The battle of the press conferences at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is over. Now it’s time for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo to interpret the competing events and declare victory. The latest to do so is Sony’s head of digital games, Jack Buser. Buser says that while Sony showed some great new content, rivals “lost the plot” and forgot that E3 should be about showing great games. Buser has been running Sony’s Home virtual world and social network for gamers and recently picked up responsibilities for the digital business. He is now senior director of PlayStation Digital Platforms for Sony Computer Entertainment America. We caught up with Buser at E3. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What were your reactions to some of the other console press conferences here? Especially where it touches on your space, like in digital.
Jack Buser: I think we’ve had a fantastic E3. I’ve watched all of our competitors very closely. And I think we did a very good job of drawing a solid line in the sand here at E3, and standing up with our back straight as PlayStation and saying, “We’re for gamers.” We are for the gamer first and foremost. Everything we do at PlayStation, we ask ourselves first, “What’s right for the gamer?” The reaction to the press conference has been just amazingly positive. While some of our competitors, seemingly, are losing the plot, forgetting what built this industry. It was the gamer. And our press conference really drove that home. We showed amazing partnerships with our third parties. We showed incredible titles from our first parties. Last of Us, you saw that? Beyond: Two Souls. You see these titles and they represent some of the…I’m biased, but these are the best games I’ve ever seen, and they’re exclusive to our platform. These are the types of games that gamers want, and they’re pushing what a console game can be to the next level. It’s not yet another rehash of the same old thing; these are truly innovative, genre-breaking experiences that can only be found on PlayStation. So whether it be from PlayStation Plus, or titles like The Last of Us and Beyond, God of War Ascension, our partnership with Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed…. Everything we’re doing is for the gamer first and foremost, and I think that…I was proud to be a PlayStation employee at this E3.
Jack Buser: So, starting with Plus, you saw our announcement during the press conference the other day. I just wanted to take the time to do a little bit of a deeper dive through that. Because this is truly a revolutionary new way of giving gamers access to an instant game collection for less than five bucks a month. When we announced that there were going to be 12 fantastic titles coming to PlayStation Plus today, the reaction from the community has been absolutely overwhelming. Titles like Virtua Fighter 5, Saints Row 2, LittleBigPlanet 2, Infamous 2, Lara Croft: Guardian of Light…the titles go on and on. These are all highly-rated games, some of the best of breed available on the PlayStation Network, and available to PlayStation Plus members for less than five bucks a month. We’re going to be rotating in new games all the time, so that gamers always have something new and fantastic to play. We’re really looking to surprise and delight members on a very regular basis with PlayStation Plus.
GamesBeat: What did the five bucks a month get them before?
Buser: Everything that members have enjoyed with PlayStation Plus, including free games, huge discounts, exclusive access to betas, cloud saves, and automatic updates, will continue to be part of your PlayStation Plus membership. What we announced yesterday, and what members are seeing today, is a huge amplification of the free games aspect of PlayStation Plus. We are truly positioning this membership as an instant game collection. You’re going to see us bring incredible titles to PlayStation Plus. The kind of titles that you’ve always wanted to play, and maybe you just didn’t have access to. There’s 12 of them, so no matter what kind of gamer you are, you’re always going to find something that’s great for you. We think that this is a fantastic membership and not just for existing PlayStation 3 gamers. One of the best things when you pick up a new PS3 is a PlayStation Plus membership, because all of a sudden, you have an instant library of games, right when you take the console home. If you’re buying a gift for someone who plays PlayStation 3, or someone in your family, a relative you don’t know exactly what game to get them…PlayStation Plus is a fantastic gift. You can buy the cards at retail or you can purchase online through PlayStation Network, through your console, and you can give your family member or your friend an instant game collection that continues to give them new games as long as their membership stays active.
GamesBeat: And you haven’t talked about how many people you have subscribing.
