Engadget interview: SCEA's Jack Tretton talks Sony NGP, announces (and then un-announces) PlayStation Suite for PS3

Ever since his candid and humorous E3 2009 Sony keynote introduction -- wherein he thanked the audience for showing up despite the big news (PSP Go) having already been leaked -- we've always had something of a soft spot for Jack Tretton. We managed to have a sit-down with the SCEA President-CEO following the company's big Tokyo meeting, a non-working NGP unit in tow. For a brief moment, Tretton "confirmed" that PlayStation Suite games (currently slated for Android devices) would work on PlayStation 3. We asked rather directly, to which he responded, "Yes, they will. Yeah." By the next question, however, he explained that he might've misspoken and wanted to clarify that Suite is only NGP right now. It should come as no surprise, then, that there was no talk of Suite for any other devices, be it Bravia sets or Google TV. Tretton said there was at least one compatible Android device currently on the market but wouldn't elaborate -- given the 2.3 requirement, we're presuming he meant the Nexus S.

We weren't able to get him to budge on the issue of the NGP's price, but we did ask him to opine on the Nintendo 3DS's $250 tag. Instead of offering friendly competitive jabs, he said only, "I think if the quality's there, then the people will find a way to buy it, within reason... I think that if you could create content that consumers see as compelling, they'll find money that they didn't think they had." A bit too reminiscent of former boss Ken Kutaragi's old adages, but hey, it's not like we expected a sub-$300 sticker, anyway. Some other highlights:

  • Tretton wouldn't definitively say whether or not original PSP titles are in Suite's future -- "at this point, it's PlayStation One games, but I think it can go in a number of directions." This runs a bit counter to what Kaz Hirai said earlier in the day, but either he might've misspoken or the translator erred.

  • The controller overlay we saw used as an example at the event was just that -- an example, with no guarantee of future use.

  • That "holiday 2011" launch applies to at least one territory, but Sony was "ambiguous for a reason" (i.e. simultaneous global rollout is a dream but far from a promise.) We probably won't have a clearer image until fall rolls around, sometime after E3.

  • No discussion on battery life, but Sony is "certainly look to improve upon [original PSP]." For what it's worth, that one measured about 4.5 to 7 hours at launch, and Sony eventually sold an extended-life pack.

  • PS Suite will have non-gaming apps.

  • A WiFi-only version? "We haven't made any determination on models yet," which is infinitely more vague than the confirmation of non-3G SKUs from SCEE president Andrew House.

  • Will Sony or a Sony partner make a flagship device to show off the Suite? A, dare we say, PlayStation phone? "Stay tuned" was all Tretton would say, followed by a laugh. Hey, at least we acknowledged the elephant in the room.

Full transcription after the break.

Ross [motions to the NGP]. So this is obviously not a working unit.

No, no, literally all the buttons are frozen. It is to scale in terms of weight, but the analog sticks [work and] you get a feel for it, but all the rest of the buttons are frozen.

Ross: It's pretty nice, seems just a little wider than a PSP one? Is that right?

Yeah, yeah, I can't give you the technical differences, but it's obviously got a five-inch screen as opposed to a four-inch PSP screen.

Ross: Right. So the first thing I want to talk about before we go into that is PlayStation Suite. We [Paul Miller and I] were talking earlier, and we thought it was one of the smartest thing you guys could do. When we originally heard whispers, we thought it'd be something you never do, but well, you seem to have pulled it off. Are you working specifically with Google? Have you had any talk with them?

Yeah, we definitely have worked closely with Google and I think it was through a number of conversation that we came up with the concept of PS Suite and a PlayStation Store on Android devices that were the best fit for us and for them. I'm glad you're sold on it, and I'm glad you get it, because I think we've never been about the status quo. We've always been about, what is the market? What is the opportunity? Seize the opportunity and differentiate yourself. To sit there and stick your head in the sand and say, "smartphones are irrelevant, there are no other gaming mediums," I think would be foolish, and it would be a disadvantage for us, because we have all these great games. We have this great gaming heritage.

If you truly believe in your brand and you truly believe in your technology, expose yourself to as many consumers as possible, so hopefully PlayStation Suite introduces people to the PlayStation brand and ultimately they follow the breadcrumbs back to NGP and to our other devices. We've got this huge library of PlayStation One games that are tremendous games, especially when compared to a lot of the other stuff you're seeing on smartphones. That already sets the bar very, very, high.

