The former Sony stalwart talks to Develop about two decades at the heart of the games industry
Recently inducted as one of Develop’s ‘Legends’, Phil Harrison’s career may occasionally sound like a work of fiction, but the following is all straight from the biography section.
Dave Roberts talks through some highlights with the man himself, in our special interview…
Phil Harrison’s remarkable career took him from the periphery of the UK’s home computing boom of the ‘80s, to the vanguard of next generation interactive entertainment at the dawn of the 21st Century.
It took him all around the world. It brought him accolades, awards and the odd brickbat. Earlier this year, it saw him hailed as a Legend at the Develop Awards in Brighton. Here’s why.
It began, over 20 years ago, in a back bedroom in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Actually, the exact geography of Harrison’s childhood home isn’t specified, but whenever young British males are referred to as coding away on machines like the Oric, Spectrum or C64 in the early to mid-‘80s, they are always said to be doing so in a ‘back bedroom’.
So let’s place young Phil there, ignoring Neighbours and Blockbusters; instead caught up in and gradually becoming part of an activity and era that is now the stuff of BBC historical drama. Stuck in suburbia, but plotting (programming) his way to far away places: to space, to fantastic lands, to the future.
First though, the blocky bits. In1984 he got his first ever ‘job’ in the industry. In the evenings and at weekends, he did some graphics for an Oric game called Insect Insanity and was paid £50.
Over the next couple of years, still at school, he picked up other bits and pieces, got paid similar fees and gradually got one toe on the edge of the industry.
When he left school a year later he decided to give games a go full time. He even made the classic creative career deal with his parents: “They weren’t hugely keen, so we agreed I’d give it a year and if it didn’t work out I’d either get a proper job or go to University. A few years back I flew them out to the States for a visit while I was working there and I finally checked it was okay for me to carry on. They seemed happy enough.”
22 years ago, they were, understandably, slightly more concerned: “I was blagging jobs, pushing myself forward. I did a bit of work for Fergus McGovern at Probe. Then I got my first full time job, working for Mark Cale at System 3. My main duties were ordering the pizzas, making tea and designing a game called Myth on the C64.”
In 1988 a group of System 3 directors left the firm to form Vivid Image. Harrison went with them and they put out a game, Hammerfist. These were subtly nuanced times.
Next up, in 1989, was the first of what Harrison calls his three big breaks. He got a call from Geoff Heath, then heading up the newly-formed European subsidiary of US publisher Mindscape, asking him to come down for a chat/interview.
Says Harrison: “When I arrived I was sure I must be lost, because it was so remote and so rural. But I trooped up the stairs to Geoff’s office, with my portfolio under my arm, it must have looked a bit like an A-Level project.
“I presented it to Geoff, but I could see his eyes glaze over and it was clear he had no idea what I was talking about. He confirmed this by saying, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. Why don’t you come and work for me and help me figure it out?’
“He gave me a brilliant break and that’s something I’ll always thank him and respect him for. He took a flyer on a 19-year-old who didn’t really have any credentials.”
Over the next three years, it’s fair to say, Harrison gained some credentials. He became a proper producer at a proper company helping to create hit games. He worked directly with the European dev teams and learned to get the best out of projects and people.
Mindscape was Harrison’s runway. Next, take-off.
“In 1992 I got a phone call from Randy Thier (ex-EA, Accolade and Software Toolworks, the firm which had recently acquired Mindscape),” explains Harrison. ”He’d joined Sony in America and asked me if I’d be interested in talking to Olaf Olaffson, the president of Sony’s game business in the US.
“I was, of course. And a few days later I got a call from his secretary who said he’d be at Heathrow at 7:00 in the morning. I met him there and within 15 minutes, I had the job at Sony.” Big break number two.
Harrison joined a company that was then called Sony Electronic Publishing. It had just started releasing cartridges for the SNES and Sega Mega Drive and didn’t yet have a European division.
“I was employee number one over here and the office was the spare room in my house. There was no promise of PlayStation. But, it did coincide with the very public falling out between Nintendo and Sony at that summer’s CES in Chicago. They were going to provide a CD-ROM drive for the SNES. Nintendo would sell it as a peripheral and Sony would sell it as a combined unit called PlayStation.
“They fell out over the way the royalties were divided up. That was very embarrassing to Sony and it’s not how you do business with companies of that size and stature. What it ended up doing was creating a bit of a monster in terms of the passion and drive within Sony, particularly Ken Kutaragi, to prove everyone wrong. So, yes, whilst there was no promise, there was a nod a wink and a hint that I’d be hearing more about PlayStation.”
In the summer of ’93, he was asked to join a new top secret team called Computer Entertainment Project One.
“It was a skunkworks run out of Japan. I was asked to take the specifications and some very early demos and try to get some developer support.”
