PlayStation Exec Talks PSN – Finding The Next Will Wright, Greenlighting 2 Gig Downloadable Games And The Problem With Demos

On the eve of the Game Developers Conference, John Hight, director of product development, Santa Monica
Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment America, spent 40 minutes on the phone with me talking about the past and future of Sony’s downloadable games service for PS3.


Maybe because Sony wants to counteract whatever message will be sent from Microsoft’s John Schappert, when the Xbox 360 exec deliver a GDC keynote on Wednesday entitled: “A Future Wide Open: Unleashing the Creative Community”? No, Hight said, he doesn’t know what Microsoft has planned.

Because now is a good time to re-tell the story of PSN and explain how it’s different from not just Xbox Live Arcade but the downloadable WiiWare service that Nintendo will be showcasing later this week ?

Getting warmer.

So we talked about that — about what PSN is and why its line-up has included some very unusual games.

And we talked about some of the PSN’s biggest issues: pricing, size of games (a 2Gig on is coming!) and the availability — or lack thereof — of demos for every game on the service.

If you own a PS3 or if you’re a young or aspiring game developer, this interview is for you.

PSN – Kellee Vs. Q*Bert

“We’re not afraid to put something out there that might defy the classical definition of what a game is. But we’re damn sure going to make sure it’s a high-quality experience and that it’s an entertaining experience.” That’s Hight, in the midst of extolling to me a PSN line-up that has included the meditative “flOw” and the rock-album-slash-shoot-em-up “Everyday Shooter.” If you haven’t tried PSN yet, Hight’s comment might sound extraordinary, but for someone like me who has downloaded and played all of the games on the service, it rings true. These guys are willing to experiment. And that, quite frankly, is a long way from “Q*bert.”

” Early on as a company we decided it’s not going to be about giant numbers and ’Hey, come to PlayStation Network and you’ll have 5000 games, maybe three of which you actually want.'”

See, when Hight was first commissioned a couple of years ago by higher-ups at Sony to find games for PSN, before “flOw,” before “Calling All Cars, and the rest, the 20-year gaming industry veteran had his eyes on “Q*bert.” “My first reaction was, gosh I have all these friends from Atari and Midway and I can bring all these classic arcade games. I even went so far as to try and research what happened to ’Q*bert’… That was funny because I found out after making four or five calls that the person that owned Q*bert, the company that actually owned the license, was Sony.”

Hight said he had quickly snapped himself out of his “Q*bert” spell. He had been lecturing at the University of Southern California in the program that produced “flOw”-makers Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago and he decided that what PSN could really be was a place to give hungry developers an opportunity. And that’s what it became. It became a relationship-builder for Sony, a talent incubator and a showplace for new ideas, the way, Hight tells it, a platform for opportunity:

“I thought we’re back in the same cool space as the early 90s, where kids can take their own savings, or, as [“Everyday Shooter”] creator Jon Mak” did, work on this thing on his own, and find a place to publish it. And have it perceived maybe in the sense that it’s creative, fun and free and a new idea — but not something dangerous that’s going to crash your machine or leave you a really bad experience… It has a level of polish, but not so much polish that it feels like its commercial.”

The resulting PSN service hasn’t been overwhelmed with games. It’s not stuffed with the volume of games that are on XBLA, and Hight said that was by design. “We’re very careful about the stuff we add to our catalog. Early on as a company we decided it’s not going to be about giant numbers and ’Hey, come to PlayStation Network and you’ll have 5000 games, maybe three of which you actually want. Go ahead and find that needle in the haystack.’ It’s more about each one of these experiences is something special.”

He said it would be place that would help Sony — and presumably gamers — find “your next Will Wright and David Jaffe.”

The Troubles With PSN?

Hight paints a rosy picture of PSN. But he admits that the promotion of the service has been low-key. Sony has produced no ad campaign to tout PSN, certainly no aggressive push to tell gamers it is an unexpected resource of youthfully creative games. Hight told me the outreach to gamers to raise awareness about PSN is being conducted, instead, through interviews like this one.