Ross: You're saying PSOne games. What about PSP titles? Are those ever gonna be on the Suite?

At this point, it's Playstation One games, but I think it can go in a number of directions. The PSOne games are already state-of-the-art compared to what a number of consumers get with that type of investment on a smartphone. It's gonna set a level that'll force other games to measure themselves against, in terms of what they can economically justify. I would stack a lot of those PSOne experiences very fairly against what people are spending good money on [with smartphone titles], and I think it is a buyer beware market because there's no standard. Anybody puts anything out they want out on a smartphone and you don't know what you get until you buy it. I hope with the credibility of the PlayStation Suite, there'll be an expectation that we can execute against in terms of quality.

Paul: So you'll be expanding. You guys said you'll be expanding to more developers --


Paul: -- and I'm sure you'll trying to get more iPhone and Android developers on [the Suite platform], but you'll still be vetting the games.

Yeah, it's not exactly a new foray for us. It's a new foray on mobile phones, but obviously we have [PlayStation] Minis and we have the PlayStation Network, so we've got a lot of experience with people who are getting involved with portable devices and consoles for the first time. Some of them might have started out on iPhone or other devices. Some of them may be doing their first game on our phone, but I think we've created... not us alone, but I think there was a concern several years ago that it was only going to be big studios doing big budget games that had narrow genres.

It's the same concern people had about the movie business, and now with things like the PlayStation Network and smaller digital games, you've really gotta great breeding ground for development and we've reaped great dividends, and not only great content but great developers that have gone on to do bigger and better games, and we never would've gotten the opportunity to know them if it wasn't for things like Minis and PlayStation Network. So I think PlayStation Suite expands that even more.

Ross: One thing we're kind of curious about: what are the minimum requirements for a device that uses Suite?

Technically, I don't know. I think there's a lot to be worked out, because there may be a controller feature set required to play the game, and I think the last thing we want to do is get into a gaming experience that can't be done properly given the control capabilities of the device, so that's all going to be worked out. There's not a set of definitive standards that I can talk to you about.

Paul: You guys showed the controller overlay and that screenshot of the snowboarding game. That's not necessarily the final design?

That's a case example. It's not something that'll apply to every game and every Android device. I think it's gonna vary by publisher, by game. and it's certainly gonna be something that we're involved in but i think it's gonna vary.

Ross: Is there a device out there right now on which the PlayStation Suite definitely could work?

There are, but candidly, I'm not spending a lot of my time going into [that]. We have a group dedicated to not only finding content for PlayStation Suite but also working with the carriers to identify devices that make sense. So no, I can't name one, but that doesn't mean there isn't one out there.

Paul: How about the [Sony Ericsson] Xperia X10?

Who knows. I'm not informed to the point where I can give you information that you can take to the bank, and I don't want to give you bad information.

Ross: Let's put it this way. Google always makes a flagship device to showcase its Android improvements -- the G1, Nexus One, Nexus S, and so on. Will Sony or maybe a Sony partner produce a flagship PS Suite model? You have the benefit of Sony Ericsson. Will we see, I dare ask, a PlayStation phone?

The term I would use is "stay tuned." [laughter]

Ross: We had to ask, of course.

Paul: Will PlayStation Suite games run on the PlayStation 3?

[Long pause] Yes, they will. Yeah.* [Note: almost instantly refuted. Keep reading.]

Ross: Is that something planned from when the Suite launches? That it would be on the PS3?

Yeah, I think the hope is... and I shouldn't say yes we will. I mean, it's gonna vary. I think the intention is and the public statement today is, NGP PlayStation Suite available... on whatever Android phones we select and all NGP. So PlayStation Suite will work on NGP, some Android phones, and [with] PlayStation 3 I might've misspoken.

[The PR rep notes that she wouldn't see why not but will find out for us.]

Paul: Are there features in the PlayStation Suite that do take advantage of the touchscreen? Obviously there's a touchscreen on most Android devices.

Potentially yes, but like I said, I can't tell you it's gonna be this standard. It's gonna have this functionality.

Ross: Let's talk about launch. You're saying holiday season. Is that global or just Japan?

