Phil Harrison, a veteran of Sony’s and Microsoft’s game console businesses, tweeted today that he has taken a job at Google. That’s a big development in the game industry, and it raises questions about why Google would hire Harrison as the vice president and general manager of a mysterious new business.
Excited to be able to share that today I've started a new role as Vice President and GM of Google – and relocating (back) to California.
— Phil Harrison (@MrPhilHarrison) January 22, 2018
Harrison ran research and development and first-party worldwide studios for Sony’s PlayStation business. He left that position in 2008, and he began investing in game companies via London Venture Partners. In 2012, he became a corporate executive at Microsoft’s Xbox company, and he left that position in April 2015. At that point, he formed Alloy Platform Industries and became an investor in tech and games startups. He invested in Dream Reality, a maker of virtual reality experiences.
I think that it’s a good time to start speculating about what’s coming in the future, and a number of people I know in the game industry are already doing that. Harrison is the sort of figure who could marshal Google’s resources and enable it to enter the game console business. I don’t know if that is happening, but that would be a delightful rumor to try to confirm.
I interviewed Harrison last year at the Gamelab event in Spain. Since he was on the sidelines of the console wars, he wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions on what was happening in the competition among the major game platform companies.
Regarding Nintendo, he said, “Nintendo has surprised me in a good way. They’ve put some excitement back in, or at least added a dynamic to the console equation that wasn’t there previously. From my focus group of a household with younger children, Switch is definitely the console that gets used. Mainly because of the content types. Surprisingly, the TV-to-mobile use case works way more effectively than I expected. Maybe I should give Nintendo more credit. I really enjoy that.”
As for Sony and Microsoft, he said, “The thing Sony has done incredibly well over many years is build up a very powerful distribution network outside of the U.S. and the U.K. I don’t think people truly understand how powerful that is and how much effort it’s taken. That’s part of it. But I also think Sony was just very clear about their proposition. It’s a powerful game console, no ambiguity. That’s what they tried to sell. Microsoft had a more challenged message at the beginning. They’ve acknowledged that themselves. But I think Microsoft has made a fantastic recovery. It’s still to play for.”
He made a comment about how it was tough for small companies to make console games.
“To make a console game as an indie, unless you have a sugar daddy relationship with the platform holder effectively sponsoring you, it’s really hard to make money,” he said.
When I asked him about the broader game platform companies — like Amazon, Google, and Apple — Harrison said, “You’re betting on five watts versus 160 watts. Are you going console, PC, hardcore, or are you going mobile, free-to-play? It doesn’t seem like there have been breakout hits in free-to-play on console yet, maybe because the top of the funnel isn’t big enough to support all of the customer acquisition. But that will happen. I’m excited about the future. I’m enormously bullish about the future of games, mainly because now we don’t have to explain what this is anymore. There’s an understanding of games among the wider population.”
About Microsoft, he added, “They all have tremendous positives and some small challenges. If Microsoft’s Xbox business was a standalone business, only focused on games, that would be an incredible business. When you look at it as a part of Microsoft spitting out $20 billion in free cash flow every year, it just shows up as a tiny little dot, which is always a deep frustration for the leadership in the Xbox business. They do an incredible job, but they don’t show up that often on the scorecard.”
And he said Sony has challenges with a “much smaller balance sheet.” He said, “They’re a much more focused company through necessity, through the challenges they’ve been through, which have been public over the last 10 years or so. It’s a good question. Which would you rather be: a focused company with a smaller balance sheet or an unfocused company with a very large balance sheet? Ultimately, a strong balance sheet is a good thing to have, which is why a company like Amazon could end up being a disruptive force in games. They have AWS [Amazon Web Services] as this secret provider of incredible services to so many games companies, which they’re monetizing like crazy.”
Harrison added, “I think Amazon knows they have a games business. It’s interesting that the games bit of Amazon reports in to the AWS leadership. That’s not a surprise or an accident. That’s very purposeful. The one unknown, unseen, is what Apple is really doing in [augmented reality] and VR. I don’t believe for an instant that what they showed at the worldwide developer conference is all they’re doing in AR. But they made a very strong statement of intent, and that’s exciting for the future.”
While Harrison was enjoying being a venture capitalist, he wasn’t shy about professing his love for the game industry. So it’s no surprise to see him join another major game platform company.