The Xperia play is one of those instances of long-standing rumour finally made flesh. For many years, commentators, press and consumers alike discussed the wisdom and merit of Sony cross-breeding its PlayStation brand with Sony Ericsson's handset technology to create a gaming phone, an idea both courted and vigorously denied by the company itself.
When the handset was finally revealed, it was with great fanfare, but not a great deal has been heard of it since. We caught up with newly-appointed head of content marketing & strategy Tim Harrison at last week's Gamescom to find out what's happening with the platform.
Q:Xperia Play has been at market for a while now - are you able to release any sales figures or attach rates?
Tim Harrison:We're not able to share any official sales figures as yet, but just to say where we are in terms of the journey - obviously the device has been out for a number of months but it's still very early in its lifespan.
We're still very much building the overall content story - we obviously released with a bunch of games and we've announced a great new catalogue of games here at Gamescom. We've got a really broad cross-section of content for it.
That's why we're here at the show, to try and bring the story across that we've got AAA content coming through. We've obviously got existing partnerships with EA and Gameloft and those kind of guys, more console franchise type content coming through from the Android market.
We've got new PlayStation content coming through, more classics, but also we're particularly focused on some of the new developer talent. On our booth we've got something called Standout, which is a developer program which is designed to bring out the best of Android talent.
The Standout program is something we're trying to use to gee up the ecosystem around Xperia Play. Obviously Android Market is a fantastic platform, in terms of discoverability it's just the beginning really. So what we do is focus a lot of stuff on the device. We've got our games launcher so when you slide open the device you get instant access to a curated selection of what we believe are the best games we have available for the Xperia Play.
We've also got 10 or 12 new indie developers, some of the best talent available out there, on the stand today. So in terms of the device life cycle it's early days, we've got very positive feedback from consumers and operators so far - we've launched with all of the major operators around the globe.
We've recently announced that AT&T will be launching the device in the states, alongside the Verizon presence that we have. We've just run a big campaign with Verizon in the US called the Back to School campaign, alongside some re-positioning of the price there to try and bring the price into reach for some of the younger contingent.
It's looking very positive, but as far as the life cycle of the device is concerned, it's still very early days.
Q:You mentioned trying to reach a younger audience - initially with the PlayStation classics content you seemed to be aiming at a age range which is already well represented in the smartphone market...
Tim Harrison:I think the device has broad appeal. Obviously some of those classic titles have a slightly older appeal, but retro gaming is a massive movement in its own right. Some of these kids are playing these games for the first time, but they remember them, they know about them. I think you've seen the success of games like Minecraft, which we launched on Monday. It's all about developing a broad portfolio of content.
That's why our Standout developers are so important - a lot of those are one, two, three man shops. It shows what Android is becoming capable of. The demographic is broad, the content is broad. But obviously as the market develops, we've got some quite aggressive pricing on Xperia Play, so obviously that younger demographic is finding that quite appealing.
Q:Mentioning the Minecraft exclusive - that's quite a coup. Can you share any of the details of that deal with us?
Tim Harrison:It's a timed exclusive, so it will be coming to other devices, it's certainly Android exclusive to Xperia Play for a period of time. I think probably Mojang themselves can give you more information on that. Notch seems to be quite happy to talk at conferences about stuff.
Obviously we've only just launched at the moment, but what we're trying to show with Minecraft, and what we're trying to demonstrate with Xperia Play is that it's really not just for hardcore gamers. Minecraft is a sensation at the moment, an unexpected sensation. The opportunity to have an exclusive on Xperia Play was fantastic for us.
Obviously Mojang are a Swedish company too, which is very nice for us and our Swedish colleagues. They pretty much want to launch on this device because they love the control mechanism - they could see that the game would translate very swiftly to that mechanism.
We're really pleased with that association.
Q:Prior to and during Gamescom there were a few opinions voiced about the Vita, saying that a dedicated handheld is an outdated concept because game-capable smartphones have cannibalised that market. Do you have any agreements with Sony over where your respective remits begin and end?
