Shuhei Yoshida on the role of blockbusters in the new generation, and the potential and pricing of PlayStation Now
Another E3, another victory for Sony in its battle with Microsoft. In the past, it has been easy to dismiss the so-called 'console war' as a confection; a narrative created by and played out in the media to keep its audience engaged. There may still be some truth to that idea, but in both this E3 and the last Sony has been all too happy to compare and contrast its policies to those of its rival, even as the team in green largely abstained from doing so. As a journalist, you get used to companies refusing to comment on their rivals as a matter of policy. Well, not any more. It may not be a war, exactly, but whatever it is Sony has a strong sense that it's winning.
Despite Sony's ongoing supremacy, however, the E3 press conferences were met with a good deal of criticism, with the levels of violence and brutality on display chief among the concerns. Even the most cursory Google search returns rants and jeremiads from Polygon, Game Informer, the San Jose Mercury and GamesRadar among many, many others. This sort of analysis seems to have intensified in the last few years, but when I put that idea to Sony's Shuhei Yoshida, president of Worldwide Studios, he just smiles and shakes his head.
"I do realise there are certain reactions like that, but that's nothing new to me. What's important is the variety that we're offering," he says, still buoyant after being presented with the Award of Honour at Barcelona's Gamelab conference the previous night.
"We are concerned a little bit when we work on a game like LittleBigPlanet 3, because people want those big-budget, realistic, military shooters"
"I was very happy to get a very positive reaction when we announced LittleBigPlanet 3. We are concerned a little bit when we work on a game like LittleBigPlanet 3, about how people will react, because people want those big-budget, realistic, military shooters. But there were lots of cheers, a lot of affection.
"And the reaction to Nintendo's games in general, or a game like Splatoon. If you look at the whole industry, and you consider Nintendo, I think the balance is actually better than past years."
Amidst the hand-wringing over the ratio of severed heads to female presenters it's easy to lose sight of the kind of games that now occupy space on Sony's stage. Would No Man's Sky have been given the opportunity to steal column inches from the likes of Call of Duty and Far Cry even three or four years ago? Go back another four and it's worth asking if something as peaceable and sanguine as Hello Games' widely lauded space exploration title would have existed at all. For Yoshida, gathering and understanding the complaints of the press and public has always been a part of the job, but, in general, he sees more reasons for console gamers to be cheerful than ever before.
Nevertheless, 'better' doesn't necessarily mean good enough, and the sheer ubiquity of communication channels has made it easier than ever for the press and the public to air unvarnished, unbridled criticisms. The apparent dissatisfaction with the prominence of violent games at the E3 conferences speaks to a larger perceived problem with AAA games on the new generation of consoles: in simple terms, there aren't enough of them, certainly not from Sony and Microsoft's first-party studios, and those that are coming feel all too familiar.
In that sense, Sony's very public outreach to independent developers has proved invaluable. At this point, just how smart a purchasing decision would the PlayStation 4 seem without Transistor, Don't Starve, Outlast and their ilk? Indeed, with Uncharted 4 and The Order: 1886 - arguably the most anticipated of the PS4's AAA exclusives - not due for release until some time next year, it's worth asking whether Sony's concerted effort to push indie content over the last 12 months was in part down to filling the gap. Once again, Yoshida shakes his head and smiles.
"I do realise that some people are only interested in big-budget AAA games. I don't really understand those people"
"That's not why, but that's the end result of having great indie games as well. Almost every week you see an indie game coming out digitally on PS4. Some of them are really, really interesting, beautiful games," he says. "We're fortunate that they're creating games on PS4, and some of them are choosing to launch their console versions on PlayStation first. It's fortunate. It really helps.
"When you compare it to the launch of PS3, we had a very small number of digital games. They were very limited in terms of numbers, and many of them were arcade classics at that time. Now, they're original concepts.
"I hear complaints [about the lack of AAA games]. I do realise that some people are only interested in big-budget AAA games. I don't really understand those people. I don't know if they've tried some of the indie games and decided they're not interested. Maybe they haven't even tried. That's a key question. With Resogun, which we offered for free for a long time on PS Plus, not every PS Plus member downloaded it, and that's a great, great game. That's a key question for us."
New hardware implies new experiences, and while we're used to looking to the biggest, most expensive games to find that originality, there's a growing sense that, this time, the new experience will be more fundamental. As I talk to Yoshida, the most distinctive new experience of this generation seems to be choice: what to play, how to play it, how much it costs, and who you share it with. The games may well be familiar, but the structure around them has changed irrevocably.
With that in mind, PlayStation Now seems like a gilt-edged opportunity for Sony to pull even further away from the pack, offering its users a breadth and immediacy of choice that neither Nintendo nor Microsoft has any obvious plans to rival. Already in closed beta and scheduled to enter open beta in the US and Canada at the end of this month, the nascent cloud service has the seductive potential to be the Netflix or Spotify of gaming. At the very least, Yoshida says, that is Sony's intention.
"We have the vision of bringing hundreds and thousands of PlayStation games to every screen," he says, cautiously. "That's the vision, but we're taking one step at a time. There's investment in the server farm, the tech, internet latency and bandwidth. We have to start from somewhere.
"Wifi is a challenge. Typically, we recommend 5mbps for 720p quality. That's a challenge, especially in some markets. But we also view it as a matter of time, because the infrastructure just gets better and better."
"People are jumping to conclusions. I saw some people saying that PS Now is dead on arrival."
That's almost certainly true, but PlayStation Now's business model remains a prominent and potentially ruinous issue. Reports of pricing in the beta have been what can be charitably described as "schizophrenic," varying from game to game and with price-points for everything from a few hours to three months' rental. In the most egregious examples, renting a game for a few months actually costs more than buying it outright on the PlayStation Store. Yoshida quite rightly describes PlayStation Now as a work-in-progress, but even at this early stage it's clear that a lot of work needs to be done, and, with publishers heavily involved in setting the prices, there is reasonable doubt over whether the industry has the courage of its convictions.
More than anything, Spotify and Netflix have proved that, when it comes to entertainment streaming services, there's a huge audience out there for the one-price, all-you-can-eat approach, and it seems unlikely that games will be treated as a special case. To put it bluntly, the market may already have spoken, and Yoshida insists that Sony is listening.
"We don't know yet," he says about the possibility of a Netflix-esque model for PlayStation Now. "We have been saying that we're looking at doing a subscription model, in addition to rental. Or vice versa: rental in addition to subscription. We're calling it a beta still, and we'll call it that even after it launches in the US and Canada at the end of July. It will still be called an open beta, because we expect it to keep changing in many ways. People are jumping to conclusions.
"I saw some people saying that PS Now is dead on arrival," he laughs, then there's that shake of the head again. "So... it's feedback. This is a long-term strategy for us, and every reaction is valuable."