According to Sony Computer Entertainment Europe president David Reeves, SCEE likes going last when it comes to hardware launches. Defending the fact that Europe is always last in line for Sony consoles at the ELSPA International Games Summit last week, he pointed out that aside from the obvious difficulties of launching in Europe, going last means that we get a bigger launch software line-up and that hardware bugs which plague the early launches are ironed out by the time the systems reach Europe.
That's all true, and it's fair enough, but it still doesn't quite amount to the apology that the industry deserves for the woeful mis-management of the PlayStation Portable launch in Europe. Nine months after originally advertised, six months after the USA and - if rumours this week are true - perhaps even a couple of weeks after the final, final date of September 1st, the PlayStation Portable isn't just coming last to Europe - it's coming to Europe after most other territories have already forgotten the launch and are waiting for the next big thing.
Sony Europe isn't necessarily to blame for this mess - but Sony as a whole certainly is. The PlayStation Portable is a superbly desirable device, but in terms of the launch timeline, Sony has over-promised and under-delivered. Publishers have had their schedules knocked into a cocked hat, retailers have been scurrying to rebalance their cashflow estimates... And consumers? Most of them don't care, and will buy the PSP whenever it arrives, but quite a few have turned to the importers, which is where the latest twist in the PSP European launch saga comes in.
Importing of the PlayStation Portable is almost certainly running at a level higher than has ever been seen with any other game console. Around 100,000 PSPs are liable to be circulating in Europe by the time September rolls around, which is probably a good 10 per cent of the number that will be allocated to the entire territory at launch - a significant chunk out of SCEE's bottom line, in other words. The PSP is small, easy to ship, relatively cheap, region-free and not bound by PAL to NTSC conversion issues. It's an importer's dream, and many have sprung up purely to capitalise on this lucrative market.
SCEE recently issued cease and desist orders to a large number of companies involved in importing PSPs, and according to Reeves, around 600 letters went out to eBay importers at the same time. Most retailers have complied with the orders; some, like online retailer ElectricBirdland, have not, resulting in a high court hearing in London earlier this week where Sony's injunction against the retailer was upheld pending a further hearing.
The legal situation is a storm in a teacup, of course; once the devices are officially launched on the UK market, all talk of cease and desist letters or court cases will end. What's worrying for SCEE, however, is the incredibly vitriolic backlash from hardcore consumers to the firm's actions. An attack on import retailers - no matter how justified, and there can be no question that Sony has an absolute right to protect its position in this way - is seen as an attack on hardcore gamers, and hardcore gamers are very important opinion-formers in this industry.
The company is already moving to rebuild bridges, in ways; it has reassured consumers that it will not be targeting individuals who have bought import hardware, and it is emphasising the size and quality of the launch line-up for the device, which is certainly impressive. However, the launch of the PSP will be soured by this regardless, since any platform launch depends heavily on the support of early adopters and hardcore fans to make up the first week numbers.
The growth of the Internet makes it easier than ever before for individuals to source imported hardware, and this is a trend which isn't going to go away as more and more consumers learn that they can get their hands on the latest hardware and software online often months before it arrives in Europe, and even sometimes for a significantly lower price than it will cost here. It's a factor which no platform holder - or publisher - can afford to ignore any more. Importing is here to stay, and taking the cease and desist route to combating it is not only ineffective - it could do more harm than good in the medium term.
Rob Fahey is the editor of GamesIndustry.biz, and can be reached at [email@example.com].
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