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Phil Harrison Interview

The May 2006 issue of Edge Magazine (which I bought) has an interview with SCE’s Worldwide Studios President, Phil Harrison. You can read some select parts of the interview below:

Phil Harrison

Edge: Attention is mainly focused on PS3 at the moment, but PS2 is still the dominant format. After the last transition period there was a lot of talk in the industry about the need to handle the next transition better. Do you think that’s happening?

PH: That’s a good question. I think the people who said it loudly last time were the CFOs of publicity traded companies, because they were saying “Look, we got hosed because we didn’t handle the transition effectively enough”, & I think when Larry Probst & other senior executives are saying we must do it differently next time around then that filters down through their organisations. But I think people also take their lead from us, from the way we’re innovating, the way we’re continuing to push.

Edge: But can they take their lead from you? Surely your focus now has to be showcasing PS3 & what the technology is capable of, & there are very few high-profile PS2 games left on the schedule.

PH: That’s inevitable, but I think with PS2 you’ll see a more measured decline than with PS0ne, It’s not going to be falling off the cliff like you’ve seen with Xbox & 360 – that product’s just stopped, it’s been delisted, but PSone is still selling, & I think we’ll see that with PS2.

Edge: But many of those titles will be less ambitious games aimed at a younger, less hobbyist audience. Now that high-profile development attention has transferred to PS3, have we already seen everything PS2 is capable of, or we will never get that chance?

PH: Interesting! People used to talk about that in the 16bit era – ‘Oh, this uses 98% of the power of the machine’ – & on a single-CPU machine like a SNES or PlayStation you could pretty much get to the theoretical & practical maximum on the machine, but you can never do that on PS2 because of the distributed nature of the architecture – there’s always some load-balancing to be done across the system – you’ll never get to an absolutely theoretical maximum. But in terms of technology I don’t think there’s much left to be exploited on PS2, the libraries are about as efficient as they need to be, the balance between graphics, CPU, memory, devices, network is about as good it can be given the constraints of the hardware. I don’t think we’ll ever get significantly better than we are now. I think in terms of creative & technical convergence, God of War is about as good as it gets. That game is just technically stunning, & artistically stunning, gameplay wise [it’s stunning] – I think that’s probably the pinnacle.

Edge: You’ve announced the worldwide launch of PS3 in November, but there’s always been the argument that worldwide launches are simply impractical – Microsoft has recently proved that they’re far from straightforward, & even with PSP you chose to stagger the release. What’s changed since the PSP launch to make a worldwide PS3 launch a better strategy?

PH: The delay in Europe for PSP was not down to hardware manufacturing or production issues – it was a separate issue which caused us to delay in Europe, it wasn’t a logistically based bottleneck. We could have gone worldwide on PSP but for some external factors. Sadly, I can’t go into those. But our confidence for PS3 is based a lot on the fact the hardware is basically done anyway now – the Cell chip is already in mass manufacture. We’re of the curve in a lot of things that are required for a successful launch, & you saw from the schedule we’ll have final hardware from an internal point of view in May or June. We also control most of the manufacturing & production for the hardware ourselves, whereas Microsoft conveniently controls none of it – they don’t manufacture any of their components themselves, & that makes a huge difference. So I can’t tell you why or where they went wrong, but they obviously did.

Edge: Microsoft made a mistake in balancing the split of the stock it put out worldwide. What do you anticipate being your split worldwide between the different regions?

PH: I’m the software guy, not the hardware guy – I can’t answer that question. Also, it would be premature – we have a lot of time to make those kind of decisions.

Edge: Until fairly recently, the official line for the launch date was spring. Now the date has moved to November, worldwide. Why should that timetable be any more believable than the spring timetable was?

PH: Well, I don’t want to give the wrong impression – it wasn’t like we were lying about spring, I don’t want you to form that impression. Factors that have been widely reported by the press which were beyond our control prevented us from achieving the intended schedule, & frankly it depends where you are in the world as to how that news was received. If you’re in Japan I accept that it’s a disappointment to gamers that what they were looking to this spring will not come to fruition, but I think most people in Europe are rejoicing that it is definitely going to happen this year, so you have to balance it.

Edge: So it’s 100% certain that by the end of the year PS3 will have launched in all major territories?

PH: A 100% certain is a very definitive comment, & you’re not going to get that out of me! Also, as I said, I’m not the hardware production guy, I’m the software guy, but what I can say is that from a software point of view & the schedules for titles, we’re working towards a worldwide launch in November.

Edge: You used your GDC to announce the first details of PS3’s online environment. For something that’s clearly so integral to to the PS3 vision, why was it announced so late, particularly if until recently you were targeting a spring launch?

PH: I’m not sure that it’s late so much as the fact that we’re making it day and date with the hardware launch & I think that’s good for the industry. And I think what we shared today was confirmation of what the industry had already assumed would happen, but hadn’t heard it in absolute terms from us that this was indeed our strategy.

Edge: Can we expect to see those features – things like downloadable content – implemented in launch games?

PH: Oh, absolutely. Whether it’ll be every game I don’t know, but sure. And what I announced today in terms of the initiative to work with new developers on e-distributed content will yield some interesting results by the end of the year.

Edge: What you outlined in your keynote was a very ambitious environment. Looking at how Microsoft has built up it’s service incrementally, from the original Live service to the first Live Arcade to the full 360, how challenging is it to go from the more hands-off service that PS2 offers to such a detailed environment?

