This week’s PS5 showcase and subsequent interviews have shown that Jim Ryan is not a good face for PlayStation. Look, I’ve got nothing against him. I’m sure he’s a nice enough dude, and he’s clearly got some level of business acumen for the PlayStation brand to be President and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment. The guy successfully spearheaded the EU PlayStation market’s commanding presence before his promotion, after all. I’m not saying Ryan shouldn’t be in his position, but he’s not the right mouthpiece for Sony and PlayStation right now. He’s a businessman, first and foremost, and he needs to step out of the spotlight, embrace his team’s strengths, and let other more relatable PlayStation executives do the talking.
PlayStation is at its best when it’s focusing on the games and gamers. Fans don’t want a company that talks at them. They want someone who will converse with them; a relatable face and voice that makes them feel like the brand is a peer. When people like Shawn Layden, Adam Boyes, Shuhei Yoshida, and Gio Corsi took the stage, there was this sense of comfort and relatability. They each had a way of speaking—in their own individual ways—that relayed their own excitement for video games and the PlayStation brand, connecting with the players on a level that PlayStation’s executive team just isn’t achieving right now. These were people who were excited about games! They played games! PlayStation was them, and they were us.
I’ll never forget Adam Boyes’ Destiny fanboy moments, Gio Corsi’s ongoing championing of the Vita, or Shuhei Yoshida’s infectious excitement about new games (plus the guy is a beast at notoriously difficult titles like Bloodborne). I’ll always remember rubbing shoulders and having a beer with Shawn Layden at PlayStation Experience 2014, where he told me that the celebration of games and gamers was because the company believed you had to “dance with the girl that brought ya,” meaning it was the players who got Sony and PlayStation here. PlayStation Experience was a herald of that relatability, something I once described as Sony saying “come in friends, and make yourself at home.”
When Ryan took over in early 2019, he replaced then President and CEO John Kodera, who wasn’t exactly a household name. Kodera was rarely, if ever, the one to get on stage himself, leaning on his team of executives to be the “faces” of PlayStation. And that’s an aspect PlayStation is sorely missing right now: a face. For the last decade, there was a long list of names populating the “face of PlayStation” category. People like Boyes and Yoshida and their infamous “how to share a game on PS4” video. I just can’t see Jim Ryan pulling that kind of thing off.
Even executives like Andrew House and Jack Tretton, while maintaining a more high-level corporate veneer, managed to get on the players’ level in their interactions with consumers. In 2013, Andrew House came across as legitimately excited for the PS4 at Sony’s press conference. This week, Jim Ryan came across as excited for the execution of the PS5 business strategy during the PS5 showcase. It’s a subtle lane shift, but one that makes a huge difference in perception of the PS5 as a product versus encapsulating the PlayStation experience.
Games are a Business, but the Business is Games
Ryan doesn’t project himself as a gamer, or relatable to the PlayStation audience. He comes across as a businessman, making strategic decisions. Yes, that’s what the business needs, but it’s not the side of PlayStation the audience wants to see or hear from. We don’t want Ryan’s cold corporate PR strategy. He’s been notorious for the countless gaffes he’s made in interviews and presentations over the years, projecting a bit too much of the “business of PlayStation,” and not focusing on relatability with the players. He’s talked down on indie games and blatantly said he doesn’t see why anyone would want to play old games via backwards compatibility. His impetuous foot-in-mouth comments continue to this day, with multiple things said in interviews just since the PS5’s price reveal that haven’t come across as he probably intended them.
He’s also hogging the spotlight a bit too much with the PS5 launch. I remember the lead up to the PS4 launch, which was filled with Sony executives excitedly talking about it. We heard from everyone: Jack Tretton, Andrew House, Mark Cerny, Adam Boyes, Shuhei Yoshida, Gio Corsi. Nervous as I was at the change when Shawn Layden stepped in in 2014, he filled the role with a poise and grace that continued to make PlayStation’s executive team feel relatable to the players. All of these people became the faces of PlayStation, the voices of the players at the company making the products we all love. They reminded us that the business is games, and games are fun and exciting. Conversely, Jim Ryan reminds us that games are a business, and business is cold corporate strategy.
Arguably, the pandemic this year could be making an enormous impact on this. Perhaps there were more opportunities for the relatable faces at Sony to get get some time hyping the PS5. Was there going to be a PlayStation Experience 2020? We may never know. But people like Shuhei Yoshida appear to have been pushed to the side and out of the limelight, relegated to his presence on Twitter. Other eager smiling faces like Adam Boyes and Shawn Layden have left Sony for one reason or another. Even Mark Cerny was only on screen for a tech talk early this year, and has barely been seen since, despite being the person architecting the PS5. I remember when Mark Cerny sat down one-on-one with me to show off Knack 2 after having read my critical review of Knack, addressing it point by point. That’s just not something I can see the current iteration of Sony doing (pandemic notwithstanding).
Speaking of Twitter, Jim Ryan doesn’t even have an “on the ground” social connection with PlayStation players. Boyes, Yoshida, Layden. They were all in the trenches. There’s no evidence of Ryan creating that relationship with PlayStation fans. And honestly, it’s not even like Ryan needs to. Again, I have to reiterate that I’m not questioning Ryan’s business strategies or things he’s accomplished in his position, but rather the face, branding, and messaging of PlayStation that feels less personal than it ever has before, even in the obnoxiously ego-inflated early PS3 era. It doesn’t help that Sony’s communication this year has been rather silent compared to past years. Less than two months out from the PS5, there’s still an immense amount we don’t know about the console. It seems a veil of secrecy shrouds the company, not letting anyone truly get too excited about it.
On the other side, you have Microsoft’s Phil Spencer and Aaron Greenberg, among others, who have been vocal and excited and absolutely on the ground with the players, interacting on Twitter and with clear communication, at least relative to Sony. Console war BS aside, the Microsoft approach right now feels personal and warm and friendly. It’s welcoming and excited and you can tell these guys who are in the business of games remember that games are supposed to be fun and inclusive. Their interactions and communications with fans reinforce that, an odd flip given it was once Sony who dominated that presence. Now Sony has a colder, more corporate behavior. Some of that PS3-level ego is returning.
I’m also not talking about a marketing strategy like Kevin Butler, though Butler was arguably the marketing personification of Sony’s relatable and “by gamers, for gamers” mentality, which eventually morphed more fully into what we saw early in the PS4’s life. Sony needs champions of the PlayStation brand again. It needs people like Shuhei Yoshida, Adam Boyes, and Shawn Layden back in the spotlight. Ryan can make the corporate decisions that need to be made, but let other people figure out how to eloquently communicate that and connect with the players. Eloquence and relatability are not Ryan’s strengths.
Sony does have a strong platform and tools in place for communicating and connecting with players. From the social media and PR teams, to the PlayStation Blog and Blogcast, there are plenty of avenues and people within PS5’s communications teams that are excellent and amazing individuals, though those channels currently feel at arm’s length from the previously open nature of the PlayStation executive team. But throughout the company, I’m sure there are more Yoshidas and Boyes and Laydens. Unleash the people with the passion for PlayStation, not the passion for the business of PlayStation. As PlayStation plans communications surrounding the launch of the PS5, Ryan and the executive team should look to PlayStation’s history, to what made the brand so beloved in the first place. It wasn’t blundering through interviews filled with corporate strategy. It was connecting with and relating to players. It was the PlayStation experience.
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