Showtime for PlayStation Vita
Sony's Shuhei Yoshida on Vita's price, 3G vs. wifi, slow Japanese launch and the shadow of the PSP
I meet with Sony's Shuhei Yoshida on the final day of the 2012 D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas. In fact, it's the final hour, and the press room is being closed down around us. I've seen him here all week, fielding questions from a succession of games journalists, so I expect him to be a little tired at the least, bored at worst. It turns out he's the most animated I've ever seen him - maybe he's gone stir crazy from too much time in Vegas. He's clearly hyped for the impending launch of the Vita, but he's not spouting marketing fluff in my direction at all. When I open the conversation with some lightweight remarks about how it's a busy time for Sony, he jumps to the defence of the PlayStation 3, perhaps a hangover from a previous interview.
"PlayStation 3 is doing pretty well. If you look at the US market the Xbox 360 is doing extremely well so in comparison we may not look as good but looking at our numbers they're pretty good. In the US it's been the PS3's most successful year to date," he says. I have to admit it's refreshing for a format holder to even mention a competitor by name, let alone without me pushing for it. What comes next is even more surprising.
"When you go to a European event you feel like you're in a fantasy land," says Yoshida. "At GamesCom Sony has the biggest booths and week after week sales are better. I feel like time has slipped to PS2 or PSone days when we were doing really good. Working for PlayStation in Europe is much more fun than working for PlayStation in the States," he jokes. At least I think he's joking.
At GamesCom Sony has the biggest booths and week after week sales are better. I feel like time has slipped to PS2 or PSone days when we were doing really good.
Shuhei Yoshida, Sony
He has two PlayStation Vita's on the table in front of him, casually tapping them and spinning them around for me to see. The hardware has been in development since 2008 at the least, when developers began to get their hands on hardware prototypes. What makes this console different to previous hardware is it has been developed in consultation with Sony's software teams, overseen by Yoshida in his role of head of Sony's Worldwide Studios group.
"With the PS Vita we're so excited to launch, we've worked so hard for the last three years. It's not the hardware guys who have just worked on the hardware, we've been part of the hardware development at Worldwide Studios so I feel like my baby is coming out, finally," he smiles. "Of course we have our games so that makes it doubly exciting."
Already launched in Japan, the PS Vita hasn't gotten off to a stellar start, with sales most weeks below its predecessor the PSP. A lack of Japanese-focused software hasn't helped, but Sony has been canny enough to see the attraction the older hardware offers, promoting a UMD passport programme where users can transfer old PSP games to the Vita for a small fee.
However, a few weeks ago Sony US said that offering won't be available outside of Japan, and Yoshida, although feeling "sorry we can't cater to them," makes a clear argument for why that service won't work in other regions. Quite simply, it's expensive and the PSP market outside of Japan collapsed a long time ago.
"[SCEA and SCEE] looked at the situation and talked to business partners and compared to Japan, when you look at the software release calendar, every month there are new games coming out on the PSP. And the publishers are announcing new games to come out on the PSP for the latter part of this year," he says. "It's amazing, it's still in the minds of many publishers and for the consumers. There are lots more important needs for consumers to carry all of their PSP library on the Vita because they are still building it.
"Compared to that situation in the US and Europe there are much less new releases and when we talk to business partners there's not as much interest to maintain the software business," he adds.
With no new releases on a console that has long since been devastated in the West by piracy, there's little reason to offer a PSP game transfer service where the price of the original disc is probably less than the cost to transfer it over to the Vita.
"The software price in Japan for PSP is pretty healthy. And when you look at pricing there are still games coming out at the equivalent of $50 or even higher, and people are buying it. The way the Passport system operates is we're charging people to have a digital copy for between $5-$10 depending on the product, so it's not like we're giving away digital copies for free." He continues: "When you look at the pricing of PSP titles in the US and Europe there are lots of great games you can purchase for $10. When you can purchase new games for $10 you're not going to pay another $10 to transfer, there's less need."
The launch line-up hasn't been strong for Japan, but for the US and Europe it seems to have all the basic genres covered with credible franchises - from newcomers like ModNation Racers and shooter Unit 13 (from the SOCOM team Zipper Interactive) to adventure favourite Uncharted and Sony Liverpool's classic WipEout series. Was this a conscious decision to cram the Vita launch with Western releases?
"How can it be a conscious decision when we're launching globally?" asks Yoshida. "Of course our third-party relations group work hard to secure titles, on all platforms, and of course the Vita."
We've worked so hard for the last three years, I feel like my baby is coming out, finally.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss, developed by Sony Bend, is one of the stand out titles for PS Vita. An already familiar franchise, it delivers the adventure, exploration and gunplay expected of the series, and goes out of its way to crowbar in the new Vita features - rub the touch screen to clean archaeological finds, hold the camera up to the light to see invisible ink on paper. It's one of the most visually impressive games for Vita and seems to be considered a system-seller by Sony to the hardcore gaming crowd.
But it's a game that hasn't seen great sales in Japan either, shifting around 200,000 units in the region "with lots of marketing effort from SCE Japan," says Yoshida, suggesting those numbers don't justify the spend. It also highlights the regional differences between consumers, he adds, with a franchise that doesn't have a strong heritage in the region. "It's not known well in Japan. People in Japan still have some kind of prejudice towards games coming from outside of Japan. They like to play the familiar IPs. When you look at the line-up for the launch obviously from Worldwide Studios alone it's more relevant to the US and the European market."
Launching the Vita first in Japan may have been about testing the market, or it may have just been a mistake. At this point it seems like a hardware generation too soon for consumers that are still supporting the PSP, but that's not a bad position for Sony to be in. When it needs to shift numbers it can always drop the price of the system, as Nintendo did last year following a sluggish start for the 3DS.
