The three weeks out of every month that Shuhei Yoshida's in Japan, he has the same routine every day. He wakes up, opens a tablet, and gets back to work on PlayStation consumer feedback via his favorite interaction tool: Twitter. The man who heads Sony's PlayStation group is incredibly, perhaps detrimentally, accessible on social media. It's not his job, but a role he's taken on. "It's my personal time, but since lots of people tweet to me, I'm doing this almost official customer service," he says.
After 20-plus years working on PlayStation, Yoshida's beyond overqualified for customer service. He's been with Sony's PlayStation arm from its creation, and helped shepherd franchises from idea to mainstream norms: Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, Uncharted. The list goes on.
Yoshida spoke with PlayStation 4 lead architect (and other game industry legend) Mark Cerny last evening in California, where he detailed his storied history in the game industry.
Before we get to that, though, it's important to establish that Yoshida is an incredibly prolific gamer. He owns two of every game console. Why? So he can play Japanese and US games alike. He also says that he's been banned from Nintendo's MiiVerse social network. Twice. "The first time was because I had my Twitter account in my profile and that's against the rules," he says. "The second time is because I wrote, 'I love PS.' You're not supposed to promote a commercial product in MiiVerse, so they correctly interpreted 'PS' as 'PlayStation,'" he says with a laugh.
Life Before Sony
Prior to joining Sony, Yoshida flirted with studying physics and the work of Einstein, but his dad quickly shot that down, pushing him to a more practical major. So in college he studied economics and business –- when he actually went, that is. He says that in Japan, business students don't really attend class, and that the four or five students who would, took notes and shared them with everyone who wasn't there. He spent six months working in Australia at the time, and when he got back to Japan he had all the answers to the tests waiting for him. "In my senior year in Japan, I didn't go to any classes at all."
Immediately after graduating, Yoshida joined Sony. In hindsight, his reasoning is a little selfish, though. Because his dad more or less forced him to switch majors, he wanted to get out of the country. "I wanted to run away from home as soon as possible because of that," he says, half-joking. "When I say this, it might sound incredible... but I was thinking, 'maybe Sony will make games in the future and when they do, I'm going to join that group.'"
Sony being an international company helped Yoshida make his decision, too. The firm sent him to study at UCLA for two years, and only then did he finally start learning about business principals like statistics and microeconomics. Since he was getting a paycheck, Yoshida had the resources to spend time traveling around the Western states and even Europe during summer break, when other students were typically working.
After graduating, he traveled back to Sony HQ in Japan where he spent nine months working with the PC group on a project that was ultimately cancelled. He bounced over to the corporate strategy group after that. It was here that he met then-Sony chairman Ken Kutaragi and work on the PlayStation began.
The formation of Sony Computer Entertainment
Sony Computer Entertainment, Yoshida says, started in Japan as a joint venture between Sony's hardware division and its music wing. In the team's early days, it approached signing and curating development teams much like it would a band -- something that Parappa the Rapper mastermind (and J-pop singer) Masaya Matsuura loved. The scrappy PlayStation team had a lot to learn from the game industry, Yoshida admits, but it wanted to create something new at the same time.
"We believed that a game could become entertainment for everyone," he says –- not just kids. "The reason the company was named Sony Computer Entertainment instead of Sony Game Company or something like that is because we believed that games could be bigger than they were."
Four years later, SCE had all of Japan's major publishers signed on to make games for the platform. Yoshida explains that the big thing for the market was getting the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest franchises on PlayStation, but after he'd achieved that goal he lost interest a bit. "What's next? We got all the support from the industry, where do we go?" he asks. It was then that he moved from business development to a producer role on the product side.
The Birth of Crash Bandicoot
If it wasn't for Nintendo, Crash Bandicoot might have been too difficult to play. Yoshida says that one of the benefits of being new on the scene was that Japanese publishers were keen to pass wisdom Sony's way. The Mario-house "really helped others" by using test feedback generated from consumers play-testing in-development games. "As soon as I moved into game production, I was the heaviest user of the (testing) group," he says.
Up to that point, Cerny says, his Crash Bandicoot team was making a game for seasoned gamers like themselves and it was too difficult for the average consumer or kid. "You (Yoshida) were not familiar with games, so you thought you had to do testing," Cerny says. "We were familiar, so we thought we didn't have to, ironically."
Cerny taking his input seriously and using Yoshida's testing more made Yoshida "so happy," he says. One of his associate producers would count every player-death and send it to Cerny, who'd then realize where a checkpoint should be added. "We started to think about difficulty. Are our games something consumers play?" Cerny asks. "The idea was you had to find real consumers, study their real behaviors and report back in."
Working with "The Father of PlayStation"
Yoshida spent 10 years working under Ken Kutaragi, and he admits that without him that PlayStation wouldn't have happened. Humbly, Yoshida says that without Kutaragi, he wouldn't have a job, either. "I have nothing but respect for what he has done for me," he says. At dinner once, Kutaragi turned to him and said that he knew Yoshida didn't necessarily like him, but he knew that Yoshida liked working for him because he could do exciting work as a result. "I said 'yes, exactly.'"
Working with Kutaragi was incredibly difficult, Yoshida says, because he could do an immediate 180 in terms of what he wanted. On the engineering team, trying to predict where he might alter direction was "a very difficult job," Yoshida says. "Every week his direction and instructions could change."
Also tough was that he struggled to give compliments to coworkers. "I was complimented by Ken twice!" says Yoshida. "When I say this to my colleagues, they say 'twice? That's a lot!'' Those flow much more freely from Yoshida. "For me, giving a complement is free, it's like a smile from McDonald's," he says. "But still, we all love Ken."
Working with Kutaragi was incredibly difficult, Yoshida says, because he could do an immediate 180 in terms of what he wanted.
After Phil Harrison's departure in 2008, Yoshida felt threatened by internal conversations at Sony that questioned the need for its worldwide studio team's existence. After consulting then-chairman Akira Sato, he pitched Kutaragi's successor Kaz Hirai on leading Sony Worldwide Studios. A few years later, work began on the PS Vita and PS4 -– with direct involvement from Yoshida's army of developers.
Enough digital ink's been spilled about the partnership between developers and the new PlayStation hardware team, though. What's notable in this story is that Worldwide Studios went from teetering on the brink of extinction to becoming the backbone of Sony Computer Entertainment in a few short years.
Sean Buckley and Ben Gilbert contributed to this post; Image Credit: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian.
Sony PlayStation 2 1st-gen
Sony PlayStation 3 (late 2012)
Sony PlayStation Vita PCH-2000