Dave Karraker, new senior director of corporate communications for Sony, didn’t take this job at an easy time. Signing up with the company just a week before the Tokyo Game Show, he’s arrived in the middle of a console launch ramp-up, and amidst an anti-Sony trend in the blog communities. Coming off experience with the 3DO and Dreamcast launches, not to mention having to represent Martha Stewart, he’s no stranger to controversy.
Dave seems to be fighting fire with fire in his new position, making up lost ground for the time Sony spent without corporate PR in the U.S. The outspoken Karraker is in many ways a breath of fresh air for the often-stoic company, and may be just what Sony needs for the launch of its newest, and most controversial console.
Gamasutra: I’d like to get into your background first – can you give the full rundown of past work?
Dave Karraker: I actually started as a television reporter in Santa Barbara and Reno (for CBS and NBC). And then got disillusioned when they told me to localize the Heidi Fleiss (prostitution ring) story in Reno, and I was like ‘you know, prostitution is legal here, so I’m not sure what you want me to do with this story.’ And they’re like ‘go out to the Mustang Ranch, and interview a prostitute that slept with a celebrity,’ and I was like ‘alright, I’ll get right on that.’ That was probably the beginning of the end, and I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.
So I moved back to LA, and ended up at Rogers & Cowan, kind of a celebrity firm, and that’s how I wound up working with Crystal Dynamics at first. So I worked on Crystal Dynamics when they were only doing games for the 3DO, and my first big game was Gex, which a lot of people remember. It was pretty awesome for the time.
Anyway, Scott Steinberg was over there at the time, he’s now at Sega, and Chip Blundel, who’s now at EA I believe. We were all working on (Crystal Dynamics). So then I came up to Sega of America, where I worked at Access Communications, and worked on 3DO. So Trip Hawkins, and the whole crew over there…Rick Earl who’s now at EA, and it was for both the hardware, and then Studio 3DO, which was the internal software group.
I started out there, and then started picking up all kinds of software clients in addition to that. Virgin Interactive was one, which is now defunct, ASC Games and U.S. Gold. It was kind of funny because while I was working with U.S. Gold I remember them bringing in the storyboard for this action adventure game with a female protagonist who would search the world for treasure, and that of course ended up being Tomb Raider. We put together first plans for that, and then I left before that actually ever happened. It was kind of cool to see how that evolved. (U.S. Gold owned developer Core Design prior to the Eidos purchase)
ASC Games was the original Grand Theft Auto. Yet another game where I remember seeing the storyboards early on. And then Sega showed up. So I worked on Sega for about three years, I guess, during the decline of the Sega Saturn, and the rise of the Sega Dreamcast.
GS: What made you leave games, and what made you come back?
DK: Well, I left to go chase dot com millions. But that never came to fruition. My 100,000 shares turned into about $33 (laughs). So that wasn’t brilliant. I left to go launch Kmart’s e-commerce site, is what it was, which was a joint venture between Kmart, Softbank and Martha Stewart. And that obviously went belly-up, so I worked for Kmart for a bit, then left Kmart when the bankruptcy happened, and then Martha Stewart, but I was there during the Martha Stewart…problem.
GS: Sounds fun!
DK: Yeah, it’s funny, when I was interviewing (at Sony), they asked ‘how are you with crisis communications,’ and I really kind of looked at them and said ‘you’re kidding me, right?’ I mean, I worked with Martha Stewart during her incarceration, I think I can handle it!
So from Access I went to work at Allied Domecq, which used to be the world’s biggest liquor company. So they own brands like Stoli, Beefeater, Maker’s Mark, Kahlua, and also Dunkin Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and Togo’s, but I just worked on Spirits of North America. But then that company got bought out by a French company, and they laid off everybody here in the United States.
DK: Yeah! So I wasn’t doing anything for about nine months, just kicking around and travelling the world, and a friend called me who worked at Sony, and said ‘hey, there’s an opening here, and you should know about it.’ So I sent my resume over to Peter Dille, who I’d known previously when he was at THQ. So that’s why I got back into it.
