Sony: Any Regrets On Blu-Ray, PS3 Launch- Plus more Hirai

Jan 29, 2009
PSP Go and some interesting exclusives meant Sony had a confident E3 show. But Microsoft and Nintendo are attacking from both sides and the PS3 still has a lot to prove. I spoke to Playstation global boss Kaz Hirai about all things Playstation including why core gamers are crucial to PS3 and why he thinks iPhone games just don't compare to those offered by the PSP Go.

What were your impressions of this year's E3?
I think anecdotally and seeing what I have of the show it feels about the right size. I think it grew too big and too quickly with all the parties and showbiz. It got out of hand. The last two years the pendulum swung the other way though so I think the organisers have got the right balance this year.

Is Playstation becoming as much about services as hardware and games?
We've always been less about the hardware and more about what people can do with it. Back when we started with the original Playstation it was all about playing games. With PS2 it was DVD that came into focus. Now we're talking about a number of things players can do in addition to games. Connectivity to the network and service are features of the Playstation Network (PSN). As technology advances there are more things you can do. Technology drives these things but for us it has always been about content.

When PSP Go launches you will continue selling and supporting the original PSP – why? Will it not cause confusion?
It's about giving options to the consumers. For a start there will be a price difference between the two. (The Go will be more expensive). But some consumers like to collect a library of games and are happy to go out and buy physical media. But there are some consumers who want less bulk and like the lighter features of the Go. The Go has 16GB flash and you can store around 8-10 games on it, maybe more. Compare that to carrying around all those discs and cases and there is clearly a big convenience factor. We're not trying lasso people into the Go, it's all about giving a choice. The PSP 3000 is still key for us

How risky is it to go download only with the Go?
From a timing perspective now feels right. The PSN launched in 2006 and 2007 and it's got to the point now where we have 24 million registered accounts and 450 million pieces of content downloaded. PS3 and PSP users are now used to downloading and getting content. Given the growth of the network we felt it was the right time to announce the Go.

How much influence has the success of the iPhone and the app store had on your decision to launch the Go?
That has nothing to do with our decision. Everyone talks about the app store having games but the types of games the app store offers are completely different from the game experience we are presenting to consumers on the PSP. Look at Gran Turismo or Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker. These are games that are meant to be played on devices like the PSP where you have physical buttons. There are some fun games on the app store but they are often limited. Soft on-screen buttons are totally different to proper controls. Games are all called "games" but the ones on the app store are not comparable to the ones on PSP.

How important is the casual gaming market for you?
We've sold nearly 52 million units of PSP worldwide and clearly we have engaged with the core gaming audience. But to grow the market we do need to attract more casual or light games players to expand the install base even further. So we hope announcements like the Hannah Montana PSP will really help here.

Motion controllers were big news at E3. Is motion control the future of gaming?
It all depends on what the content creators can do with these new input devices and how they can express their creativity. Plus it is vitally important to see how these new games get accepted by consumers. We're confident about our device. It tracks 1-to-1 but also depth as well. I've spoke to a lot of publishers and they are very excited about this. It all depends on what designers and game makers can do but we're very excited by the device and pleased by the response to the demo.

Nintendo talked a lot about attracting "everyone" to gaming while your press conference was very much focussed on the core gamer. Do you feel that Sony needs to do this to reconnect as little with gamers who may have defected to other systems over the last few years?
It really depends on where you in the life-cycle of a console. We have always started with the core audience and then expanded. A console always needs a solid core of games that appeal to gamers. Look at God of War. We launched that in the seventh year of the Playstation 2 and a lot of people wondered why we did. It's because we always wanted to keep the support of the core gaming audience. The PS3 is only a quarter way through a 10-year life cycle. So we want to make sure that we are supporting and exciting the core gamers. That's not to say we're not doing anything to expand the demographics. Singstar and Buzz are obvious examples. But we need to do this in a controlled way. If you go mainstream too quickly and don't support the core gaming audience then you lack the pillar to support your platform. Without this pillar you end up with a fickle audience that might be big but will probably move on. This is fine if you're looking at a 5 year life cycle like all of our competitors, even looking back in history, have always done. The new console comes out and the old one is immediately disregarded. We tend to take a longer term view of how we manage the platform and the software titles that come out at any given time.

In hindsight was the inclusion a Blu-ray drive in the PS3 a mistake?
Purely from a gaming standpoint there was no other choice for us. Why? The capacity of the disc. Last year's Metal Gear Solid 4 was pushing 50GB as it was. If it was on DVD it would have been a 6 disc set. The packaging and cost would have been prohibitive and it would have been hugely inconvenient to consumers. So from a gaming standpoint there was really no choice if you wanted a high definition gaming experience. Kojima-san has been pushing the boundaries already. And then there is the motion picture issue. The PS3 installed base certainly went a long way to making the movie studios side with Blu-ray rather then HD-DVD or supporting both. Ultimately it ended up being the right thing for the entirety of the industry as consumers don't need to hedge their bets. We had a lot to do with making Blu-ray the de-facto standard. That's great. But our decision to include a Blu-ray drive in the ps3 was mainly driven by gaming priorities and what the content creators could do with the storage space.

How important are platform exclusive games?
When we look at first party titles we want to make sure they are as good as they can be. With regard to 3rd parties we need to decide whether the title, if it were to be exclusive, would be a platform driver for us. And if it is then we need to talk about marketing opportunities. But just because something is exclusive it doesn't necessarily mean it will drive platform sales and that's ultimately what is most important.