The next year was one of evangelism, with Harrison prominent in the PlayStation pulpit. Highlights included the first secret showing to the European dev community at an empty office in Great Marlborough St; the inaugural E3 in the summer of ’95 when US boss Steve Race walked up to the mic to say ‘$299’, then sat down again; the UK coming out party at the Royal Lancaster Hotel; and, for Harrison personally, going to Japan in November 1994 and seeing Ridge Racer for the first time.
“I thought ‘Wow, we really are going to have a launch.’ Then they said, ‘Would you like to see something else?’ And they showed me Tekken. Big smiles.”
And sure enough, in September 1995, Sony really did have a launch; a record-breaking, perception-shifting, boundary-breaking, expectation-recalibrating launch.
“In terms of hours per week it was one of the most intense times of my life, but such tremendous fun. You were there because everybody else was there, not least Chris Deering [then head of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe]. He was in first and left last – and went to the pub for three hours afterwards.”
Harrison’s third big break came at ECTS in the autumn of 1996.
“Kutaragi came over for the show. We were sitting having a chat and he asked: would I like to move to Tokyo. I remember it was a bit awkward, because I actually didn’t. I like visiting Tokyo, but I didn’t want to live there, so I tried to be polite and maybe a bit vague, but was basically saying no. And he said, ‘Good, because I want you to go to San Francisco’. I was there four weeks later.
“I was at a point where I needed a new challenge. So this was perfect timing for me. I had two hats. I worked with developers and publishers from concept approval to packaging, helping them make the most of the machine.
“But there was also an R&D role which was to pave the way for PlayStation 2. What they did was make that bit of the business invisible to the rest of the company, not only so no rumours got out but also so no one got distracted. We even had fingerprint scanners to give us access to the department.
“That was probably the most incredible time: ‘Have you got 10 minutes? We’ve got Steven Spielberg coming through and I want you to talk him through PlayStation 2.’
“Kutaragi phoned up one day and said, We’ve been invited to the Ranch. And of course it’s Skywalker Ranch, and George Lucas wants to hear all about PlayStation 2. We had a lovely lunch with him, showed him some demos. Then he said, ‘Would you like to see my new film?’ And he showed us the work in progress on Episode I in his private screening room.”
BACK TO SONY EUROPE
In summer 2000, with PlayStation 2 just a couple of months away, the force was, indeed, strong. But so was Harrison’s desire to return to the UK.
“I was homesick, basically. I had a conversation with Chris Deering about opportunities and a few days later he called to say come and run the studios in Europe.”
A desire to be closer to home was matched by a desire to get closer to the product, so everything aligned and, as PlayStation 2 was tumultuously received at retail, Harrison headed back to London.
Over the next few years he streamlined a fragmented organisation and oversaw a shift in emphasis from firepower to fun; less heavy metal, more Euro pop. In a good way. One of the key early products was EyeToy.
“I remember having a discussion with the team near the end of its development. At that stage it had a very traditional video game progression mentality. You win two mini games and it unlocks two more that are a little bit harder. You win those and it unlocks some more and it gives you more stuff to play with and so on. And I said no, I wanted the whole thing unlocked straight away. That sense of challenge is compelling for a certain audience, but there’s a whole other mass audience that just want to get on with it.”
Then SingStar really got the party started.
“There was research that said we were close to saturation with certain demographics. And whilst there was no harm in doing another football and driving game, it wasn’t going to move the needle. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that attention and resources were placed on those games that would get us from 10 per cent to 20 per cent then 30 per cent. Not 10 per cent to 11.5 and then maybe 14.”
By this time, PlayStation 3 was looming. It would bring two things: a step-change in what consumers expected from a console and a dose of pain for Sony generally and Harrison personally.
The step change he expected; welcomed, in fact: “It used to be that you shipped the game, you waved goodbye and you made sure you’d packed in as much as you could. What we had to do was get used to the idea that shipping the disc was just the start of the relationship with the consumer. That’s a change in the way you design, a change in the way you build.
“I think it’s fair to say that in previous generations we worked with a lot of chewing gum and sticky tape. You know, it works, it’s gone through QA, it does what it’s supposed to do, but don’t ask it to do anything else because it’ll fall over.
“I started talking a lot about that internally. This piece of software you’re designing now may still be the basis of an evolved gaming experience in 10 years time. Think about that at the design stage. Think about what’s the difference between a product and a service. What’s the difference between a consumer and a community? I’m not saying I knew, or we knew – there was no exclusivity of wisdom on this, we were all stumbling around a little bit – but we did know that these were the important questions.”
E3 2005 was where Sony first showed PS3 – or at least some demos. Including ‘the one with all the ducks’. They were equal parts mind-blowing and hackle-rising. Harrison recalls: “There were two reactions: ‘Wow, that was incredible’, followed by, ‘I don’t believe it.’
“The two demos I was most closely involved in were MotorStorm and Killzone. We were very careful to design those videos to be representative of what the final games would be like. And I’m pretty proud of the fact that we did that. If you put the video and the game side by side, there might have been some slight, specific differences, but in terms of the overall experience we were bang on.
