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Focus

The man who helped Sony 'level up'

There's no cheat code: Shuhei Yoshida's tactics are what put firm back on top of the games industry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 1:43am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 12:11pm

"How many people came for video games," asks the keynote presenter at Sony's PlayStation bash in Las Vegas in December. The crowd roars. "And how many came to give Shu Yoshida a hug?" And the roar gets even louder.

The man in question is an unlikely celebrity. Short and bespectacled, 50-year-old Shuhei Yoshida is president of Sony's worldwide games studios.

What he has done to draw such affection is to champion some of the business' biggest hits and to prove that people will pay US$70 for top-notch titles even in a world of countless free smartphone games.

And in the process, he has helped Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai steer the company towards a surprising turnaround.

Sony's games business has not only survived, it has seen its best console launch ever with the PlayStation 4. The division is one reason Sony is headed for its biggest profit since 1998, when it made MiniDisc players and the Men in Black film.

"Yoshida and his team are on a roll right now," said James Mielke, an executive at the cloud-gaming start-up Shinra Technologies. "He's certainly a star. But it's a humble star quality."

It is little exaggeration to say Yoshida's life is all about computer games. He grew up in Kyoto, Japan, playing arcade games and Nintendo titles.

He joined Sony's games group over two decades ago as it developed its first PlayStation. Today, he uses five consoles to ensure he can play games from any region, uses a Wii U at home with his nine-year-old twins and saves adult fare for the office.

As studio head, Yoshida has taken an exceptionally inclusive approach. He works with Sony's developers to come up with games like Uncharted and also supports independents, opening his chequebook to help produce hits like Journey.

The studios he manages are part of Sony Computer Entertainment, led by Andrew House.

Yoshida says spending time and money fostering start-ups pays off because it leads to great games and a vibrant industry.

It is necessary, he says, because the biggest developers have trimmed output to concentrate on well-known franchises, such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.

"The industry's focus has narrowed too much," he says in an interview at Sony's Tokyo offices. "Can we continue producing interesting new products? That has become a real concern."

Yoshida takes to Twitter to applaud indie hits, crack jokes about the competition and talk to gamers. His following has swelled to 153,000 - in the same range as Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

He has even been made into a playable character by the independent studio Capybara Games. (His digital double uses a smartphone to take down enemies with "I love PS4!" tweets.)

Yoshida has been in charge of Sony's games development since 2008, but his rise to fame is closely linked to the PlayStation 4. The console has sold 19 million units since its release in November 2013, compared with 11 million for Microsoft's Xbox One, according to data from VGChartz.

It's a reversal of fortunes, after Sony's over-engineered predecessor lost market share to less expensive machines from Microsoft and Nintendo.

And Yoshida's support for indies has proven fortuitous. The latest consoles from Sony and Microsoft have similar technical capabilities so buyers often make decisions based on which has their favourite software.

Quirky PlayStation exclusives like The Tomorrow Children - a Soviet-themed sandbox title described by creator Q-Games as a Marxism simulator - can sway potential customers away from the Xbox One.

"Because the machines are so similar now, it all comes down to content," says Alexander de Giorgio, chief operating officer at Inflexion Point Capital, a fund that invests in independent mobile game developers.

Yoshida says Sony's indie strategy came into focus around 2010. As major publishers focused on their franchise titles, the rising popularity of smartphone games played on Apple's iPhones and devices using Google's Android threatened the future of consoles.

Hits like Rovio Entertainment's Angry Birds, which has amassed more than two billion downloads since late 2009, almost immediately threatened Sony's portable players.

Yoshida's answer has been to court indie developers with money and production support in return for some degree of exclusivity. Sony works with creators in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Yohei Kataoka came across Sony's developer programme in 2006, when he was a design-school student making real estate and car advertisement websites part-time. Despite earning as much as US$8,500 a month, he was bored and dreamed of creating his own video games.

The programme's main requirement was to pitch ideas unlike any existing game. Kataoka quit school to develop a proposal, and a few months later, Sony's stipend was paying rent for his start-up Crispy's and covering the salaries of four friends.

Tokyo Jungle, which went on sale in 2012, was set in a futuristic version of the Japanese capital abandoned by humans. The photo-realistic city is run by feral animals, which battle for survival and the chance to procreate.

The cover shows a forlorn Pomeranian, one of the main characters. The game became a critical and commercial success, selling more than 231,000 copies.

"If it wasn't for Sony, there's no way I would be doing this now," Kataoka says. "It was like an angel investment, something previously unheard of in the games industry."

Sony is a regular presence in the independent developer scene, sponsoring events including New York's IndieCade, Kyoto's BitSummit and the Tokyo Indie Fest.

And its involvement ensures a steady stream of content for PlayStation owners, including hits such as Journey. The desert-voyage game from Thatgamecompany won British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards in 2013, including for artistic achievement and game design.

If the PlayStation 4's features and Yoshida's tactics are any guide, the future will probably be very different from the solitary experience most people associate with gaming now.

PS4 users can broadcast their gameplay live on video platform Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. They can also share recorded footage on Facebook and Twitter, taking games beyond the confines of the home. Sony is also working on a virtual reality headset code-named Morpheus, a project that Yoshida is part of.

"It's all about ecosystems competing," Yoshida says.

"This goes for Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft. The platform encompasses content and services that run on your hardware, but also various partnerships. It's an interesting time, because your rivals can also be your partners."

Not that Yoshida takes it easy on the competition.

In a recent Twitter post, he defended PlayStation Portable against Apple's smartphone: "Does your iPhone have Uncharted?"

When one gamer asked his opinion of Xbox One, he replied: "Sorry I fell asleep. You asked about HTC One?"

His fans were delighted.

"Why can't every executive be like you?" one asked.

"They are adults," he replied.