During a conversation at the DICE Summit 2015, a slightly disheveled SCE Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida (who possibly partied quite hard last night) and Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning gave some very interesting insight on the last twenty years of the industry and PlayStation.
Sony had a marketing slogan in Japan that said “every game comes to PlayStation,” but at the beginning game publishers didn’t really take the company seriously, and thought it would come and go into the industry pretty quickly. The only one with which there was a strong synergy was Namco, that had a strong reliance on technology. Others didn’t really see the importance of 3D and polygonal graphics.
We also learn that at the time the industry did not understand sequels, that were believed to sell only 50% of the original. The widespread mentality was similar to the one reigning in the toys market, and the importance of IP wasn’t recognized.
Yoshida-san mentioned that PlayStation was marketed more to adults, and that’s why the company was called Sony Computer Entertainment and not Sony Game Entertainment.
American and European developers weren’t taken very seriously in Japan, but Yoshida-san was assigned to work as a Producer on Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and the first Gran Turismo. According to Lanning, the developers of Crash and Spyro are grateful to Shuhei Yoshida for introducing them to the Japanese culture and teaching them to be successful in Japan, and in turn to gain higher appeal worldwide. He was also the one that introduced them to the idea of testing.
Yoshida-san at that time did research on Nintendo games, especially on the difficulty curve, and also learned the good practices of game testing from the house of Mario and Zelda, which had very solid QA teams.
Funnily, Yoshida-san was asked which university between UCLA and Kyoto’s had the most charming girls, and he responded that the latter was very difficult to get into, and there were only three ladies. Incidentally, he married one of them.
Yoshida-san also mentioned that he had the mindset of a gamer, and for him working on games was absolutely amazing. He really wanted PlayStation to continue over time, as it was his dream job. All he wanted to do in his career was to help great games to be made.
He then explained that part of his job was to mediate between developers and marketing and sales executives, who talk a very different language. For instance business-minded executives don’t understand why games get delayed.
Marketing executives can make great games into a bigger success, but it’s still a tricky relationship. Crash Bandicoot was released every year in the days of the original PlayStation, and that’s great for marketers, but development cycles have gradually gotten longer, and that’s difficult to understand for marketing executives. They bring up Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, which are released annually, asking why the same can’t be done for Sony’s titles.
Yoshida mentioned that with all the due respect for these developers, who do great work, he “hates” that kind of annual releases, and he wishes that those teams weren’t doing them (this obviously stirred a spell of hilarity across the audience).
Update: Yoshida-san posted on Twitter, clarifying this point.
— Shuhei Yoshida (@yosp) February 6, 2015
(It was a definitely strange way to word appreciation, but there you have it, straight from the lion’s mouth.)
The times of the PS3 were colored by the fact that Ken Kutaragi was extremely bent on technological innovation, and that caused him to ignore the needs of many developers. His philosophy enabled the top teams to achieve great feats, but it wasn’t for everyone.
Kutaragi-san was actually nicer with Yoshida-san than with his engineers. He used to come into the office every morning with a different idea, and that made things very difficult for the engineering team, that had to try and predict which ideas would actually be put into the project.
He once told Yoshida-san bluntly that while he wasn’t very liked personally, Shu and the others worked with him because they knew they could accomplish great things in his team.
Yoshida-san thought at the time that while Sony had a great hardware team and worked with amazing developers, there was something important in the middle that was being overlooked; system software and network services. He realized that Sony was behind the times in those elements, and they became the focus of the design of PS4.
Things changed very radically, and Lorne Lanning remembers when he was first offered a free PS4 DevKit, and he thought “this can’t be Sony, we’re not that important!” That was a relevant sign of the revolution in Sony Computer Entertainment’s philosophy.
Yoshida-san concluded by saying that Sony had an amazing year in 2014, and PS4 kept selling and selling. They also announced Project Morpheus, which is very exciting, but towards the end some negative issues manifested.
Some games got delayed, others had a troubled launch, and then there was the DDOS attack to the network services which caused the holiday outage. Those are the new big problems that keep him up at night, and he thinks Sony should fix them, with a special focus on avoiding further troubled launches.