But some reporters, including me, have questioned why Sony hasn’t adopted Microsoft’s XBLA policy of issuing a free downloadable demo for every new release. Wouldn’t this increase the odds that PS3 owners, at lest, would get exposed to PSN’s best?

“We did a demo on ’Blast Factor’ and I’ve got 600,000 people playing that demo but I haven’t translated that into 600,000 people buying the game. … I think the demo kind of hurt it in a way and people got satiated.'”

Hight is conflicted about demos. “That’s a hotly debated thing. We did a demo on ’Blast Factor’ and I’ve got 600,000 people playing that demo but I haven’t translated that into 600,000 people buying the game. … I think the demo kind of hurt it in a way and people got satiated. They made a presumption that, ’oh, ok, the whole game is going to be like this.’ It wasn’t true. The game actually has a lot of depth in each one of the levels. … We didn’t actually do a demo for ’flOw.’ We did a movie. And it was a very conscious decision. Because we were kind of spooked with what we saw with ’Blast Factor.’ We thought, wow, we don’t want people to just give up on it. … So if I artificially put a clock on it, is that time period right experience for you? Or for the average person? I don’t know. So we felt, nah, let’s not do it. Let’s try to tell people that this is a different experience and show them really great graphics and great music and hopefully we’ll just win them over on execution and if they buy the game then they’ll be satisfied with the experience itself. Because it’s really a subtle experience and I’m not sure a few minutes with a demo would do it justice.”

Some developers have nonetheless expressed concern about the PSN service, at least regarding the economic viability of the smaller $10 games on the service. In a recent interview with Multiplayer, David Jaffe, lead creator of the PSN’s “Calling All Cars,” said he had hoped his new company would only make $10 PSN games but that he doesn’t believe the market is there

As for pricing, which a recent GameSetWatch article described as generally too high for PSN and XBLA games, Hight said there is no easy answer — but at least a lot of easy opportunity to try things: “The really cool thing about this space is we can experiment with price-points and see what the price elasticity is on games, and literally do it on an individual game basis.” He said that there’s been no certain mandate for pricing. “Some of these games are made for a very specific audience, as a book would be or a fine bottle of wine or a music soundtrack. Some of these are going to be pop hits that everybody has to have. And we have to decide, ’Gee am I going to charge more because everybody wants to have it? Or I’m going to set a price zone and everything has to reach that?’ We have messed around with experimenting with prices. The Price of flow on our store has ranged from $9.99 all the way down to $4.99 for a two week period.”

The Future Of PSN

So what comes next for PSN? Hight said Sony will release more games on PSN this year than last. And much of the output from America, at least, will be original. “We’re not going to repeat ourselves,” he said. “You won’t see sequels.” The PSN has had some larger games, including “Warhawk” last year and the “Gran Turismo 5 Prologue,” which was released in Japan in December and is coming to the U.S. later this spring. “We’re doing more content, so more experimental [games],” Hight said, “But on balance you will see some somewhat bigger budget titles come in.” He said he’d been leery of signing large games when the PS3 launched, but now that background downloading is enabled on the PS3, that self-imposed restriction is off. “The biggest thing I’ve got going now is about 2 Gig,” he said. That’s 2.5 times the size of “Warhawk,” and more in the ballpark of “GT5 Prologue.” Development priorities also include cooperative multiplayer games. “We tend to emphasize cooperative play over competitive,” Hight said. “It’s not a must-have, but we feel the competitive universe is mostly covered.”

At GDC this year, Sony’s PSN team will certainly be on the lookout for new games for the service. They’re looking for the unexpected. “People tell me: ’Tell us what you want,'” Hight told me. “And I said at last GDC, ’If I tell you what I want then I’m not going to get what I need.'”