Buser: We haven’t talked about that publicly, but we’ve seen massive growth on this platform. I think a lot of gamers are comparing our premium membership to those on competing platforms, and they’re realizing that while others charge you a fee just to play online, we’re actually offering, as part of our premium membership, an instant collection of fantastic games and more coming all the time. And as we rotate in new games you can keep the ones that you’ve already downloaded as long as you’re a member. These are going to be fantastic games. We’re seeing a lot of gamers out there doing a side-by-side comparison and saying, hey, wait a minute, how come with this one it just makes the console work and over here I’m getting all of these fantastic titles? The response has been absolutely, overwhelmingly positive.
GamesBeat: Have you thought about doing more free-to-play games on this as well? In some ways you’ve already paid for this, but it seems like free-to-play is gaining so much traction elsewhere that…
GamesBeat: It’s a good thing to get into? I don’t know exactly how many ways you’d want to get into it, but…
Buser: Absolutely. One of the things that we’re doing with PlayStation Plus is, we are now, and always have been actually, but we will continue to constantly be in a discussion with our community. Asking our community what types of things they’d like to see as part of the PlayStation Plus service. Really, you know, we’re open to anything. So if we see our community asking for any particular thing, whether it be some aspect of a free-to-play game, or whether it be DLC, or what have you, we are absolutely open to this. We have a community management team as part of our organization that is constantly in a dialogue with the community, both from a qualitative and a quantitative standpoint, gathering this data and feeding it back into the development teams.
GamesBeat: That hasn’t really yet manifested, except maybe on Home.
Buser: With free-to-play? Actually, free-to-play, as you rightly point out, we’ve been involved with free-to-play since ’08 with PlayStation Home. That’s really served as a laboratory for us, as we’ve talked about over the years. For us to really learn how to deploy the free-to-play model with core game types, specifically in the context of a PlayStation platform, and actually here at E3 we’re showing Dust 514, have you checked that out?
GamesBeat: No, not yet.
Buser: Ah, perfect. Okay. Definitely check this game out. It is a triple-A first-person shooter from CCP, the creators of EVE Online. It’s an exclusive for PlayStation 3, and free-to-play. We’re feeding all of the learnings from PlayStation Home into CCP to assist them with deployment of a huge FPS that’s free-to-play right there on the PlayStation platform. This is really representing the first large-scale core game type, an FPS, that is free-to-play on console. It’s a super excting notion for PlayStation. Truly a first in the industry.
PR: And on down to the indie games, you know, that were mentioned but not shown, the Dyads and the Journeys…
Buser: You’re absolutely right, that’s a good point. As you may know, we’ve invested very heavily in independent game development because so much of the innovation in the industry is coming from independent game developers right now. We’re spending a lot of time educating independent developers right now that if they’re interested in developing games for our audience, they should know that they can actually self-publish on PlayStation platforms. While other platforms force independent developers to go and publish with some huge large publisher that’s going to take all their money, [laughs] we actually allow them to stay independent and publish on our platform. One of the most exciting stories here at the show from an independent developer standpoint is a title called Dyad. Have you played this?
GamesBeat: Ah, no.
Buser: Definitely worth playing. Amazing game. Created by one guy. He’s self-publishing on our platform; we actually have gotten behind this title financially with our pub fund initiative. It’s on the show floor. And it’s one guy. This game is getting just amazing reactions in the press. And it shows how even the smallest possible development team, one person, can create truly ground-breaking experiences on the PlayStation platform. You’re seeing us get behind this game financially, you’re seeing us really deploy the full force of the PlayStation marketing machine behind this title, solving one of the biggest problems in independent game development. You can make a great game, but it doesn’t make any difference if nobody ever knows about it. So again, that’s one of the great thing about building an independent game fot the PlayStation platform. If you deliver a great game, you can rest assured that we’ll get behind that, as PlayStation. Unfinished Swan is another great example.
GamesBeat: I liked that one, I guess that was also incubation by Sony’s Santa Monica studios.