Nothing more than we said. I know that's rather ambiguous, and that's for a reason. I think our goal is always to launch holidays when the majority of sales are done. You want to have a worldwide simultaneous launch. Having said that, this'll be our sixth platform launch, and it's very difficult to have the quantities to be able to launch on a worldwide basis on the same date. So while that's the goal, the reality might be something different. I think our goal is, we would get at least one territory out by the end of holiday 2011.

Ross: Will you know for sure by, say, E3?

We probably won't know until fall. You know, I don't know that we'd have more detail for you at E3.

Paul: Do you know any specific parts that might make it difficult to get volume (in production)?

I hope not, although I think when you're dealing with new technology, there's always challenges you didn't anticipate.

Paul: And there is some new technology in here.

Oh, there's a ton of new technology, but I think we've been about reaching beyond the status quo and delivering technology that people couldn't even envision, and with that comes risk. I think PlayStation 3 is the biggest technological achievement we've ever had, and it wasn't without challenges both financially and from a production standpoint. I think at the end of the day it was worth it, but I think it certainly made for some difficult challenges. I think we'd look to avoid repeating that, but when you're dealing with new technology there are always road blocks.

Ross: It does have a very impressive and powerful processor. Do you know any goals for battery life?

Nothing we can talk about today, but I think we listen to all the feedback on our devices, positive and negative. We know that battery life was a concern on PSP, and we certainly look to improve upon that, but no details yet.

Ross: Battery life is something Nintendo's taking a beating for with its 3DS -- among other reasons. Price being one of them. What do you think of the 3DS' $250 price tag?

You know, I'm not an expert on the 3DS. I've seen the screen. I haven't played it. I think that if you could create content that consumers sees compelling, they'll find money that they didn't think they had. I think the more recent example of that was Kinect. I didn't think people would go out and spend $150 for that device and they did -- and that's a peripheral at the end of the day. So I think if the quality's there, then the people will find a way to buy it, within reason.

Paul: You guys did have trouble with that price point with the PSP Go.

Yeah, we were at $249... you know, I think price was a barrier to a degree, but I don't know that we really saw it as being "gating." I think we have a long history of publishing devices, quite frankly, at a loss. Reaching production efficiencies that allowed us to get more attractive prices, but I think it's always difficult at launch.

Paul: Obviously you can't say a price right now -- unless you would like to say a price?

No, I can't. [laughter]

Paul: But there's a big fear, I think, that this is probably going to be pretty expensive, especially with the 5-inch screen and 3G. Is there going to be a WiFi-only model?

We haven't made any determination on models yet. Suffice to say, we've been doing this a while, we've got a lot of experience -- not only in individual markets but on a worldwide basis. I think we'll hopefully strike the balance that will allow us to be successful financially and commercially -- and one without the other isn't good.

Paul: It's been a little bit tough because the PlayStation 3 launched at, I think, a pretty high price --


Paul: A lot of people had trouble with it.


Paul: And the PSP Go, more recently... this looks really expensive. Maybe the PlayStation Suite will hopefully help you with this, in terms of an alternative.

Well, the goal is that people will appreciate the quality and the technology, and it's aspirational. First you create the market where people want it, and then you try to achieve a price that's within reach... So I think we certainly got people's attention with the technology. They can see the quality, they can see the value there. It's a question of whether we can bring it in at a price that compels them to want and go out and buy it. That's the goal.

Ross: Would you be interested in working with US carriers to offer a subsidized model?

I think we're just interested in delivering a good quality device with something developers are excited about, consumers are excited about, and is financially viable for everybody involved. That's the goal, and beyond that I don't really have any details for you.

Ross: You can't say whether or not you're exploring subsidized options with carriers?

No, I can't. I can't.

Ross: Let's talk about the new memory card. Is that just an SD card? Or is it a little longer?

At this point all we're saying is it is proprietary storage capabilities, we're not getting into defining what it is yet.

Ross: Was there internal storage mentioned?

Not that I'm aware of.

Ross: How do you feel the PlayStation brand can work in other industries? Obviously Sony keeps them very divided, Bravia is for TVs, PlayStation is gaming, Xperia is mobile -- do you think PlayStation is a brand that works in other industries beside gaming?

I think it does. I mean, gaming is now mainstream entertainment. It used to be... you don't have to go back very far to where people considered gaming a toy and a fad. And then it evolved to something where, okay, it's something for 12-to-18-year-old boys, and now it's evolved to mainstream entertainment, so I think because it's entertainment, it's young / old / male / female / casual / core, I think it's something that you could see in other devices.

