We speak to Shuhei Yoshida on a Friday evening as he sits in his office on the 16th floor of Sony’s corporate headquarters in Shinagawa, Tokyo. The office working environment changed dramatically when the company relocated from Aoyama, Tokyo, to this building a couple of years ago. The 1,000 or so employees of SCEI, which has led PS4’s development, were spread across 17 floors in the old building, but are now crammed into just two, with roughly 500 to a floor. Each room feels as big as a football field, with no high partitions, and you can see from end to end.
Yoshida doesn’t mind the layout feeling crammed. He found it a chore to take the stairs and elevators between all those floors in the old building anyway. The new setup is more efficient – he can walk the floor and have quick chats with numerous different people. The new office also gives SCEI better access to other parts of the company. “We are very popular here,” says Yoshida proudly. “Many different Sony groups and people want to work with us, so that’s great. It helps with collaboration.” And nothing pleases Shuhei Yoshida more than collaboration. For him, it’s at the heart of the whole PS4 project.
Can you take us back to the beginnings of PS4 – was there a specific decision made that started that process, or a person who decided it was time to start that process?
As soon as we launch a platform we have small number of tech people move on to planning for the next. So I’m sure it was the same for PS3. You know PS3 is now [on sale since] 2006 so as soon as it launched I’m sure some parts of the company, especially those hardware people who work in R&D and the semi-conductor [area] must have started the R&D effort. And 2008, as Mark mentioned in the New York event, was the time when the initial project was formed, not by just the R&D people but including different parts of the larger, more cross-sectional team.
Up to PS3, the development was pretty much done by the hardware group in Tokyo. And the keys had been given [to us, after that project], so to speak. So it was Kaz who succeeded Kutaragi-san in 2006, who decided the process had to change. And he trusted the hardware team here to start involving the software team of Worldwide Studios. That was about the time we started another project, PS Vita, as well. So PS Vita was a shorter project compared to PS4 but Mark [Cerny], both Mark and Worldwide Studios were involved in both projects and we worked on both projects simultaneously.
Can you tell us how Mark came to be involved and how he was selected?
That’s an excellent question. As you know Mark and our studio have worked for a long time, our history goes back to the PS One days when Mark was running Universal Interactive and producing Crash Bandicoot. And we were the publisher, the licensee of the IP, and published both Crash Bandicoot and Spyro The Dragon franchises and after PS One the relationship evolved. He set up his own consulting company, Cerny Games, and became the contributor, contracted with us and Naughty Dog to help create Jak And Daxter and with Insomnia to help create Ratchet And Clank.
That continued on until the next-generation, for example with Resistance: Fall Of Man, but he was pretty much working on many projects with Worldwide Studios. But the significant work he did on the technical side was to help to develop the graphics engine, the common firstparty game engine, that we developed between the US and European teams. Mark was leading that effort, as well as Richard Lee, and Richard Lee is the CTO of our studio now. Mark was based in the States and Richard is now based in London. And I was running the studio in the States and Phil Harrison was running the studios in Europe, so we decided to collaborate and create a common engine for PS3. Mark shifted some of his time from helping on game projects to more technical work for the launch of PS3. Following that, Worldwide Studios provided the engine to thirdparty development communities in the early stages of PS3. Many thirdparty developers struggled to work with the new Cell architecture. So that’s how SCEI discovered the resource which is Worldwide Studios and we have a lot of technical people that may now source parts, like drivers or engines or toolsets, that they visit us and we package it and distribute it to thirdparties.
So we were talking following Kaz’s instructions that Worldwide Studios should be involved [in PS4], and I kind of suggested ‘What about Mark?’
So myself, Hirai-san and Mark started this idea of Mark directly working for SCEI Tokyo in addition to working on projects for Worldwide Studios. He’s more dedicated to technical work for PS Vita and PS4 than on game projects, but he never stopped work on game projects, helping out teams like Santa Monica studios, and now he’s a game director on Knack, with Japan Studio. He believes, and I agree, that he wants to continue to be hands-on making games at the same time as making hardware and platforms. So he understands the latest in game development and some pain points that the PlayStation developers may go through.
Nintendo ended up becoming more profitable last generation by focusing on the user experience – has Sony has taken onboard some of that same wisdom?
It’s not easy to make a system that “just works”. We’ve been criticised all the time for people having to wait to download patches, or for firmware updates, and we are gamers as well so we know exactly what people have to go through on PS3. So we wanted to really make it a focus so that our developers in Tokyo and the US who work on system software and such features were really thinking about some of these experiences.