Buser: Right. Journey, as you know, recently went on to be the best-selling PlayStation Network game of all time, just showing how these games not only bring tremendous innovation, but commercial success. For everyone involved. For independent developers. Popo & Yo is another great title that received an extremely warm reaction at last year’s E3, and the game has come so far. It’s tackling subject matter that you wouldn’t normally see a video game tackle, really breaking boundaries in that regard. So much excitement on the independent development. We’re very fortunate to be in the position we’re in. And finally, I would be remiss in not talking about PlayStation Mobile, which we announced the new name of during our press conference. Never has developing for a PlayStation platform been more accessible for developers. With an extremely accessible development kit, for around a hundred dollars you can get the development kit, you can actually go get a consumer Vita, connect it to your PC and use it as a platform for development, right? Just go to Best Buy or GameStop, pick up a Vita, and you can start building PlayStation games using PlayStation Mobile. This is amazing stuff, enabling entirely new independent developers to get involved building PlayStation games in way never before possible.
GamesBeat: You think this is going to make a difference in the wider console business?
Buser: PlayStation Mobile specifically?
GamesBeat: And indie games in general.
Buser: Oh, absolutely. If you look at the mobile games market, the combination of the PlayStation brand with the mobile games market presents such an exciting future. Not just for us, but for third-party handset manufacturers like HTC. Who can use the PlayStation brand to truly differentiate out their handset to customers. That PlayStation brand carries so much cachet with customers. In many ways it’s the most authentic brand in the games industry. To have that associated with the mobile handset really underscores its ability to play games on the go. At the same time, for developers the ability to actually create titles for a PlayStation platform on mobile devices enables those titles to be viewed in the context of the PlayStation brand, which for developers is extremely exciting. We talked some about this at the LA Games Conference the other day, we had some developers on the panel say this is one of the greatest things to happen to the mobile games industry. To see that PlayStation brand deployed in this area. It’s so exciting for developers as well. It’s one of these everybody-wins propositions.
GamesBeat: Do you still feel like filtering of titles is still good and necessary to protect consumers from too many games?
Buser: Well, I can talk about that in the context of PlayStation Network as it exists on PS3 and Vita, specifically, insofar as these are managed platforms. So as a platform holder, one of the things we do is we make sure that we have the best possible games available to our audience. We want to make sure that we enable the best games to come to that audience. We are very much interested in making sure that the games available on our managed platform are such that not only are gamers going to be happy, but developers building great games aren’t lost in a sea of knockoffs and frankly bad games. That’s one of the biggest problems out there for a lot of developers, specifically indie developers, is you are competing with just a tremendous number of people who are cranking out not-so-great games. That’s one of the great things about a managed platform, you can help elevate those games and really filter out the truly bad stuff to make sure that the great games rise to the top. That’s something that we take a very active role in with PlayStation Network.
GamesBeat: There wasn’t any word at the press conference about next-gen consoles.You guys had said you aren’t going to say anything, but…. Why did you not say anything? [laughter]
Buser: Nothing to announce…
GamesBeat: Is there a reason why you don’t want to? Is it the usual reason, that if you say something and it’s not ready then you dry up your sales for whatever you’re selling today?
Buser: There’s just no announcement, really. That’s not really why…
GamesBeat: It sounds like there’s still, again, this benefit of not having a completely wide-open platform where you can have hundreds of thousands of titles.
Buser: Specifically with regards to PlayStation Network, having this managed platform is a huge differentiator for the platform as a whole. Understand, there are still a large number of titles available over the PlayStation Network. There’s over 1500 games currently available for PlayStation Network. But we do take an active role in making sure that these are good games, these are great games that we are proud to put under the PlayStation nation, and recommend as a platform. It helps developers on a managed platform, to make sure that if they’re going to build a great game, it’s going to get noticed. On platforms that are completely, totally wide open, oftentimes independent developers’ titles just get lost. I think that’s one of the biggest problems out there: There’s so many different game platforms. There are great games, but nobody can ever find them.
GamesBeat: There seems to be this generation of online or downloadable games that are making people wonder: “Do I really need to buy the 60-dollar product?” League of Legends on the PC is a big one, there’s this Hawken game coming soon as well, and I guess Crytek’s working on Warface. How do you look at those kinds of titles?
