Moving mountains

Moving mountains

By Rob Crossley

July 9th 2010 at 10:30AM

Sony explains how it pulled off a PS3 rescue operation with the help of, who else, the developers

The following interview was published in Develop issue 107 - Click here for a basic-format Q&A version of the interview


Few could blame Ken Kutaragi for a touch of arrogance after devising the two most important home consoles in history, one after another.

The Father of PlayStation’s legacy will always be that of unshakeable auteurism; both an infections belief and blind stubbornness in the PlayStation design. The first two times, he came good. By the third, he was out.

Four years of the PS3 business offered Sony a stabbing wake-up call for a company that, perhaps, got a little too comfortable in its seat as market leader; a company that lethally built its third home console on astounding tech specs that left developers in the dark.

For the good of the family, the sons had to revolt. Kaz Hirai and Shuhei Yoshida spearheaded a rescue operation as it became clear the PS3 was faltering in its first steps.

And for the man who had to tear up the sacred PlayStation doctrine, the quiet politeness and kind-hearted spirit of Shuhei Yoshida may come as a total shock.

Yoshida says ‘we’ when referring to Sony game developers, and he mentions any creative talent – even Valve, and especially Insomniac – with an approving smile.

He speaks with the kindness and goodwill Nintendo execs have built their image from. He is a delightedly busy nerd, buttoned-down by an almighty reputation and responsibility.

He beams when discussing the intricacies of game engineering, like exploiting processing power in a “really, really, really compact way”.

He is, to all intents and purposes, not what you expect from the same Japanese exec team that once, when under Kutaragi’s rule, proclaimed  “the next generation doesn’t start until we say it does”.



LESSONS LEARNT

And he admits mistakes.

”When Ken Kutaragi moved on and Kaz became the president of SCE, the first thing Kaz said was, ‘get Worldwide Studios in on hardware development’,” Yoshida tells Develop at a quiet hotel suite away from the razzamatazz of this year’s E3 showfloor.

”He wanted developers in meetings at the very beginning of concepting new hardware, and he demanded SCE people talk to us [developers].”

Yoshida reveals regret that such a collaborative process was absent when the PS3 was at its final stages of design.

”We [developers] were one of these people that had to go work on PS3 hardware – that was very challenging. It was incredibly powerful, but when we learned about the PS3 specifications, when the hardware was almost done, we found it was so difficult to program on.”

The solution? Collaboration, says Yoshida: “We immediately focused our efforts to create the low-level libraries and engines for all our first-party teams to use.”
During the PS2 era most of Sony’s first-party studios used their own game engines and graphics libraries.

Initial quibbles that the PS2 was a tough format to crack now seem insignificant compared to PS3, which when its spec sheet was released promised an engineering nightmare.

”In anticipation for very challenging work for PS3 developers, we gathered the most talented engineers from both the US and Europe – so people from Naughty Dog and UK studios – to focus on creating one single engine,” he says.

”There are brilliant engineers everywhere, but each studio doesn’t have dozens on hand all the time! So we decided to pool all those people together and make a really robust engine that all the teams can use.” Yoshida insists this solution marked a significant moment for SCE and that it represented “how we changed our approach to making games”.


PLAYSTATION’S NETWORK

Yoshida has been running Sony Worldwide Studios for two years, having stepped up to replace Phil Harrison. It was Harrison who once said that it is collections of games, not single triple-A titles, that sell consoles.

By 2006 Sony Worldwide Studios had built some impressive launch-window offerings, such as Uncharted and Motorstorm, but the company’s essential third-party partnerships – where the PS3 range would get its bulk – had come under strain.

Yoshida’s solution, as you may have guessed, was collaboration: “We realised, during the year of the PS3 launch, that third-parties were having difficulties making games on PS3. So we thought that, ‘okay, we have these engines that we are using, and these engines are built for many different designers, so why not give these engines out’.”

It is this progressive alliance that has, in the end, pulled Sony Computer Entertainment out from the paralysis of its own complex designs. And developers, like you, can help shape the company’s future.

Yoshida is clear that mistakes of old won’t be repeated. He says that a studio-engineer alliance is already in place for some of the firm’s most interesting (and, sadly, secret) platform developments: ”We are undergoing many activities that we haven’t yet been talking about in public,” he says. “Some future platform related activities.”

PlayStation 4, then? We’re five years into the console cycle - why hasn’t it been mentioned?

”Looking from the outside, it was Microsoft that released the first of this generation of consoles,” Yoshida says.
”Naturally, in my opinion, Microsoft will make the first move. Or, because Nintendo’s approach was not to upgrade much on its basic hardware – Wii doesn’t even support HD resolution – so they might be the first to move.

”Probably we should watch these companies, in my opinion. Because PS3 was later than Xbox, and is more powerful, so it has a longer lifespan.”

Perhaps, when entombed in print, those words will emanate a kind of console-war mentality that Sony and its competitors are often known for. After all, Sony’s fictional PR mouthpiece and ‘VP of Everything’ Kevin Butler exists for a reason.

