The PlayStation Brand Needs a New Face
Three years of arrogance, ineptitude and poor marketing are enough
Before we even get started, this is not a reaction brought on solely by the latest inexplicable gaffe by Sony Interactive Entertainment's CEO, Jim Ryan. Regardless of his politics when it comes to abortion, or Sony's for that matter, this new headline-grabbing mess is simply the latest symptom of the larger problem and the proverbial straw for an already crippled camel.
Ryan's three-year tenure as CEO, and more importantly as the face of the PlayStation brand, has led to a Sony that seems arrogant, aloof, and unconcerned with speaking to their fans at a time when they face a near-existential threat from Microsoft. They seem to think themselves invincible after the massive success of the PS4 generation. Are they so short-sighted to forget the lessons of the PS3 years, which saw severe missteps in the early going that led to a mad scramble to catch up through the next six years?
Ryan himself gives the impression of being a media-trained bean counter with absolutely no personality and even fewer bona fides in gaming. You'll be hard-pressed to find a PlayStation fan who believes he actually plays games at all. Hardcore gamers can smell a fake from miles away and they sniffed out Ryan very quickly upon his ascension to the throne.
As evidence, I submit the picture that quickly turned into a meme lampooning Ryan and Sony. If this was meant to show fans that Ryan really is "one of us", playing and loving all the games they do, then someone in Sony's marketing department failed in spectacular fashion.
Add that to Ryan's much-maligned "why would anybody play this" comment from 2017, regarding PlayStation's catalog of classic games, and it's clear that the boss just isn't on the same page with the fans. Regardless of what the data says, fans want to be able to play their old games or at least have the option to do so. Forgetting that people play games for more than just the latest shiny tech and gorgeous graphics is a fatal move in the eyes of many gamers, and gives truth to their fear that Sony is simply out of touch in this day and age.
It's been less than three years since Shawn Layden last appeared on stage for Sony, but it might as well be a millennia ago. E3 showcases and PlayStation Experience have been replaced with soulless canned videos that make up the State of Play initiative with which Sony replaced their appearances at most major festivals. This is how Sony makes most of its announcements these days, and they almost always leave their fans begging for more, or at least something more meaningful.
I'll be the first to admit that fan expectations are often wildly out of whack, and basing any decisions on Twitter reaction is a losing game. None of that obscures the fact that all the fun and heart have been drained from Sony's marketing and interactions with fans.
Long gone are the days of Kevin Butler and the "It Only Does Everything" campaign. In its place was a bizarre three-minute commercial with people playing chess, no dialogue, and no games.
Sony's modus operandi now is to announce things and then ignore them for months on end, leaving fans with nothing to grasp onto. They lost the advantage they held in the streaming-tech wars, ceding that ground to Microsoft. And they are just getting around to combining two long-underperforming services into one bigger one that - wait for it - they've barely said anything about!
Now with this latest mistake, Ryan has upset not only fans but Sony employees. Many of those people are the same game-making talent that PlayStation has been desperately trying to acquire and keep happy in the current environment of empowered workers. Talented developers are in such demand right now that giving them any reason to jump ship could be a deadly misstep for a publisher. trying to keep pace with its competition. Sony themselves spent $1 billion to ensure that Destiny developer Bungie's employees would stay put after the Japanese giant acquired the studio earlier this year.
So with gamers and employees upset over the various issues of the last three years, what does Sony do? Can they afford to look the other way and let Ryan keep throwing out wooden on-stage performances and interviews with outlets that none of their fans read anymore (GQ and Wired seem to be his favorites for when he wants to be heard)? Or do they admit their mistake, cut bait, and move on?
At the very least, they should keep Jim Ryan away from the media spotlight. For years before the creation of SIE, the face of PlayStation was the head of Worldwide Studios. Today that person is Hermen Hulst, former head of celebrated Sony first-party studio Guerilla Games. He is charismatic, personable, great on camera, and he actually knows and plays games! He appears on most of the Sony videos in some way or another, so why not let him take the lead?
They could even bring back the beloved Shuhei Yoshida from his seeming banishment to the wildlands of PlayStation Indies. Once the head of Worldwide Studios, Yoshida had a cult following and fanbase that seemed to rival the system and games themselves. We may never know why he was demoted, but the media loves him and he clearly loves the product and the people who make them.
The world needs bean counters, and it would be foolish to argue that Jim Ryan's tenure has been completely futile. PlayStation has seen the PS5 outpace all their other consoles in initial sales in the middle of a pandemic and supply constraints that could have been completely disastrous. He has also led the charge in a time of unprecedented upheaval with developers and studio employees, along with the aforementioned push by Microsoft to consolidate much of the industry within their walls.
That said, not every CEO needs to be the face of a company and public perception matters. If the fans you depend on to buy systems and games aren't happy, and if they are looking across the way thinking the grass is greener in Redmond, Washington, that can't be ignored.
Sony has what they believe is the best tech and the best games, but they still have to prove it and show it to the fans. In the social media age, that has to be a constant pursuit, not something you only do when you have a big announcement. Make the fans happy and they become your best marketers, but leave them alone too long and they could become your biggest detractors.
Whatever Sony decides to do, it doesn't seem sustainable to keep on with the current status quo. Fair or not, they are losing the PR battle to Microsoft and their Game Pass service. With supplies of next-gen consoles still severely constrained, they need to cater to their current fans and the "yet to choose" crowd more than ever. They simply cannot afford to stick their head in the sand and think that all is good while they and Jim Ryan alienate more fans and employees each day.
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