Fergal Gara is VP and MD of UK and Ireland at Sony Computer Entertainment and he's just about to face his first console launch. He's had experience of retail before with nearly six years with Asda, but the PlayStation 4 puts him firmly on the other side of that fence, marketing a huge product launch at his erstwhile colleagues and contemporaries.
GamesIndustry International sat down with Gara the morning after Sony's Gamescom press conference to talk about the PlayStation 4's success in the pre-order market so far, why Vita is still an essential part of Sony's offering and why it's an emotional time to be a console manufacturer.
Q: Sony as whole seems to have been very open about the details and features of the PlayStation 4 from very early on, was that a conscious decision?
Fergal Gara:For me that goes all the way back to February 20 and Mark Cerny who said it was a five year project in listening to developers in particular: what did they need to make life easier, to get the toolkit that gave them the most creative scope? And therefore it's been a project of opening up and embracing the development community, big and small.
I think what you saw last night was a great, rich example of the sheer breadth that comes out of having such a policy. I think we just further underlined the points that have been there since February really, of which there are more and more examples. It's great to see that diversity, we want to be the ubiquitous home for gaming, gaming for everybody and that means every kind of user, every kind of gamer, but also every kind of developer.
Q: It does feel that with this console launch Sony have got things right. Is that how it feels internally? Do you feel confident?
Fergal Gara:There's nothing better in any form of business than when customers are rewarding you with their custom and it's absolutely true to say, particularly since E3, that gamers have been rewarding us with their commitment and their pre-orders. That does have a motivational effect on the team so people are more chipper, they're more focused, they're more upbeat and it is fantastic that the key strategies that have been laid out and planned way back, we've been able to not deviate from them whatsoever. It does feel like we're getting a lot of things right and that's helping the teams be even more motivated and even more focused on doing the best job that they can.
Q: Pre-orders must help when you're making deals with publishers and developers too?
"Success is contagious, but we don't allow ourselves to get smug or complacent"
Fergal Gara:Success is contagious, and it does feel like a lot of things are clicking into place now nicely, but we don't allow ourselves to get in any way smug or complacent. But yes, we're feeling confident and that's a good place to be.
Q: You've announced the release dates now - why that particular timeframe and was that always where you were aiming for?
Fergal Gara:Yes. The release target window has been there or thereabouts for a very very long time. What's happened in recent weeks is that confidence on the production side of the equation has grown as units have started flying off the production lines. Now we can start to allocate the volumes and calculate the volumes needed by region, by territories, so that's allowing us to communicate the date with greater confidence.
Q: Do have any idea how many units have been allocated to the UK?
Fergal Gara:Yes, but I can't share it with you I'm afraid.
The only thing I would say is Andy [House] quoted a number last night for pre-orders, in fact he quoted a low end number, he said 'in excess of.' What I will say is that the UK represents a significant proportion of that, we're talking unprecedented levels of pre-orders that we haven't seen in 20 years in this business.
The pre-order phenomenon is a reasonably recent one, or certainly growing in recent years - but it does mean that demand is well ahead of our expectations as they were earlier in the year so our internal conversations are now all about securing volume to maximise the number of gamers we can satisfy on that day one or close to day one. It's a problem but it's a good problem to have.
There will be some frustration around it and we know that we'll have to do our best to satisfy the demand and outside of that manage the frustration that may result if we're not able to meet all of it immediately. It's a good problem to have but a problem, and we don't like to let anybody down.
Q: And how are you preparing with retail for the launch? PlayStation 3 was huge with free TVs and crowds, will we see that sort of thing again?
Fergal Gara:We haven't pinned down the precise plans for what happens around the launch but I don't see it being low key. I think it's a big big moment for us, it feels like a bit of a rebirth to be honest in a big way so we will mark the occasion but precisely how we do it we're working out. There's the whole PR side of things, there's the retail side of things, how do we bring those things together? But it's a big moment for us so we won't be trying to gloss over it, that's for sure.