I don’t know if I’m the smartest guy in the world, for jumping in two months before launch, or the dumbest guy in the world.
GS: Was there any reluctance on the Sony side given that you’d worked on both the 3DO and the Dreamcast?
DK: (laughs) You know what, I’d like to think we did excellent, excellent PR for those guys. We got a lot of coverage. With the Dreamcast, we got excellent coverage for it. But at the end of the day, those systems didn’t fail because of bad PR, they failed because they didn’t get the third party publisher support, or the retailer support. I mean you can ask anybody and they’ll tell you that the Dreamcast was a superior system.
DK: But when EA tells you they’re not going to back your hardware, that’s pretty much the death nail in the coffin, right there. Same with 3DO. We came out with 3DO at $799. And it was the first 32-bit 3D-based game machine, but it was priced so high, and the target of what they thought it would be, you know, the entertainment box of the living room…it was way before its time.
GS: So do you think we’re finally into that entertainment box of the living room era yet? I know Kutaragi keeps trying to brand the PS3 as a computer in Japan, and it doesn’t go over as well over here.
DK: Yeah, well first and foremost, our target here in the U.S. is gamers. And no one should think any different. We are first and foremost a gaming company, targeting gamers. That being said, there’s a lot of stuff in the box that makes it a very appealing entertainment platform. You’ve got Blu-Ray player, you’ve got a harddrive, which is probably the biggest element, in terms of being able to download content, whether it be games, television shows or movies, and then add to that the online content to allow those downloads. All of a sudden it does become something that you look at and say ‘well you know, it’s a TiVo that plays games.’ It has all the same elements that that box would have.
GS: So what do you do when he says something like ‘PlayStation 3 replaces your computer?’ I mean, you can’t really refute him.
DK: I think people need to understand that Ken is a visionary for the industry, and the stuff that he talks about is not always necessarily the here and now, it’s what we’re looking to do down the road, like where the industry should be heading. At TGS he brought up a lot of things about downloadable delivery, user-created content, and that’s not stuff that’s going to happen 100% today, but is something that down the road is going to happen. So I think when Ken talks about things like a super-computer for your home, it is technically right. This is the most powerful computer you can have in your home for this price. There’s no way around it. I think it’s our role to take his message and interpret it for our demographic over here, which is the gaming community, and explain to them what that means.
GS: Do you think it has been, or will be a difficult road for the PS3? There’s definitely a lot of consumer anticipation for the system, but also a lot of backlash. Do you think that backlash is deserved?
DK: The backlash that we’re seeing, a lot of it comes from being number one in the market. And it’s not interesting if somebody just succeeds and succeeds and succeeds. I think a lot of this falls on the shoulders of the media. You don’t sell magazines or blogs by saying Sony’s great, Sony’s great, Sony’s great. That doesn’t generate reader interest, people want to see that maybe there are some chinks in the armor. But at the end of the day if you’d ask people if they’d like a PS3 or nothing at all, they’re gonna say I want a PS3!
GS: (laughs) Well sure…
DK: But at the end of the day, the consumers are going to vote with their wallets. I think there has been a lot of negativity around Sony recently just because people have such high expectations for the system. And I think following recent events like Sony’s Gamers Day, where we answered a lot of those questions - what are the games, what’s coming in the box, what does the online service look like - the tide has kind of turned a little bit. We’re seeing a lot less negative stories about us, unrelated to batteries, and people are starting to ask questions about Microsoft. Like here comes Sony, now what are you going to do about that? That’s instead of the other way around, which it used to be: How on earth are you going to beat Microsoft?
GS: It did seem like there were a number of mis-statements, and this may be a media misperception, but did you have to work to rein people in and make sure they’re on message?
DK: I don’t know that it was a lot of mis-statements, the problem that we had was because there wasn’t anyone in this position that I’m in right now, we weren’t driving the message. We were allowing media to drive the message for us, and interpret it for us. So allowing someone like Peter Moore, who’s a good friend of mine, to stand up there and say negative things about Sony, there wasn’t anybody refuting that. People just took that for face value. Now we’re very aggressively defending our turf, and attempting to right all the wrongs that have been said about us in the past, which includes misrepresentation of quotes from our executives. I think you’ve probably seen the difference, just in the last couple months, where if somebody goes out and says something negative about Sony, we’re not going to sit back and allow that. We’re going to position it properly, and provide the facts.
