It’s a cold February evening but a modest crowd has braved the elements to queue up outside GAME’s flagship Oxford Street branch.
Journalists mutter in huddled groups that the turnout doesn’t match that of midnight openings for Call of Duty or Skyrim, and they’re not wrong. As the first major launch of 2012, the debut of PlayStation Vita is not quite what you’d expect.
But SCE UK MD Fergal Gara is a happy man. Despite the economic troubles of the world, the struggles that GAME faces and the general lack of consumer confidence that some would have you believe spelt doom for Vita, the crucial point is that avid gamers have still made the journey to London to drop more than £200 on a new handheld.
“It’s always amazing to see the people that come out on day one or for a midnight launch,” Gara tells MCV.
“It’s easy to forget UK retail is still coming down from an unprecedented high when we saw three consoles performing at their very best.
“There was an unbelievable peak around 2008 and 2009 but it was inevitable that you wouldn’t see that level sustained. We hope Vita provides a shot in the arm to the market and hopefully helps retail, which has been struggling for sales.”
GETTING BEHIND GAME
Few have suffered more from harsh High Street conditions than the GAME Group, so it is significant that Sony has been working closely with the troubled chain, its faith in specialist retail largely unshaken.
“We’ve worked with many different retailers but we’ve targeted consumers with the power of demonstration. And no retailer was better set up to do that than GAME,” says Gara.
“Putting consoles in the hands of the store managers and putting demonstration units in stores were vital steps on our road. There are units going into wider retail channels as well, but GAME and GameStation have led the charge.”
GAME’s marketing director Anna-Marie Mason was elated by the platform holder’s support: “It was important for Sony to get units out there so people could understand why Vita is going to transform handheld gaming. The fact that they’ve done so with us is brilliant.
“We took a lot of our store managers to Sony’s training events so they had really in-depth product knowledge, which we could then take back into store and be evangelists for Vita.”
Of course, the launch wasn’t without its hiccups. It was only on the day before that reports revealed a disparity between boxed and digital games, with the latter more expensive in the UK.
Conversely, downloadable Vita games are slightly cheaper than retail in the US and Japan.
Gara explained that this is down to the competitive nature of UK retailers rather than a Sony decision, adding that the High Street has always stood to generate more Vita sales than the PlayStation Store.
“First of all, retailers set their own prices for the physical product – not us. And it’s very competitive in the UK market, which narrows the gap,” he says.
“We aim to keep both markets – packaged and download – alive and well as long as consumers want that.
“I would expect the UK market to reasonably reflect the Japanese market where packaged media is still dominating. I don’t have exact figures, but at least three quarters – maybe 80 per cent – has been packaged media, even in the very early adopter market, so it will be at least that high in the foreseeable future in the UK.”
Gara also emphasised that retailers can participate in digital sales on Vita, bridging the two worlds in a way not seen at any previous hardware launch.
“The role of specialist physical retail in digital product can be seen here today,” he says, gesturing to a display of prepaid cards for PSN titles: Top Darts, Hustle Kings, Escape Plan and MotorStorm RC.
“You can buy digital products in a store, which works very well for many people – they might want to pay in cash, or buy digital products as a gift.
“We see the two coexisting. There are literally hundreds of titles available digitally on day one. No retailer – not even a specialist retailer – would have managed to get hold of that in store.
“So while the big titles are available at retail and certain key digital titles are available for retailers to participate in, it’s important to have breadth of choice in this day and age: more ‘snack gaming’ like retro games and PSP Minis. So there’s a practical side to complementing retail with digital: offering more choice.”
JUST THE BEGINNING
This time last year, hype was growing for Nintendo 3DS but reports suggested disappointing sales around the world over the first few weeks. Fast forward 12 months and the handheld has been named the fastest selling games platform of all time in Japan with 5m sales under its belt.
And Vita may well turn out to be just as successful in the long term. Both Sony and GAME believe that the early surge will be one of many, predicting that its sales momentum will escalate towards Christmas.
“We can learn a lot from the 3DS experience,” says Gara. “It did well after people thinking it might not. And it did well on the back of strong software, so we know for sure that sells consoles – it always has. We need to stay focused on that and keep Vita as competitive as we can possibly make it.”
Mason adds: “Similar to the 3DS launch last year, Vita will be a journey. Customers will start with one or two games, get into the repertoire as they learn more about the amazing features Vita has.”
These are the customers that have come to this Oxford Street store to take part in Vita’s launch. On platforms past, these consumers were the be all and end all, the key to success. And while they are still vital to any console launch, Gara reflects that the games market has grown beyond them.
“It’s fantastic that they’re still here, they’re hugely important, but you don’t get a mass market device on these people alone,” he says. “That would constrain the market far too much, so it has to broaden, it has to reach out to a much wider audience.
“The software line-up at launch allows us to address that core market quite well, and branch to a certain extent to that wider audience. But it’s really important that the titles in the coming months and years continue to do that.”
Sony already has plenty in store for Vita throughout 2012, from first-party titles like Resistance: Burning Skies and LittleBigPlanet to third-party blockbusters like FIFA 13 and the next Call of Duty.
Gara adds: “Those kind of titles, that breadth and depth coming to PlayStation Vita over the balance of the year gives me huge encouragement that we won’t just be a one-week or one-month wonder and we’ll have a long life with this console.”