Q: You must be quite a popular man with retailers at the moment?
Fergal Gara:Oh yes, the phone is ringing quite a lot with one particular subject matter taking up the calls. They're great conversations to be having, but there is an edge of frustration in there which is everybody wants more than we're likely to be able to give them for that day one. We have to get every last unit we can into the best places we can, the most balanced route to market we can achieve, so a lot of retail planning is happening on that front.
Q: Is online retail more of a consideration now than it was when PlayStation 3 launched?
Fergal Gara:It definitely is, and one thing online does extremely well is that it's the channel that is the king of instant reaction. So never before have we seen such an instant reaction at one moment than the E3 press conference, what happened in the 24 hours post that, particularly in the online channel, with a slightly delayed reaction but also an incredibly strong one for the traditional retail channel, was profound.
Q: Has Microsoft's changing strategies regarding pre-owned games or independent publishing made it harder to focus your strategies for the PlayStation 4?
Fergal Gara:We can't comment directly on the competition but what we can say is what I said earlier really, we've stuck to our plan. There have been no deviations, not in dates, not in times, not in business policies, not in price, nothing. So all we've done since February 20 is flesh things out and add the relevant details as and when it was appropriate to pin them down. So last night culminating with the date, the date was the last one of most people's list so that slotted into place. That clearly wasn't guided by anyone else's communication because no one else has put their date on the table. That was when we felt was the appropriate time to pin it down and when we had the confidence to communicate it.
Q: Is Microsoft's relationship with EA a concern? You seem to have chosen Ubisoft as a big partner for this launch...
Fergal Gara:Yes there can be some edges of competitive advantage carved out by having close associations with certain publishers or certain franchises. The way I feel about our portfolio is... well first of all the Ubisoft one is a pretty long term one. Really it's just going on to the next chapter and I think it's just underlined by the PS4 plan. I think it's wonderful that they have one of the most anticipated launch titles in Watch Dogs, I think that's hugely helpful to PS4 launch. But I think it's also really material that we're growing a relationship with Activision, and Destiny looks like another one, a little further off, but nonetheless one of the most anticipated next gen titles.
So how do I feel? I feel our portfolio of alliances has evolved, but I don't think it's any worse, maybe it's better in terms of strength. We're all trying to give ourselves an edge in the content front and that is one competitive landscape. I feel pretty good about the portfolio that we've got - whether it be the clearly truly differentiated first party titles or those close alliances that give us a bit of an edge, I think it aligns with our 'by gamers, for gamers' strategy in that some of those titles are the most gamer-y titles. Watch Dogs and Destiny are two big ones I'd pick out.
Q: And not feeling the need to give away a free game after Microsoft's free FIFA 14 offer?
Fergal Gara:Well we are throwing free games at people. PlayStation Plus is a fantastic way of offering games included within the subscription and the value of that package we're very very proud of. It's been a little bit of a sleeping giant, very fast growing over the last year or so, but certainly nothing like its full potential. I think PS4 will take us there and it will actually underline and demonstrate the value for the other platforms as well, PS Vita and PS3, so I think there's a tremendous content value proposition there already.
We've got every confidence in frankly selling out on day one, our pre-orders are incredibly healthy.
"Vita's rate of sale has more than doubled over the course of the last few months and it's now in solid year-on-year growth territory"
Q: It feels like Vita has been a sort of slow burn, will PlayStation 4 give the machine a bit of a sales boost because of the remote play features?
Fergal Gara:I think there was great news for Vita last night and first of all the context... yes it's not the biggest seller in the gaming market, but its rate of sale has more than doubled over the course of the last few months and it's now in solid year-on-year growth territory so that's pleasing.
There were two major pieces of news last night. One is around price and the second is further developing and expanding upon the story around remote play, which looked incredibly slick, as demoed last night. Is that attractive? I think so, particularly when you bring in PS4 at an attractive opening price point, and then put Vita alongside it at its most attractive price point ever...It's quite a powerful combo. Of course there's no premium on the software when used for that remote play purpose. But it also services as a standalone and self contained console.
