Interview: John Koller on PlayStation Now's streaming revolution
By Mike Jackson on Wednesday 8th Jan 2014 at 10:10 AM UTC
With 4.2 million consoles sold in 2013, Sony has logged a spectacular launch with the PlayStation 4. Now, barely two months on, the firm has made a major announcement that's not just potentially crucial for its new console, but one which could ultimately carve the future of PlayStation.
PlayStation Now is Sony's new game streaming service which will, in time, deliver games via the cloud from the entire PlayStation family not only to PlayStation consoles, but to Sony Bravia TVs and, eventually, non-Sony devices including phones and tablets.
Essentially, you no longer need a PlayStation to play PlayStation.
Speaking with CVG at CES, SCEA's marketing VP John Koller outlined the firm's commitment to bringing its titles to gamers "wherever they want to take them". But the implications are bigger than that; Could this be the very first glimpse into a future in which PlayStation exists as a software platform without ties to specific hardware?
Predictably, Sony is keen to focus on the here and now. But that didn't stop us prying for answers...
CVG: Congratulations on the successful PS4 launch. Things are going pretty well...
KOLLER: Thank you. I think the upside for PS4 in the next set amount of time is fantastic. We've been very open about this, but demand is going to chase supply a bit so we need to continue to supply the market as much as we can. We'll keep doing that, but as soon as it hits retail it's leaving.
Xbox One hit 3 million in 2013. PS4 did 4.2 million. How important is the sales lead to Sony this early in the console cycle? Is it a big deal?
It's really not. We look at it really just introspectively. The '4.2 million' number is important because it gets us further towards our goal. And that goal is the largest install base we can possibly get - to encourage publishers and developers to continue to make great game experiences for PS4.
That's the ultimate goal. You want to make it economically viable, and a great business for the big publishers and developers to say, 'You know what, I wanna be on PS4 either first, exclusively' or whatever it is, utilise the feature set the PS4 has and really encourage that as a business.
I think that's the goal of the larger install base. I mean, sure, we all look at the competition and see where people are, but for us we've got to keep growing, getting bigger and bigger. I think we've got a great opportunity specifically because we've got a great product.
Is the lifetime sales records of Wii and/or PS2 in your crosshairs? Are you looking that high - is that feasible for PS4?
We look at it. I don't think that's really the goal though. Again, it's really about; how can we just get the biggest possible install base. I don't think we have a specific number that we're shooting for because that's where the PS2 was or that's where the Wii was. We did have the biggest launch ever in 24 hours - we've talked about that publicly, but in general it's really about how can you get the biggest install base and encourage a great business, and really make games that our gamers want.
I think the beauty of the PS4 launch is we've been as focused as we've ever been on saying we're for the gamer. We're for you, we're for the person that wants to engage with great games.
If you want to get to the entertainment we have that too, but we've got the best games. And so I think that has brought a lot of people into the fold who I think would otherwise have said, 'Wait, I'm not sure which [console to buy], maybe I'll just make a decision based on where my friends are'. In this case they're saying, 'I know that PlayStation stands with me'. So we return that favor by making sure the best games come.
PlayStation Now is the big announcement today. But most surprising is the announcement of plans to expand PS Now 'beyond Sony devices'. That's a huge deal. It's PlayStation without the PlayStation. Is this the start of a future with PlayStation as a software platform? Can triple-A games shine on Vita, TVs and tablets?
It's not necessarily the future of PlayStation, but it is a philosophical change and a reality that we want our gaming experiences to be broadly experienced. So, when you look at PS3 games - huge catalogue, really strong and diverse lineup of genres and games - we want people to be able to experience those, yes, on PlayStation platforms, but if you own a Bravia [TV] it'd be great if you could pair your DualShock 3 and be able to instantly play.
PlayStation Now's strong benefit is instantaneous gameplay because that is a problem in this industry. We've got to solve that and I think this does that. We've been working towards that on the download side with Play-as-you-Download [on PS4], and with PS Now we get people instantly playing whether you're on a PlayStation, a Bravia and over time, tablets and smartphones.
The future feasibility of releasing new physical consoles is an ongoing debate. Does PS Now represent the start of a possible future for PlayStation beyond the age of traditional console platforms?
We've been very open and bullish on physical consoles. So I don't think PS Now necessarily disenfranchises future consoles in any way. But it does, I think, show our willingness to try and focus on content as primary. Really, again, focussing on the gamer first - obviously they want great content, great experiences. Those experiences can be had in many different places. So it's more of an open position now.
I think it's interesting you had that reaction - many of your colleagues have had that same reaction because they're saying, 'I really thought it'd be PlayStation-only'. We wanted to make it broader.
So iOS and Android are on the map?
Well, we've only said tablets and smartphones. But if you focus on larger categories of Bravia TVs, tablets, smartphones, it's pretty impressive.
