“Immersiveness has definitely been one of the megatrends in the gaming industry over the last 10 years or so,” said PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan in a broad-ranging interview with The Washington Post. “I think platform-level features like the ones you’d see such as 3D Audio and haptic feedback being put in the hands of a great game developer are going to allow this phenomenon of immersiveness [to be] taken to the next level. … I think you’re going to see something really powerful and really transformational quite quickly, and that impact will grow over the life of the platform."
Marketing a product meant to be held and experienced is of course a challenge given the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. The global impact of the coronavirus also threatened to slow production of next-gen consoles. However, Ryan remains confident on his earlier claim that more PlayStation 5 consoles will be available this holiday than there were PlayStation 4 units in 2013, despite widespread sell-outs of preorders at various retailers. Reaching this goal in 2020 in the middle of a global pandemic and all the logistical challenges that come with it is “not an experience that I ever plan to repeat ever again.”
Though immersion appears to be the focal point of Sony’s PS5 push, Ryan says there won’t be any immediate leaps forward from Sony in the most immersive gaming experience, virtual reality (VR). PlayStation was at the forefront of the virtual reality market for consoles, having launched a PSVR headset in 2016. While 5 million headsets were sold by January this year, sales were slowing in 2020. There are currently no public plans for a PS5-specific headset. Instead, Sony is offering adapters to use the PS4′s PSVR headset with the new console.
“I think we’re more than a few minutes from the future of VR,” Ryan said. “PlayStation believes in VR. Sony believes in VR, and we definitely believe at some point in the future, VR will represent a meaningful component of interactive entertainment. Will it be this year? No. Will it be next year? No. But will it come at some stage? We believe that. And we’re very pleased with all the experience that we’ve gained with PlayStation VR, and we look forwarding to seeing where that takes us in the future.”
Ryan said he’s hopeful Sony will increase its paying online base. PlayStation Network is a free online service to every PlayStation 4 owner, and as of June, 45 million of the 113 million PSN members were paying subscribers to the PlayStation Plus plan, which offers broader access to multiplayer features and at least two free games a month. Although less than half of PS4 owners pay for online services, Ryan is encouraged by the growth.
“If you go back to 2014 and asked people why they subscribe to PlayStation Plus, the No. 1 reason that they gave was that they needed it in order to be able to play online multiplayer with their friends,” he said. “Now when you ask them the same question in 2020, the No. 1 answer is ‘because of the quality of the two free games I get every month.’ And that’s a very significant transformation.”
The PS5 will also offer 20 free top-tier PS4 games for every subscriber, giving new PlayStation players the chance to catch up on past games. Beyond the value add for potential buyers, it’s also an opportunity for Sony to celebrate its own rich library of first-party efforts like “Uncharted 4” and “The Last of Us.” Ryan saw Microsoft’s megaton acquisition of Bethesda Softworks, developers of the “Elder Scrolls” and “Fallout” series, as a “logical step for them to follow” when it purchased parent company ZeniMax Media in September for $7.5 billion. While Sony has 14 first-party studios of its own, less than Xbox at the moment, several of them have established themselves as top-tier industry talent.
“It reflects in the quality and quantity of the launch window lineup we have with PlayStation 5, vastly different to what we had the last time around, and the time before that, and the time before that,” Ryan said. “And that’s really reflective of not a major acquisition, but steady, thoughtful, constant organic growth and investment in the studios."
While the first two PlayStations grew a loyal fan base, titles for PlayStation 3 really started to crystallize what a “Sony first-party game” looked and felt like, furthering the console’s appeal to consumers. “The Last of Us” for the third console ushered in a new age of luxuriously animated and gripping single-player stories. Guerrilla Games followed up with “Horizon Zero Dawn” for the PlayStation 4, as did Santa Monica Studios with “God of War.” Now, Insomniac is releasing “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” and “Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart” in the PS5 launch window. Both titles feature elements that heavily lean into the immersive world Sony is seeking to create with its latest console. Ryan said you can expect this trend to continue, particularly since it supports the company’s overall sensory engagement messaging.
“Storytelling and narratives are typically much much more powerful and effective when they’re credible and when they’re realistic,” Ryan said. “So there’s this kind of happy sort of synergy between technology progress and our great ability to tell stories. I see that’s a trend that will only continue. And another reason it will only continue is that every time our studios do this, they get better at it. They become more experienced and they understand what works and doesn’t work. And the storytelling improves.”
An earlier version of this article attributed the lack of publicly known plans for a PlayStation 5-specific headset to Jim Ryan. Ryan did not specifically address the issue of a PS5 VR headset. Sony has not made any public comment on any such plans to date.