Exclusive Kaz Hirai interview

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Jun 26, 2007
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After the departure of Ken Kutaragi in November 2006, amid harsh criticism over the PlayStation 3’s difficult birth, Kaz Hirai stepped into the breach, assuming Kutaragi-san’s mantle as President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment.
This means that for the last year and a half Hirai has been the big man at PlayStation – no mean feat for someone who, although of Japanese extraction, certainly sounds American, and previously headed up SCE’s American operation.
But it’s easy to see why Hirai was picked to take over the reins from the ‘Father of the PlayStation’: he’s a very slick, articulate operator.
In May, Sony held a showcase of its top games for 2008 at Indigo in the O2, and for the first time, Hirai found himself facing the press in the UK. TechRadar managed to catch up with him after his speech, and this is what he said.
Learning from mistakes
One striking aspect of Hirai’s speech was that, following years of accusations that Sony had become arrogant, he admitted that the launch of the PlayStation 3 had been far from plain sailing, and that Sony had “made mistakes”. Afterwards, he expanded on that theme, admitting that Sony had confused consumers by talking up the PS3’s non-gaming capabilities:
“I think that some of the initiatives that I put in place after I took over the job in Japan are starting to bear fruit.
“We talk about this all the time: the fact that we’ve repositioned the PlayStation 3 as being first and foremost a videogames console. I think that cleared up a lot of confusion in everybody’s minds – certainly people in the press as well as consumers. And if we’re saying it’s first and foremost a videogames console, we’ve got to back it up with some big games.
“So we’ve put some initiatives in place to make sure we have more and more titles coming out on the PlayStation 3 from both first-party studios and third-party publishers.
“It hasn’t been a year yet since Kutaragi-san left, but I think things are heading in the right direction, and I’m very happy with where we find ourselves today. But certainly, not happy to the extent that we can just kick back. There’s a lot more stuff that we need to do.”
Just the job
Hirai actually has a third string to his job-title – recently, the well respected (and London-based) Phil Harrison, then President of Worldwide Studios at Sony Computer Entertainment and therefore the man in charge of all in-house development, left to join Atari. So Hirai took over Harrison’s old job, too.
We asked him whether he was happy with the way things were going at Worldwide Studios, and whether assuming Harrison’s responsibilities was a permanent arrangement:
“I think that Worldwide Studios is an organisation which has functioned very well. There are some resources that get shared now between all the studios, which used to go off and do their own thing in all the territories. Like, for example, operational servers for online games, or format QA testing as well as, perhaps more importantly, technology sharing.
“That’s working out really well, and the fruits of our labours are really starting to show as well, in some of the first-party titles that have come out and are coming out this year and beyond.
“As far as the future is concerned, I’m still looking at what my options are – just evaluating the situation and figuring out whether it’s something I’ll keep as a permanent position or whether I’ll look for somebody else to run the organisation for me.”
PlayStation 3: 10-year lifespan
During his speech, he also contended that – surprisingly for a console, which would usually be expected to have a five-year life-span – he expected the PS3 to soldier on for 10 years. So, would this take us up to a period when broadband is quick enough to mean that consoles can do without disks altogether, and games will simply be downloaded to them? Understandably, given that the PS3’s Blu-ray format (responsible more than anything for the PS3’s difficult conception) has just won its format war, he doesn’t reckon that’s the case: “I think that’s going to be a little way off. Even with PS3, today, you’re talking about games that take 14, 15Gb, even upwards of 20Gb. If you try to offer that complete game as a download, you can do that, but what is the consumer experience going to be like?
“You also have to realise that different countries all have broadband, but the speeds are different, and then there are some territories where there isn’t too much broadband infrastructure at this point in time.
“When you look at it from a worldwide business perspective, the most efficient way of delivering 50GB, say, is going to be on a disk for a while to come.
That’s not to say we’re not doing the online stuff – which we are, through the PlayStation Store, but it’s basically a combination that makes the most sense for us and consumers. That’s why in some instances, we’ll offer both versions, like with Gran Turismo 5: Prologue.”
Change of culture
And we also touched on the culture-shock that inevitably follows from moving from the US to Japan, although it seems that Hirai still spends a fair amount of time at Sony’s US HQ in Foster City: “I’m now based in Japan, but I do spend time in the US every month – my family is still there. My day in Foster City starts at around 5.30pm: that’s when all the people in Tokyo shuffle into the office and phone-calls, videoconferences and emails start flying around. So I kind of do a double-shift when I’m in Foster City.”
Hirai does convey the impression that Sony Computer Entertainment is in good hands. And with the news, announced at the PlayStation Day, that global PS3 sales are approaching an impressive 12 million, plus blockbusters like LittleBigPlanet, the innovative avatar-based Home front-end for the PlayStation Network, Metal Gear Solid 4, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift, Resistance 2 and Killzone 2 (disappointingly not due until February 2009) waiting in the wings, things are definitely looking a lot brighter for PS3 owners.
But with the Xbox 360 and Wii having notched impressive sales, it remains to be seen whether the PlayStation 3 can yet dominate the console world in the same manner as its two predecessors.