This interview was conducted by Official PlayStation Magazine following the Game Developers Conference in March 2016
From the moment we again donned the headset and dove into the kaleidoscopic magic of PlayStation VR, at this year’s GDC event in San Francisco, we knew it would set the games industry aflame. Unparalleled wonder unfolds – high-octane shootouts, mind-bending puzzle ￼￼chambers, rhythm-violence beetle-riding – all with us at the heart of the experience.
But despite enjoying that instant immersion, we still have plenty of questions about the new tech. How in the name of Kratos will Sony manage to sell it at the low price of just £349? Can we expect PlayStation VR to branch out beyond games? And are we going to fling that fancy headset straight off our bonces when heading virtual footballs in The Headmaster?
Fortunately, we found ourselves in a small room with a man able to answer all of those questions and more – the one and only Jim Ryan, European boss of Sony Computer Entertainment. In our exclusive interview, he reveals how the company learnt from the “mistakes” of the PS3 era; how vital it is to correctly market PS VR for the masses; oh, and we may just have pressed him on a certain lovable scamp called Crash...
OPM: First of all, congratulations on 36 million PS4s being sold – that’s quite the achievement. Did you ever imagine you’d be hitting that big a number so soon?
Jim Ryan: Um... (Laughs). That’s an interesting question to start! I think probably the honest answer is no. I think we were confident in the proposition that we had; we obviously made a number of – I shouldn’t hesitate to use the word “mistake” – mistakes with PS3, and we were very single-minded and very determined to try and address each of those mistakes.
We engaged in a lot of soul-searching – I think we got most of the boxes that had a cross against them in the PS3 era ending up with a tick against them this time around. So we were confident, but I don’t think... I doubt that anybody expected us to be this successful.
OPM: We’re obviously keen to talk about PlayStation VR. Since the big announcements at March’s GDC event in San Francisco, the reaction from our readers has been extremely encouraging, very positive. How have you been able to come in at such an amazing price, relative to what the competition is doing?
JR: I think the answer to that lies in Sony’s heritage. Obviously, and increasingly, Sony is an entertainment company. It is also a very proud consumer electronics business with a very long and illustrious career of making great consumer electronics hardware.
Whether it’s designing in an elegant or effective manner; whether it’s sourcing componentry from all around the world in a cost-effective manner; or whether it’s putting the thing together, this is what Sony does.
This is a big part of Sony’s DNA. It’s sometimes easy to take this for granted in this wonderful, networked world that we live in these days, but it’s actually something that allows us to bring all that knowledge and expertise and heritage to bear. It has allowed us to put this thing together in a manner that enables us to sell it at £349 and still make money.
OPM: It’s great to see it’s not being rushed to market. October seems to give you a good amount of breathing space to make sure you’ve got the software support in place. Was that a big factor when deciding the release date?
JR: It was a combination of that and also having what we considered to be the right amount of hardware to put into the market as well, so it was a combination of software support and the timelines on the hardware side of things.
OPM: Your job must be to convert as many PS4 owners to PS VR as possible. How do you do that, considering it’s such a transformative experience that only really comes across when you test it?
JR: Yeah, it’s a very good question, and essentially that’s the job of marketing. And it’s quite a challenge. We certainly have great knowledge about how to market traditional gaming consoles – we’ve done it for over 20 years now. I think we’re quite good at it and we know what to do.
But this is different. As you say, it’s really only when you try [PlayStation VR] that you actually understand. So the marketing mix of activities that we engage in to evangelise virtual reality will be very different from the marketing mix that we use when we took, for example, PS4 to market. There’s going to be a much greater emphasis on experiential, on trial, to try and achieve exactly what you spoke of.
OPM: We were impressed by the scope of demos available at GDC. Is there a big chance to branch out and make PS4 more than just a predominantly gaming platform?
JR: I think your use of the verb “branch out” is absolutely correct because it is, after all, a PlayStation product, and PlayStation stands for gaming – that’s what we do, that’s what we’re about and that will be the principal area of focus at the beginning.
But I think, as you yourself experienced – looking at some of these other things – they’re interesting and they’re fun and some of this stuff is very relevant and very appealing to gamers, so why wouldn’t you offer those sorts of experiences, and we will. But we’re pretty clear-minded that gaming will be the principal area of focus.
OPM: With the exception of multiplayer mini-games collection The Playroom VR, what’s your personal PlayStation VR highlight so far?
JR: [Football heading sim] The Headmaster.
OPM: For what reason?
JR: Because I’m good at it! (Laughs)
OPM: Fair enough! When we saw the pitch for that game, we were worried the headset might keep flying off?
JR: Yeah, well I was a bit worried my head would fall off! But no – those balls were bulleting into the top right- hand corner of the goal every time. It was great!
OPM: Moving onto the wider spectrum of PlayStation, PS4 was very much a console designed to evolve. How has that gone so far? Where do you see the current PS4 in the grand scheme of things? Is there still a long way to go?
JR: Yeah, obviously when you have a connected device like PlayStation 4, the possibilities to significantly enhance the capabilities of the device through firmware upgrades are considerable – we’ve already seen that over the life of PS4 with features such as Share Play and a raft of other individually less significant, but cumulatively actually very meaningful, functional enhancements to the device. That will definitely continue – we have a roadmap. Much of this stuff is still under wraps but we’re definitely, certainly not standing still with PS4. There’s more to come!
OPM: This might infringe on some of those things under wraps, but Early Access programmes are something we’ve seen quite a lot of on PC – is that an area that you think PlayStation can explore or wants to explore?
JR: I think it’s certainly something that we’re open to. It’s really a balance between offering a proper experience and making all sorts of things available. There’s a certain quality threshold that we have to be sure to meet, or at the very least to position the thing properly. But we’re open to that.
OPM: We chuckled when Microsoft made its announcement about cross-platform play, as we thought, “Well, we’ve been doing that for a long time on PlayStation.” But the suggestion of possible cross-platform play with other consoles is interesting. From Sony’s point of view, is PlayStation open to that possibility?
JR: Well, you know, I couldn’t really work out what all the fuss was about in that Microsoft announcement because it’s something – as you say – we’ve been doing. We’ve done it with PC, we’ve done it with Xbox consoles. We’re completely open to any developer or publisher who wants to have the conversation; we always have been and we remain so.
OPM: Last year’s E3 was incredible. Looking ahead to the next E3 show, in June, how do you begin to piece together something mindful of what you did last year, while not staying in its shadow?
JR: Uh... (Laughs) You know, one of the great things about working in the entertainment business is that things evolve and new things start to get worked on. As one game comes out, the development team starts work on the next thing, and it’s a kind of endless cycle.
You’re right, matching last year’s E3 will be quite some challenge, but I’m pretty relaxed and quite confident that we will rise to that challenge.
OPM: One last question. This one’s from one of our readers...
JR: They’re usually the most dangerous! (Laughs)
OPM: At last December’s PlayStation Experience, SCE America CEO Shawn Layden walked out on stage wearing a Crash Bandicoot T-shirt. Is Sony aware of how much fans want Crash Bandicoot? Is there anything that can be done to get him back on PlayStation?
JR: Um... we’re certainly aware of the considerable affection – even reverence – in which the mighty Crash is held. But nothing to update at this stage in that area.
This article originally appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine. For more great PlayStation coverage, you can subscribe here.