PlayStation Exec Talks Shaky ’06, Reveals Plans For New Gaming Feature

Phil Harrison says hubbub over 'Bully' hasn't changed way he greenlights games; more interactivity in system's future.

What is the joy of talking to top gaming executives?

Is it waiting for them to talk smack about competitors and relishing when they find new ways to do it? Is it discovering what they’ll freely talk about and what turns them coy like a dad who’s asked how much money he makes? Is it getting their vision for where gaming is going and gauging their intention to truly take that ride?

Sony PlayStation’s Phil Harrison came through on all counts late last week, during an hour-long trans-Atlantic phone interview from his office in London. Harrison reviewed PlayStation’s rocky year, previewed a dramatically different philosophy for PlayStation’s gaming future, talked some trash and claimed the line was breaking up just once.

“The year 2006 probably goes down as one of the most intense and busy years in video-game history,” Harrison said. He started it as the newly named president of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Worldwide Studios, putting him in charge of the largest game-development unit in the world — the international collection of Sony-owned and Sony-backed studios that includes the teams behind “God of War,” “Shadow of the Colossus,” “SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals,” “Killzone,” “The Getaway,” the “Gran Turismo” series, Sony’s sports games, the EyeToy series, developer Insomniac’s “Resistance: Fall of Man” and “Ratchet & Clank” games, the “SingStar” karaoke titles and many more.

For all his professional involvement with game development, Harrison spent the year in the spotlight, discussing Sony’s game-playing hardware at event after event. He was onstage in Los Angeles during May’s Electronics Entertainment Expo, revealing the PS3′s motion-sensitive Sixaxis controller (see “PlayStation 3 Unveils Big Price Tag, Surprise Controller” ). He was onstage in San Francisco in October detailing the PS3′s online store (see “PlayStation 3 Preview: Gamers Get A Test Drive, Luda’s Left Out” ). He was in Tokyo for the PS3′s launch there and San Francisco again for the machine’s debut in that city. How did he like that aspect of 2006? “2007 is the year of software, is how I’ll answer that,” he said. He elaborated, introducing a theme he returned to throughout the hour, saying that next year “is the start a new era of connected software.”

“The video-game business for the past 20 years was about shipping closed experiences,” he explained. Somebody made a game. Gamers bought it. They played it. End of story. Now comes a new trend, he said, where “the start of the relationship with the consumer is when you launch the game.” Harrison had teased this idea throughout the year, demonstrating a method for downloading new songs to keep expanding a PS3 “SingStar” game at E3. He said the new model is like TV, doling out and amplifying experiences moment after moment, and noted Sony is hiring people from that field and magazines to help transform the way the company makes games.

Harrison envisions a constant connection between Sony and Sony gamers — a connection that flows both ways. Cue a discussion of MySpace and YouTube’s rise this year and its influence on how he wants people to experience PlayStation. “Next year you’re going to see user-created experiences in a number of interesting ways on PlayStation 3,” he said. Was he referring to a blog-rumored start of a “Second Life”-styled PlayStation-based virtual community? At that suggestion, Harrison claimed phone problems. “There must be some distortion on the line,” he said, though there wasn’t any static on MTV News’ end of the phone.

Harrison recalled E3 2006 as a “party that was going on too long,” and said he’s happy the conference will get downsized next year. He said he had a “hot summer,” when the sharks in the gaming press started feeding — a situation not helped by his company’s silence during those warm months. He celebrated the 2006 success of “Guitar Hero” as further reinforcement of the barrier-breaking European Sony titles he had championed, like the buzzer-controlled PS2 game-show title “Buzz” and microphone-controlled PS2 “SingStar” — those games sold 2 million and 6 million worldwide respectively, he said.

He turned a question about the Nintendo DS’s ability to fend off the more technologically advanced PSP into an opportunity to proclaim the Sony machine is doing a “very good job” distinct, he said from the “great job” Sony had done on PS1 and PS2. He said his view of future games on PSP is chiefly influenced by a desire to change the fact that “most people use their PSP at home.” He did praise DS for its success, actually, crediting the system, like he did “Guitar Hero,” with popularizing a new way to play games. “Nintendo should be congratulated,” he said, noting the large numbers of new gamers entering the market to play the DS. Then he spiked the anticipated dig: “They are our customers of tomorrow.”

Harrison said that, yes, 2006 is the year that made motion-control a standard of controllers to come. He recalled a tech demo Sony set up internally early this year of a ball rolling on a flat surface, controlled by a motion-sensitive device. “I could stop the ball at will,” he said. He was sold.

Harrison and his team experienced an influx of influences and ideas, but he said one development didn’t move him: the tangle of controversy surrounding “Bully,” the PS2-exclusive Rockstar game featuring a boy and a troubled prep school that was picketed a full year before its late-2006 release (see “Rockstar Games’ ‘Bully’ Won’t Take Your Lunch Money Until ’06″ ). Harrison called it a “storm in a teacup” stirred by politicians and media, embarking on a familiar argument that games aren’t really just for kids. In this case, movies and books had delved into similar subject matter and seldom faced such protest. Did that give Harrison, someone with nearly unparalleled power to greenlight video games, any pause about the material he thinks he can offer gamers?

“It has absolutely not changed my approach,” he said. “I fervently believe that the biggest challenge we face is that our industry is referred to as ‘video games,’ and games are supposed to be fun,” he said, adding that games shouldn’t have to only focus on light topics. “Games should deal with fear, should deal with comedy and with death. They should deal with peril, with drug offenses.” To get there then, did he agree with Doug Lowenstein, the head of the American gaming industry’s main lobbying group, who last month said that video games should not be called video games? Maybe a change to “interactive entertainment” would save the day? “I’m not sure how we can escape when the leading brand is called PlayStation,” Harrison responded.

Harrison fielded some curveballs during the call too.

For example, does the increased ability for people around the world to express themselves through digital technology make him interested in cultivating game development from the global South, from places like Africa and South America? Australia aside, the hemisphere has created a mere handful of console games. “I think before you can have a game-development industry, you have to have a game-playing culture,” he said, noting a lack of console penetration in that largely economically depressed part of the world. “It is not a high priority, to be honest.” He cited Russia and Eastern Europe as the next regions to exert a greater influence on the games we play.

Did he have any year-end thoughts on perhaps the most unconventional game Sony published this year, “LocoRoco”? “It was a very successful game for us and we’re continuing to evolve the franchise,” he said. “We’re going to bring ‘LocoRoco’ back in a couple of new ways with some new friends in the future.”

And what did he make of recent reports that Electronic Arts claimed their launch titles for PS3 only used 20 percent of the system? He said “Gran Turismo 2″ maxed out the first PlayStation, and that “God of War II,” coming in March 2007, will “be about as good as it gets” on PS2. But for PS3, the system’s capabilities will keep changing as its firmware gets constantly updated via the Internet, and developers will continue to learn new ways to best use the machine’s multiple processors and Sixaxis controller. Sony’s games on PS3 right now use “less than half” of the PS3, he said. “Nobody will ever use 100 percent of its capability.”

And with that, he just about wrapped up his year.