How important is PS2?
PS2 sold 9 million last year, and we are planning for 5 million this. So the software and peripheral business as well makes it a very important and profitable business for us. We're in the PS2 business as long as there is demand for the console. It does fly under the radar from a media perspective but retail is very keen.

The PS3 had a difficult launch period. Why was this and in hindsight what you have done differently?
Given the circumstances that we had we needed to make some tough decisions. Looking back if we could have done it again we probably would have not gone for the simultaneous worldwide launch. Given the cards that we were dealt we felt we made the best of the launch that we could have. But remember that the success of a platform isn't based on the launch. It's more about the latter half of its life cycle. Look at the PS2. Nearly 10 years since launch and 140 million units later it has obviously been a huge success. But to look at the PS2 two years into its life cycle and not know what the next eight years would hold it would have been premature to judge. For other consoles which have a five year life cycle it is much easier to judge performance after two years. But for us, with the 10 year life cycle we have, it is premature to judge after such a short time.

The PS3 and PSP have always had numerous non-gaming features that feel a little underused – Remote Play is one. Do all these features take the focus of the PS3/PSP away from gaming?
I've always said the PSP and especially the PS3 are first and foremost videogame consoles. But why stop there? Even if we had the most successful videogame console around I'd say I'd seen that movie and that movie was PS2. Why do we want to repeat that? So we need to expand our horizons. This is both from a gameplay experience but also because of the additional features. We want consumers to ultimately benefit from using these features. We want PS3 owners to use the photo gallery software or Blu-ray or remote play. Remote play is a good example. We want to offer that remote play functionality to content creators so they can – if they choose – add it to their games. We can't force that technology on creators but we can say that the technology is there if you wish to use it. Of course, whether the creators who design games for 32 inch + HD TVs want their content to appear on the smaller PSP screen is clearly a discussion point. But it's a creative issue rather than a technical one.

Will the PS3 go download only?
Let's say we took out the drive so PS3 is network only. What happens when Kojima-san comes out with a new Metal Gear Solid game? Do consumers want to wait for a 50GB download? I think they would rather go the store and pick up a copy. The file sizes for a HD PS3 game are much heavier than a PSP game. Conceptually it may make sense to remove the Blu-Ray drive but in reality it doesn't make sense. Also we never want to be in the position where countries without super fast broadband connections are locked out of the Playstation business because the PS3 has gone download only.

Do you feel aggrieved about Singstar and Buzz essentially creating the casual market on the consoles only for the Wii to step in and reap the rewards?
Buzz and Singstar have been huge successes for us. And if we opened some doors for the industry then we have done a good service to the games industry. This industry is all about creativity. If other companies come up with something we think looks fun then we may look at it too. It's all about creativity. Look at the Eyetoy. We've had phenomenal success with that on PS2. If Microsoft decides they want to do that for 360 then great, that's fantastic. It's all about what excites the consumer. I don't feel aggrieved at all – it's all about making sure we have great content for the consumer.
Jan 29, 2009
With the success of the Nintendo Wii, numerous gaming-industry pundits have focused on what console companies are doing to garner the mainstream audience. In a sense, it's understandable; out of the gate, the Wii has reached a broad audience in a way that (arguably) no console ever has. While the shortsighted reaction would be to mimic the Wii in every way possible and as soon as possible, Sony believes in a more gradual approach -- an approach that has worked for the company twice before. It will go after the mainstream audience with products like Buzz, SingStar, and its unnamed motion controller. However, Sony feels that it's important to start with the core audience and build out. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Kaz Hirai said:

"We have always started with the core audience and then expanded. A console always needs a solid core of games that appeal to gamers. Look at God of War. We launched that in the seventh year of the Playstation 2 and a lot of people wondered why we did. It's because we always wanted to keep the support of the core gaming audience.

That's not to say we're not doing anything to expand the demographics. Singstar and Buzz are obvious examples. But we need to do this in a controlled way. If you go mainstream too quickly and don't support the core gaming audience then you lack the pillar to support your platform. Without this pillar you end up with a fickle audience that might be big but will probably move on."

A lot of what Hirai is saying makes complete sense, but this generation is quite different from the previous two and the market has changed considerably. The most obvious point is that the PlayStation 3 does not enjoy the same market position as the PlayStation and PlayStation 2. With that in mind, can Sony afford to use the same approach it did in the past? Or does it need to alter its gameplan drastically in order to catch up to Microsoft? (Let's be honest -- neither company is going to catch up to Nintendo.)

Hirai's words also made me think about Nintendo's longterm future. Numerous readers of TheFeed would say, to use Hirai's words, that Nintendo lacks the pillar to support its core-gaming audience. While it might not matter this generation, some have argued that the Wii has generated so much ill will with enthusiast gamers and it will bite Nintendo come next generation. Like Kaz said, it's possible that these gamers will "move on".

It's still early in the console game so it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Microsoft and Sony still have numerous opportunities to succeed. While Nintendo's lead is substantial, it still has a lot of work to do in order to avoid a sharp sales drop off. Even though a lot of enthusiast gamers have turned their backs on Nintendo, the company has the ability -- much more so than the others -- to win back hearts with its classic franchises.

So look into your crystal balls and read your tarot cards. Do you think the approach Hirai spoke about will work? Or is this generation a completely different ballgame? How about Nintendo? Did it "go mainstream too quickly"? Will it haunt the company in the future? Share your thoughts!