Sony's Andrew House Pt. 1
17th Jan 2012 | 11:29
It's difficult to dismiss the phrase "Boy done good" from your mind when you meet Andrew House.
Since September, the 46-year-old Welshman has luxuriated in the job title of President and CEO, Sony Computer Entertainment Inc, making him the ultimate head of Sony's PlayStation business (the previous incumbents of his job being Ken Kutaragi and Kaz Hirai).
Of course, he is now based in Tokyo - luckily, following a stint at the turn of the millennium in Sony's corporate communications HQ, he is fluent in Japanese.
In the flesh, House is very impressive - there's no doubting his articulacy, as you would expect from someone who, after cutting his teeth in corporate communications, moved through the marketing ranks at Sony Computer Entertainment America. He's certainly not dumb and can point to a degree in English language and literature from Oxford University as evidence for that.
After a horrendous year in which the Japanese giant was knocked back by a serious of disasters both natural and man-made (the PSN hack), House clearly finds himself in a position of the utmost responsibility.
We managed to pin him down the day before the Japanese launch of the PlayStation Vita (read our PS Vita review) - at which he and Kaz Hirai presented a slightly bemused punter with the first PS Vita sold - and he made a speech in Japanese.
Although he wouldn't be drawn into discussing things like the PlayStation 4, he gave a full and frank account of Sony's 2011 tribulations, spoke about the importance of PS Vita to the company and the changes that his ultimate boss Sir Howard Stringer (a fellow Welshman) has made, and also revealed something of the man behind the job title. Here's the full, unexpurgated transcript of our interview with him.
Check back for part two of our interview with Sony's Andrew House later this week.
It has been an annus horribilis for Sony through no fault of your own: what happened to the company in that respect in 2011, and what effect has it had? You were hit by the Japanese earthquake, the tsunami and even the Sony DADC fire in Enfield caused by the London rioting...
Andrew House: And then you can layer in on top of that, more recently, the flooding in Thailand which, along with many other manufacturers, has had a fairly significant effect on production efforts. Yes, it has been a pretty tough year, no question.
I think it's kind of you to observe that these came about through no fault of our own. If I draw a positive out of it, I think it has been unity in the face of adversity. I do really think that there is a spirit at Sony - it's certainly something that has kept me very engaged and happy to be at the company for more than 20 years now - people do genuinely pull together.
We had episodes of great kindness during the earthquake, when one of our plants in Tohoku was affected. People were immediately engaged in rescue efforts. We've had senior executives wading through the water in Thailand to check on the situation at our factories and make sure that employees are doing well. So I think it has had the effect of pulling the company together.
Closer to home for the PlayStation business, there was the hacking incident. Not to sound like an excuse, but we're now in very solid company with many other institutions and companies that are suffering under the same sort of threat. But it galvanised us, right up to the very top of the company.
We've hired an extremely experienced Chief Information Security Officer at the corporate level, not just on the PlayStation level. We've revamped our systems to the best of our ability, to try to ensure that this kind of thing, as far as possible, can be prevented. But there were some very ugly threats going on, and we became the target.
The irony, for me, is that we became the target because we thought, I think quite fairly, that we were trying to protect our intellectual property rights from piracy. But it was ironically that which led a certain sector of opinion to think that, somehow, we were acting against their best interests. That will be an ongoing challenge, and I think it's one we'll have to take extremely seriously.
Is the manufacturing capacity back on stream now?
I think it's coming back gradually. There's a large variety of different facilities, and there is, of course, the component supply chain from our suppliers which has, in some cases, been affected. But as far as I can see, the waters have now receded and we're starting to get our facilities back on line again.
As part of that effort of people pulling together, they've moved very swiftly to find contingency plans in almost every product case. If there was one silver lining for the PlayStation business, it's that PS Vita was unaffected by any of this. Which was something of a blessing, given just how important a product release this is for us.
Do you see the PS Vita launch as a redemptive thing at the end of a bad year?
I think it's an opportunity, perhaps, to return people's attention to what is great about Sony - innovative products delivering experiences that people have never had before. And I think it's important for the employee base - certainly here in Japan - that there is something of a morale boost before we go into the holidays, with a great product launch. Lots of folks that I know here in the Sony building - not just from the PlayStation business - have said they're looking forward to PS Vita coming this weekend. So I think it has generally worked to cheer people up.
People have been talking about the rise of mobile phones and tablets as gaming platforms, against conventional handheld consoles. How do you see Vita competing against them, and what will make it outperform them?
