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The Sony Situation: SCEA's Rob Dyer Speaks

SCEA SVP Rob Dyer talks exclusive DLC deals, publisher relations, how he views the motion controller marketplace, and the state of the troublesome PSP.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

May 21, 2010

31 Min Read

Sony Computer Entertainment America's senior vice president of publisher relations, Rob Dyer, is well aware of what he's up against these days. Competition is strong, and the company is in nowhere near the same dominant position it was during the PlayStation 2 days.

"Sony was pretty complacent coming out of PlayStation 2 because it was much more of a gatherer versus a hunter mentality... You know, they could pick and choose," says Dyer, explaining that he's well aware that the situation has changed these days.

With the PSP struggling to remain viable as a platform outside of Japan, and the PlayStation 3 neck-and-neck in hardware sales with the Xbox 360 on a month-to-month basis in the U.S., he has his work cut out for him.

And that's before you even consider the fall launch of the PlayStation Move motion controller and Microsoft's Project Natal.

In this extensive interview, Dyer discusses his thoughts on a wide range of topics -- including exclusive DLC deals, his relationships with publishers from the smallest PSN developer up to giants like EA and Activision, how he views the motion controller marketplace, and the state of the troublesome PSP.

When it comes to your job and you interface with third parties, is it primarily they come to you saying, "This is what we want do"? Or is there more back and forth?

Rob Dyer: [laughs] I wish it was... I used to joke that I was a Maytag repairman for a long time, because it was so hard to get people excited about PS3, given what we were doing. I use the phrase "self-inflicted wound"; it was. We weren't selling hardware. It was hard to get people pumped up.

But I think we've turned the tide, and it started with the announcements coming out of GDC and Destination PlayStation. You'll see some really good stuff at E3 -- where now we do have third parties contacting us. They are calling us up to say, "How about this?"

Batman: Arkham Asylum

It really started -- and I always go back to Batman: Arkham Asylum -- with Eidos. God bless them for being as insistent and bulldog-like tenacious in getting us to do that with them. Karl Stewart and Bob Lindsey were very emphatic, and they were right.

And I'm glad we jumped on it because it's proven to be one of the real bellwethers for PlayStation 3 third-party, and we've been able to take that model and move it across any number of publishers to be able to show that if you do this, not only will we support you.

It's not about just taking share away from Microsoft. It's about expanding the pie. It's about giving people a reason to want to buy this game. How many people bought Batman after they found out all this cool exclusive stuff, and otherwise weren't going to buy Batman no matter what platform it was on? [Rocksteady's Batman for PS3 included exclusive playable Joker content.]

If you ask Karl, if you ask Bob, they will tell you, "We've more than did our numbers on 360. We killed our numbers on PS3." And that to me speaks volumes for if you do this stuff correctly, you're going to really start advancing the industry. And that's what we're trying to do.

I'm not going to sit here and try and figure out who's got the bigger you-know-what between me and Seattle. They're going to win when it comes to money anyway, anytime, all day, all night. It doesn't matter. Let's figure out how to make the industry bigger. Let's grow this thing.

That's an interesting point in terms of back in the prior generations, particularly PS2, when you had such a dominant market share, it was very easy to get exclusive titles. And now, obviously...

RD: I was one of them. I sat on the other side of the table, coming to Sony. "Come on. What can I give you? Let's do it." You have 70 percent market share; of course, you command that.

And I think Sony was pretty complacent coming out of PlayStation 2 because it was much more of a gatherer versus a hunter mentality, where they were used to having people come to them and say, "Hey, we're going to do this for you?" or "What can we do in order to get your support?" You know, they could pick and choose. And now, you've got a very competitive marketplace. You've got some very strong first parties. It's changed. Dramatically.

Are you happy with where you are with your publishers right now?

RD: No. I think it's a work in progress. I think we've gotten better. I think that question is better posed to publishers. How do they feel about Sony now? Is it something that they have seen a noticeable difference? Do they benefit from that relationship? Is it better?

