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PlayStation’s Jim Ryan: ‘We’re making a completely new VR format for PS5’

Jim Ryan has a lot to get off his chest. If we’re honest, it’s a lot more than we’d prepared for. You see, usually when you interview someone – not least the president and chief executive officer of Sony Interactive Entertainment – you go into that conversation with some semblance of what’s to come. So when we got offered 20 minutes with the PlayStation boss out of the blue last week, it did seem a bit too easy-going to be true. “A follow-up to our PS5-related chat last November,” we thought, “should be a breeze.”Then the affable Geordie started dropping bombs. A follow-up to PlayStation VR? Confirmed with dev kits out in the wild and an “easy single-cord setup”. More free games for those stuck at home during the pandemic? Yep, Play At Home is back starting with 2016’s Ratchet & Clank and a three-month trial to anime subscription service Funimation with “some cool stuff with indie games” to follow. What about PlayStation games on PC? A whole slate of them is on the way starting with Days Gone this spring. And as for Sony’s publishing timetable for the year? Well, Covid has been up to no good again and booted Gran Turismo 7 back to 2022. Don’t worry, plans for the Uncharted movie and Last Of Us TV series are very much on track. So, yeah, all of our best-laid plans went out of the window in quite spectacular fashion. What follows next is an edited version of us scrambling to get our heads around a grand splurge of announcements that pretty much set the PlayStation 5 up for most of 2021. As ever, Ryan remained cheerily straightforward company. You don’t get a lot of waffle from the chap: either a full answer or a quick demur with few tangents for the sake of chewing the clock off an interview. Since half the known universe would be out for blood if we didn’t ask the obvious question, we took a little detour of our own to start things off.

GQ: Since we’ve got you here, when is everyone who wants to buy a PS5 going to be able to easily buy one?

Jim Ryan: All I can say is we’re working as hard as we possibly can. You may have read that we sold 4.5 million PS5s at the end of December – that’s more than we did PS4s in 2013 and that was the high watermark for the PlayStation generation. So, with everything in the world throughout last year, we feel like that was fairly decent. One in four of those who have bought a PlayStation 5 do not have a PS4 and those around about half are new to the PlayStation Network. So it’s really nice that we’re able to bring in people from outside.

I know there were people who wanted a PS5 and couldn’t find one. We’re very sorry about that and obviously grateful that demand has been as strong as it is.

It's Been Around For Decades. As a whole, virtual reality is not as new as people think it is. While the exact origin is still a mystery, some people credit 19th century French playwright Antonin Artaud as the creative force behind the concept of virtual reality. By the 20th century, researchers began diving deep into the different elements of virtual reality. Toys like the View Master are often regarded as a primitive version of what virtual reality would later become.

What’s holding back production? We’d imagine it’s more than just Covid.Obviously in a pandemic supply chains become a little more complicated than would normally be the case. You know, one very visible example is the difficulties in the semiconductor market. You know, whether it’s automobiles, smartphones, PCs or games consoles, the problems in all those areas are very widely documented. We had to move to a distribution model that is entirely online and that’s something that we never had to do before. And, finally, just the level of demand for PlayStation 5. So, you know, all of those things kind of combined.

We’re working as we always have, but with renewed vigour and energy post Christmas to get supply up, it will increase as each month passes. And the situation will start to get better hopefully quite quickly. We have been relentless in terms of trying to increase production and I really can’t say any more than that.

So, just to be clear, there’s no date on it? You’re doing your best and it will happen when it happens?

We’re doing our best. I was just looking at the supply figures for the UK – we put a considerable amount of product into the UK market last week. And that will continue over weeks and months to come.

Fair enough. We imagine you’ve got a roadmap for 2021 in terms of the games that you want to release. How fixed is that given the disruptions Covid-19 has caused to development? Returnal recently got pushed back a month.Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about Returnal, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Horizon Forbidden West. And, you know, there are two approaches to this: you can either hold the date and put out the game irrespective of quality or you can ship it when it’s right. We have always taken the latter approach. There have been some fairly high-profile instances of publishers trying the former approach.

That’s one way of putting it...

It never works at the best of times. But I think in this world, where creative people are working remotely, you’ve just got to respect the fact that that development needs to take what it needs to take and to get the games right.

So one game you didn’t mention there that had been dated for 2021 is Gran Turismo 7. What’s going on with that one?At this point a PR representative for Sony jumped into the call promising a statement on GT7 – probably in the hope that we’d actually ask about some of the many new announcements. You can read that statement below...“GT7 has been impacted by Covid-related production challenges and therefore will shift from 2021 to 2022. With the ongoing pandemic, it’s a dynamic and changing situation and some critical aspects of game production have been slowed over the past several months. We’ll share more specifics on GT7’s release date when available.”

