PlayStation doesn’t have a mascot as such, even if there are plenty of contenders – Nathan Drake, Sackboy or maybe even just Toro the cat – but none of them can really hold a candle to Shuhei Yoshida, the president of Sony’s Worldwide Studios who’s become the friendly face of PlayStation in recent years. This week at Develop in Brighton, he took to the stage with the dashingly handsome Edge editor Nathan Brown to talk through his 25 years at the company, and some of the difficulties faced in the various hardware transitions PlayStation has seen over the years.
Yoshida started his tenure at PlayStation in February 1993, working as part of the small team led by Ken Kutaragi that was behind the original hardware. “[At the time there was a] Silicon Graphics workstation, which was around $100k – and Ken said he’s making a machine of that power that’ll be available for less than $500,” Yoshida recounted onstage. At first Yoshida didn’t believe that was possible, but when someone told him Kutaragi wasn’t full of hot air he decided to sign up to the project.
Those early years saw Yoshida and those around him sign some deals that would be pivotal in the success of the PlayStation – and in sowing the seeds for future generations – as Square was convinced to move away from Nintendo and bring Final Fantasy 7 to Sony, with Enix soon following suit with the Dragon Quest series. Yoshida himself also found himself working in a producer role on games such as Crash Bandicoot and the first two Motor Toon Grand Prix games from a certain Polyphony Digital – which would then go on to make Gran Turismo, another game that proved instrumental in the PlayStation’s early success.
And amidst that rabble of games there was a new adventure game from Fumito Ueda and Team Ico, which found itself suffering from technical difficulties on the original PlayStation. “I moved development from PS1 to PS2,” Yoshida recalled of the project that would become Ico. “Sounds familiar, right?”
The transition from PlayStation 1 to PlayStation 2 was an eye-opening process for Sony. “We had no idea how the industry went about it,” said Yoshida, whose teams were busy finishing up the original Ape Escape for PlayStation 1 before they were split up to work on smaller projects – one of them being Fantavision, a slim if enjoyable puzzle game that was one of the few first-party games to accompany the PS2’s launch, a move that came in for some criticism at the time. “”It’s not my fault!” joked Yoshida. “At least I had one game – it was all the other producers that didn’t!”
That didn’t stop the PlayStation 2 going on to become a success, even if it wasn’t necessarily games that propelled it in those early month. “In Japan, the best-selling software [at launch] was actually The Matrix DVD!” said Yoshida. “DVD was just catching on, but it was still an expensive system.”
By the time of the PlayStation 2’s western release the line-up was bolstered, and throughout its lifespan Yoshida oversaw a shift in emphasis towards western games from US teams such as God of War and Naughty Dog’s Jak & Daxter series. It was a fruitful time for PlayStation, though it all threatened to unravel with the arrival of the PlayStation 3, a machine that was notoriously difficult to create games for.
That small crisis led to the formation of a new team within Sony to help create a new team dubbed ICE – which stood for Initiative for a Common Engine – in order to help smooth development, and it led to a shift in philosophy at the company as Ken Kutaragi moved aside to make way for Kaz Hirai. “That was a huge cultural change,” said Yoshida. “I met very big resistance when shifting people to this one common engine.
“Ken [Kutaragi] was such a brilliant engineer – the team that worked for Ken was so motivated, he was a great motivator. Maybe he was using video games as a stepping stone to realise his vision and dreams – he wanted to become the next Intel or something. He always approached developing game systems, up to PS3 – they work on a system just by themselves. And we weren’t given access until it was done. He had trust with the developers – whatever he made, the top developers would be able to work on them and understand them. He didn’t see the need to involve game developers in the design of the system – that’s how the PS3 was made. And you know how successful it was.”
Yoshida headed back to Japan, helping the studios work more closely together as Mark Cerny worked on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4 projects – and in the latter example, the shift towards working with developers and soothing development has helped make it a success, its sales ontrack to eclipse the PlayStation 3 this year. It marks the continuation of a cycle that’s familiar from other hardware manufacturers, with Nintendo stumbling after the success of the Wii with the Wii U, and Microsoft also fumbling the follow-up to the Xbox 360 with the troubled launch of the Xbox One. So what can Sony take onboard as it prepares for another hardware transition in the not-too-distant future?
“It’s human nature,” said Yoshida. “People make mistakes. I don’t know why. We’re all human – we’re not perfect. PS4 is doing so well, but we don’t forget why we’re here now.”
Sony has come under fire recently for standing in the way of cross-platform play, something that will surely become a hot-button topic once the new generation of hardware is unveiled, with Microsoft and Nintendo happily playing alongside one another while PlayStation players are fenced off. Recent statements from PlayStation’s own Shawn Layden have offered hope that Sony is taking feedback onboard. “We’re hearing it,” Layden said at Barcelona’s Gamelab late last month. “We’re looking at a lot of the possibilities. You can imagine that the circumstances around that affect a lot more than just one game. I’m confident we’ll get to a solution which will be understood and accepted by our gaming community, while at the same time supporting our business.”