Currently you're seeing the PlayStation Network appearing on other devices. It's officially called Qriocity, but I think the experience is something that PlayStation consumers are probably the biggest potential consumers of, rather than somebody who has never had an experience with the offerings that are on that network. So I think it definitely crosses over. But I do think it stands for gaming, we worked very hard to do that. That's our core DNA, so I would not want to have PlayStation Toasters. It should have a gaming core, a gaming DNA to it, if it's going to have the PlayStation name on it.

Paul: The toasters would have some really good specs.

Some really good games, yeah.

Ross: If I want to make breakfast and play Uncharted, that's my all-in-one item.

Right, make your toast and play your game.

Paul: Are you guys at all thinking about bringing the PS Suite to Bravia or Google TV devices that you have?

Not at this time, but digital devices have digital capabilities. The thing that I think is great, and I'm really proud of, is that most of the evolution that's going on in digital content, whether it's Google TV or TVs with internet capabilities or Blu-ray players with internet capabilities, that's existed since day one in the PlayStation 3. So as a citizen of Sony I'd say "wow, it's great that people have the opportunity to access the internet through their TV," but if you had a PlayStation 3, you had it from the day you bought it. I've yet to see any evolution in that area that isn't already possible and already exists on the PlayStation 3.

Paul: On that front, a lot of people have asked for Google TV on the PS3, is that something that you guys are at all talking to Google about? Is there a way that you could bring that experience, or at least like a WebKit browser --

Yeah, I honestly don't know the answer to that. Obviously there's a difference between technically possible and whether you're discussing it or whether you think it's commercially viable, or whether it's blurring the lines too much. I mean, I think that's one of the challenges that we have for the non-gamer with PlayStation 3. The good news is that it has so many features and entertainment opportunities that it's viable on a number of fronts, the bad news is that it's tough to package it in a catchphrase and have everybody get it and say 'I've gotta have it right now.' There's a number of reasons the PlayStation 3, first and foremost, hopefully that's the ultimate console gaming experience, but if you're not a gamer there's a 10 minute education you have to go through to ultimately sell them a PlayStation 3.

Paul: I noticed the NGP doesn't have the XMB -- it's a different UI.

It's a different UI, and that's the best way to put it.

Paul: Is that specifically to address a larger cross section of consumers?

It's a new UI dedicated to NGP. In terms of the philosophy behind it, there's not really anything I can elaborate on. Not because I can't share it, but because I can't honestly answer. The decision was made that that was a UI that would be more appropriate for the device.

Paul: I also see this screen size as something -- that this is less of a gaming device and more of a movie device, again to just broaden its possibilities.

I think the key is: can you deliver on something that exceeds the competitive standard right now, and clearly we've done that. Whether it's for gaming or non-gaming, I think that screen is limitless in terms of what it delivers, and I don't think there's a downside to it -- other than it's bigger in your pocket. But I always thought that was really strange: we all invest a lot of money in portable devices, I don't carry it around like my keys. We pay good money for this stuff, so we tend to protect it pretty well, so it's not like your comb in your back pocket.

Ross: I was really impressed by the viewing angles, by the way.

Yeah, that's the cool thing.

Paul: Can I put this in my pocket?

Sure. [Paul picks it up and puts it in his pocket. Of course.]

Ross: He's probably going to run out, so you might want to lock the door. What about apps -- non-gaming apps -- for the Suite? Is that something you guys are considering?


Paul: Non-gaming apps in the PS Suite? Or non-gaming apps on the NGP.


[Sony's PR rep clarifies that PS Suite is "only NGP" right now."]

Ross: Jack, it's always a pleasure.

Pleasure, guys. Great stuff.

Ross: I still remember in E3 2009 when you came up and had a big joke about the whole secrecy thing... it was a pleasure to hear that.

Well it's great to hear you say that, because I believe when the elephant's in the room you might as well acknowledge it, right? It's amazing in this business.

Ross: I don't know if there's any other elephants in the room, but maybe we'll find out in a couple months, I don't know...

None that I know of! But...

Paul: You'll keep your eye out, right?


Ross: You wouldn't happened to have read Engadget sometime before noon today?

Additional reporting and questioning expertise from the infamous Paul Miller (no relation).