Exclusive: ‘When everybody went home in March I must tell you that privately I was pretty worried,’ Jim Ryan, on launching PlayStation 5 during a pandemic
With more than 112 million PlayStation 4 units sold since the system’s launch in 2013, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s eighth generation console proved a smash hit among gamers and families. Now Sony is looking to repeat this success with PlayStation 5, due out Nov. 12.
Post Arcade will have a comprehensive review of the Japanese game giant’s new hardware — including its upgraded controller, support for 3D audio, and improved graphics — in the coming weeks. And leading up to launch we had an exclusive opportunity to chat with Sony Interactive Entertainment president and CEO Jim Ryan. He’s the global chief of all things PlayStation.
Framed with the context of launching a major consumer product during a global pandemic, our short conversation covered a variety of topics, ranging from key lessons learned in the PlayStation 4 era to how to transition millions of players from one platform to another without leakage.
Post Arcade:Let’s start with your PlayStation 5 pitch.Imagine you’re cornered in an elevator by an average gamer and they say to you, “What’s so special about PlayStation 5?” How do you respond?
Jim Ryan: I would say that if you choose PlayStation 5 you will have a proper next-generation experience with true next-generation features, including next-generation graphics and CPU processing. You will play some of the best games that are available to be played on any system anywhere.
PA: No one has ever launched a console in the throes of a pandemic. Was there ever a time when you seriously considered postponing the launch of PlayStation 5?
JR: When everybody went home in March –— I climbed on a plane to fly from San Francisco back to London, where I live — I must tell you that privately I was pretty worried. I put on a sort of very brave external face for everybody I spoke with, but I was thinking: How are we going to do this?
The remainder of work that needed to be done to the hardware, the considerable work still needed for the UX, the software engineering, the completion of all the games not only made by us but also third party partners…and all of that’s before you start thinking about other components, such as suppliers downstream, many of which are located in very far flung parts of the world. We had a little visibility at the time, and it was a pretty daunting moment.
But the sense of resolve and determination throughout the company was palpable and very humbling. Nobody gave up. We all said we’re going to do this. It’s going to be very, very difficult but we’re going to do it. And that’s what we’ve done.
PA:Sony has been in the console business for years — decades — now. How has the company’s thinking evolved over that time about what video games are and what they can be?
JR: I’d say the biggest thing that’s evolved has been realizing the importance of community. I think that importance has grown as our platforms have become more and more networked.
Back in the beginning of PlayStation, community was a very restricted concept. It was maybe two people playing FIFA — or I guess in your case, a hockey game — sitting side-by-side on the couch, maybe four people playing.
But now in 2020 community is an incredibly powerful concept. Both in terms of the richness and the joy and the sense of belonging that it can bring, and also for the organization that sits on the other end — in this case, PlayStation.
The emergence of this networked community over the course of the last 10 years has really been a win/win thing both the members of the community and for PlayStation. The community is bigger and more engaged with us than ever before. We have the opportunity to talk to them in ways that never existed in the past.
PA:How do you transition an audience from one platform with millions of users to a new platform without bleeding any of your customers?
JR:Yeah, at a business level that’s one of our big challenges. I think we’ve clearly got to come up with good reasons for them to not walk away, or to spend $500 or $600 on a new PlayStation when in many cases they’re really happy with their current PlayStation.
I think that’s where this issue of community comes in. The community is very powerful. If we can achieve a certain tipping point, and get the key members of the community to make a change, the rest will follow. And we think that will be the case here. We know we’re off to a great start with pre-orders, and we know the momentum is going to be great through the rest of this year in the early part of 2021. And if we can get that community starting to shift it could become a landslide.
PA:In an industry where not only technology changes quickly but also the tastes of consumers, how do you begin planning and designing a next-generation system years in advance?
JR: We have research and development people all over the world whose job is to follow macro technological trends and then try to translate them from the macro into what they might mean in the context of the PlayStation experience. Then, obviously, it goes to product planning, and then it goes to engineering.
One of the good things about the game console model, which has new iterations every five or six years, is you get the chance to sort of bundle these things up. Incremental feature enhancements — which, in isolation, may not be considered all that meaningful — when bundled with 10 or 20 other such things, can create something really powerful. That old expression about the sum of the parts is definitely true.
We’re always excited about presenting our community with a significant enhancement in the overall gaming experience compared to what they’ve been able to enjoy for the previous five or six or seven years. We believe PlayStation 5 is a great embodiment of this.
PA:Clearly, PlayStation 4 has been a great success, but is there anything you learned while doing business in the current generation that would have made you make a different choice in hindsight?
JR: One of the defining attributes of PlayStation 4 has been the exclusive games that have come from our worldwide studios. They have been rich and wonderful, and certainly something that gamers associate with that platform in a very good way. And that’s been great.
But that pipeline of triple-A games from our studios was really only turned on and achieved scaling momentum in the second half of the cycle. One of the things that I say internally is yes, the games are great, but it would be even better if we could get there earlier in the cycle.
I made a point about talking about the PlayStation 5 launch lineup right at the start. We’ve never before been able to organize ourselves in this way to have not only at launch but in the window that immediately follows a lot of the big studios showing up in that first year or so.
PA:Canada’s a large country but small in population, and (I assume) not a major piece in the bigger PlayStation puzzle. Still, do local tastes and societal differences — such as the amount of time we spend indoors — result in any changes in how you strategically approach our market?
JR: You know I’m a European, and I grew up managing the PlayStation business in Europe. One of the things that I realized very quickly is that any business that just takes a U.S. approach and tries to apply it in Europe is probably going to fail. And any business that creates some sort of imaginary pan-European approach and applies everywhere in Europe is going to fail. The way Italians behave is different to the way people in Sweden behave, and the way people in the U.K. behave is very different than the way Germans behave. And one of the reasons that we have had a certain amount of success with PlayStation in Europe is that we’ve been incredibly attentive to that fact. We’re driven very hard to ensure local community needs were always served, whether it was localization, moderator practices, brand activation efforts. I believe incredibly strongly in this. And Canada is no different to us.
You know, the North American business operations director in the U.S. (Stephen Turvey) is Canadian, and he will never let anybody in that most American organization forget about Canada. I mean, you guys get your fair share of the microphone. Plus, we’ve got a really strong, professionally managed, and really nice team in Canada. You guys are well looked after.
PA:Final question: Is there a Jim Ryan signature feature or idea tucked away inside PlayStation 5? Something you pushed for, that you’re particularly proud of?
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World news – THAT – Global PlayStation boss Jim Ryan on PlayStation 5, COVID-19 and community