But Yoshida is merely being realistic. Sony has many times before outlined a ten-year console support strategy, of which we are approaching half-way point.


THE NEXT MOVE
PlayStation Move, a motion controller that Yoshida was instrumental in the development of, is Sony’s latest bid to keep the PS3 a fresh, developer-focused platform of new ideas and diverse opportunities.

The diversity this device represents, says Yoshida, is not just important to PlaySation, but for the industry as a whole.

”Because PS3 is powerful, you can do so much to improve graphical fidelity, and to improve AI, and to improve physics. It all takes a lot of effort, and because so many games are good now, many teams are very comfortably using PS3s, it means that pushing further requires a lot of effort.

”But because Move is a completely new interface, that no one has experienced yet, it’s a great opportunity for developers to take advantage of this new capability.
”Games these days take a lot of resources. Games like Killzone, or Uncharted, or God of War – we have large teams who have made games for a long time. But the industry shouldn’t be just that.

”The industry shouldn’t be just about big games and big projects. There has to be lots of new entrants to the industry that might sound risky, but these things should be tried for the better of the future of the industry.”
Reflecting for a brief moment, he says: “I’m a big fan of downloadable games, because that allows small teams to create small content and sell it for a lower price. Move is another avenue. You don’t have to create a long adventure to make use of that new interface.”

We ask about the thousands, perhaps millions, who have already made clear their indifference towards motion control.

”We’ve been waiting for people to try Move,” says Yoshida. “We’ve always wanted to say to people ‘you will see’, but we are a bit more humble,” he chuckles.
“We have been really pleased to see some of the articles come out on websites such as IGN. Yesterday two editors tried Move and their captions read: ‘we are finally excited about motion control!’”


INDUSTRY IN MOTION
Move is another indication of how the industry is shifting at frightening speeds. But no matter how fast it progresses, traps which have claimed victims before still hang over.

Even the iPhone, perhaps the most disruptive game device the industry has ever seen, is threatened by market saturation – an issue which, let’s not forget, first crippled the game industry back in the late eighties.

And in the intervening years, one trend has proven hard to break; console add-ons rarely sell. Not enough publishers place faith in them, and so the add-ons have less to shout for, and so fewer are sold, and so less belief is placed in them, and the spiral to discontinuation is already drawn.

The failure of the Mega-CD or the 64DD should not be ignored when remarking on the success of the Wii Balance Board.

As Move, Kinect and 3D are all at the mercy of publisher support and market adoption, we tell Yoshida that perhaps an industry recovering from a recession will be less enthused by devices that only appeal to a portion of a console’s installed base.

”Some people will like to make conventional games for the largest user base, as you say,” he says. “Every year the connectivity to PS3 is increasing, and we are very excited about that. But despite sixty or seventy per cent of people are connecting to the PSN, that means there’s thirty or forty per cent who are not.

”So there is that question. Do you want to invest in network features that only cater to the sixty per cent, or do you stick to the whole one hundred per cent? Move is the same thing. It is a peripheral that people have to purchase – do you want to bet your game on this part of the PS3 install base? These are very intimate questions.”

Yoshida’s answer both cools Develop’s cynicism and encapsulates how far Sony has come since it awkwardly kicked a $599 elephant into the room: ”But the effort and resources that are required for development on Move can be much lower than making Blu-ray games on the conventional controller,” he says.

“Move takes a small fraction of hardware resources – that was a big milestone for us.

”When our software library team was working on Move, they talked to our Worldwide Studios developers and asked about how much CPU time and how much memory they hoped would be used. The developers’ answer was zero CPU and zero memory! [laughs] Of course it’s impossible. So that pushed them to make it really, really, really compact so many different types of games can adapt it.

”I think Move support for many PS3 games, including Killzone and SOCOM, is not difficult, because of that very small footprint.”

So the strategy for Sony is partly a stealth conversion towards Move – a huge contrast with previous attempts to enforce new directions. It’s a unique stance at a time when the wider industry has become predictable again.

All three platform holders are shuffling into the designated paths – 3D, motion control, digital distribution. Right now, even if a George Foreman Grill add-on was considered a progressive step for the game business, you can bet all three platform holders would develop one and claim they had been researching a cooking device for over 15 years.

And specifically on the issue of motion control, Sony’s shift comes at an opportune time: Microsoft has seemingly forgotten why the PS3 suffered at launch.

Kinect’s specification has been pared down – even Peter Molyneux, has said it has studios “in a sweat”. And Sony knows, from painful experience, that it’s still the software maestros that determine the fate of the boxes under our TV sets.

The PS3 crash-landed onto the scene and demanded too much from its developers, resulting in a visible lack of support. Yoshida made it his business to ensure that, through a range of initiatives including Move, SCE’s home console offers studios an easier time to develop their ideas.

Arc may have been a great name for Sony’s new stick with a neon bulb, but ‘Move’  - and what it means for developers - says so much more.