We would point to two factors. One is content-based: what we're endeavouring to provide and have succeeded in providing - even in the launch line-up - is what's in our DNA: deeper, more immersive, really compelling gaming experiences, with a great sense of realism and strong storylines. Then we've married those with some great network features, but also with a set of interfaces that I don't think really exist right now in any other devices out there.
As I've talked about quite a bit this week, one of the most exciting things for me is when you hear the excitement that you're getting from creators and developers. The best sign, I think, in our business is if they are inspired by a new platform, then you can look forward to great content that in turn inspires the consumer.
Whether it's Japanese publishers, US developers or European publishers, everyone has got to grips with this new device and has found the development environment very easy to engage with, given the set of interfaces and the choices that you have. The creative power, if you like, to turn their own franchises into something very different.
I'm fond of pointing to Uncharted, which clearly is now a global hit in its own right. It's a perfectly fantastic experience on the home console, but I guess a lightbulb moment for me as a gamer was when our studio showed me how they are using touch as an alternative to, for example, uncover evidence for a clue by wiping away sand with your finger.
It was true to the world of Uncharted, but it made me feel I was engaging with it in a way I hadn't before. So, the best of Vita will be how often we can create those magical moments that delight and inspire gamers, and that's really the goal.
But I think the key point is that the creative tools to do that are there. We also worked extremely hard this time to let developers and creators get their hands on the technology much earlier in the life-cycle, so they were able to get to grips with it. The proof will be in the pudding of the games that we'll be launching from tomorrow onwards.
You've got 24 titles, which is impressive - the 3DS got a lot of criticism for having very few compelling launch titles. Also, that hasn't been a Sony strength in the past - developers have complained that their tools for the PS3, for example, were not friendly. Was that a conscious change of strategy?
I think so. What we try to do as a company is to take the best learnings from the different platforms, and the things we gain from them. I think we learned from PSPGo that consumers want flexibility in terms of how they access their content, that they wanted both a packaged solution and a network distribution solution.
I think we learned also from the general PSP experience that delivering what is essentially a great handheld console game experience on a portable device was all well and good, but if we were able to add these different interfaces and interact differently with the content - and to use the immediacy of having a portable device always with you - that that was really important.
Looking further back, part of the original PlayStation's success, and part of the PlayStation 2's success, was the ease of use of the development environment. So I'd like to think that PS Vita has returned us to the core of that DNA, as well.
Earlier this year, Sony bought out Ericsson's stake of Sony Ericsson phones. What was the thinking behind that? And you've spoken about a synergy between Sony Ericsson, PlayStation and Sony consumer electronics. Can you expand on that?
There are a couple of ways of referring to that internally - one is a convergence strategy, and the other is a four-screen strategy. The core of that came from the way that Sir Howard Stringer decide to reorganise the company back in April this year. He decided to take all the consumer businesses and house them under one single leadership - my boss, Kaz Hirai. That included the PlayStation division, and any of the other products that have a consumer touch-point.
I think any opportunity then, and it's something I've experienced in the last four months since moving to this job in Tokyo - is to have a really strong, frequent engagement and interchange between the different business groups. And to have a real focus on looking for opportunities for collaboration, and where we can cross-pollinate the strengths of the organisation.
We see our strengths in the camera business where, in most of the world, we have a very commanding leadership, married with some great experience on the gaming side, around developing our own proprietary operating systems, around developing the best interactive and user experiences.
And then we take those skills, and without a sense of territorialism, but with a sense of contributing to the greater good, of seeing those migrate out and help our other devices. I think the final goal is to have a much more Sony-esque, integrated user experience, that is common to our devices, but enhances the experience in each of those different categories.
Going back to the central question, I think the full acquisition of a company in a critical category like mobile phones was part of increasing that integration and convergence within the company.
And there will be tie-ups between Sony Ericsson and PlayStation?
There already are. I point to Xperia Play, the first PlayStation-certified phone, which combined a phone with the traditional PlayStation game interface. But that's part of a much broader initiative called PlayStation Suite, where we're starting with our own Sony group devices, but are hoping to make this a much broader, Android-based initiative that will go out to other companies' devices.
The key thing there is that you have to balance building the strength of your own devices with what I hope SCE brings to the rest of Sony, which is an understanding of how the content community thinks and operates, especially in the area of games. And what they're looking for is the broadest user base and a common set of development tools, to give maximum access to an audience.
Check back for part two of our interview with Sony's Andrew House later this week.