can realize their ambitions or vision. They might become even more ambitious with our support."
But when Worldwide Studios is selling millions of copies of The Last of Us, why go after a small game like Rapture? "Just for fun. Because we love working with these teams," says Yoshida. "We get lots of inspiration from these guys. It's just healthy for us to work with some of those who are very aggressive creative, who try to do something not conventional."
"We have to provide big titles to support the platform," he adds. "But if we are just doing that, maybe we lose some touch with the bleeding edge of thinking."
"It's not like we have to fund these games. Without us, these teams would create some great indie games on their own," Yoshida acknowledges. "Luckily, these teams who have chosen to work with us have seen some value that we can bring to their project."
The Resurgence of Japan StudioYoshida was visibly excited when I brought up Japan studio -- gratified that it's got some attention. "I'm extremely excited that the Japan Studio is getting on the map again," says Yoshida. Recently, it shipped Puppeteer for PS3, and contributes Knack to the PS4's launch lineup.
While he acknowledges it's a small part of the WWS pie -- approximately 80 percent of the organization's money is spent outside of Japan -- it's close to Yoshida's heart. But with the shifts in the Japanese console market, the company has realized it's more crucial to have homegrown talent making games, too.
"The market in Japan has been changing for the past couple years. Many Japanese publishers have found the new mobile/social platforms very profitable for them -- I don't know for how long. They have been doing very good business releasing social games... they started to shift resources. That kind of reemphasized the importance of the studios we have in Japan," Yoshida explains.
"We were very fortunate that lots of great Japanese third party games were coming out on PlayStation, from Konami, Namco, Square Enix, Capcom... [but] because they are shifting their resources away from consoles, we have to make sure we have very strong games coming out from our Japan Studio. And it takes years, many years, to turn around a studio," he explains.
Allan Becker, founder of Sony Santa Monica, moved to Japan to take it over in 2011, and he's instituted changes to bring Japan Studio back to fighting fit. Becker "has done an amazing job to get the studio's focus on a smaller number of projects, and focus on quality of titles, and the results started to show," Yoshida says. "I'm extremely proud of the games they have released for this year, and the last year: Gravity Rush, Puppeteer, Rain, Soul Sacrifice, Knack."
He offers another good reason to keep the studio around: "They tend to try new things, it's their nature," he says, with a smile. "You never know what will come out from that studio in Japan."
Why the PS4 allocates resources the way it doesTo turn now to hardware, Yoshida emphasized the importance of making developers understand why the PS4 reserves a big chunk of its resources for the system, when the PS3 gave most of them over to developers.
That is extremely deliberate, says Yoshida. "During the design process we had lots of discussion about what went right and wrong on PS3," he says. "One of the learnings was, because we most of the resources of PS3 were assigned to games, that's great for game developers... but when we wanted to add some system features after the launch, it has become an extremely difficult challenge for the system engineering team. Because once you allocate the resources to games, you can never get that back -- because if we do that, we lose the compatibility."
When it comes to the PS4, he says, "memory is our most precious resource." The hardware team decided to use speedy GDDR5 "because we believe that's necessary to achieve the level of performance that the next-gen games need," says Yoshida. "But because of this competition for resources, we really want to put lots of great features in the system software side. So we decided to make it 8GB -- so that system guys also enjoyed the larger space."
This will give the system "lots of room to grow" -- something crucial for a platform meant to last for 10 years, as has been Sony's mantra for its PlayStation platforms.
"Ten years is a long time when you look at the pace of technical advancement on the computing industry," says Yoshida. "We really want to be able to take advantage of future technology development, whether it's sensors or devices, network features that we will be able to add."
"People get upset when they talk about we have allocated lots of memory, for example, for system software," says Yoshida. Developers tell him that they want it back, but Yoshida wants them to see the big picture: "We are not talking about games versus non-games," he says. "This is to make all the playing and using PS4 around games -- whether it's background recording, or background download, or remote play -- to make all these things great. It's not necessarily the best choice to give everything to game developers. We learned from PS3 experience."
In fact, Yoshida wants to see the system's capabilities continue to evolve. At launch, you can post videos and screenshots to Facebook, and screenshots to Twitter, as well as streaming on Ustream or Twitch. "We designed the system so that we can add any services after the fact," says Yoshida. "Some countries have some very popular sites, for example, that we'll be able to add."
"We hope that we continue to add more feature and social media options at the system level, so that developers find it easier to support," says Yoshida. And if that is not enough for you, says Yoshida, you can still go your own way: "Some features that are not available when the game launches, it's the developer's choice to do their own integration."
Editor's note: Sony provided travel accommodations in order to facilitate this interview.