Do I think there's been an impact? Sure. I mean, if I didn't, I'm sure Jack [Tretton] would've fired my ass a long time ago, but I think we have at least changed the mentality that we're going to be aggressive. I think we gave Microsoft a very open field for a long time when it came to structuring [deals], particularly network deals. We weren't involved in those discussions.

Again, when it comes to throwing money, we'll lose that fight every time. But the good news is that because of where we are with our install base and because of the growth we're showing particularly worldwide -- not just in one territory -- it behooves publishers to be aggressive and active on our platform.

Exclusive titles are kind of out of the window also because of the market share of the 360 and also because of development costs. Do you think things like the exclusive Batman content are the wave of the future?

RD: Totally. Since I got here two years ago, April 1st of '08, having sat on that side of the table and understood what the costs were, and having worked with an exclusive with Tomb Raider when I was at my Eidos days, and knowing what those costs were, exclusives are few and far between.

And God bless things like [Rockstar's] Agent. God bless things like Final Fantasy XIV. I think Microsoft is looking at Gears and stuff that happens with Valve and all the really cool things that they used to get from Bungie, and going, "Well, you know, what are we going to be able to do?"

The other side of it is we've had this amazing first-party line-up that is exclusive. You know, we're the biggest when it comes to being able to do that.

That being said, yes, it is all about exclusive features, exclusive content that is meaningful that I like to say makes a publisher not just be Switzerland. It makes them make a commitment to the gamer, the player, to say, "Here's why we want do to this," and "Let's take advantage of that hardware consoles that they have to offer."

Microsoft has been really aggressive with getting DLC exclusives. Is that a place that you're looking to compete?

RD: I think it's hysterical that they're aggressive about that because if you're a publisher and a developer, you have to make a decision as to how you're going to have that delivered as a DLC exclusive. They've got two different machines. Are you going to give it for the arcade user or the guy that actually has a hard drive. We don't have to worry about that.

So, from my perspective, we offer a few things that give a publisher an ease of development. They can be certain a 100 percent of the user population in our world can do their DLC.

If you want to go and have a conversation with Rockstar -- and talk about how many people were actually able to download their exclusive content they did for Microsoft -- it would be a very different story. That's a part of it. But we also have the ability to put a lot more than 9 gigs on a Blu-ray disc, and in fact, I want to do more than that because it really shows off the difference between our machine and their machine.

You mean you want to put more content on the disc, rather than encourage DLC?

RD: Yeah, because that way, 100 percent of the users are going to get it. 100 percent. What are we, north of 70 percent on the network now? 73, I think. Microsoft probably the same... [That's] still a significant number of people that aren't able to get, whether they don't have broadband, whether they just flat out can't get on the network. Whether or not you do it, they're not using it. I want it on the disc, that way when they buy it, they get it. So, if I can do that, that's great.

Now, you can talk about why DLC is important to help limit the used game business and to keep people holding onto [the game]. I'm all about that, too. I love that. But I want it on the disc so that 100 percent out there that can play this thing.

It also has to do with the way that developers structure their production cycle, too.

RD: Correct. Great point. Great point. What has now happened is that you go to a publisher or developer and say, "Look, guys. You got to start planning things in like pre-sale. What's your pre-sale DLC? What are you going to do for the Amazons, the GameStops, or whoever has that presale?" That's one.

Two, "Are you going to have something that has a day one release special code or something?" Then you have, "Okay, are we going to do something for a first-party with regards to DLC or on-disc?"

So, you have to literally plan this in your pre-pro in order to make sure you have the time, the assets, the resources because it's not just about used games; it's about, "How do I get more pre-sale business, which absolutely determines my day one initial orders. Am I going to get support from a first-party? How am I going to do that?"

You can't come in there with six months... I can guarantee you I've had multiple conversations, more than you would even believe, from people that you would not expect it from, coming in six months before street date going, "Well, what can we do?" And I'm looking... Ship's sailed, babe. Dead and gone. We did the Batman deal 15 months before street date.

It actually turned into 17 because they slipped it two months, which turned out to be two really good months they moved it. Happenstance was the game was going to ship in June. If you go back, all the street dates were June, June, and June. "Can't make it." Alright, we didn't tell them when the price cut was coming, but I said, "If you don't make it, you have to be out before September 1st, at the end of August. Deal's off."