PH: Not that hard at all, actually, because of a couple of things. One, the people we have building the technology for us are the best people on the planet: SOE, the SCE-RT group & other experts we’ve brought in are all the best at what they do – they have built in some cases dozens of distributed & downloadable services with a great deal of success. But also, & perhaps this is a little bit harder to see from the outside – but we’ve been trailing this for a while – things like the downloadable content for Wipeout Pure on PSP. These weren’t isolated accidents, you know? These were things that we’ve been doing in anticipation & as a preparation for this service going live with PS3 . In the first 60 days in Europe our website served over 1m pieces of content, direct downloads to the PSP, so we’ve got a huge amount of experience to draw on.

Edge: What you’ve described is a very open system – with fully downloadable games, & the possibility for thirdparty servers to connect in to the system. How will it be regulated?

PH: That’s a great question & a perfectly legitimate concern, but we’ve proven to be very good at regulation, in terms QA & setting standards & working with thirdparties to ensure those are met. There obviously has to be a critical path which includes QA – obviously we’ll be subject to the appropriate ratings & industry organisations which are different all over the world, & we’ll have to comply with those, & we’ve got all that in place already for disc-based products, although the time to market for e-distributed games will be much quicker.

Edge: You’ve spoken about the advantages that Blu-ray offers in terms of being able to fit all the localised versions of a game on one disc. What implications does that have for region protection?

PH: We expect most publishers will recognise the benefits of being region-free & just put all the content on one disc. That’s proven to be very successful on PSP, & we expect it to happen on PS3.

Edge: So all Sony-published games will be region-free?

PH: Yeah. Our target – I’ll say that at least – our target is to have PAL, NTSC HD & all of the languages on one disk, & it will be a single, global SKU, hopefully moving towards a global release date.

Edge: In terms of developer support, there are indications that there are far fewer small & medium-sized teams currently engaged in PS3 games than were on PS2 games at the same stage in it’s lifecycle. Is that really the case, & do you think the reason commonly given for that – that the devkits are too expensive & there are anxieties about the costs of developing to PS3 standards – are real issues?

PH: That was definitely part of the motivation behind the e-distribution initiative, to recognise that not every studio is the world is capable of creating a 50Gb Blu-ray disc epic with the level of fidelity of some of the things we showed at the keynote. But that’s not to say that PS3 production is necessarily exponentially more expensive versus PS2. We’re actually finding that, relative to the same period of time, it’s actually cheaper to get things up & running on PS3 than it was on PS2.

Edge: But when you talk to developers, that’s not what they say. At the GDC keynote panel, the message was emphatically that costs are up & problematically so.

PH: OK, there are two factors here. One factor is that salaries are going up, & the other factor is the amount of content that is being demanded by the consumer – the amount of art content. My comments were related to engineering costs where you talk about the number of programmers required to enable a certain amount of things to work onscreen. What we’re finding is that the toolset on PS3 is so much more mature, & the programming skills needed are so much more general purpose, less specialised, that you can get more stuff happening quicker than on PS2. On PS2 what we did was just open the machine up & say: ‘There you go. Get on with it’. And although that’s exactly what developers had asked of us after PSone, they didn’t really mean it, & they sort of said after a few months: ‘Actually, we didn’t mean this at all’, & we were like: ‘Right. [Deep breath] OK…’

Edge: But aren’t you responsible for creating that consumer demand for content, with things like E3 demos? By promising so much aren’t you creating a situation where you’re making it incredibly difficult for developers to plan economical projects with lower asset requirements?

PH: It’s not a deliberate strategy, but yes, that’s inevitable. We’re in the entertainment business, we’re in the business of delivering excitement, & great characters & great stories, & there is an inevitable arms race associated with our industry. Which is good because ultimately the consumer gets more for less – or for the same amount of money. But what we’ve done with the e-distribution initiative is to turn that on it’s head & allow that smaller scale innovation to happen on the biggest platform on the planet.

Edge: On the subject of those E3 demos, at this years E3, when people are able to play these titles & see the imagery from this year & last year side by side, how well will the quality match up?

PH: I think we’ve demonstrated that today. If you look at Warhawk, that was part of the presentation last year. I-8, what is now Resistance: Fall of Man, that was there. With MotorStorm we didn’t show the game, we just showed the technology, but you could see the underlying deformation systems, which is the key to that, & that’s there now. So come E3, I think it will be there. [Pause] Killzone is not a launch title anyway, & was never intended to be.

Edge: In issue 158 of Edge, Richard Huddy of ATI claimed that Xbox 360 is more capable of delivering the PS3 E3 demos than PS3 actually is. What’s your response to that?

PH: Tosh.

Edge: You’ve said that, as market leader, it’s in your responsibility to innovate, but surely the bulk of what you showed today already exists in some form elsewhere?

PH: I understand that that comment is always open to close scrutiny, but I think that the point I’m making about innovation is, don’t judge us by what we launch the console with – because the audience that buys the console in year one is very different from the audience in year two, year five. Judge us by our strategic direction – we’re moving in a much more ambitious direction, as I hope today showed.

Edge: You’re the head of worldwide software development for the world’s most dominant videogaming force. Who do you see as the most important man in gaming?

PH: Ken Kutaragi.

Edge: Is that because hardware leads software?

PH: No, he’s not a hardware guy. What he does is he makes markets.