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.