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PlayStation’s Third-Party Portfolio Boss Shares Tips for Developers on Pitching Sony Interactive Entertainment

Shawne Benson, Global Head of Third-Party Portfolio & Acquisitions at Sony Interactive Entertainment, shared her thoughts on delivering a pitch, tips on what her team is looking for, and what to expect from the future of gaming.

Stellar Blade

80.lv: Could you introduce yourself? What's your role at Sony?

My name is Shawne Benson, I run the Portfolio team within our department, Global Third Party Relations. Our team is responsible for all of the strategic partnerships that we do with our third-party partners, publishers, and developers. We also have content intelligence efforts, and content evangelism for various types of opportunities. Essentially, whenever there's an opportunity for things like digital events, we work really closely with our content communications team on those. So we're a team of content analysts and business development managers that run those types of opportunities within our group.

80.lv: How do you decide when you're efficient for a partner, game developer, or publisher? How do you know that there is synergy? How do you know that they're going to deliver?

There are a few layers to unpack with this. First and foremost, whenever we're trying to find opportunities for strategic partnerships,  we think about ways to mutually, between the publisher or developer and ourselves, enhance the relationship and do something deeper. We still support partners, title partners, and creators whether or not there's a partnership. So you can still publish on PlayStation, you can still get a lot of support and even participate in a lot of our events and activities without technically having a formal partnership.  A lot of times we set a content strategy around the things that we really need to make PlayStation 5 the best place to play.

So, how do we evaluate, how do we know whether or not it's a good opportunity? e do see a lot of pitches. At an event like D.I.C.E. my team and the account management team hear presentations from creators. Through those, my team is built of content analysts that come from a media background, so they've spent their entire careers reviewing the quality of the games. We also have producers on our team that have development experience. Oftentimes, when we're looking at a new opportunity from perhaps a less proven developer, our team reviews the product and kicks the tires around the production plan, the milestone schedules, the budget, etc., to really get a better assessment of their goals and help give us some confidence on whether or not it's going to perform well.

We also collaborate with our financial analysts that do a P&L to make sure that the investment is going to be successful for that product, and so forth. There are a lot of different teams, and it's a very collaborative effort. I see value in that because of the different perspectives that come in. It's kind of a meeting of the minds, not just one person saying, "I like this game, so let's do it."

There are games that we love and we're very excited about, but they may not necessarily check the box for some of our strategic needs. We'll still find ways to support them, even though it's not necessarily through the route of a traditional partnership. 

Pacific Drive

80.lv: A lot of people don't think about the role of financial analysts when they're offering pitches, and they don't really have a well-developed P&L. Is there a piece of advice that you would give to people who are trying to get their pitch delivered to make sure that this financial part is not a dealbreaker for them?

Looking at budget, trying to review the framework, and understanding if this is not just going to solve for the project that we're bringing forward, but also whether we can keep the lights on after the game ships, and so forth. That's really a big thing that I see a lot of people struggle with when they're presenting.

The other thing that's also really important is looking at the landscape. What are the best comparisons that you can see from the console perspective, from the PC perspective, from the mobile perspective, and what was the general sentiment and engagement around that game? Looking at some of the critical buzz around the game, what was their marketing strategy? How did they communicate about the game? How did this game commercially perform? There are some publicly accessible things like NPD and so forth that they can tap into.

Of course, it's harder to get some of those deeper details, but you can at least get a sense of whatever's publicly available from commercial performance on those titles. That's often what we do, we evaluate the creative content. We look at the creative merits of the game, how it really sings on PlayStation. From there, we put together our mock-up of comps that closely associate with the product offering. And sometimes that's really hard for us because there's a lot of really creative stuff that's being made. There isn’t always a one-for-one comparison for these games that we're tying it to, but we try to get as close as possible.

Stellar Blade

80.lv: What is a PlayStation game today? How do you know that it fits? What are the little things that make it sing?

That's a really tough one because so much of it is subjective in that perspective. Obviously, we have our favorites. We have our personal biases that we come in the room with when we're looking at an opportunity. But we need to think about the audience for PlayStation which is ever-shifting and ever-evolving. There are a lot of newcomers to the platform and, especially with digital distribution, there's more diversity of content bringing more types of creators in. So we look through a myriad of lenses.

First, what is the genre and what kind of audience is this game attracting? Is it bringing the right types of players in? Secondly, what are the opportunities for console advantages? By that, I mean how are they leaning into the DualSense features? How could this potentially tell a really great story around the adaptive triggers and really sell the promise around that? Is there something really unique in their audio design that is really taking advantage of the 3D audio within the game?

There are different elements just from a hardware and a technology perspective that we spend time on. We call them our "PlayStation 5 pillars" and we try to evaluate with the criteria that make it feel at home on the console. There are certain types of genres that struggle in that space, but I've seen some that have really made it work that didn't seemingly feel like a good fit.

For example, strategies and RTS games don't typically lean themselves super well to the platform, but I've seen examples of people that bring a unique user interaction or control experience that makes it definitively console and could attract a new audience.

Stellar Blade

80.lv: There's an idea of the target audience, and developers think that PlayStation gamers like a particular genre, a particular look, so they're going to cater to those interests. But at the same time, PlayStation is thinking not only about how to utilize the existing audience but also how to grow it. Do you feel like the games that you're working with are shifting this balance of powers? There are big titles like God of War and Uncharted, but you also have indie games like Stray, which can really move units and give you a user that's going to stay with you for a while. Do you feel like this is part of your goal as well when you're looking for new products?