So you could buy PS4, PS Plus and PS Vita and then selected blockbuster titles for example, and actually have quite a lot of content. So you get your Vita specific download games through Plus, you get remote play and your blockbuster titles, you get additional games for PS4, so that alone gives you a lot for quite a competitive total price package. So we're excited about that, it is bringing a PlayStation difference together for us.
Q: It feels as though gamers have come to Vita, just in their own time...
Fergal Gara:It definitely entered a much more complicated market than was expected when it was conceived and the design process started. There's no doubt about that. And comparative value around content is one of the big issues, because there are so many freemium games out there for other portable devices. So you've seen a major concerted effort to address that.
First of all remote play gives you access to high end experiences at no extra cost, the Mega Pack programme that we outlined last night gives tremendous value in portable gaming and PlayStation Plus gives you more, so it's not just a £40, £50 or nothing kind of portable gaming experience. There are tremendous value opportunities in and around it. So I think we're slowly, or quickly actually, we starting to find its feet and of course PS4 was part of the vision for Vita long before anybody knew about PS4, so there's a lot of things clicking into place now.
Q: The Mega Packs, are they aimed at new consumers?
Fergal Gara:What we're seeing now is most new Vitas are being bought with a Mega Pack at the moment, so it was quite a relevant summer promotion, quite a young focus in terms of the titles that were there: summer portable fun made that promotion very relevant. As we go forward now over the coming months the likes of Killzone Mercenary clearly takes us a bit more squarely back into gamer territory, Tearaway is quite a crossover title - good for gamers, good for a broader audience too. So we'll continue with the Mega Packs and addressing that wider audience, but we'll tip it a little bit more towards core gamers as we come into the back end of the year.
Q: You also announced LittleBigPlanet Hub, which will have a microtransactions element. That's an area you played with before thanks to Home and Free Realms, is it a major pillar of your business now?
Fergal Gara:Microtransactions definitely play a key role in the gaming market overall and in fact some of the third party publishers are probably the leaders in this space really. FIFA Ultimate Team is a classic example of microtransactions that are used to a very large degree. Call Of Duty is an example of where microtransactions can feature.
So is it a passing fad? Is it the future? I don't know the answer, but it's well worth reaching out and embracing it and seeing where it can take us, how big is freemium going to be on console? We don't know but it seems wise to test it and if it doesn't work, if there's not enough transactions or no interest whatsoever then fine, we move on. What we're doing here is playing with a whole variety of new business models and I think that gives consumers some great options and great value. Some of them will become the future, some of them might fade.
"Vita definitely entered a much more complicated market than was expected when it was conceived and the design process started"
Q: So you've got a few months before launch, with Tokyo Game Show coming up in September, what are you going to be using that time for in terms of marketing and behind the scenes preparation?
Fergal Gara:As a team first of all, of course November 29 is an incredibly important focus point for us, but we've got three children and we love them all equally, so one of my big focus points is making sure that PS3 plans are not overlooked and they're in the best possible shape. With titles like Beyond: Two Souls and Gran Turismo 6 to come it still represents an incredibly strong proposition, so you'll be able to get a stack of value for under £200 in PS3 land depending on which model you go for and which combination of games, and things like GTA 5 giving an enormous tail end boost current gen.
So all of that is hugely important to us and a lot of work is going in there to keep it going, because it deserves to be kept going and it deserves to be kept in the limelight.
And of course Vita as well, which plays nicely into the PS4 story.
But as for PS4 it really is into the detailed execution on stuff, media planning, launch night and thinking that through, pinning that down, and of course the retail plans are incredibly important and sort of emotional when you've got a position which is very high demand and finite stock. So that's what we're into now, lots of nitty gritty, but fast paced, exciting, stuff.