Its not just about the fun and games. Other than providing action-packed, fun-filled entertainment for the entire family, VR plays a big role to help humanity as developers use it to help those in need in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. Some use it to cure phantom pain among amputee victims, while others rely on VR to provide therapy for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. VR has also been proven to help children with autism by teaching them social cues and real world lessons. It is being used as a practice board for surgical students before they make the first cut. There is even a VR content targeted at young adults that simulates their physical condition when they get to their 60s, and thus encourages them to save for the future.

All right, PlayStation VR 2. The second PlayStation VR. What are we calling it at the moment?

We’re not calling it anything at the moment.

So the obvious question is what’s changed from the first headset?

So this will be a completely new VR format for PS5. PlayStation has considered VR as a strategic opportunity and a big innovation story. We think there are two themes that you’re going to see: us capturing the technological progress that has taken place since the present VR system came to market and a considerable amount of lessons learned. Because the present system was our first one. [Changes will be] things like moving to a very easy single-cord setup with this one and many other similar learnings. Dev kits are about to go out.

VR is getting a lot more traction now, but it’s still a nascent market. Why make a follow-up to the first headset?

We believe in VR and have been extremely happy with the results with the present PlayStation VR and think that we will do good business with our new VR system for PlayStation 5. More importantly, we see it as something beyond this coming iteration that really could be really big and really important. We like to innovate; we think our community likes us to innovate. I’d turn around the question and say, “Why not?” For us, it’s a very logical step to take. We’re very excited by it and we think that people who are going to make VR games for our new VR system are going to be very excited too.

So the big difference, which you mentioned there, is that it’s going to be one cord that you connect to your PlayStation 5…

That was a very simple and visible illustration of a lesson that we’ve learned from when iterating from the present system to the new one. We’re not actually releasing any specs at this stage. That will start to come over the course of this year when we’ll be talking more.

The PS5’s launch line-up was very bullish. Can we expect the same for this new PS VR?

We’re not saying anything specific today about any developer support, whether it’s our own studios or any of our publishing partners, but obviously we will launch our new VR system with appropriate software support.

Fair enough. So releasing PlayStation games on PC was something that Sony PlayStation held back on for a long time. Now it sounds like you’re very much on that bandwagon. What changed?

I think a few things changed. We find ourselves now in early 2021 with our development studios and the games that they make in better shape than they’ve ever been before. Particularly from the latter half of the PS4 cycle our studios made some wonderful, great games. There’s an opportunity to expose those great games to a wider audience and recognise the economics of game development, which are not always straightforward. The cost of making games goes up with each cycle, as the calibre of the IP has improved. Also, our ease of making it available to non-console owners has grown. So it’s a fairly straightforward decision for us to make.

Virtual Reality Is For Phones, Too. One of the biggest misconceptions with virtual reality is that you need to buy expensive viewing gear in order to participate. That is not true at all. In fact, the latest cell phones allow you to use it as a device for virtual reality. You might need to make or buy an additional piece to use it for that, but it is usually at a low cost. Google, for example, offers a 3D cardboard kit for your phone for less than $10.

This is following on from your publishing Horizon Zero Dawn on PC in August last year. How did that go?

We assessed the exercise in two ways. Firstly, in terms of the straightforward success of the activity of publishing the game on PC, people liked it and they bought it. We also looked at it through the lens of what the PlayStation community thought about it. There was no massive adverse reaction to it. So we will continue to take mission steps in this direction.

So you noted earlier that the PS5 has already brought some new users into the fold. It was also said by Sony that 87 per cent of people with a PlayStation 5 are subscribed to PlayStation Plus. How does that affect your plans for the platform moving forwards?

It’s pretty much what we expected. The early audience is an audience that likes to engage with PlayStation Plus; many of them like to play online multiplayer and they like the instant PlayStation Plus collection.

You’re going to give away some more old games for free as part of Play At Home, but you’ve also increasingly released new games to PlayStation Plus subscribers, such as Destruction AllStars and Bugsnax. Is that something that’s going to continue?

Yes, it is. We see this is a very interesting and innovative way to publish games and to make games available to our subscribers. It works for us as the publisher and we know that subscribers to PlayStation Plus love it.

And, finally, what was the last game you played on PlayStation 5?

Astro’s Playroom is a great game. You know, for an old-time PlayStation guy like me, I love all those Easter eggs that go back into all those games that I enjoyed many, many years ago.

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