Vita has adequate buttons and you're using DualShock 3 controllers for the Bravia TV demo stations here. How will you tackle controller input challenges for playing PS3 games on a tablet?
It needs to go through the DualShock. The DualShock remains the key ingredient. So that controller experience needs to go perfectly. We didn't want to utilise touch screen or anything like that because the games are best played with a DualShock.
So it requires the DualShock 3 on any platform PS Now comes to?
Yes it requires the DualShock. The DualShock 3 specifically. To enable tablet and smartphone play, you've got to have the DualShock 3.
[A Sony spokesperson chimed in at this point to clarify that a DualShock 3 is not required for PS Now play on PS4, with which a DualShock 4 will be usable].
When Sony revealed the PS4 last year, Gaikai's Dave Perry discussed the ability for a PS4 owner to remotely take control of another player's PS4 and play a game - presumably using similar streaming tech to PS Now. We've heard nothing of that since. Could this become a part of PS Now?
We haven't really gone into any kind of public discussion beyond what we talked about at the announcement in February. But the idea of this experience with Gaikai is helping to fund things like Remote Play - as an example - a technology experience that allows for that direct transfer. So it's a very powerful technology, but the specific use you talk about, we haven't gone much further with it [publicly].
What about the previously announced ability to instantly play PS4 demos - was that part of Gaikai streaming or just specifically in reference to background downloads?
We viewed it as both, actually. So that was the 'play-as-you-download' which exists now, but also [streaming]. I mean PS Now is kind of that experience right? You're instantly playing and that's solving that immediacy problem.
What's the pipeline for bringing PS4 game streaming to PS Now?
[SCE president and CEO] Andy House mentioned this morning PS3 first, and then PS1, PS2 and PS4 to come later. So over time... what we're going to do is we have a beta coming in a couple of weeks; we're going to look at how PS3 works best. And PS3 will be the tip of the spear. We'll see how it scales, the business model, all those things. We have other territories to launch in over time. And then we'll start looking at how we can piece together other content.
PS3's great because it's current still. There's a lot of content from 2006-09 that has fallen out of retail and fallen out of people's heads, but they're great experiences. It brings that world to the PS4 consumer as well as PS3 and Vita and others. So it's the best way to launch. And we'll bring in other content as we go along.
Presumably it's not too complicated to get a PS3 game running on a PS3 hardware-based server. How quickly will games rollout on the service? How many do you hope to have available this year?
We haven't announced that, but I will say that the beta is going to inform a lot. We're testing a lot of this now because we want to make sure that we scale it right, that we have the right types of experiences for the person that's gonna come in. So, if you look at PS Now, I think the segment that'll come in will be very active in action, shooter, sports... those types of genres that we've seen at the launch of the PS4. So we'll test and see how that works, but we want to be as diverse as possible.
The goal is to bring as many of those PS3 games in as possible.
First and third-party?
First and third. We're going to try and bring in the library if we can. We'll see how this works. I mean, we need to make sure that the experience that you had today with low latency and a really seamless environment works across those games. So there's a lot of testing still to be done.
With a streaming service, all the complex processing is handled server-side, and the client only has to deal with a video stream. Feasibly, then, when PS4 games arrive on PS Now you could play PS4 games on PS3...
Well, we need to see how that all plays out. That's for the future. For now though, PS3 on PS4 is something that - I want to be clear - doesn't solve the backwards compatibility situation, but it does allow the engagement of PS3 games on PS4 for the first time.
On that note, do you have the potential for a user to put a PS3 disc into a PS4 to verify that they own or have the game, and for this to unlock the game for play via streaming?
We... uh, initially, no. So, we're saying no to that right now.
Is that something that's being investigated? Is it possible?
Right now, no.
PS Plus users will be keen to hear of any PS Now-related discounts or benefits they get as premium subscribers. How will that work?
We need to look at that. It's all part of the model - this will be another subscription so we need to look at how Plus plays into that. We haven't made a decision yet.
PS Now will be a separate subscription fee, right?
We don't know. The rental and subscription options are the only things we've talked about today. There's some work that needs to be done on this. That's why we're saying Summer.
Finishing up on an entirely unrelated topic: Battlefield 4 is perhaps the biggest showcase of the new-gen consoles' power. It's also plagued with one of the most troubled launches as an online service in recent gaming history. What's Sony's take on this? Do you take a back seat?
Let me answer this higher above Battlefield 4 because it's not fair, I think, to focus just on that. But in general, when these kinds of situations occur we work very closely with the publisher.
I'm not saying that's happening specifically with Battlefield but in general when there's network issues or any issues related to gameplay we work very closely, because it reflects on the platform as well. We want it solved just like the publisher wants it solved so we generally work together.