As is the case with any hardware launch, the PSPgo has attracted a fair amount of comment - both positive and negative - since its official unveiling at this year's E3.
For every commentator who applaudes Sony's decision to wholeheartedly embrace the digital distribution model, there's one to criticise the new hardware's lack of backwards compatibility. For every developer that embraces the platform holder's decision to grant them a fair chunk of profit for their creative efforts, there's a retailer bemoaning the lack of incentives the platform gives them to back it. The console's price tag too - GBP 224.99 - has led some to speculate it is dead before it has arrived.
Ahead of the console's launch tomorrow, we talk to Claire Backhouse, product manager for PSP in the UK, about the plan for PSPgo, the audience Sony is targeting with it and why now is the right time for an all digital console to hit the market.
Q: PSPgo launches across Europe and the US this Thursday, a few weeks after the revised PS3 hardware sold one million in just three weeks. Are you expecting to see a similar demand for the PSPgo?
Claire Backhouse: Well, there's a difference in terms of stock. Obviously we don't have as many units of the PSPgo, and the difference between the new PlayStation version and the PSPgo is that the Slim is actually taking over from the old PS3, whereas with PSPgo we're not taking over from the PSP 3000, it's very much a console that's going to sit alongside the PSP 3000.
It's for different audiences that have different needs. The PSPgo is more for the older, 16 - 34 year olds, more like iPhone users who watch films and want high quality downloadable games on the go, and it's more portable as well, so that suits their lifestyle. Whereas the PSP 3000 is a younger audience - that's why this year we've brought out all the different colours and we've brought out a range of kids titles that we haven't had before on the console. So it's a little bit different from having a console that's taking over from another one and, of course, the stock levels are going to be much higher on that. I do think though that within the target audience that we're going for, it will be highly successful.
Q: What sort of split are you expecting to see between existing PSP users trading in old for new, and brand new users attracted perhaps by the new hardware and its digital nature?
Claire Backhouse: I'd say probably about 60/40 - 60 trading in, or trading up and then 40 per cent a new audience. There'll be those who are currently playing mini games on their iPods, and one thing that PSPgo offers them is an amazing gaming console that's just as portable as what they're carrying around at the moment. And with the launch of Minis as well, that's going to cover off that market.
Q: When PSP launched back in 2005 it was really the first handheld of that generation to come out. It was also Sony's first handheld games console, so a pretty tough proposition for Sony. But now you've seen how people have reacted to the existing hardware, how DS has done and also what Apple has achieved with iPhone. Has that influenced decisions made on the PSPgo do you think?
Claire Backhouse: I think that's always in the back of people's minds. You always do compare it to what you know already. But one thing that we're really targeting with our marketing is just showing people how small it is and just how slick in terms of a gadget and the way it looks. We're doing a big sampling tour throughout the UK - it's nationwide in malls to really get the product into the hands of the consumers.
I think that's one thing that I've found, just demoing to retailers and everything, that once they see it they're immediately really, really impressed. And with all our advertising we've really focused on pushing the main points which is, of course, gaming, but as well connecting to the internet and the fact that it's a lot more portable - the smallest and lightest PSP yet. And the way we've targeted people as well is very much the 16 - 34 year olds in places they'll be - so the cinema, the tube. We've got an LCD campaign running on Oxford Street and Bond Street - and a very heavy online campaign which started today.
Q: Digital distribution has really been ambling along slower than most might have expected on this generation of consoles, but Sony is really going to be leap-frogging ahead with PSPgo. Is this a bit of a sink or swim approach do you think? Presumably, if it is, you're hoping it's quite a low risk one since you aren't intending to stop supporting the PSP 3000?
Claire Backhouse: I think that's right. We've got PSP 3000 and what we've said to all our retailers is that we're very serious about PSP 3000 - it's something we've been supporting. This year, our marketing campaigns have had the greatest spend of the last two years, on PSP 3000. There's been heavy TV advertising as well. So there's really strong support there and with PSPgo we're looking at doing cards for retailers and supporting them wherever else we can as well.
Q: There have been reports of some retailers refusing to stock PSPgo, admittedly not in the UK, although some here have said they're not going to invest too much effort into marketing it in store or on websites. Is that presenting a problem for Sony?
