INTERVIEW: Andrew House

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Andrew House

For fans of handheld gaming 2011 is proving to be a banner year.

iPhone games are looking better than ever with hits such as Infinity Blade. Nintendo reboots its DS line with 3DS next week, and Microsoft has partnered with Nokia to take Windows Phone 7 to greater heights.

But it is Sony that is making the boldest moves. The firm wants to reach out to all gaming audiences, from the super-hardcore to the very casual. And the platform holder is doing this in two ways. Later this year it will release its PSP successor  – the super high-spec NGP, where the likes of Uncharted will attract the most hardcore gaming nuts.

But its most progressive move has been PlayStation Suite – a smartphone service for Android that lets casual gamers download classic PSone and hit mobile games.

Here, SCEE chief Andrew House discusses both strategies and why the firm needs to open PlayStation up to multiple manufacturers.

NEXT GENERATION PORTABLE

You have ditched UMD for Flash cards for NGP. Why?

Couple of things. One is efficiency from a power consumption stand-point. Secondly, it was a result of not having a disc drive built-in, which has the benefits of reducing the bulk and weight of the system.

It is also a matter of having flexibility in terms of storage capacity. When you are committed to a disc format you have a one-size-fits-all solution for the platform’s lifecycle.

Does retail have a big part to play in NGP? Or is the focus on digital?

That is one of the attractions of having a hybrid approach to distribution. You have maximum flexibility. It gives a great opportunity for retailers to continue to be an active part in the business. But at the same time, it gives the consumer the flexibility of digital access to content.

I also think publishers will start to look at distribution methods depending on the size of content. Clearly if you have big blockbuster games, then downloading them is perhaps not the best experience.

One thing we learnt from PSP, is that we want to have simultaneous delivery in digital and physical for NGP. Just to clarify that, all games that appear physically will be made available digitally. Not necessarily all games have to be made available physically. And having the option of a digital-only method affords more creative risk-taking, and that’s because you don’t-have that in-built risk of physical inventory.

What I’d like to see is a hierarchy of different games of different sizes. So at the high-end you’ve got these big, premium games, which by and large will be available physically because that is the most convenient way to access them. And then there’s an opportunity for digital-only, where we might see more experimentation.

Any particular territories this handheld will appeal to in Europe more than others?

If you look at PS3 connectivity rates in some of our countries it varies – it’s something like 92 per cent in Scandinavia versus down in the 38 per cent range in some emerging markets. So there will be differences in the way consumers interact with NGP, but I think the enthusiasm for the overall product is across the board.

THE PLAYSTATION SUITE


What was the thinking behind PlayStation Suite?

It’s a response to the way consumer tastes have shifted. If you think about the audience for games as a pyramid, you have at the top the core gamers who want the most immersive games. They will naturally be the early adopters for NGP.

Then if you look at the wider bottom of the pyramid, you have got a huge amount of activity in the area of casual mobile games. Much of the content free and, lets face it, rather difficult to navigate.

Our feeling, and our research bears this out, is that there’s potential for an audience that sits in-between those two. An audience that wants a more quality gaming experience than they currently get from the mobile space – but they want the convenience of having that on their smartphone.

So with that in mind, we thought if we were to open up the PlayStation experience towards a greater variety of Android devices, then we can perhaps serve that market. That is essentially the thinking behind PlayStation Suite.

Also, if you talk to content providers they will all tell you that it is very difficult to run a business within the Android or iOS model as it currently sits. There are huge amounts of competition and free content out there and it is difficult to differentiate premium gaming experiences from lesser experiences.

So we are trying to establish a PlayStation Store, which is a destination for games that have a seal of quality that use the PlayStation tried and tested interface, either physically or via virtual or on-screen representation of that. A store where it is easier to differentiate your content of being of good quality, and it is easier for consumers to navigate . And we think consumers are prepared to pay a little bit more if they can get that sense of quality.

How do PlayStation Certified handsets come into all this?

This is the last pillar of the strategy and is really quite important. It is to take that PlayStation badge of quality and carry that through into the devices themselves, and that is where PlayStation Certified program comes in.

Because what it says is that you will get a certain interface that you are familiar with and a certain level of
quality.

It’s quite a bold move to open up your platform. Is it not a risk?

We had to think carefully how the positioning of NGP was going to work alongside PlayStation Suite – particularly as it is something that would work across multiple devices. But we had supreme confidence in NGP to attract a large core audience, because of the kind of experiences you can only get on that device. And secondly, we felt that we absolutely have to respond to the changes in consumer behaviour.

We view one of the core PlayStation strengths is our ability to manage relationships with developers and publishers in a way that makes good business for everyone involved. I think the original PlayStation and the revolution that CD brought was based around that thinking. We garnered tremendous third party support right from the start because we presented a business model that worked for a wide variety of constituencies. We are now applying the same sort of strategy into a different space.

Is it just Android? Or are you looking at other devices for PlayStation Suite?

I am not ruling out anything. But there is a need to focus our strategy initially, and we feel that Android gives us broad enough scope for this first phase.

Are you working with Sony Ericsson at all on Xperia Play?

We are working with Sony Ericsson in a number of areas.
But I should stress that for PlayStation Suite to have the kind of scale for publishers to find it attractive and for us to garner a larger audience, it needs to be a multi-manufacturer device strategy. But we did want to work with a sister company in the mobile space to pioneer this.

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