So, we made it happen. And sure enough, we came out close enough to day and date for us when we announced our price cut. Obviously, that had a huge impact. But we started that deal 15 months before that June date in order to obviously get everything lined up.

How does that relate to the requirements of how much time development takes? Could you move faster if you had to?

RD: Well, it depends on the size of the team, how involved they want to be... Look, hold that thought. Come find me after our press event at E3. There's going to be some announcements. You're going to look at me and go, "Okay. When did you start these? How far..." and we'll talk about when these things started and how far out we started this stuff because we've gotten into the next level. Batman was the first step. We're just going onto the next level.

What do you do with online play? What do you do with some of this other stuff? How do you sort out rights? It takes times, legally, deal-wise... And then, just getting the damn thing into the game. It takes a lot of time. So, can you do them shorter?

Well, I'll give you a good example. You can do stuff with the Move in a very, very short period of time because the Move is pretty easy. It's not a hard thing to grok. It's fairly simple. If you've done anything with the EyeToy, it's pretty straightforward stuff. It's an easy codebase. We've got great dev support. We can get stuff done in Move in six months. Okay.

But if you're going to put stuff on disc, and a good example of the Move being able to do that, and I would encourage you to talk to the guys at Warner Bros. that are doing Aragorn's Quest for the Move, literally six to eight month window they'd be able to do this thing and make it happen. Disney with the Toy Story announcement, very short window with what they're able to do on that.

If you want to get stuff on disc or have some really involved DLC that will be day and date with the release, you really then need to have more than a year. Because it's going to be three hours of gameplay, right? And you know the math.

When it comes to DLC, particularly from EA, there's a voucher in the box, and then for resale it doesn't exist. What do you think about that? Is that something that you touch on when you talk to these companies in meetings?

RD: I have very mixed emotions about it. I am a big believer in encouraging the gamer to have a reason to hold onto it and to continue to play, and for the publisher to be able to see something if there is a second sale. Because right now, for years, as a publisher, we saw nothing. Very frustrating.

As a first party, I understand why there's a second sale, but I'm not always excited about it. Look, this has been a tough couple of years. People have not been making money, and I think the used games business has been having a huge impact in that.

I'm happy to debate merits, pros, and cons with folks at GameStop and have that discussion because again, I've sat on the other side and I've seen what can happen. People need to see a way to monetize that second sale.

When it comes to your role or your part of the company, working with publishers, do you do research? Do you provide them with suggestions and alternatives?

RD: When Dante's Inferno came out with its Divine Edition of the game, [we] had a half dozen ideas. They had a half dozen ideas. Their peanut butter met our chocolate; we figured out how to make this thing work. And out of that dozen ideas, we came up with four which could go on the disc, [some] with the DLC, and how we [could] support them on the marketing. It's a collaborative process.

So, once we move from there, it goes to operations, ops. What we have is soup to nuts. We guide them through QA, help them get the stuff out, make sure they get into DADC, get manufacturing.

And then we have dev support, where if they're out saying they're having trouble implementing a certain feature or whatever, we'll send people into the studio and literally we have what we think are the biggest, brightest minds when it comes to what they can do on the PlayStation. They go in there and help solve those problems. So, that's what my world is, all encompassing.

Demon's Souls

You mentioned to me that a lot of effort and care goes into a relationship with EA, with a huge title like Dante's Inferno, but look at some of the smaller publishers that have historically had a home on PlayStation -- like Atlus. They may have a surprise hit like Demon's Souls. Is that an important relationship with you?

RD: Yes. I met with Atlus a few weeks ago. And we had meetings last week with Hudson. We had meetings with new Tecmo Koei. We will sit down with PSN-only guys [like] Creat. We'll sit down and have conversations with these guys about, "How do we make it better for you? What are the things that we can do to work with you?"

So, from my level on down, we have account execs on them. We have dev support that will go out and see them. We work with them on the PSN side in order to make sure their assets are visibly noted. Get up there. If we have an opportunity to promote them, we'll do it.