Claire Backhouse: We were very aware of concerns when we went into it and I actually expected a lot more negative responses than we actually got. They were really quite fine with it. They see it as a way of getting people into the store because it's new interest, a new product. And they've had such strong sales as well of PSP 3000 almost off the back of it. If you bring out a new product, people aspire to that but they might not buy it, they might buy the PSP 3000 instead. Especially if they're part of a family - dad might buy the PSPgo but the kids might get PSP 3000s. I think that works quite well for us.
Q: It seems that one of the ways you're going to trounce Apple with the PSPgo is by being able to offer films and TV for download. Is that an area you'll be concentrating on as much as games? And are you planning on marketing that heavily?
Claire Backhouse: Yes, at the moment that forms part of our future plans. On launch we're very much focusing on the gaming part of it. The reason for that is because those are our first adopters, so gamers are going to be interested initially and I think in the next couple of months you'll get other people that are interested in just general entertainment and things like Skyping - you can Skype on the console really easily - and going on the net, checking Facebook, that sort of thing.
Q: The existing PSP has perhaps been a bit of a Swiss army knife - it's done a lot of things, camera, music player, web browser, Skype phone, GPS etc. But - and remote play is probably the best example - a lot of potential consumers, and perhaps even users, didn't seem to be aware of exactly what the console can do. Is that something you hope to change with the PSPgo?
Claire Backhouse: Yes, we've been trying to change that over this year as well. At the end of last year we ran a 'whole world in your hands' campaign for PSP 3000 and that was very much functionality-led. We told people you can watch movies on it, you can take photos with it, you can store your music on it and everything. And I think PSPgo is even more so because you do want it in consumer's minds that it can do all those things as well and that makes it even better than an iPhone, I think. So we are pushing all those elements as well.
Q: Small games are usually associated with more casual gaming. Presumably the Minis alone could attract a less hardcore audience to PSP. Are you hoping your audience is going to grow to include more casual gamers?
Claire Backhouse: I think we are. I think the iPhone has opened up that sort of market, almost like social gaming on the go. Also I think that people are used to downloading things now - it's becoming the norm, whereas I don't think we could have launched PSPgo a couple of years ago because everyone would have found it far too daunting, the fact that you had to download everything. But now it seems that it's quite normal to download things, and it seems like the perfect time to launch something like this.
Q: The business model for PSPgo seems very positive for developers - with them receiving a decent percentage from each sale. What are the benefits to that do you think, and what are you hoping to achieve?
Claire Backhouse: I think that one of the criticisms that PSP has had over the last couple of years is that we didn't have the gaming support behind us, which I think has really reversed in the last year and a half because I've been doing marketing deals with lots of third-parties to support big titles like Harry Potter and Monster Hunter with Capcom. But I think in making sure that never happens again, that you don't get that sort of lag and that you get people excited with the new console as well, that it's positive for everyone.
Q: So what has the general reception to PSPgo been like from the perspective of developers and publishers? What have they been feeding back to you?
Claire Backhouse: They've been really excited about it, especially with the Minis as well I think that some of the smaller development studios are really excited about that. Obviously maybe they couldn't [create games] for it before because they didn't have the resources, but now they can get really excited about it.
Q: The GBP 225 price tag is a fairly high one some are saying. Although perhaps not so much when you consider a lot of gamers will be getting four free games if they buy at launch. Is it a price you feel you're going to have to work hard at to justify? Do you think it will take a while to build up enough content on the PSN and build up awareness of the console before you will achieve decent sales?
Claire Backhouse: It could be. I think we're quite lucky we're launching two months before Christmas - I think that'll really help boost sales. With the campaign as well that we've gone for it's quite targeted. I think we'll see the early adaptors, the gamers, the technology guys getting into it first and I think it'll sell quite strongly prior to Christmas. Then you always have a bit of a lag in January and maybe you'll see at the start of the new financial year, next year, it pick up again with a wider audience I imagine. That's when we'll start talking about other entertainment functionalities as well.
Q: The lack of backwards compatibility - it could be a reason for existing PSP owners who perhaps own more than four UMD games not to upgrade. Was there ever a chance that it was going to be possible to offer a UMD to digital exchange?
Claire Backhouse: I'm not really sure because I don't know what the development team was working on. But I know that this is what they've offered us at the moment. I don't know whether there are any plans for the future for them to do it. We'll announce it if something comes about.
Claire Backhouse is PSP product manager for the UK. Interview by Kath Brice.