It's hard to argue with Sony's first half of 2017. The PlayStation 4 has enjoyed a number of exciting console exclusives, including Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier Automata, Persona 5 and Nioh. But after watching Sony's E3 2017 media briefing this week, I couldn't help but feel the next six months look decidedly pedestrian in comparison.
Rather than show off games due out in time for Christmas 2017, Sony focused on games due out in 2018 and, potentially, beyond. Under normal circumstances, this approach would have got the blood of the hundreds of thousands watching online pumping, but most of the games on show had already been announced. Sure, we got the announcement of a Horizon expansion, but Sony's briefing sparked the same question as Microsoft's: where were the big, triple-A blockbuster console exclusive game announcements?
That wasn't the only hot topic to follow Sony's press conference. One of the stories that developed over the course of E3 week had to do with Sony's apparent refusal to play ball with other console makers for cross-platform play. Microsoft scored a PR win when it announced Minecraft would be playable cross-platform on PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Then Nintendo announced Rocket League with cross-platform play between PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. Sony, it seems, doesn't want anything to do with it.
And there's the 4K battle, which is set to kick off good and proper this Christmas with the release of the super powerful Xbox One X. Is Sony worried Microsoft may be about to claw its way back into the console war, or does the Xbox One X's $500 price tag - $100 more than the PS4 Pro - mean the rival console barely registers on Sony's threat meter?
It was with these questions in mind that I sat down with PlayStation global sales and marketing head Jim Ryan at E3 to get some answers. Read on for the big interview.
First off, congratulations on your conference. I know these things are logistically difficult and just putting them on is an achievement. One of the things I felt about it, though... flat would be the word I'd use. I think that has something to do with no new exclusive game announcements, or at least most of the games were already announced and there were no real big surprises. What would you say to that?
Jim Ryan: I've seen the feedback. There's different feedback as well. There's a whole range. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think flat... it's not a word I would use. Obviously you're correct about the announcements. There's no two ways about that. There were new things announced. There were good things announced. But in terms of major triple-A blockbusters, there weren't any.
In this day and age, the amount of money it takes to make a game and the time it takes to make a game, it's just not really possible to have dozens of announcements at each show. It's just logistically not possible. We chose to focus on the games that are going to be coming next year. We didn't speak much about the 2017 slate. There was very little about GT Sport. There was nothing in the show about our Playlink initiative, which is something we're really excited about as we seek to broaden the audience. Games like Everybody's Golf and Knack 2, we chose not to put them in the conference. There was some stuff featured that will ship this year, but it was mainly stuff for 2018 and conceivably beyond.
Why did you take that decision?
Jim Ryan: The Playlink initiative, that begins next month, so it's very immediate. That particular one, it's very hard to get that concept across on a big stage like that. We've made good provision for people like yourself to trial it down at the show. It's one of those things, you just try it and you end up killing yourself laughing. It's just a good social experience with a very easy interface. The games are going to be £20. As we seek to go now from 50 to 100m PS4s, it's the sort of thing we're going to be doing.
I would say PS4 has had a great first half of 2017, with some fantastic games and brilliant exclusives. But looking at your conference and looking at the slate for the rest of the year, I'm not sure it's quite as good. It certainly feels weaker to me. I'm not seeing the big Christmas 2017 PS4 exclusive. Is that fair?
Jim Ryan: Clearly, we have GT Sport coming. Gran Turismo is historically our best-selling franchise, so I guess I'd say it's not fair.
But what if you're not into GT Sport?
Jim Ryan: If you're not into GT Sport, we have a number of partnerships. We're back partnering with FIFA, which is something I'm really excited about. It's the first time we've done it on this generation. We saw yesterday COD, Destiny 2, Marvel vs Capcom...
They're not exclusives though.
Jim Ryan: No, but in many cases there is content that is exclusive to PS4 and that's an important point of difference for us.
Microsoft announced the Xbox One X at $500. When you heard the price, did you do a little dance of joy?
Jim Ryan: I don't dance these days.
A jig, perhaps?
Jim Ryan: [Laughs.] The first thing is, we will have been out there for a year by the time they launch. Right now, one in every five PS4s that's sold is a Pro, which is actually way more than we anticipated, with the consequence that it's actually quite hard to find one. So we're pretty happy with that and the way it's going. There's a nice balance between upgraders and people coming in buying it as their first PS4.
In some ways, it's a good thing that they're coming in. The fact we're having this conversation, it gets the whole Sony versus Microsoft thing going.
You like that, do you?
Jim Ryan: Yeah! I think it's good for the industry. There are two aspects: gamer facing and developer facing. And having another player in that 4K space is only going to make the decision for developers to invest in making the leap up to 4K that much easier. To that extent, it's good.
History tells us that when they are at a $100 price premium to us, it's not easy for them. But they're obviously very confident. They're bright people. They'll have laid their plans to maximise their own returns.
Jim Ryan: I saw it. I read it. It was a good interview.