GS: Do you think we’ll ever get back to the days of trash talking between companies, along the lines of Sega’s “Pretendo” campaign?
DK: You know what, we’ll never get back to those days unfortunately! No, our goal is never to bash our competition. I think all of our competitors have done a great job of addressing the needs of their target consumer, and they’re advancing things with their technology and what they’re doing, they’re advancing the industry, and I think that’s great. As a gamer, I think that’s great. That said, if somebody goes out and makes a point that somehow reflects negatively on us, we’ll happily provide the facts about what is truthful in the matter, or what you get with the PlayStation 3 – take the 1080p, for example. We have true 1080p, and then a competitor would come out and say we’re up-resing our games to 1080p. Of course we went out and said ‘here’s what you get with the PlayStation 3 – you get true 1080p out of the box.’
GS: That point was a little confusing to me, because I feel like 1080p happened pretty recently. I know some of the launch titles still aren’t on it.
DK: That’s right.
GS: Can you talk specifically about achievements for PS3? Will they be there, are they supported on the PS3, and have they been integrated into launch titles?
DK: No, what we’re trying to do with the Open Access platform is allow the game developers to dictate what the network experience is for the consumer. The majority of the networking features, aside from things like chat, texting, and emailing, you know, the basic community stuff, is all found basically in the game. So we’re allowing the games to set up the ranking, the achievements, and those different elements. Frankly, how I view it is I don’t care if you’re great at Madden if I’m playing you in Resistance. Because that doesn’t tell me you’re that much better in Resistance. An overall score doesn’t really tell me much, it tells me you’ve spent a lot of time online, it tells me you spend a lot of time playing games, but it doesn’t tell me how good you are at a particular game. I’d much rather have Resistance set up a leaderboard so I know who I’m going up against, rather than somebody who’s great at Madden.
GS: So ranking and matchmaking and whatnot, as well as connectivity is done on the software side?
DK: Yes, done 100 percent on the software side. We’ll host that kind of stuff on our servers if they want, or they can host it on their own servers, it’s up to them. Of course a company like EA is going to want to host it on their own servers, probably. But we do have, in our network, the ability to see who you’ve played against, and what games you’ve played against them in, so you can see if somebody is online, who you thought was really good at Resistance, but you hadn’t added them to your friends list yet, you will see them pop up in that category.
GS: And how does the friends list work with Xfire? Will the friends list from the desktop be transferable into games, or…?
DK: That’s totally a question for SOE, because their game is the only one that’s supporting Xfire out of the box. So they’re building their community based on Xfire.
GS: And can you say if there will be a larger friends list community that can be integrated into games, or not?
DK: Again, allowing the developers to do whatever they want. SOE announced they want to work with Xfire, great, we applaud them. It’s not something on the hardware side that we’re supporting at the moment.
GS: I’m curious to know why Sony of America has been kind of avoiding some of the Sony Europe titles that have been popular over there, some of the more party game type titles, like Buzz or Singstar.
DK: Well we take a look at all of the games from around the world, and we evaluate them for what’s appropriate for the market, and what’s appropriate for the timing of the hardware in the market. So that’s not to say you won’t see those titles, whether they’re from Europe, Japan, or wherever, eventually make their way over to the United States, that’s been the rule forever. I mean you can see games that have been on the market in Japan for a year or two before they make it to the United States. A lot of that has to do with where you are in the lifecycle of the product, and have you reached the demographic that would actually be the person to buy that game.
GS: Is that also the reason why budget titles aren’t really allowed over here? I know that in Europe, Sony has the biggest chunk of the market by far – but budget, that is to say inexpensively-produced, titles are plentiful. Why not here?
