Yesterday at the PlayStation Theater in New York City, Sony announced two new iterations of the PlayStation 4, both of which are due to launch this year. That makes three hardware launches for the company’s gaming division over the next three months: PlayStation VR on October 13th; the new slimmer PS4 on September 15th; followed by the more powerful, 4K-capable PlayStation Pro on November 10th. The holidays are about to get very busy for Sony.
Just after the event I had the chance to chat with Shawn Layden — head of both Sony Interactive Entertainment America, and the PlayStation Worldwide Studios group — about the timing of the launches, the challenges of selling 4K content, and whether the PS4 Pro was influenced by Microsoft’s similar Project Scorpio, which launches next year.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Can you tell me a bit about the thinking behind the decision to announce and launch not just one, but two new versions of the PS4 hardware? Why was now the time to do both of those things?
We’ve been in the PlayStation 4 business now since late 2013, so that’s coming up on Christmas number four. We have found ways, now that we have more than 43 million PS4s in the market worldwide, [to] get better production manufacturing efficiencies. So it’s not unusual for us to come out with a new chassis on our current hardware. Smaller, lighter, and at a more broadening price point at $299.
At the same time, we were looking at this generation, for the first time ever, to really see what we could do with continuing to push not just production efficiencies and manufacturing technology, but with advancements in the technology platform. Mark Cerny, who is the system architect, he’s been talking about boosting the power of the GPU, boosting the CPU power and clock speed, and all of these different sorts of enhancements. What can we do that we’ve never done before, but inside of the life cycle of a platform to create something new, enhanced, more powerful? But still staying in the format stamp of PlayStation 4, so that every game coming out moving forward will play on your PS4 Pro, as it will play on your standard PS4. So you won’t see two different boxes, like VHS and Betamax.
Is there something we can do technology-wise to provide the development community more power under the hood, to help them to draw more pixels? [PS4 Pro] allows more paint in the bucket for the PS4 development community to create their games.
Why do it now? Because we can. Because it’s ready to go. We’re bringing this out at $399 in about eight weeks. Why wait? This Christmas is going to be a chance for us to broaden the community for people where $299 is a price point that helps them enter into the business, and also for people who want to enjoy a richer graphical and visual experience with PS4 Pro.
Did you spend a lot of time talking to the development community, and getting their feedback?
That heavy lifting really began with PlayStation 4. Mark Cerny did a lot of work on the PS4 in creating that architecture, which allows an easier route to development than say the PS3, which was pretty tricky. So in the development of PlayStation 4 Pro, we created that dialogue with development partners. If you had more paint, what should it look like? If you had more speed under the hood, how fast should it be? A lot of communication between the dev community and our platform engineers.
Did you ever worry at any point that this was too ambitious? You’re releasing three new pieces of hardware in three consecutive months.
I think it’s tough. It’s not for the faint hearted to launch three new pieces of hardware in the span of 60 to 65 days. But again, the new chassis for PlayStation 4 is sort of that natural trajectory of platform development. This happens when you create a platform. And I think PlayStation 4 Pro was our attempt to really try something that’s never really been done before in gaming consoles. To create an advancement in the hardware technology mid-cycle, that was new.
And PlayStation VR is something we see as a real disruptive technology. Console development over time, you can draw a trajectory across that. PlayStation 1 all the way to 4, faster, stronger, smarter. But with VR you see something that’s coming in completely sideways. It’s kind of like what smartphones did to the cellphone industry. You saw it and said, "Why would I want to make a phone call on an iPod?" But then now, it’s become almost essential to life.
I think three new pieces of hardware coming in a very short time frame may appear extremely ambitious, but they’re all talking to different sectors of the market. They’re filling different kinds of needs. Is it challenging? Yeah. But PS4 Pro… we developed it, we made it, it’s ready, we want to bring it out as soon as we can.
With the Pro specifically, do you think it’s more challenging selling the benefits of 4K and HDR to normal consumers? Compared to advances like 3D graphics or high-definition, the benefits aren’t immediately obvious. I can come to an event like this to see how good the games look on a beautiful 4K TV, but you can’t convey that in a commercial if I don’t have a 4K TV at home.
Correct, and we’ve been working with that challenge all summer with VR. You can’t do it in a TV commercial or an interview. So we’ve spent the summer working with places like Best Buy and GameStop to do literally hundreds of thousands of demonstrations in-store, to get people to understand what it means. We’ll do a lot of promotions of course in-store for these new technologies, but I think the whole movement to greater display resolution, people saw that from standard def to high def, and now moving to 4K. We have data saying there’s already 50–60 million 4K TVs out there. And certainly once you see it, it’s pretty impressive.
So what do you see as the future of the typical console cycle? Will the next thing be a PS5 or a new iteration on the PS4?
Right now we were concentrating on how do we iterate within this PS4 life cycle. The technology and improvements behind PS4 Plus are our way of articulating where we think the market wants to go. People will want to have greater fidelity of images and graphics. Where we go from there, we’re going to have to wait and see. It’s our first time innovating within the life cycle, so I’m not exactly sure what impact that will have on our plan going forward. But there will be more PlayStations.
Now obviously you’re not the only company doing this kind of mid-cycle upgrade. I’m curious if the existence of devices like Microsoft’s Project Scorpio influenced the decisions you made with regards to the features PS4 Pro needs to have, and when you’re going to release it.
I think the fact that we’re going to put this on the market on November 10th, and we’ve been working on it for two, two and a half years, if other people are also innovating in the life cycle, I think that began after we started. So no is the answer to that question.