People who watched PS4’s reveal event might assume that Japan played a less pivotal role in the development of PS4. Can you talk about the Japanese contribution?
In terms of the number of people who worked on developing PS4, both hardware and system software were predominantly Japanese. When we presented, we looked at people who best represent the [points] that we wanted to make, we chose Mark and David Perry in the network services side. It could actually have looked like the PS4 was developed from a US standpoint and that was not the case, it was a collaboration between [Japan] and our people based in the US. You know we have a larger pool of engineering resources in the US, and also some in Europe, in addition to the large technical resources that we always have had in Tokyo. The final additions [to the PS4 hardware] were made in Tokyo as well by Andy [House, CEO of SCE] and [Masayasu] Ito, head of the Playstation console. As the the lead system architect, Mark reported to those two.
Are there specific examples of how your studios influenced the hardware that you could pluck out?
Yes so for example, when discussions began on what should be the core processors – that was the very first issue of the PS4 project when we started in 2008 because the it takes the longest. So I introduced our CTO and our tech director and there were people from different studios from Worldwide Studios to get their view. The biggest question we had, of course, was if we should continue to evolve Cell architecture or move on to PC-style development.
When we designed PS4 Eye, we involved people who’d been involved in camera based games – the people from London studio and people from the US who worked on the Sports Champions games. So, depending on the issue at hand, we made sure that the right experience and background people are involved in the discussion.
And for the discussion on the controller, of course everybody has an opinion, so it was quite a large group of people involved from our studios. That was probably the largest group of people involved, including the testing of prototypes. There were lots and lots of prototypes that were made and thrown away.
If you had to guess how many prototypes that controller went through, what kind of number are we talking about?
Well, it’s hard. In the earlier stages it could be just a device, like a naked PC board connected to a PC, to just try out new sensors, for example. Or just devices put together by hand by the R&D team. You know SCE have very unique, interesting hardware prototyping people who put together some new devices to create interesting input devices. So these are handmade and given to a small number of people, to teams who are interested to try them out. It was more than a couple of years we continued iterating. After trying out many different options and devices available, we came back [to the decision] that this is a form that works.
The DualShock 4 controller seems like a considerable shift beyond its predecessors. Why such a drastic update?
This is as a result of the new process we developed with SCEI. Basically, the PS Vita went through the same process before the actual PS4. So because PS Vita was targeted to launch in 2011, and because portable is like designing a controller itself, we went through many, many iterations of PS Vita. So we just continued on the same process. When we started designing the PS4 the people at SCEI already were very familiar with the vocal creative people in our different [firstparty] studios. So the process for designing PS4, the discussions with SCEI hardware engineers and the Worldwide Studios game designers and some of the tech people were pretty much similar to [those that happened in Vita development].
So there were suggestions for improvement for DualShock 3 and some completely new ideas came from different groups, such as adding touch, as all saw the advancement of gaming on smart devices. So that was more game design side idea. And the adding of the light bar, I think, came from Rich Marks’ group, who helped develop PS Move.
Does the light bar on the DualShock 4 encroach on Move’s featureset?
The light-bar doesn’t require the camera to function. It’s just a different way of identifying the player. In terms of using the LED [as in the Dualshock 3, with] numbers like 1, 2, 3 and 4, it looked a bit odd. The SCEI people wanted some smarter way of doing it, and the use of a full-colour LED came up. And of course, as Rich’s teams pointed out, other than the depth that required the use of PS Move, identifying the precise 2D location of the player can be [done] by camera, if we put the LED bar on the controller.
So it has a dual – or it could be a triple – role because game designers could use it for some effect. Like when [players are] losing HP, the colour could change from green to red. Like in the Killzone demo, if you were watching Steven playing, [that game] has that function already.
People were watching the main screen, but Steven was facing the audience, showing how the light bar colour changes as he was hit by the enemy; as he lost hit points the colour was changing from green to red. And when he used the health replenishment, it went back to green.
At the reveal event, PS4 was positioned as being all about games. Does this mean other services – photos, music, and so on – will be less prominent on the console’s dashboard?
We know that people like these functions, such as Netflix, and use them a lot. And especially for those people who are not the person who purchased these consoles – like family members – they tend to use these non-game functions. So it’s not like we are no longer going to do these functions, but especially for the announcement event, we wanted to show how the game experiences will change with PS4, because that’s the biggest focus for us. Once that communication [to the public] is achieved, then probably later this year we’ll talk more about what these non-game functions [are] that we are trying to bring to PS4 as well.