Yeah, we look at different buckets of the portfolio. There's the big, giant IP, the AAA, AAAA kind of system-seller types of targets that we really want to focus on. But then there's also that breadth and depth story, like Stray. We saw that game very early on, before it was even disclosed on PS5. I saw a GIF on Twitter back in 2016 before I even worked at PlayStation, and I was so excited about it. I had this mindset that I knew it was going to have a stickiness to it. Just the game itself has this emotional, gripping nature because of the cat. So that specific example is kind of unusual because we occasionally see something that we think has breakout success potential, but it is a gamble. There are things that we have seen that may not have always hit the mark, but that's part of the challenge. We make a gamble on a lot of different opportunities, and some really break out like Stray or Fall Guys, for example. 

But as we're looking at an acquisition, we're thinking about when it is going to hit. Games slip, they move back all the time, but we try to think, "Okay, where is this going to hit in the content and platform life cycle?" Generally, if it's early on, for example, on PlayStation 5, there's an early adopter type of audience that wants to be the big advocates and enthusiasts. They have a deep understanding of the breadth and depth of content.. But as you start to look and cascade into the mid-life cycle and the later life cycle, you start to see a different kind of approach to content acquisition. It's about driving the life cycle and bringing value for the players and the creators as well.

For example, if there are three games we're looking at that have the same mechanics and genre, but they're all hitting in the same quarter, we probably would make our bet on one of them, versus all three.

Pacific Drive

80.lv: How do projects get into your field of view? I'm sure a lot of people want to be there and want you to notice, so what should they do?

I can't say it's just Shawne sitting here making the bets and making the calls. There is a very talented team at PlayStation. We have a big family of account managers, for example, that think about Indie creators and those new up-and-coming developers. We're hiring right now for a partnership development manager position that is there to be that pioneer and work with a team that is boots on the ground. So you'll see us at a lot of major industry events walking the floor and looking at those games.

Even if going to a show isn't always something that you can do, you know those types of things on social media like “Screenshot Saturdays” or boosting a creative project that they think is interesting, we're looking at all that stuff just like the rest of you. So signal boosting those types of new creatives is great because it gives us some endorsement from other peers in the industry, especially with peers that we trust and have a good eye for content.

I think connecting with our account management team is a big deal. Becoming registered as a partner through our PlayStation Partners website is a good first step because once you get through the registration process, then you can start having open conversations. There's an NDA attached to the registration, so you can start having open business conversations with our team.

80.lv: When you're looking for a partner, does it matter if the game already has a community and followers on Facebook or Instagram? Do you need verification from the potential market?

The developer pedigree – your background and what you've worked on before – is something that we think about, but there are also those new creators. I don't want to be too prescriptive on that because there are creators that maybe have an amazing idea, but it's not fully formed yet or they might not have a strong social presence, and then eventually they become a breakout success. For example, I'm thinking of Mediatonic, the creators of Fall Guys. The last game that I really remember from them was a pigeon dating simulator called Hatoful Boyfriend, and it was such a niche game. The audience that knew about it was probably a lot smaller than Fall Guys, which is much more of a household name.

I try not to lean too much on what was your last project. I think about it, but it's not something I put all of my chips on. When I make a bet on something, I really look at the game first and what the potential is, what their plan is, and go from there. 
Usually, what we ask for is a prototype to let us see what you're trying to communicate. That's typically the way that we look at it, the merits of the game first and then added assurances with the social presence or buzz around this developer, etc.

Pacific Drive

80.lv: There are tools that are becoming more accessible, like Unreal Engine, Houdini, Adobe tools, and AI. How do you feel this is going to influence the market? There are people who were enjoying these incredible seasons during COVID, and now they're getting a little bit down. Do you feel like there's a resurgence coming? How do you see this situation progressing?

It's interesting because during times when there are economic headwinds, so to speak, every industry takes a hit to some degree. That being said, historically, the gaming industry, did show resilience compared to other forms of entertainment. I'm kind of thinking more in the macro. From the evolution of technology to accessibility, to the tool sets and making it easier for up-and-coming creators to make new things. 

80.lv: Some media companies make movies or TV shows, but at the same time, they're competing with video games. Do you think that at some point users won't have enough time to devote to whatever entertainment is out there?

I hear this a lot from creators. They're thinking, "Oh, now that I have a game I'm working on and I have kids, I only have so much time to play games on my own, right?" And there's this competition for what you put your focus on.

There is a place for those 80-hour-plus action RPGs and open-world games. There's an audience for that, but there's also the audience for moms or dads who have a half-hour after they put the kids to bed to play something small.

There are people that like the mobile experience, PC experience, or a free-to-play game because it has that quick get-in and get-out kind of loop. But I don't see cannibalization necessarily. I think it's just more variety, and that's great because there's a little bit of something for everyone.

Think about how the game industry was before when it was limited to just distribution on a shelf and in a retail store. What I love is that there's more variety for people to choose from now. Is our attention more fragmented? Potentially. But I don't think it's necessarily one-size-fits-all for the type of audience that we're trying to sell for, and that's why I think it's a  great time, especially for those smaller creators, to get in the door and be able to create their content because if you can see a blue ocean and carve a niche for yourself, there’s huge potential there for your growth.

Shawne Benson, Global Head of Third-Party Portfolio & Acquisitions at Sony Interactive Entertainment

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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