In 2008, Sony veteran and U.S. studio head Shuhei Yoshida took over Phil Harrison's job as president of Sony's Worldwide Studios. The company had been on top for a number of years, but Yoshida inherited three major uphill battles -- keeping the aging PlayStation 2 afloat, bringing the lagging PlayStation Portable back to life, and injecting the PlayStation 3 with the exclusive games to drive its sales with the crucial core gamer audience flocking to Microsoft's Xbox 360.
As Sony moves to change how hardware and software development is undertaken at the company, Yoshida sits astride both efforts -- particularly as regards the development of its own motion control technology, which finally debuted with playable demos at September's Tokyo Game Show.
This interview covers his strategies for the motion controller, relationships with third parties, the ways in which Sony is changing its attitude towards hardware development and its own platforms, and more -- in a wide-ranging talk conducted at Sony's Tokyo headquarters.
You didn't show the motion controller at Tokyo Game Show. There was a bit of reworked Resident Evil 5 and LittleBigPlanet shown for the Japanese press, but that was it. We expected more. Are games not yet in an advanced enough state to be shown to the public?
Shuhei Yoshida: We showed demos of a few games -- so at least we kept our promise of showing live demos of games supporting the motion controller. But we decided not to have them on show floor. For one thing, it takes a lot of space to set up these kinds of things, you need more schooled staff, proper lighting and such things.
We are also still working on the motion controller; it's not complete. We are making changes to the hardware, so we really want to wait until we feel confident enough about giving the audience a chance to try it out. We are making progress, though, and we wanted to show at least snippets of games in that are in development.
Are third parties actively developing games taking advantage of the motion controller?
SY: We are not comfortable talking about third parties at this moment, but as you saw with Capcom they already have games supporting the controller, so we are excited about that.
Gran Turismo 5
How disappointed are you that Gran Turismo 5 is not out this Christmas?
SY: (Laughs) I'm not really disappointed. March is a great date, and my job is to let the developer make the best game possible. Of course we want to bring the game out as early as we can, but we also want it to be the best it can be.
You have been in charge of the Sony Worldwide Studios for over a year now. Have you changed the studio working methods and tried to create a more collaborative atmosphere with the hardware development groups? You've mentioned that the development of the motion controller originated from the software teams.
SY: Talking specifically about the motion controller, it was developed by the Worldwide Studios. We came up with ideas -- we want this and we want that -- and we didn't really know what technologies were available to make it happen. So the R&D group, the Dr. Richard Marks-led group, continued researching vision technology like the PlayStation Eye. They have been working on a variety of things and doing lot of research on different kinds of UIs. So we asked if he wanted to join us in doing R&D for a controller that can make our requirements for new games to reality.
When we tried different solutions we went back to vision technology in combination with the actual motion sensors inside the controller. There are innovations in how the camera recognizes the controller's sphere and how it combines the data coming form the internal sensors.
So we've had the software group, Richard Marks' group, and hardware development group involved, but out of these three groups actually the hardware group was the last group to join the development. Of course, they are a very reliable hardware engineering team so we are very happy to work with the guys here [in Japan].
So compared to other prior hardware development this way of working was totally new to all of us, that took some experimentation, but this is something we want to continue onto future technologies as well.
SCE traditionally developed its hardware in Japan in a very insular way -- basically shipping finished hardware and saying, "Here it is -- do something for it!"
SY: They'd give us the hardware and ask us what games would be ready to release in three months -- and we have no idea what they are talking about (laughs).
So you're involving the Worldwide Studio resources more globally into Sony Computer Entertainment, to be a part of hardware development?
SY: Absolutely, we feel enormous responsibility to communicate what each studio is thinking. So, we feel very responsible organizing our thoughts. If somebody has something we need to follow up with [regarding] prototype development, we have to be able to show the hardware guys so that they can understand what's working and what we are looking for.
Sony has released many things like the EyeToy, the GPS for the PSP etc, which are very "Sony" in the way that they are rather niche things which end up not getting much support. Understandably there's a bigger market for motion control. How do you envision it fitting in -- is it hardware or a peripheral? Might developers be required to used it?
SY: We are still in the very early days of motion control development. We have had discussions with the company management where we discussed if we approach this as a peripheral or a platform and we agree that this has huge potential -- so we position this as a hardware platform. The initiative was from the Worldwide Studios, but this has to be designed so that many different kinds of games from all publishers can participate in this hardware platform.
So it's not like in the case of SingStar, where the mic is designed to work with the SingStar games; we made a decision that this motion control is a platform product that has to work for a variety of products. So that's why we work with many teams to try different types of games to be able to cover the different needs of different types of games. So we have some teams working on very casual games, other teams working on core audience type of games.
We are very fortunate that Capcom and [producer Jun] Takeuchi-san has said that he wants to work on Resident Evil 5 for the motion controller because this is a different type of game than we are developing. So we are trying to get the needs from different types of teams as we design the hardware.
If you look at Microsoft, which only has the Xbox 360 to worry about, Sony still has active PlayStation 2 and PSP software development alongside the PS3. PSP's clearly become the focus again this fall with Gran Turismo and more third party support. However, it seems it's been a very challenging task to manage proper support for all platforms.
SY: Yeah, absolutely. There's so many initiatives we are working on, not just the PS3, PSP and PS2. Like, how we support user generated content, the way we use network services, how we support Home, PS3 and PSP connectivity and so on.
So we look at all the titles we are working on and try to see if there's any holes or areas that our focus isn't enough.