Buser: One of the things that’s really cool about working in the space that I do, especially at PlayStation, is that we’re very open to disruptive innovation in this industry. In fact, we often embrace it, with open arms. Make no mistake, the Blu-ray, triple-A, blockbuster experience, it’s not going anywhere. In fact they’re getting better and better, as evidenced by our press conference, with titles like Beyond and The Last of Us, God of War Ascension, there are truly blockbuster, triple-A games that are made possible by technologies like Blu-ray. As a digital platform, we tend to be very flexible and open. And we have done a lot of experimentation with different types of delivery for game content. Everything from free-to-play to membership-based discounts to membership-based free games, as you see with PlayStation Plus. We’ve seen ad-supported games that have been completely underwritten by a brand and made available for free to our audience, and you’ve seen us test a large number of different price points. That is the great thing about digital platforms, is that we are able to experiment, to try new things, to learn, to innovate, to pivot. And then react to the feedback that we’re getting from the customer. You’ll see a tremendous amount of innovation come from PlayStation Network specifically because we are so flexible with the platform. We are doing things with this platform that you won’t see anywhere else in this industry. Because we know that we are in revolutionary times right now. We very much want to be a part of that disruptive innovation. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that new models like free-to-play, ad-supported, membership-based services, that these are fully embraced by our platform. We’re leading the way in these regards.
GamesBeat: I guess you didn’t really give an update on the numbers, is there an update on the PSN members?
Buser: Sure, I can give them to you, here’s the update. We are announcing: Registered PSN accounts, more than 100 million worldwide. PS3, more than 64 million units worldwide. I gave you the stat on games, 1,578 downloadable games since the PSN launched, that’s a lot. Fastest-selling game on PlayStation Network was Journey. Here’s some cool new facts. You saw the press conference: 80 percent of PS3s connected to the Internet worldwide, very high. More than 70 percent of PSN members use PSN weekly or more often, so very high engagement. Average hours PSN is used per week is 7.1 hours. Very long session durations. Two-thirds of PlayStation Network members play online multiplayer on PSN weekly or more often, so highly engaged, playing a ton of games.
GamesBeat: How about these non-gaming audiences?
Buser: Non-gaming activity is actually extremely high on PlayStation 3 as well. PS3 was reported as the top device for streaming Netflix, accounting for more than 30 percent of total usage. That came from a report in June 2011. I could talk about non-gaming stuff all day long. The first to bring Amazon Instant Video, sports applications such as MLB TV, NHL Game Center, NFL Sunday Ticket. You see us really blazing trails in the area of non-game entertainment. The big reason why is because PlayStation Network is part of the larger Sony entertainment network. We’re able to provide a greater variety of entertainment applications, generally first to PlayStation, because we have the power of Sony behind us. We have our own music studios, we have our own music labels, we know the space quite well.
PR: Here’s a good PSN Vita stat. One-third of PS Vita owners in North America downloaded Netflix and users are spending about three hours per week watching TV and movies. And more than 4.3 million songs streamed globally to the PlayStation Vita since it was available.
Buser: You will see other companies really spend a lot of time and energy trying to legitimize themselves in the non-game entertainment space because it’s not part of their company’s DNA. Nor do customers trust that they can bring that type of entertainment to the living room or on the go. With the Sony brand behind a PlayStation, our customers intuitively know that non-game entertainment is a core part of our DNA. It allows us to see the kinds of usage metrics that we just rattled off to you out of the gate. You’ll see services deploy on PlayStation platform and their traffic will spike tremendously because users know that this is a PlayStation, I purchased it to play games, but because it’s a Sony product I know I have the best of the best when it comes to entertainment, from music, sports, movies. We’re there, and we’ve been there, this is our backyard, this is our heritage. We’re seeing other companies spend a lot of time and energy trying to legitimize themselves in the space, and unfortunately what happens is they can very quickly lose the plot with gamers. That’s quite dangerous. That’s why we at PlayStation very much put the gamer first and foremost. We are interested in bringing the kinds of non-game entertainment to the PlayStation that our gamers expect to see. That’s why you see services like Hulu and Amazon Instant Video deploying on PlayStation 3 first. I always use the example of Oprah. Maybe our audience isn’t so interested in that particular show. But Amazon Instant Video, absolutely. That’s why you’re going to see so much focus on the gamer from us.