DK: Yeah, that’s all based on the market. It’s all based on what the market will allow. You take a look at what holes you can fill into the market, and in Europe they said ‘we have the opportunity to dominate in low-priced games, let’s do it.’ I think 2K games did that with their sports titles a few years ago so they could gain ground against some of their bigger competitor, and that’s exactly what they did, they took a look at it and said, we can make back the margins on volume, if we sell this many, by selling cheaper.
GS: Yeah, it’s just rough because a company like them can do it, as they have big muscle behind them – releasing that level of project for a budget price, rather than releasing what we think of as a budget game.
DK: Yeah, and there are obviously a lot of things that go into it, like the price of development, which is a huge factor in deciding where you price your game.
GS: Do you think that as the market changes, and when the PS3 is out, will there be room for that sort of thing in the PS2 market?
DK: Well we do think the PS2 is going to continue to sell. It’s still the number one selling console this year, and it’s outsold the Xbox 360 hands down the last couple months. There’ll be a place in the market for that, as that’s what we saw with the PS One as well. There’ll probably be a place in the market for all types of new looks at how to sell games, and new kinds of games. I mean, you’re seeing in the life cycle of this product, the PS2, more of those party games that you were talking about, more casual gamer-type games. That’s typically what you see as the life cycle of a hardware matures.
GS: The reason I’m pushing this is because I really love these crappy budget games. When my coworker and I separately went to London, we bought a whole bunch of those games, like by Phoenix and 505 Gamestreet.
DK: Yeah, well another thing that’s cool, not related to PS2, but the PS3 and the online delivery ability, you open up a world of possibilities for smaller developers. We’ve got Blast Factor, and I think that was maybe five people working on that title. You open up a world of opportunities for people at, again, whatever prices the market will allow in the downloadable category, and that kind of shifts it away from the retailer in terms of people having to spend all that money on a boxed product. They can just put it up on the downloadable side.
GS: What kind of support will you be giving those independent developers? Will you be seeking them out, or simply make it easier for them to come to you?
DK: I think we’re making it incredibly easy for them to come to us. And the distribution of 10,000 development kits as well, which is twice as much as we did for the PS2 and PS One, so that’s obviously seeking all comers to show us what they’ve got. I think people are so excited about the hardware that there’s a lot of people coming out of the woodwork with some interesting ideas. And again, if you’ve got an interesting idea that’s kind of been floating in the back of your head, you can turn around and make it incredibly cheap, put it on the downloadable side, and your investment, even if it doesn’t sell one million units, can be recouped.
GS: With the 360, the approvals process, among other elements, has made it so that games are released in measured batches. What’s your feeling on that for the PS3 in terms of how the downloadable games will roll out – will there be a high volume?
DK: I’m not sure at this point what the review process is for the games, but I can say that the folks in EDI have a ton of games for review, and they’re taking a look at what looks best on the system. I think what you won’t see is just a flood of games that some might consider to be throw-away games. We’re going to populate the store with true, good games that show off the hardware, so it’s not just going to be a bunch of redos and hacks.
GS: I know that the PS3 is essentially region free – will the downloadable content also be available worldwide, or region specific?
DK: All of the online stores are region-specific, so that’ll dictate where you can download the games.
GS: How do you feel the PSP is doing, and I’ve heard rumor of a second model?
DK: Yeah, that was a rumor, just that. The PSP is doing incredibly well, and I think that you’ll see even more interest behind it now that the PS3 is coming out, because the inner-connectivity between the two, I mean you saw the demo in terms of accessing your PS3 harddrive through your PSP. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of what can be done with that. Once that system is set up through wifi, you can do things like anywhere in the world, go into your MLB 07 and check your fantasy baseball league through your harddrive.
And then think about downloadable content, as well. If you utilize the PS3 as your base for downloading content, and then transfer it over to your PSP, which is incredibly easy to do, the more content that’s made available through the online store will increase the usage even more.
GS: I guess the PS3 is designed to be always on?
GS: Don’t take offense to this, but is the system going to be able to hold up to being always on?
DK: (laughs) Yes it is! No issues, you saw Gamer’s Day, it was kind of nuts and we didn’t have any that were dying. We had a lot of unfinished software that was dying, but not hardware.