A couple of years ago we clearly put too much focus on PS3 titles and that caused a lack of support for the PSP, like last year. So we need to be focused and gear a lot of our resources back to the PSP, and we have many titles this year. We are very, very careful about not ignoring any important aspect of our platform initiatives.
So we can assume there's a good software roadmap for the PSP for the future -- that it isn't just this fall that the PSP is getting proper software support?
SY: Yes. We are continuing to support the PSP. We didn't announce new titles at this TGS, but in the near future we'll have some announcements.
You've got a very strong slate for Christmas and early 2010. How far does the WWS software planning go?
SY: For games we release next year, we know about 85 to 90 percent of the line up for the year. We are making decisions on titles that we want to release in 2011 and some in 2012, in terms of concepts and prototypes.
SCE has tried original IP on the PSP like LocoRoco and Patapon. While good games, these haven't become successes and now it seems you are going back to putting established brands like Gran Turismo and MotorStorm. Is that the future software strategy for the PSP? There's a difficulty here, too -- for example, with MotorStorm on the PSP, it's a great game, but you still feel that you are playing a smaller version of a game you've played before.
SY: I totally understand what you are saying. We were excited about the PSP when the hardware was first disclosed to us. That was the old days of SCE -- it was a finished design when we discovered it. But because of the performance and the clarity of the display screen, etc., we were excited that we could make real 3D, PS2-like games for this small device.
But we were not critical enough about what more could be done. Initially we were so ecstatic to have these full 3D games, but after a while, you start to realize, "Hmm... maybe we can play these games on the larger screens and larger consoles," especially if it's a PS3 franchise.
One thing the PSP has from the beginning is the WiFi connectivity, and the titles that best took advantage of that have been the most successful like Monster Hunter Portable from Capcom. It was originally on the console, but it really thrived on the PSP because it's a cooperative game and it's much better to have people playing together and talking about it on a portable, it really works well with the lifestyle of Japanese especially. That's the example of an innovative game even if the franchise started on PS2, but it thrives on the PSP and has had massive success.
However, outside Monster Hunter, you are right that innovative games on the PSP tend to be much smaller titles. Looking at our numbers and top selling games, they are clearly original content of existing franchises like God of War, Ratchet & Clank, and SOCOM.
Since launch, the PSP's WiFi capabilities and PS3 connectivity were always mentioned, but Sony never showed great examples of how to take advantage of them...
SY: Well now we have the PSP Store and the PlayStation Network service. We should have ideally started these earlier, but we are now working on these. By the way, I have to mention Invizimals; it's for kids, but we are really excited about it -- curious how people will react to it.
Almost every piece of WWS software, with the exception of Gran Turismo and The Last Guardian, is coming from studios outside Japan. Do you want to expand the Japanese WWS studios to work more on the PS3 and maybe generate software more attuned to Japanese gamers?
SY: I've been working on this with management of Japan studios since last year. When I came back to Japan, their focus was shifted onto the PSP, which reflects the success of the PSP as a platform in Japan. So that's great from from a business sense, but as a first party we need to provide games that expand the market for the platform.
The PS3 installed base hasn't been as good as in Europe or the States. So we are strategizing how to bring in more resources. It's completely opposite of the way how US and European teams moved onto working on the PS3 and we see the fruits of those efforts, while Japan studios shifted their focus onto the PSP.
So they've constantly released interesting PSP games, but the PS3 output has declined. So we are now re-energizing teams and coming up with new ideas for PS3 development, outside The Last Guardian and Gran Turismo, from Japan studios.
We'll be able to show fruits of this work sometime next year.
Looking at the lackluster offerings at this year's Tokyo Game Show, it's amazing that even a major Japanese publisher like Konami has only really released Winning Eleven and Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and the systems have been out for years now. It seems Japanese developers are still struggling with the latest hardware.
SY: Those companies, including our studios, took more time and need more time to get their arms around this generation of technology. I think that you could see on the show floor that this is the year that Japanese publishers are putting more efforts in bringing their major franchises to the PS3.
When I came back to Japan, I felt that the Japanese consumers suffer the most. They've mostly played on portable systems like the PSP and the DS. Their franchises moved from consoles to portables. Publishers are now starting to move them back onto the bigger consoles again. So I can see that with the new lower price of the PS3, there's some kind of resurgence happening on the Japanese market when it comes to consoles.
In the heyday of the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, there were software killer apps like Gran Turismo and Crash Bandicoot. However consumer habits times have changed over the years and it seems that the major games Sony's released for the PS3, haven't been generating the kind of brand loyalty or sales as games in the past generations. Microsoft has done well on this front, however.
SY: We are as excited with games like LittleBigPlanet as we were with Crash Bandicoot back in the day. The hardware installed base is a problem, it's growing slower, largely because of the cost of the hardware -- and we were not able to bring the price down to the level that we now are able to.
So it's taking longer to build that user base. Looking forward, this generation, as we've said often, is going to be a 10 year cycle, so we are still in the early period of this platform.
We shouldn't necessarily compare to the same timing of prior platforms. It's been more of a challenge technically for all teams to create content in this generation. However, all technical problems can be solved in one way or another. All teams are now very comfortable on the current hardware.
Many games from us this year are the first PS3 titles from their developers, like InFamous, Killzone 2, The Last Guardian... well, that one's not out yet.
These games are in development for a long time, three to four years, now finally seeing the light of day. I still feel like these are the first games on the platform and these are good looking games. Then second generation games like Uncharted 2 look even better. So I think it's way too early to make judgements.
Can you reveal the status of the Cambridge studio?
SY: They are developing LittleBigPlanet for the PSP, but they are also working on a new product that we haven't announced yet.