Having been a small publisher as well, when I was at Crave SVG, I know what it can be like to be ignored. But when you also have good product, you want to make sure they see it.

Network games on PSN represent a new area that's arisen in this generation, and there are some companies which could self-publish on the platform. How much relationship do you have with them?

RD: Well, we have three execs where all they do is deal with those small publishers. That's their role in life, to go out and find these guys. Second thing, we've gone out and created a fund to literally seed fund these guys called the Pub Fund -- the publisher's fund. What we do is if they come to us with games that they think are innovative, that are really going to show off the network, something different, we will go and fund these titles.

So, we've done things like Joe Danger. We've done things like Burn Zombie Burn with Kuju. We've done a deal with Paramount to get a large amount of content from them that is going to show up on the network, as well as work with us on hybrid discs in order to show what you can do with games and movies together.

These are things we are very aggressive about now because, again, we think it's easier to get on our network, you get as much access or more worldwide than you do on XBL, and more than that, it is easy to do this stuff.

What we want to do is we will handhold you through the first one, and then we want to show you how to do it yourself going forward. We want to give you that ability very cheaply in order to get this done. And the good news about the Pub Fund is you're not signing over your rights to us. You keep your IP. We're going to recoup, but you're going to have this opportunity to get something up there without a lot of risk to see if it works.

If it does, all of the sudden, now as a small company, you've got an IP that's got some value. You've got value. You own it. All we're asking is if you do it again, give us first right [of refusal]. If we can't get a deal, then fine, you go out and do it. But you know what? It's a great way to get started, especially if you've got something in a prototype that you're looking at going, "Shit, this is going to work. This is very cool. I want to go show this to Sony, and let's see what can happen."

You know, when you start with your Minis, and we're trying to graduate people from Minis up to more of the full scale PSN developer. That's kind of the progression we like to go through.

What is the thrust of the PSP Minis initiative now? How do you think it's gone? How do you think it's going?

RD: I think it's gone okay. My concern with Minis always has been if you have a PSP or a PS3, do you want to play small bite-sized games like that? I think the jury's still out. I think in some instances they do, and some instances they don't.

My other concern with a lot of the Minis is they've been rehashed, recalibrated iPhone games that when you look at and review it, you're like, "Really? What are you doing differently here? Not much."

There have been a couple that have been really cool, but for the most part, a lot of it has been up-resed, recalibrated iPhone stuff.

How do you get it to where you want it to be?

RD: We've got to continue. Candidly, I think the guys in Europe have done a great job in proselytizing and getting into the mobile market, going out for guys that are local phone developers, putting resources and assets against them, educating them so they feel more comfortable getting on a more sophisticated box, and giving them the tools and the ability to put something a little better.

It's not like you have to spend a lot more money in order to get something that has a lot more impact for the platform.

You're saying that it's a shame that some of them are up-resed iPhone games. At the same time, is there enough of an audience for the Minis that the developers can risk a full investment in a Mini game?

RD: Sure. There is, because they're not wildly expensive, and you still get a great split. Are you going to be rich and retire? No. But is it something you can add to your portfolio? Absolutely.

Speaking of the PSP, there's been a tremendous fall off in North America in terms of support for the system. It's still doing extremely well in Japan.

RD: It's killing it in Japan. [In North America] you have Peace Walker that I think is going to do very good numbers. You're going to have some phenomenal support from Square. They have some great stuff coming. You have some great stuff from Capcom. Again, it's a lot of stuff from Japan...

We have EA Sports stuff that's going to be coming out. You're going to have Toy Story 3 on the PSP that's coming out. There's a number of titles from American publishers that will be there, but are we getting full-line support? No. I'm not going to bullshit you on that.

A lot of the stuff that will be announced at E3 we're very excited about, because they are huge titles. And we also believe that there's a way that you will be able to, not stop, but slow down the piracy in the first 30 to 60 days from a tech perspective. There's some code that you can embed that we've been helping developers implement in order to get people at least to see a 60-day shelf life before it gets hacked and it shows up on BitTorrent.

