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Postcard From GDC Europe 2005: Keynote Q&A on the Future of Games


August 31, 2005
 



SCEE's Phil Harrison

At today's keynote at the 2005 Game Developers Conference Europe in London, Sony's executive vice president for SCEE, Phil Harrison talked frankly and at length in a Q&A format with GDC chairman Jamil Moledina, discussing both Sony's forthcoming Cell-powered PlayStation 3, and the state of play on both the PSP handheld and the still-thriving PlayStation 2, revealing a number of vital looks into Sony's strategy for the future.

In the process of the relatively conversational keynote, named simply "Keynote Q&A on the Future of Games", Harrison and his questioner veered into a plethora of other diverse areas, from the Cell chip to PSP import issues, but Harrison was frank, lucid and amusing throughout, coping with even the trickiest questions about the PSP's delayed launch in Europe with some aplomb.

The Harrison Show

At any rate, Moledina took to the stage at the start of the keynote to introduce Sony EVP Harrison, noting his current role in charge of three Sony European studios and an entire network of external developers. As pointed out, Harrison has been at Sony for 13 years, and as such, has played an instrumental role in the original PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and the PlayStation 3, being the first non-Japanese creator involved in the PlayStation's genesis.

Taking the stage to some applause, Harrison sat down and, in answering the first question, about new durations and dynamics of games to attract new customers, he commented that this was a "pet topic of mine", and launched into a call for developers to look more closely at episodic content, referencing the 'watercooler' effect of TV shows like 'Lost', commenting: "Our industry should move away from putting 20 hours of content onto a 5 gigabyte disc, and shift to a model which embraces more of an episodic delivery of content, just like television."

He further continued: "We should look to our games become more like soap operas", referencing "similar reliable experiences" over time, though, as he noted, without the overblown histrionics of the soap opera genre. Harrison also noted that episodic game creation ameliorates a lot of risk from the commercial and production point of view.

When asked to elaborate on the ways that Sony Europe, perhaps one of the Sony development outposts better known for alternative game/entertainment concepts such as EyeToy and SingStar, looked at approaches to IP, Harrison admitted that there were notable successful examples among his internal studios, though also added dryly: "There's been a few that we don't talk about." He continued by noting that, with "the privilege of being the platform holder", Sony perhaps has a responsibility to advance things that are "a little more esoteric."

In particular, he referenced SingStar, which is, according to Harrison, episodic in some ways, with regular expansion packs and over 20 separate SKUs available across Europe with different song selections - the Sony EVP references the "production-line mentality" as being vital to extending the base innovative idea and making it work in so many territories.

PlayStation 3 - The Attitude

Next, Moledina posed a question about what unique features might help people get a handle on next-generation development, and Harrison replied with sentiments indicating that he hoped there are many reasons why people would buy a next-generation console. He then notably described the PlayStation 3 as "fundamentally a network platform from the beginning", and continued by describing it as a platform where "consumers easily graze content dynamically, delivered digitally, unlike other consoles [such as the PlayStation 2] where network functionality was an add-on." Thus, although Sony has not yet announced its Xbox Live-like functionality, Harrison's comments make it clear they are taking the challenge much more seriously this time round.

In fact, when challenged, Harrison agreed: "Microsoft has done a lot of things right in this space", and suggested that Xbox Live was "certainly a good model for a lot of the consumer experiences we're doing on PlayStation 3." Although not giving a precise example of something that's planned, he also pointed out that: "maybe there's a button on your TiVo which will spit content onto your PSP", and hinted that this might be the type of interoperability that next-generation Sony consoles might help with.

However, this attitude came in for a little more buffeting in the public Q&A session at the end of the keynote, in which Harrison further reinforced that, technically, "More people have played online on PS2 than a Microsoft format", but admitted "But we did not provide the same experience as they did." He did state again, strongly, that the PlayStation 3 will feature commerce, communications, community features, and media exchange functionality. Some will be free, some will be premium-driven by game services and publishers themselves, but Harrison commented: "We want to provide an open platform as much as possible", and in a notable reference to Microsoft: "Distinct from our competitors, we are happy for publishers to make their own financial agreements directly with consumers."

Cell Block Sony

When asked exactly what kind of new playability and innovation Sony's semi-fabled Cell chip might help instigate, Harrison had a simple answer: "I hope people in this room will answer that for us over the next few years." But in responding in more detail, he commented that the Cell has been made, at least on Sony's end, by an architect who understands demands of games and multimedia processing, and most of all, the chip is 'blindingly quick', and "does a lot of the heavy lifting and floating point math that's required for a lot of the innovation we're going to see in next-generation games" As well as the chip's swiftness, according to Harrison, another important part of the equation is the Cell's bus - effectively the way it interfaces to the rest of the world.

Harrison went on to compare Cell's approach to that of the previous PlayStation hardware generation, indicating that the PS2's architecture was really finetuned for 3D computer graphics. According to Harrison, its programmable microprocessors were great for vector maths, good for certain simulation, but didn't hold a great deal of general purpose programmability.

However, Cell is apparently made up of much more general purpose cores, and as a result, Harrison claims, middleware companies and developers can make things much easier, including more complex physics, a lot more complex behaviors, and other unpredictable gaming elements that come from the dynamic simulation. Of course, this statement is yet to be borne out, but accounts from developers as launch titles approach should help either bolster or dismiss this statement.