Tim Harrison:I don't know whether it's formal or not - this is primarily a smartphone, we're not trying to pretend otherwise. It's always been positioned and marketed as a smartphone that does great gaming. It's not a handheld portable gaming console - we believe that they are different markets and that there's room for both in the market.
A mad keen crazy gamer will buy every device under the sun, but this is very firmly positioned as a smartphone with a gaming optimised control pad. Smartphone gaming has seen a massive surge of growth in the last two or three years, especially on Android in the past year - what we're trying to do is position ourselves as part of that, but because we have a Sony heritage, because we have a PlayStation certified device, because we have the access to PlayStation classic games, and by the end of the year full access to the PlayStation store, this is very much a smartphone that has access to the gaming audience as well. So we see them very much as distinctive devices.
Q:How are you going to deal with reviews and positioning on the marketplace? Will it be lead by user-generated reviews, or be a more curated experience?
Tim Harrison:It's going to evolve over time. The Android market fulfills a very valuable function in terms of distribution and user comments, in terms of rating content according to popularity, we're not necessarily trying to duplicate any of that, we're trying to generate additional layers that allow people to see either stuff that's been curated by the team or stuff that's been picked up by our launcher, we can obviously tell through our launcher which games are being interacted with the most, so again we're using that as a mechanism.
We're just trying to add that extra layer of value and discoverability on top of what's all ready available through Android. The reaction we have from our operator customers has been very positive, as well as from our publishing partners. This phone does drive significantly higher levels of discoverability and higher levels of ARPU (Average revenue per user) because of its discoverability of content and the premium nature of that experience.
Q:You seem like you're building up to something of a second push, you've got a wider catalogue of games lined up now. Was that always the plan - to have a sort of half-soft launch which you then augmented at a later date?
Tim Harrison:I think you always find with any console that you have an initial launch catalogue and then as the device and the technology are embraced by the development community you start to build on that. But obviously we're entering the pre-Christmas sales season now and we wanted to ensure that we had a nice strong catalogue coming fresh to the table around this time, so the strategy has always been around a slow build, a continual build.
It's still quite early days, but we're very pleased about where we are with the content selection.
Q:Smartphone models tend to be iterated very quickly - is that something we'll see with the Xperia Play?
Tim Harrison:I think it's always a balance between managing the lifecycle of the hardware and the lifecycle of the consumer, with any consumer device. I hope we've made it clear with the Xperia Play that Sony Ericsson is going to have gaming very much as an increasingly core part of its content strategy going forwards. I joined the team relatively recently to help drive that forwards, particularly for play but also across the board for smartphones.
Obviously we're focusing on the Play today, but they'll be exciting stuff coming up which we'll announce in due course.
Q:The biggest recent news in the sector has been Google's acquisition of Motorolla. Do you think that was motivated by a desire to deal with platform fragmentation head on? Will we see a Google constructed phone?
Tim Harrison:I think what we need to focus on there is the other side of the deal. I think what we're focused on is the patent side of the deal. Patents are an increasingly challenging part of doing business in mobile and device development. In many ways, by securing the patents that they have through their deal, in many ways they've made Android stronger, perhaps less prone to challenges from other segments in the industry.
We don't see it changing things. We're still 100 per cent committed to Android. We think it's an open eco-system that works well for us and it's absolutely where we're going to keep our focus for the time being.
Q:What about pricing models? With in-app purchases seemingly the best way to make money on mobile right now, are you going to be able to add that option to PS Classics?
Tim Harrison:You'd need to talk to Sony about pricing models on the store, that's not something we can share at this point. In terms of where we are now, we've got a selection of different pricing models and prices - we've got free stuff in there. If you look at the launcher, we've got content which is €5 or €6, we've got stuff that's free.
This is a device that's built on an Android smartphone platform. We believe it offers a significantly enhanced version of that because of the physical controls and the discoverability and the additional opportunities that offers.
The demographic for games is much wider than it's ever been, and because of that broadening you need a wide range of prices and pricing models. As far as we're concerned we're very supportive of whatever the developer feels the best way to monetise their content is.