GS: I picked one up and almost burned myself.
DK: Yeah, I don’t think it runs as hot as the 360, but I haven’t done a side-by-side.
GS: When we start getting fire reports we’ll see if we can compare and contrast. Getting back to it though, how important do you think the Sixaxis controller is going to be for the PS3?
DK: The idea was that developing and incorporating technologies that are actually interactive, rather than passive. I like rumble, and when it came out I thought it was pretty cool, but if you really think about it, it really is a passive technology. You hit something, you feel rumble in your hands. But I was just playing Lair yesterday, where you fly your dragon by tilting the controller, and it becomes incredibly intuitive, so I think that as more people, particularly third parties start harnessing the power and the idea behind it, you’re going to see stuff that just makes sense to do. At the same time, the stuff that we’re doing feels right with the controller that we have, so like tilting it to fly a dragon feels absolutely right, using it to do spin moves in NBA 07 feels absolutely right.
GS: A lot of people feel that’s Sony’s way of taking on all comers – who do you feel is your main competitor right now?
DK: I would say that if you asked any gamer, our main competitor is the Xbox 360, just because the target demographic that we’re going after is similar. That being said, I think in regards to Nintendo and the Wii, it’s easier for us to go after the hardcore gamer first, as that’s kind of always been our target, and if we want to expand from there to the more casual gamer, it’s probably easier for us to do than start with the casual gamer, and try to go up to the hardcore gamer. It’s an easier message for me to deliver.
GS: Are you worried at all about Nintendo taking any marketshare from the PS3, or do you really feel like people will buy one HD console and the Wii?
DK: Yeah, for us it’s apples and oranges when you compare the PS3 with Wii. They’ve done a great job of saying exactly who they’re going after, the casual gamer, the hardcore gamer, and we’ve said exactly who we’re going after. And you can’t, when you put the systems side by side technologically, and even price-wise, they just don’t compare to each other.
GS: What about the handheld market, how important do you think that’s going to be, going forward?
DK: I think handheld is incredibly important for us, particularly as we start developing more and more downloadable content. And I’m not just talking about games, I’m talking about entertainment content as well. Already the TiVo-to-go option for the PSP is turning into a huge hit for us, as people discover that they can take the shows they’ve already stored on their TiVo and put it on their PSP and while they’re riding the bus to work or to school, they can watch television shows on the PSP, I mean that’s huge. You can’t do that on anything else.
So again, I think when you compare the two products, the Nintendo product versus our product, it’s kind of apples and oranges. We’re providing more of an entertainment system, and they’re focused more on gaming.
GS: Have you found it difficult to balance the games that are released on PSP in the West and in Japan? It’s definitely doing better here, because it’s more hardcore and graphic-oriented.
DK: Yeah, you have to realize what games work best on the PSP, like action games work really well, sports games work really well…those aren’t the most popular games in Japan – it’s RPGs. And RPGs don’t necessarily lend themselves to the PSP, although I think we’ve got some really great ones. And it’s just a matter of getting the consumer in Japan accustomed to the idea of playing an expansive RPG on a handheld device.
GS: And how do the emulated downloads work for PSP? Have you announced pricing?
DK: Basically you just download them to the PS3, and bounce it to your PSP, and those will all be under $5. And then there will be downloadable content from hotspots.
GS: This is a bit of a stretch, but I know there’s a very good Saturn emulator for the PSP [the GiriGiri emulator has been officially licensed for PSP, and was used for Atlus' portable version of Princess Crown]…
DK: Ah, Saturn – that takes me back!
GS: As an ex-Saturn person, do you think there’s any chance of that downloadable content there?
DK: Oh, absolutely! Don’t say that I said you’re going to be able to download Saturn games though. The cool thing about Sony and about the platforms we’re working on is that it does open itself up to allow a lot of downloadable content from other catalogues, and you heard Ken talk about how we could do something like the entire Turbo Grafx 16 catalogue, pulling that over. So that’s what’s possible, but we haven’t announced anything.
GS: I’m an old Saturn fan, so…
DK: Panzer Dragoon, man, that was the game.