That's been the biggest problem, no question about it. It's become a very difficult proposition to be profitable, given the piracy right now. And the fact that the category shrunk inside of retail.

We're going to fix retail. First party has done a great job of getting some campaigns in place to do that. We have some very big third-party titles, notably from Japan. We will have a good line-up this year. And hopefully, by virtue of that, we'll carry through to next year as well.

sony_move.jpgYou unveiled PlayStation Move during GDC. Clearly, as with anything, that's been in R&D for a long time. When did you start talking to people about it?

RD: We started talking about it Q4 of last year. Calendar Q4. Early calendar Q4. So, October timeframe.

We've seen the Natal. We saw that tech. We passed on it. We knew what we wanted our tech to be once we settled on that. Coming out of summer, going into fall, we said, and once it was finalized, we were able to look at this and say, "Okay. Let's get it out to third parties."

This goes to the essence of my job right now. I am in a battle for resources. My entire job is convincing a third party publisher, EA and Activision, whoever, where you put your resources. Are you putting your resources against a Natal title, a Move title? Are you putting it against PSP? Are you putting it against 3DS? Where are you putting your resources? That's what I spend my time on.

What we used to be able to do at PS2 and say, "Hey, we got this great idea. Support us." Which they did. You can't do that anymore. You have to be able to go in there with a very fleshed out business model, a very fleshed out campaign.

So, when we first started that [process with Move], we didn't have that at that time. Went through, saw what the questions were right after the new year, went out again, revisited the top 15 publishers and some key independent developers, showed them what retail reaction had been.

That presentation you saw at GDC we showed the previous month all the third parties. They saw that. They saw what was happening. They had a chance to witness the games being played. They saw a lot of the same stuff that you guys saw. So it was no more of that, "Okay. It's pie in the sky." It's real.

So, going into GDC, I had a very good sense of who was supporting us, what was going to be there initially. And since then, I've now got a solid 12 month window of who's doing what.

One of the things that's come back is that third parties haven't been talking to retail because they're just now getting to a point where they can show stuff. So, you're going to see stuff at the floor at E3 that hasn't been talked about, that hasn't been announced, that we haven't talked about, that we haven't announced because the third parties haven't.

So, they're going to be there doing this stuff, and they'll be showing it to retailers for the first time because they've just now, they're going to be at that six-month point, and they're going to have something that's going to make a very big impact.

So, I'm walking into Move feeling pretty damn good about it, given how quickly people are [adjusting]. Now, if that tech was harder or if it took longer, I think people might walk away from E3 a little disappointed not being able to see stuff. I'm not going to get that sense.

When it comes to Move, it's said to be easy to implement. I've heard this from multiple Sony executives. But getting people to build up ground-up titles isn't so much about tech. It's about inspiration. What is your goal when you talk to third parties? Is it to get them to implement Move into as many of their games as possible? Or is it about getting them to do ground up stuff?

RD: So, I spent some time reading the interview you did with Shu [Yoshida], and I have a very similar mindset that Shu has. There are certain games and certain genres that are great for motion gaming. I think the biggest problem that third parties have had with the Wii is that everybody had to implement everything with the Wii-mote, and a lot of games were never meant to have that kind of physical [interface]. It was supposed to be a D-pad only type of experience.

There are going to be some categories that are going to be absolutely spectacular with the Move. There are going to be some categories that are going to be very good with Natal.

Now, the big difference with the Move and the Natal, if you're going to do it with Natal, you're going to do it exclusive with Microsoft. That's not going to be the case for the Move. You have a code base that works across all three platforms.

How do you build that up and how you implement it into your game? Do I think you're going to see [inappropriate Move implementations]? Absolutely.

Our challenge here is to make sure you're doing it with the right games and the right genres, and that's where we're spending a lot of our time, going back to people and going, "Good idea. Bad idea. Good idea. Yeah, not so good idea."

Those are the types of things that we're trying to at least steer people away so they don't spend millions of dollars, come back to me and go, "Eh... It didn't sell." "Well, okay. You never should have made it. It was never going to work anyway. It didn't work on the Wii for a reason. That category didn't. Why did you think it was going to work on this one as well?"

