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Ex-PlayStation US chief says Candy Crush is fun, Xbox on the right path

Jack Tretton, the former head of Sony's PlayStation group in America, talks about mobile devices, women in the industry and the products he coveted from the competition, in an exclusive interview with CNET News.

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A half-year after Jack Tretton stepped down as head of Sony's PlayStation division in America, he has time to do something he didn't have a chance to before: play Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans.

To devout PlayStation fans, this could be considered a form of treason.

When he was in his old job, he was laser-focused on Sony products, vetting games for the PlayStation and the company's Vita handheld video game device. When he wasn't doing that, he was checking up on what his competitors, including Microsoft and Nintendo, were up to.

Sure, he knew about games made for mobile devices, but he didn't have the time to actually play them. Now he slings around Apple's mobile devices, complete with the most addicting and popular titles. "While console is obviously very important and a very big part of the gaming business, it is just a part of the games business," Trenton said in a wide-ranging interview at his office in Redwood City, Calif. Now he's playing several mobile games, and experiencing what's outside the console industry. "I never thought I'd be saying that even a year ago."

In a spartan office he's rented, Tretton is relaxed as he talks about getting back into the game, so to speak. He likes advising, and he's been talking to experts throughout the industry. And he says he's probably met more people in the months since he left Sony than in the past 20 years.

When he's not doing that, though, he's trying to beat the owl, a notoriously hard level of Candy Crush.

Dressed in a purple-shaded shirt, a sport coat and jeans, Tretton weighed in on how he sees things from the outside, the benefits of having a more female perspective in the industry and the health of game makers.

A changing industry

Tretton grew up playing coin-operated arcade games like the spaceship battle game Galaga and the maze-like Pac-Man. But some of his fondest memories are of another space game, Megamania, and Pitfall, an action adventure title. The two games were among the most popular on Atari's 2600, one of the earliest video game consoles.

When he was home from college, he'd play with his brother, who was 12 years his junior. While playing together helped them bond, Tretton was still an older brother. "I used to have to decide whether to beat him and send him out of the room crying or if I should let him win and feel better about himself."

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Tretton at a Sony press conference in June 2013 Getty Images

Three years after he graduated from college, he went to work for Activision, maker of Megamania and Pitfall. Tretton was at Sony for the launch of the first PlayStation in 1995.

He's seen a lot change in the years since.

Today, mobile devices are invading everyone's lives, including his own. Look around an airport or on a bus, and almost everyone's playing a game. About 70 percent of the revenue from mobile app stores flow to video games, according to a recent study by App Annie.

Tretton says it won't be long before these devices should be considered standard video game consoles, particularly if wireless controllers built for them catch on.

"The average gamer is going to want to be able to bring that experience with them," he said. And it won't come at the expense of a high-end PC or dedicated game console either, he added. "I would personally rather accept the lowest common denominator, and a dumbed-down form of a game, to know that I can use anybody's smartphone, anybody's PC, anybody's tablet, anybody's console and to be able to log in and play my game."

Women and tech

Women, and the way they're hired, promoted and treated by the outside world, continue to be a big topic of discussion in the technology industry. Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, was criticized this month for suggesting women shouldn't ask for raises but rather trust the system -- and "karma" -- to pay them fairly. Nadella has since apologized and said he wants to champion women's rights instead.

Tretton said the video game industry needs to follow a similar tack. "It's been a male-dominated industry in terms of people working on the development side and consuming," he said. "As you get more women in development, I think that will change."

PlayStation's health, the Xbox challenge and where VR is going

When it comes to Sony, Tretton is confident he left the PlayStation 4 ready to tackle the increasing challenges to its industry. The recipe for success, he said, remains about creating high-quality games. "Anything that takes their focus off of that could ultimately leave the door open for competition."

One of the places Sony's testing new waters is a device called Project Morpheus, a virtual reality headset much like the Oculus Rift that Facebook bought for $2 billion this year.

While virtual reality has evolved more in the past couple years than in the decades before, Tretton isn't sure it's ready for prime time. "I think it will be evolutionary for gaming, I don't know if it will completely change the way people play games," he said.

As for Microsoft, he said the company has come around to what customers want after flubbing the device's launch with a high price tag ($499 when it launched, compared to $399 for the PS4) and unpopular policies around sharing and reselling used games. Microsoft reversed its unpopular policies and introduced a $399 version of its console in June to more directly compete with the PS4 on price, and it has instituted various promotions to drive the price even lower.

That's a good start, Tretton said. "Microsoft has the message correct now, but they're making up for lost time and maybe some mixed messaging."

Another company that's struggled against popular opinion is Bungie, maker of Halo, one of the most successful video game franchises ever. Its latest effort, a space-age game called Destiny, was released in September to mostly ho-hum reviews.

Tretton doesn't count out Bungie yet. "It's a franchise that they're going to be investing in for many years to come," he said. "People have the expectation it was going to be everything Halo ever was and more on day one, and I think that's a tall task to live up to."