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June 10, 2014 at 5:23 PM

E3: Sony exec on “Destiny,” virtual reality and staying ahead of Xbox

LOS ANGELES — John Koller may be the biggest fan of “Destiny,” the sci-fi shooter that Bellevue game studio Bungie is releasing in September.

Koller, head of marketing for Sony’s PlayStation, expects the game, built by a team of Microsoft veterans, will give his hardware sales an extra boost.

In the current console generation, Sony already is a lap ahead of Microsoft, having sold 7 million PS4s to Microsoft’s 5 million Xbox Ones as of April, but Koller said the race has just begun.

John Koller. Sony image.

John Koller. Sony image.

Sony also is upping its game with new gadgets at this year’s E3 game show, including “Morpheus” virtual reality headsets that may not go on sale for another year or two and a U.S. version of a $99 mini-console called the PlayStation TV going on sale this fall.

Morpheus demos include a session in which players are knights wielding swords, a mace and a crossbow to attack a dummy suit of armor. Then a giant dragon fills much of the immersive display. There’s also a simulator that puts players in the cockpit of a spaceship flying around a space station and through asteroids, and a street luge demo in which you lie back and race down a mountain road, turning and swerving past cars by tilting your head from side to side.

“We wanted to do this and make this about the future of gaming,” Koller said during an interview Tuesday. He also talked about the potential of “Destiny” and competing against Microsoft and Nintendo. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

Q: In contrast to Microsoft, you’re showing off far-out stuff like Morpheus.

A: We feel very strongly that you need to show people where you’re going and the future of gaming lives on PlayStation, so somebody buying the platform knows that a year from now, we’ve got their back. You want to give them the long-tail reason of ownership, and Morpheus is one of those. I think it’s just such a great experience.

Q: How is Sony going to keep its current lead over Xbox?

A: I’ll use the old line: It’s a marathon not a sprint. We like our position. For us it’s about our stance. We’ve been very, very strongly behind “we stand for gamers.”

We have a pretty advanced sense of analytics we apply against each of those decisions so that we know what the gamer is asking for and can make those decisions appropriately — the right kind of content at the right time for the right person in the market at that particular point in time. It’s become much more advanced that way so we aren’t just guessing.

Q:  Are we still in a launch bubble or have we moved into the regular seasonal cadence of console sales?

A:  I think we’re still in it. We still see that there’s what we call the connoisseur of gaming — the harder core consumer — still in the market. And as long as they’re still searching in the market for which platform to go with, we’re still in that launch window.

Towards the holiday, you start seeing more of those groups of gamers entering the market – that come as one and want to play together, maybe in a game like “Destiny.”

Q: Will holidays be as big this year as they were in 2013, when you launched the PS4?

A: Holidays I think will be very good. We’ll have the “Destiny” bundle which should have a ton of momentum behind it. It’s a content year, right?

This is a year for us to showcase all the promises we made to gamers, which were “we’re for you, we’ve invested heavily in first- and third-party [games],” and this is the time to show that.

Q: So you’re got big franchises like “Uncharted” and “Batman” next year, and then in 2016 you roll with Morpheus and virtual reality?

A: It’s always going to be content. That continuum for content will be every year, we want to have really big, bespoke content set pieces. But you also want to add in innovation. Morpheus is a good example of that. We haven’t announced any dates on that yet.

Q: Your “Move” motion controllers were cool, too, but they never took off. Why will Morpheus be different?

A: I think this is a much different proposition. You’re placed in that world, you’re placed on that luge or in the shark tank. You are fully immersed in a world you used to just see on a screen, in front of you.

Q: How about PS4 entertainment features? Microsoft may have played that card too early on the Xbox One. When will you play that card?

A: We’ve already played some of it. We’ve been very open about the original content series we have. We’ve talked a little about digital apps. The point is we look through the gaming prism first and foremost.

The white PlayStation being sold in a "Destiny" bundle, with a PlayStation TV mini console in the foreground, at right.

The white PlayStation being sold in a “Destiny” bundle, with a PlayStation TV mini console in the foreground, at right.

Q: On the PlayStation TV, will you have the standard suite of video apps — Netflix, Hulu and YouTube — so it can compete with Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV?