Diversity 101

Next came the question of whether hardware, and specifically the PlayStation 3, is trying to reach too much of a diverse market, and Phil acknowledged the danger, commenting: "We, as an industry, are in a competitive situation fighting for disposable time. We're fighting for eyeballs and the attention of our consumers all the time." But overall, Harrison commented that Sony would prefer that fight to happen on one box rather than multiple devices.

In fact, he went on to suggest, Sony had found a healthy portion of users who bought a PlayStation 2, at least in Japan back in 2003, since it was the cheapest and best DVD player at the time, and then discovered it as a games machine. In the same way, the PlayStation 3's multimedia functionality (and presumably the Blu-Ray next-gen movie format in particular, though this was not stated) may attract non-gaming users to the PS3. Harrison considers this method "a healthy way to grow. "


The PlayStation 3

Too Much Development?

Moledina then steered the questioning around to the apparent cost of next-gen game development. Harrison indicated that, in his opinion, many games industry commentators have a Doomsday scenario when it comes to generational change, but explicitly stated: "Compared to the PlayStation 2, writing for the PlayStation 3 at this point in time should be cheaper." Although this may raise eyebrows with some, middleware tools are now cheaper and more comprehensive, according to Harrison.

He then went on to reference the changes through Sony's lifetime. The PlayStation 1 had a wide variety of high level libraries, according to Harrison, but developers said they wanted open access to everything. Bearing that in mind for PlayStation 2, commented Harrison: "we thought we'd give developers access to everything" at the lower levels, believing that middleware companies would give PS2 developers higher-end tools.

In the end, however, Harrison admits the company "miscalculated somewhat" in presuming this support, and so for the PS3, has changed to a hybrid model, with licensed middleware (from Havok, Ageia, SN Systems, and Epic) available, but good low-level access too. Harrison commented: "What we wanted to do is create an end-to-end solution", and access to a mature toolchain is the vital part of what he hopes will make the PS3 successful.

Don't Quit, PS2!

Next, Harrison discussed the possible shelf-life of the PlayStation 2, pointed out that high-profile CFOs have made multiple comments to him about jumping out of the PlayStation 1 market too early. Harrison pointed out that companies are still releasing titles for PS1 this Christmas, and there is still a vast amount of re-orders of value software. If we do a comparison with the PlayStation 2, it might be argued that 60% of the software volume is still to be sold on the system - "billions of dollars", according to the Sony EVP, though not all in brand new games.

PSP, Meet Europe

Near the end of the session, Harrison was quizzed about the delayed launch of the PSP in Europe (finally occurring tonight), and admitted it was "obviously not optimal", commenting: "Factors outside of our control contributed to us having to delay the launch." He did, however, suggest that the benefit to European consumers is a v2.0 operating system at launch, including Web compatibility, and the PSP production output from factories in Japan is now such that Sony can sustain demand. As for the import situation, with Sony suing retailers who imported PSPs from Japan or the U.S. before the European release, Harrison simply said this was "something for the lawyers - I'm not going to comment on that."

When asked about downloadable content for the PSP, as seen most prominently in Wipeout Pure, Harrison commented that it was an experiment, but that it turned out to be a good experiment, and one of the reasons was to keep the shelf-life of games going for retailer. He also revealed: "We will be moving to premium content next year", announcing that Sony would be charging for content on the PSP in a pay per download model, where users will own the right to download the item (presumably a level or other add-on for a UMD game) again in the future.

Questions, Answers

Proceedings then moved on to a Q&A session including audience questions, in which Harrison was asked about the future of European development, which he was relatively buoyant about, despite the admittal that there was "obviously consolidation going on, and less developers around." However, the Sony exec argued that the developers who are left are, by and large, the best ones, with the best management process and best staff retention, and Europe "has as much creativity as there is anywhere else in world."

As for what games Harrison is currently playing, he noted that he has nearly finished Ridge Racers for PSP on his commute to work, which he described as something of a "nostalgia trip back to 1994", and had also been playing Everybody's Golf and SCEE's upcoming Pursuit Force. He also had kind words, when prompted, about Nintendo's Nintendogs, commenting: "I think it's absolutely fantastic."

When discussing whether he would ever consider multiple launch bundles of the PlayStation 3, as the Xbox 360 has now confirmed, Harrison was relatively caustic, commenting: "Are there two versions of the Xbox that people want to buy? Consumers don't know which one to buy, developers don't know which one to make games for, and retailers don't know which one to stock. We wouldn't take that strategy." This is a clear indication that Sony apparently intends to launch with a single feature-set for PS3.

Content First

Finally, Harrison ended with words of inspiration, commenting: "We have to continue to put creativity first, otherwise we will turn into a formulaic industry. It's up to us all to... try to put innovation foremost, otherwise the consumers will go elsewhere. If we're not exciting these eyeballs better than anyone else, people will go watch [TV show] Lost."

These were stirring words to end a somewhat inspirational keynote, which proved not only that Phil Harrison is one of the canniest public speakers and evangelists of any major hardware platform, but also seemed to imply that Sony hopes to have learned from its mistakes in making the PlayStation 2 a relative black box for developers. Of course, the Cell chip and its schedule and ease of use continue to be a massive impenetrable for the company, but Harrison's words today, convinced many that Sony is trying to make a difference, and its moves in the upcoming console war will be carefully thought out, if not yet a guaranteed slam-dunk.

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