Thank you. He said something I wanted to follow up with you. He sees the Pro as being competition for the Xbox One S, rather than the Xbox One X.
Jim Ryan: I knew you were going to mention that!
It's your turn to hit back.
Jim Ryan: I'm not going to...
Dignify that with a response?
Jim Ryan: No! Those are your words, not mine.
What are your words?
Jim Ryan: My words are, we'll just wait and see when they come in November after we'll have been in the market for a full year with our 4K-ready offering. We'll see how it goes. We're 60m in and we're really happy with the way things are going. Like I say, we welcome them to this party.
You don't think what Phil said on that was rubbish, then?
Jim Ryan: I'm not going to say that.
Fair enough! There is a situation emerging at this E3 around cross-platform play. Minecraft works cross-platform between Switch, Xbox and PC. Today, Rocket League was announced as working cross-platform between Switch, Xbox and PC. Neither work cross-platform with PlayStation. Now, is this Sony not playing ball? What is actually going on here?
Jim Ryan: It's certainly not a profound philosophical stance we have against this. We've done it in the past. We're always open to conversations with any developer or publisher who wants to talk about it. Unfortunately it's a commercial discussion between ourselves and other stakeholders, and I'm not going to get into the detail of that on this particular instance. And I can see your eyes rolling.
Well, you must see that PlayStation owners are upset. They want to play with Switch owners and Xbox One owners for these two big and important games, and they don't have an explanation why. That's what I'm getting at, really.
Jim Ryan: Yeah. We've got to be mindful of our responsibility to our install base. Minecraft - the demographic playing that, you know as well as I do, it's all ages but it's also very young. We have a contract with the people who go online with us, that we look after them and they are within the PlayStation curated universe. Exposing what in many cases are children to external influences we have no ability to manage or look after, it's something we have to think about very carefully.
It doesn't seem to be a problem for Nintendo, perhaps the video game company most mindful of the protection of children.
Jim Ryan: Yeah, that's true. Everybody has to take their own decisions. We'll do that. Like I say, we have no philosophical stance against cross-play at all.
Is this a done deal? Or are you leaving the door open, perhaps?
Jim Ryan: I don't think anything is ever a done deal. Anybody who is dogmatic in that manner is typically a fool. That said, to my knowledge, there is no live conversation ongoing at the moment.
I'd like to talk about games coming out on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X that you have marketing deals with. Call of Duty you have a deal with. FIFA, Battlefield you have deals with. Do you anticipate there being a significant performance and image quality difference on those games on Xbox One X and PS4 Pro?
Jim Ryan: I'm not going to go into the detail of what's embedded into individual contracts with publishing partners. What I would do is cast our minds back to the PS3 generation, where we had on paper more impressive specifications than our competition, and in some areas by quite a considerable margin. Now, that didn't play out the way we had anticipated it would - and this is nothing to do with co-marketing deals, this is just general developer and publisher dynamics. What happened was that developers, maybe at the behest of publishers, developed up to the lowest common denominator and stopped there. And in very few cases took advantage of the additional horsepower of the PS3.
Now, I'm a big believer of learning lessons from history. History doesn't always repeat itself. But if you're a publisher of video games, that is a perfectly commercially rational approach for you to take.
Why do you say that?
Jim Ryan: Because you only do one set of work. You don't do one set of work to get up to one level and then a different amount of work and consequently may need to go further.
Where you have a marketing deal with a game, maybe Destiny 2, Call of Duty or Battlefield, are you encouraging or telling the publishers, do not make the Xbox One X version significantly better than the PS4 Pro version? Is that something Sony is telling these publishers?
Jim Ryan: Not to my knowledge. Take the Destiny deal. The Destiny deal was actually done in February 2013, right? We hadn't launched PS4. I might be wrong because great minds are at work in far-flung corners of Tokyo and San Mateo, but I don't think anybody even thought of PS4 Pro at this stage.
So, I think you're trying to see some sort of nefarious platform-holder activity where likely none exists.
Fair enough! If that's the case, that's the case. But the Xbox One X is a more powerful console than the PS4 Pro. It's very difficult to argue with the specs. And Microsoft is making the point quite hard - and they did this throughout their conference - that there is no technical reason why a game that comes out on both those platforms shouldn't look and perform better on Xbox One X. Isn't that comparison a problem for you?
Jim Ryan: Well, we'll see when they launch in six months' time. The number of partnerships, and yes they are big titles, I won't dispute that, it's small. There are a handful. There will be hundreds of games published this year and those games, market forces will prevail. If a developer or publisher wants to take advantage of the supposed power of the X, they will do that. If they don't, they won't.
Final question! One game we didn't see at the press conference was Dreams. Is everything okay with Dreams?
Jim Ryan: Yep, everything is fine with Dreams. We will have news of Dreams later in the year. You saw there was a fairly consistent tonality in the games last night...
Yes, everything looked like The Last of Us.
Jim Ryan: Well, those are your words, not mine! Just as it wasn't the place for Playlink, it probably wouldn't have been the place for Dreams, either.