A: PlayStation TV is going to have a suite of apps, which we haven’t announced yet. The bigger opportunity for it is around playing PlayStation games on a small console, as opposed to what you see competitively, which are not large, bespoke games. Those are maybe games you would play on mobile or tablet that are brought to a big screen. These are actual PlayStation games.

We think it’s positioned very well for the family audience. That’s our primary audience, the 6 to 12 year old, paired with a family, playing together locally. That’s why we put “Lego the Movie” with the bundle. The secondary use is for a PlayStation 4 owner who can use it as a box in another room.

Q: Like the basic $90 Wii that Nintendo’s now selling?

A: Price points are important in that segment.

Q: Amazon is adding games to its Fire TV; maybe they have the same market research on 6- to 12-year-olds?

A: I’m not totally sure what they’re doing but on our side, we think that the larger games, not just Android games, but the larger games, matter. You want the depth of game-play.

Q: Let’s talk about Bungie’s “Destiny.” As I wrote yesterday, Sony seems gleeful to have that studio — a former Microsoft crown jewel — at its disposal. What will it do for your hardware sales?

A: I think it’s a considerable jump for us, or adoption potential, because we have the agreement with Bungie. I’ll tell you, to that point, in my career here, this is one of the really great things — to have a partnership with Bungie and PlayStation.

Being able to work together with the incredibly talented people at Bungie is a real joy. This game particularly is so adherent to the fact that we all need to play together. I think “Destiny” is going to be a game people look back on and say it helped define the first few years of the PlayStation 4.

Q: Like the way Bungie’s “Halo” defined the first few years of the Xbox?

A: Maybe in a little bit of a different way because there were different circumstances then, but the fact that Destiny can come in at this point in time, less than a year into our lifecycle, and help define what playing socially means in a different way — a connected way — we’re going to look back and see “Destiny” as one of those franchises that crosses over generations and also defines this one.

Q: You must think it’s sweet revenge since Bungie helped establish the Xbox as a viable alternative to the PlayStation.

A: It’s not necessarily a pride thing as much as being able to utilize the incredible talents, because we never had that available to us. All of us have played “Halo”; we all understand what they’ve done.

Q: Will “Destiny” be as big on your platform as “Call of Duty”?

A: I’ll leave the sales answer aside, but I think it has the potential to help define a generation like “Call of Duty” did last time. It’s an exceptionally deep, rich game that’s relatively easy to come into from a variety of different points.

Q: Can you talk generally about the state of the industry? it seems that clouds have cleared and it’s clear sailing for consoles for a few years. Is that right?

A: I think the industry is going to see a pretty strong console adoption at least over the next few years. As long as I’ve been in the industry there’s been “the consoles are dying.”

They’ve not only not gone away but they have been enhanced. The market’s up year over year; this generation has been fantastic, a fantastic start to it. I think the next few years are going to be defined by the great experiences you can only play on consoles.

We get a lot of questions from people about, “Well, aren’t you seeing mobile and tablet come in and take time away?” We’re not. Wwe’re seeing our time grow, time spent on PS4. What it says to us is that cannibalization isn’t happening. In fact we’re seeing it be incremental. People are using that game app or PlayStation app to enhance their experience.

Q: Apple is making moves to increase its presence in gaming. Are they coming into your space?

A: I don’t know what they’re going to do. The difficulty in breaking into this category — for console particularly — is you need the development; you need a range. What we have on the PlayStation side ares those really large development experiences like a “Destiny” and then we have a great range of indies and free-to-play and small developers, which are differentiated from what you’d get on mobile. The diversity of content is really something only consoles can bring right now.

Q: Do you think Nintendo’s going to come back with the Wii U announcements it made today?

A: It’s always a good thing when we have a vibrant, competitive set in this industry. It’s always good to have competition.

Q: They seem to have had challenges getting software out on their new platform,  just as Sony did when it launched the PS3, which was then an entirely new system, complicated, and took awhile to get sorted out?

A: It does speak to the fact that when you make the right decisions for a particular segment … you can make the right content decisions. The way we’ve looked at it is we say, at what point in time is this consumer going to be in market? We’ll bring this game to them at this point in time.

A TV reporter tries out Sony's Morpheus virtual-reality headset, with help from Sony product developer Richard Marks.

A TV reporter tries out Sony’s Morpheus virtual-reality headset, with help from Sony product developer Richard Marks.

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