Internal Sony Docs Explain How "Activities" Became a Cornerstone for PS5

The company's own data showed that people were spending more time playing single player games, but struggled making it part of their schedule.
November 30, 2020, 3:39pm
A screen shot of a PlayStation 5 controller.
Image courtesy of Sony

Video game companies like Sony and Microsoft spend years planning their next-generation machines. The moment one machine is out the door, they're sketching out what the next one will look like, even if it won't ship for another decade. Sony's big plans for PlayStation 5 were in motion long before the hardware showed up at people's doors, and that included its ambitious ideas for the PS5 interface, such as the "activities" that I wrote about last week, where people can instantly jump around to different game quests by sorting through a menu.

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When I shared my story on Twitter, it prompted a surprisingly visceral reaction—equal parts backlash for Sony openly advocating for people to avoid immersing themselves in game worlds and praise from people who were excited for a different way to play their games.

I thought it would be interesting, then, to better explain Sony's own internal logic for why it made this feature such a big part of PS5, based on confidential documents VICE Games recently obtained by a developer who was briefed on them. The documents, distributed to a select number of developers in 2019, were part of a two-part presentation explaining activities and game help, which lets players pull up walkthrough videos without YouTube.

The presentation opens by saying "everyone knows single player is dying," with a list of the top-selling PlayStation 4 video games that seems to crib this sales list, showing games like Grand Theft Auto V and Black Ops 3 dominating sales because of their multiplayer modes. 

In the next slide, however, Sony explained that, in reality, its internal tracking data shows that "single player is thriving," and PlayStation users are regularly spending more time playing offline than online.

(We cannot show you those charts because they are watermarked in such a way that it would reveal our source, potentially putting their career and relationship with Sony at risk.)

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The company then outlined what players say are their problems with single player games:

  • "No idea how long I might need, don't play unless I have 2+ free hours"
  • "Takes a lot of time to scan through long help videos when stuck"
  • "How to engage socially without risk of spoilers"
  • "Forgot what I was doing in this game last time, hard to get back in"

The presentation, at times, cites surveys Sony has conducted to learn more about what its players think, but it does not lay out many specifics about the data itself. One survey cited said it spoke with roughly 3,000 players.

"In an ideal world, every player has the time to spend hours per day, every day, playing games," reads a slide on top of a photo of a man holding a baby and a cup of coffee. "In reality, most people have jobs. Or kids. Or school. Or all of the above. Often, free time comes wedged between other obligations. An hour before bed. A 30-minute break between homework assignments. A few minutes before your online MP [multiplayer] match."

The problem, Sony proposed, was that people don't have enough information to determine when and how they should play a single player game. Alongside being able to jump around between different quests, Sony's activity feature would suggest how long it will take to finish a quest, allowing players to find something that fit best with the time they have available.

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"In a busy world, that time [to play]" might not come for a while," reads another slide next to a photo of someone hiking through the mountains, holding a map. "When they finally do find a spare hour, they've forgotten where they were, and what they were doing. Then what?"

All of this, according to Sony, creates "friction," while their proposed system, dubbed the Universal Data System, can help solve. 

"We can change 'should I start playing' to 'which part should I start playing?'" reads a slide next to a screen shot from Uncharted. "The options are there. The choices are clear. The game is calling. Pick up that controller. It's time to play."

There is no universal system for implementing activities into PS5 games, which is why you see it used differently across games. In Demon's Souls, for example, it's warping between worlds. In Miles Morales, you can jump straight into a story mission or side quest, if you don't feel like swinging across the map. According to Sony's presentation, the ideal activity is one tied to "a unit of gameplay inherent to the game structure (e.g. quest, chapter, mission.)"

What follows in the rest of the presentation are technical explanations of how developers should think about structuring their activities. It does include one proposed activity I haven't seen on PS5 games yet, a "challenge" activity that lists the fastest lap times around a particular track in a Gran Turismo game and how many times the player has attempted it. (Update: A reader points out this is being used in Astro’s Playroom.)

Again, this was 2019, a good chunk of time before PS5 would ship and plenty of time for proposed ideas to fall by the wayside.

How features are used at the launch of a video game console are hardly how they're used a few years later, and it'll be fascinating to see what happens with activities. Those who err on the side of games as an artistic medium are likely to chafe at the idea of treating them as a fancy checklist meant to sponge up time in the most efficient way possible, but games are also so broadly popular that they're likely to be played and enjoyed in wildly different ways.

I have a friend, for example, who buys the new Assassin's Creed game each year and does every single side quest on the map before they touch the story. Before the story begins, they have completed every colorful objective available. I blinked for a straight minute when they explained this to me the first time, but Sony's presentation suggests that those kinds of people are way more common than we might think. And they'll probably love activities.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).