What we're also trying to do, and again I agree with Shu, is take a hardcore experience like a SOCOM, that if people want to have an online shooter experience, they can go and do that. You and I can just blow our brains out, get our trophies, and have a great time.

But if my 7-year-old son wants to play it -- not suggesting he's going to be playing SOCOM, an M-rated game -- but if he wants to play a style of game like that, he can play at home and at least have a good experience, a much more casual experience, and not worry about having that hardcore experience. I still think that has some value and some relevance to it.

It seems like it's got to be a challenge. Do you feel like you're spread a little thin trying to get people to work with Sony? You have Move, PSP, regular PS3 games.

RD: [laughs] Call Jack. Tell him that for me, will you? It's the battle for resources. "Am I going to make an iPad/iPhone game? Am I going to do PC? What do I do for this particular feature? Oh, you want exclusive features, Rob?" Yeah. So, welcome to my world. And that is exactly it. I liken myself to plate-spinner. I've got to keep them spinning.

Now, the other part of it is, what are the priorities, or what's the flavor of the week, or the flavor of the month? Like we're having a big initiative with 3D. We want to make sure, given we're the only console that can do 3D, that we're going to have games out there that support it. We will. We're excited about that. But again, that's a whole 'nother category we're emphasizing.

Are you worried that with Move, games are just going to be ports across all of the 3D motion platforms? The Wii is full of shovelware. We all recognize that.

RD: Yes. And I think we can do a lot about that. Now, are there going to be things like that? Sure. We'll do everything we can, whether it's up-res, add trophies, and do things and make it network-only so you don't see it on a disc, but at the same time, we don't have to approve it if we don't want to go down that path.

The other thing you also see is less and less of that shovelware on the Wii, because people realize it costs money, they're not getting placement at retail. Even at a $19 or $9.99 price point, it doesn't sell. Why do I want to chase it on this category as well? We're not getting such a huge amount of concept submissions that we look at this and say, "You know what? We've got big problems." That's not been the issue.

I think people have gone back very conservatively at the beginning to say, "Okay. What's going to work on this?" They're taking lessons away, but also understanding, "Hey, you know what? Sony's going to go after this [motion control] for hardcore as well as the casual. Let's see what we can try and do, and let's see what's going to work for each one of these consumer groups."

You alluded to concept approval. Nintendo doesn't have it. Sony has had concept approval since day one with the PlayStation 1. What purpose do you think that serves in the market in 2010?

RD: Look, I don't want to be arbiter of taste. I want to give consumers that opportunity to decide if something is going to be successful or not, and I know how hard it is having sat on the other side, and gone through it... I saw some very capricious concept approval meetings. I know how hard those can be.

At the same time, I also see the benefit, particularly at retail when you have a limited number of slots and you're trying to get something placed, and you can't because there's so much crap out there. How you actually get your product to market. So we have continued to have concept approval in order to give a semblance of control.

But the other thing, too, is we don't want to race to the bottom. And if you were to talk to people at Apple, I think the first thing they tell you with regards to iPhone apps and iPhone... A couple of things went horribly wrong. You got a race to the bottom, price and quality-wise.

I mean, how many versions of Bejeweled do you need? 30 enough? 50? How many do you need? We prefer to say "one". We'd much rather be able to at least have an economy that people can make money on, and we don't want to be the first to get to the bottom. And that, to me, demands some level of concept approval.

I would assume that people are coming with games for Move which lead on Wii. They want to get them on your platform. Is there a problem?

RD: If it's day and date. If it's day and date, we'll work with them on it. If it's a port, then we'll move it a step, to the network. Unless it's something that they've done an incredible amount of adjusting... We want to be a one-to-one experience.

The Wii doesn't have a camera. We've got a camera. Use that camera, implement that in there. A lot of these guys don't want to. They just want to use the accelerometer and say, well... No. Not gonna happen. It doesn't work that way. Put the camera in there, make it work with that, get your trophies, up-res is, put some more content in, come on down.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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