“I remember reading one article that said it was a ‘grand deception’ and I was its ‘chief architect’. That hurt, mainly because of all the people I knew who’d worked so hard to put these things together and who then simply weren’t being believed.
“But, there were also times when I think the company gave the impression of arrogance. And that was something we spoke of internally and wanted to put right.”
Too late, those brave, but anonymous men and… no, actually, just men at the frontline of forums and comment sections were already using the simple sword of emoticons and the trusty shield of acronyms to stick the boot in.
“It got personal. I won’t deny that there were a couple of times when I closed my laptop, took a deep breath and said: ‘This isn’t doing me any good. I need to stop reading this now.’
“But there was also a belief that, You know what, we’re not idiots, we do know what we’re doing. We have a business plan, let’s get on with it.”
Part of the plan was to make Harrison head of a new division called Sony Worldwide Studios. Only, at first, no one told him.
“I always joke that I was the last to know about the formation of Worldwide Studios – and the fact that I was going to run it. Basically, Ken Kutaragi had given an internal speech to some senior managers at the Japanese office, he’d mentioned he was thinking of setting up this organisation that would combine our product development strength and he was going to get Phil to run it. He just failed to mention it to me. I called the following morning and said, ‘Was there something you wanted to tell me…?’”
The ‘team’ was now 2,500 people strong and consisted of 14 studios in five countries.
Some people would have broken down simply at the thought of organising the Christmas party, but Harrison loved it.
“Without a doubt it was the best job in the industry. I was privileged to be given such a role and I hope I made a decent go of it.”
The defining quality of his reign was co-operation: “The aim was to surface great work in the company. I was a great advocate of having a very public internal forum where everyone could share their ideas and their work. None of this hiding away for two years and then saying, ‘Done it!’ If you’ve got an idea, share it, show it. Inspire each other.”
The results were, well, inspired: “There was an analysis done of review scores and in 2007, Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios was number one in terms of quality. That made me so proud of the teams and it was great to get that validation.”
As well as generating software, Harrison recalls, “there was a very strong desire to maximise the relationship that Worldwide Studios had with the hardware design teams in Japan. So, we would become a high-performing customer of their technology, but we would also be a high influencer of their design decisions for the future. And that’s very much a change in how hardware is designed within Sony.”
He describes his time as the first boss of Sony Worldwide Studios as “a huge responsibility, great fun and a real privilege to be entrusted with that jewel.” But, in 2008, after 15 years. Harrison left Sony.
“I had been given the opportunity to do things that no kid from St Albans would ever expect to be allowed to do. It had been wonderful. But there was also a realisation that I might be about to go into a repetition cycle, that I might be about to stop stretching and learning. I also had a desire to challenge myself entrepreneurially.
“David Gardner had left EA earlier in the summer. We met up for lunch and between starter and main course we decided to set-up a company. It was a meeting of minds, a shared passion for some of the changes we saw happening. What we wanted to do was all about pure networked publishing, no reliance on physical media.”
Gardner, however, was then invited to join the board of Atari and so the business model was transplanted to the publisher: “The idea was that taking our ideas to an existing company with a brand, operations and IP would get us where we wanted to go faster.”
Just over a year, later, however, Harrison quit. This time, the reason was far more personal than strategic. He had a baby. “I decided to spend some time at home. The centre of gravity of the company was moving to America so it was the perfect opportunity to take some time out.”
You get the feeling, however, that the ideas and entrepreneurial spirit that imbued his lunch with Garner haven’t gone away.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a generation of kids already alive that will never buy physical media. And there are already pervasive platforms of distribution that will be way more important than any retailer could ever be.
“You don’t have to sell ‘things’ through shops to make money. The new business models are already here and already accepted. Other ways of extracting value exist apart from a transaction at a till. The games industry has to wake up to that or it will watch its current business model dwindle and die.”
How long before the death knell sounds for physical media? Harrison’s advice is, listen carefully… “If you live in Korea it’s already happened. And the last time I looked at my iPhone there was no disc drive. It’s like that William Gibson quote, ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed’.
“The risk is that what we consider the games market today becomes irrelevant and these other markets become way more important. It’s a huge issue, especially for public companies who, of course, may gulp at foregoing short-term revenue for long-term value.
That’s a huge issue that the industry is going to have to wrestle with, especially the large market cap public companies, EA and Activision being the most obvious ones, but also the Japanese companies. How do they approach that J curve of re-inventing themselves?
“The games industry is addicted to retail revenues. They feed the entire machine and it makes the whole product planning process revolve around delivering a disc in a box in Q4. And then repeat. We have to step off that treadmill. Every boardroom in the industry is struggling with this.”
Harrison, you suspect, will soon take up the cudgels himself. He admits he’s already thinking about a return, but isn’t ready to discuss specifics. “Put it this way, I’m not retired. The break is nice, but it is only a break.”