Jack Tretton, President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America will leave Sony on 31 March (opens in new tab). That’s big news--Jack is the boss. I usually leave the stories about men in suits swapping employers to hard news sites, but this could have a significant impact on the PlayStation division. Tretton has been involved with Sony for 19 years: he’s one of the founding members of the PlayStation division.
So what is this move likely to mean for PS4? Well, Tretton has certainly given the console the best start possible. A veteran of 6 console launches, he has been instrumental in winning the PR battle against Microsoft when it counts. Reports show that PS4 has had a better launch than Xbox One (opens in new tab), despite the fact that both consoles launched in the same month. Tretton leaves his successor, Shawn Layden, with a significant amount of momentum.
Layden himself is far from a fresh-faced beginner, having spent 15 years working on PlayStation all over the world. So it’s all-good, then? PS4 will become the best selling console of all time, with games so amazing they’ll actually start to melt our brains? Well, no--it isn’t as simple as that.
The new boy, Layden, finds himself heading up PlayStation during an absolutely critical time in the brand’s history. Traditional AAA game development is teetering on the brink of collapse (opens in new tab), as costs are starting to outweigh sales of all but the very biggest, very safest games. I’m not going to wheel out the hoary old ‘consoles are doomed’ argument here, as that really oversimplifies the evolution of the gaming industry, but it’s no secret that many studios are becoming too bloated and inflexible to function. Why? Because making games like Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, and Uncharted requires a lot of men and women working with expensive tools for years. And that’s before they’re even marketed.
Simply, PlayStation will need to adapt to survive in this new environment. Tretton has already made some incredibly smart moves. Firstly, he launched and transformed PSN into a viable platform for not only digitally distributing AAA games (although, come on guys, lower the price!), but also for putting indie and mid-sized developers on the same stage--giving them the same opportunities--as the bigger studios. PS4 has provided the more satisfying launch experience because it is constantly feeding its owners with a selection of smaller and larger gaming experiences, often for free via PS Plus. Microsoft, by comparison, is still trying to catch up, and its flow of Xbox One games (and other offerings) has been more inconsistent.
Secondly, Tretton brought Gaikai on board. Lorenzo wrote a piece on the massive implications of streaming (opens in new tab) earlier this week, and I believe that it’ll be a major part of Sony’s strategy in the coming years as the PlayStation owner looks to unlock its enviable back catalogue of games. It'll also give PS4 / Vita owners an increasing number of options for playing their games. Like it or not, gaming is no longer exclusively about sitting on a sofa and playing solo experiences on your TV for hours on end. It’s adapting, diversifying, and spreading to accommodate our increasingly mobile, busy lives. Again, I’m not saying that ‘traditional-sit-at-home’ console gaming is going away, but that gaming itself is expanding far beyond this single paradigm.
So, Tretton has done all he can to prepare PlayStation for the future, but it’s up to Layden to ensure it continues to adapt. It bodes well that he has spent time as both Director of International Software Development and as President of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan. The former role should mean that Layden maintains PS4’s role as a games machine first and foremost, a media hub second. With so much competition in the multimedia space, I think it’s smart that Sony continues to embrace gamers as a priority. If Layden can bring his knowledge of what genuinely appeals to the modern gamer (and not rely on the tactics that worked 10 or even 5 years ago), the PS4 should evolve in some seriously interesting ways over the next few years.
Can he find a solution to the increasingly unsustainable cost of AAA gaming? All while keeping PS4 owners (who paid £350 / $400 for a console) constantly entertained and amazed? That’s undoubtedly one of his biggest challenges. His gaming background will help, as will Sony’s cosy relationship with indies, but Layden will struggle to carry the PlayStation beyond PS4 in its current form as a ‘big, powerful games machine’. My guess is that he’ll be focusing on making PlayStation more adaptable; making it a more integral part of our lives beyond traditional gaming. Sure, that’s been Tretton’s plan ever since PSN launched, but Layden is going to be forced to dig deeper into things like Middleware co-development and nurturing the creative diversity of indies, as AAA games become fewer and further between.
Then there’s that Japanese role. Layden’s stint in Japan should give him a more global view of the company, and a greater understanding of what works worldwide. Nintendo in particular has fallen behind in the console ‘war’ because it has been slow to adapt to the needs of a global audience--what works for Japan, isn’t necessarily what’s best for the US and Europe. Similarly, Microsoft has never been able to gain a true foothold in Japan, and has always skewed its consoles to a more western audience (despite several attempts to woo major Japanese developers at the start of the 360’s life).
While many will see Tretton’s departure as a blow for Sony--and I admit that the company will be hard-pressed to find a man charismatic enough to ‘win’ another E3 in the way Tretton did in 2013--it does seem like Layden is a safe pair of hands. He’s certainly got the qualifications to lead Sony through this period of immense change and, although I think Tretton has done a superb job in making PlayStation the juggernaut that it is today, Layden could be the fresh pair of eyes that prevents Sony’s success leading to the arrogance that crept in during the PS2 / PS3 transition. Let’s not forget, in 2006 Sony was the bad guy (opens in new tab), and it took almost 7 years for PS3 to catch up to 360.
Simply, Sony can’t afford to let the arrogance of being ‘number one’ creep back into their culture. PS3’s slow start was expensive, and with the stakes (and costs) getting higher with each generation, complacency could have a more permanent effect on any future launches. Layden himself should bring that ideal combination of experience, and the willingness to challenge tradition. This should combat complacency now, when it matters, and result in ‘change when it’s needed’.
So, we shouldn’t expect to see sweeping alterations to PS4. We won’t suddenly see it turn into an over-priced indie box, or a console that pays all the money for all the exclusives. I don’t think the focus will shift away from games either. The biggest alterations will come in the types of games we get, and the way we experience them. This should make PS4 (and Vita) a console that adapts to suit everyone--a machine that does AAA, indie, free-to-play, mobile, and multimedia. And providing Tretton’s replacement can at least get a couple of cheers and whoops at this year’s E3, Sony should stay strong for years to come.