GamesBeat: Nintendo seemed to be organizing the Miiverse by the interest graph: the interests people have. Is that somewhat interesting to you guys as well? It seems like Facebook has the friend graph, but this interest graph is also doing well in things like Pinterest. It’s another way to organize social networks.
Buser: Absolutely. Okay, from a digital platform’s perspective, we take many different approaches to ensuring that the needs of our customers are fed back into product development. And also, the recommendations from our customers are communicated to each other. Such that their interests not only guide each other, but they also guide the development of products themselves. I split those into two broad buckets, both quantitative, whether that be quantitative research or actual hard data coming in from usage of the various services, games, that make up the PlayStation Network, to qualitative. We actually have an entire community team on staff that is in that constant dialogue, directly with the end customer, and then brought back in. It feeds directly into the development teams for our services. We are very, very sophisticated in this regard, and we’re spending a ton of time to make sure both the quantitative and qualitative data are being brought back in in a very actionable way, so that will guide the development of our content and our services.
GamesBeat: This info that Call of Duty is coming out earlier with multiplayer stuff on Xbox Live… I don’t know if the Battlefield deal is kind of almost a way to deal with that, I guess, but it seems like that’s an important edge that Microsoft has.
Buser: I think that Call of Duty is an amazing title, an amazing franchise for our industry. The Call of Duty community on PlayStation 3 is absolutely enormous. And with our announcement of Call of Duty for PlayStation Vita, I think we’re offering some really exciting stuff that’s highly differentiated for the Call of Duty fans on the PlayStation. PlayStation Network is able to do some very, very amazing stuff for games in general. It has become the most powerful online game network. If you see what’s happening with things like cross play between Vita and PlayStation 3, when we were talking about PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the ability for a Vita player to actually have a game synchronously play with a PlayStation 3 player, to cross saves, which you see in titles like MLB, it’s incredibly popular. You threw out a stat, right?
PR: 20 percent of MLB owners are using cross play.
Buser: To even the ability for PlayStation Network to communicate outside the PlayStation universe, to PC games, like Dust 514, where you see Dust 514 actually able to communicate to the world of EVE Online on PC. You’re seeing PlayStation Network become the most powerful online game platform, and so you can imagine that we are going to leverage with PlayStation Network very much, with all of our titles.
PR: I think all the titles we introduced at the press conference. We’re showing plenty of great games.
PR: That our gamers can look forward to. Any final questions?
GamesBeat: EA mentioned that digital is a way to offset the console transition. I don’t know if you also see it as serving that kind of purpose. There’s a natural decline in sales, we’re at the end of a console cycle, so you have new markets opening up, new kinds of platforms that aren’t dependent on that cycle. It could maybe offset that. Is that something you see as important?
Buser: One of the great things about our digital platforms is that they exist independent of any individual piece of hardware. So to use the case of PlayStation Vita, we very much used our network offering, which was first deployed on the PlayStation 3, as a way for our installed base of 64 million PlayStation 3s worldwide to carry over their digital identity through PlayStation Network very seamlessly onto PlayStation Vita. The minute you log on to Vita, all of your trophies, your entire digital profile, is right there on day one the minute you fire up your Vita. All of those great accomplishments that you’ve invested in all that time seamlessly transfers over on to this new platform. As the PlayStation 3 continues through its lifecycle, you see new digital platforms come online, like PlayStation Plus, which offer entirely new ways for you to access your games. The idea that you would have 12 great games available to you for less than five bucks a month as an instant game collection, this is radically new. So our digital platforms allow us to do all kinds of really interesting, innovative things throughout the lifecycle of any individual piece of hardware, and actually very much enable to us to bridge between pieces of hardware the way we’re doing today with PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. Absolutely. We very much think of our digital platforms as platforms, it’s right there in the name.