In the UK Vita is due to launch this week. As usual, there's the midnight openings across GAME and GameStation, but there has also been a big emphasis on consumer sampling with the Vita Rooms which allow potential consumers to rock up to a PlayStation destination and get hands-on with units. To add to that Sony has made sure that store managers across the UK have a Vita on hand to show consumers who come in and make enquires, giving them the chance to prod, jab and swipe the system. This is what it does, this is how you do it.
"That's the number one in terms of importance," states Yoshida. "TV is still important but there's lots of things we're putting into PS Vita that you really have to try or experience whether it's the screen, the back touch, the analogue sticks. And the only way to do that is to give it to people to try.
"That kind of activity is very crucial to communicate the value that PS Vita brings."
It's not a new concept of course. Nintendo packaged up the Wii and sent it on a nationwide roadshow that helped contribute to its stellar success, and in doing so pushed the entire games business to record numbers. The Vita isn't going to do that because it's not aimed at the mainstream or the family audience, it's targeted clearly between the eyes of the hardcore games player. But it's an audience that some feel has been overlooked since the Wii glory days, followed by the growth of iOS and social gaming, and Sony intends to cater to the core crowd.
We want people to spend more on the content, not on the connectivity, to be honest.
Shuhei Yoshida, Sony
Nothing highlights the intention of selling to the hardcore gamer than the price of the PS Vita. This is not a cheap console. Like the launch of the PlayStation 3 before it, it's a piece of hardware that's marked up at a luxury price of £230 in the UK, $249 in the US. And if that's not enough, the 3G version of the system clocks in at £270 or $299.
"The pricing is really important for a console games system. So that's why we decided to have both. Communicating the value of 3G is not easy because you have to experience it," admits Yoshida. "It's in the core experience of the PS Vita but you have to really experience it and have your friends doing the same thing."
Communicating the value of the 3G Vita hasn't been as successful in Japan as Sony expected, with the hardcore crowd not so keen on a higher valued piece of kit.
"SCE Japan was expecting more people to go towards the 3G side because it's a new launch and core gamers tend to go towards the more expensive. But sell-through was actually 1:1," confesses Yoshida.
Critics of the PS Vita will point to the sheer amount of features it offers, claiming it's a jack-of-all-trades system. The 3G capability plays into that when the value isn't apparent. Which begs the question, considering the costs involved in manufacturing and the extra cost to consumers, was the 3G version of the PlayStation Vita necessary?
"That's a question we asked ourselves maybe 200 times over the course of the development," admits Yoshida. "But from the very outset in early 2008 when we first started the project we had a very high level goal and we looked at all the technology we could and the advancements that we could use in a new system. 3G was always in the top five things we wanted to do. Because of how people are using social networks and how people are connected we saw the opportunity that games can be enhanced by having 3G and an always-on capability."
And yet Yoshida quickly brings up the price and the extra - perceived as unnecessary - expense that entails for the consumer, not just in a hardware sense but for the delivery of the 3G service from a mobile operator, and he's clear Sony wants the consumers spending money on games not services.
"More so than the cost of goods involved to have 3G capability, it's a burden of having 3G, because 3G it's not cheap, it's an investment from consumers and sometimes they have to make a commitment depending on the country. More pre-paid plans are available but still it's additional money that people have to spend on top of the content.
"We want people to spend more on the content, not on the connectivity, to be honest. There's a balance."
Yoshida likens the 3G technology to the broadband capabilities of the PlayStation 2. That console didn't ship with online access but it could be upgraded once the infrastructure was put in place. It's different for the 3G model of the Vita as it's built-in, but the thinking is that hardware has to be forward-looking, and it echoes the PlayStation 3's long-term commitment and the adoption of new services through online updates.
"The adoption of smartphones and looking forward at 4G and advancements on the mobile side, we believe these are very important to put on the platform so the developers can experiment with different usage of 3G and put this asynchronous social activity into our games," continues Yoshida.
"It's like when we started the PlayStation 2, we didn't have the broadband capabilities but we added those features knowing that not all users would have it, but we were prepared to put that in the middle so that publishers and developers could start experimenting with online games so that we can learn from their feedback and prepare for future growth.
"So that's the same stage in my mind by introducing the 3G SKU for certain people who have more money and are more interested in trying something new to choose the 3G version, but also at the same time prepare a wifi version."
Sony Japan was expecting more people to go towards the 3G model because it's a new launch and core gamers tend to go towards the more expensive. But sell-through was actually 1:1.
The only other reason I can see for a 3G version is to test the retail model - to see if it's possible to sell a games console similar to a mobile phone contract. By selling the consumer a monthly plan the retailer gives the hardware away for free or at a very reduced price, something retailers like GAME are considering if they hope to remain part of the High Street. Although Yoshida says that wasn't the original plan, it's a package that some operators are already putting together, including NTT Docomo in Japan.
"That wasn't the central thinking but it really depends on each territory," he offers. "Each country has slightly different plans, I can totally see in some countries there could be an offering from the carrier side if you signed up for a certain number of months that the PS Vita is given out for free."
The PS Vita is an impressive console with a strong launch line-up. It's a hardcore gamers delight, and although there will be early complaints about battery life and loading times, it should initially please the target market. So expect a strong launch for the first couple of weeks and positive buzz fuelled by Sony's impressive marketing muscle. But the true picture will form long term, once the hype dies down and third-party projects begin to make their presence felt, once the price either becomes accepted or slips to a more reasonable rate, and once the early adopters have spent their money on the next big thing and the wider console audience decides if it really does need a new dedicated gaming device. But at this stage Shuhei Yoshida doesn't need any convincing, he's an evangelist for his hardware, and a proud father to a brand new console.