THE BIG INTERVIEW: Sony UK; Gara, Pannell and Coultate talk PlayStation

Christopher Dring
THE BIG INTERVIEW: Sony UK; Gara, Pannell and Coultate talk PlayStation

PS4 may be grabbing the headlines, but Sony still has big plans for PSN, PS Vita and PS3. UK MD Fergal Gara, marketing director Murray Pannell and commercial director Alex Coultate discuss retail, the next generation, PS3’s line-up and what’s next for Vita...

So how would you evaluate 2012 for SCE UK?

Fergal Gara, UK MD: We are proud to go from the No.3 to No.1 console manufacturer, in a difficult market. But it doesn’t mean we achieved everything we wanted. We asserted ourselves on the handheld market and claimed over a third of that.

From a team perspective, about 50 per cent of people are either new to the business or are in new roles. There is a significantly refreshed team that is forming quite nicely now. There’s still more work to do and more learning to do, but as we enter 2013, I feel market metrics are in a good place and the team is in a good shape.

Wonderbook was SCEE’s big Christmas PS3 title. Were you disappointed with its sales?

Gara: It could have sold better, but it sold respectively well. I am encouraged that we have more titles coming and it may just take a little longer to get it to settle in consumer’s consciousness.

It was also relatively expensive if you didn’t already have a PlayStation 3 or a Move controller. But I think as people learn it’s about more titles, then that would give it some added momentum.

Murray Pannell, UK marketing director: From a marketing perspective, Wonderbook was an important step in becoming more family-focused as a platform. That is not an easy job to do and can take years to achieve.

And that family-focused theme is continuing this year?

Pannell: Yes. We don’t want to step away from the good work we have done on Wonderbook. Family, kids, broader consumers, however you want to define it, is somewhere where we want the PlayStation brand. PS3 and Vita will be part of how we continue to broaden out going forward.

"Wonderbook could have sold better, but it sold
respectively well. I am encouraged that we have
more titles coming and it may just take a little longer
to get it to settle in consumer’s consciousness."

Fergal Gara, SCE UK MD

 

Did you need a bigger game for Christmas do you think?

Gara: We certainly felt the lack of a big triple-A title. Our timing of releases wasn’t quite ideal last Christmas. The flip side of that is the PS3 schedule for this year is fantastic. The biggest challenge for the team this year is that we have three major formats to focus on: PS3 is the bread and butter of our business, PS Vita there’s loads more to come, and then an exciting new console. That’s the biggest conundrum we face, how do we focus our time, effort and draw attention to the incredible software available on all of those.

You also seem to be putting a lot of emphasis on PS Plus this year.

Alex Coultate, commercial director: PS Plus was another highlight of last year. It has really grown fantastically. It has been high on my focus list and there’s lots more we can do with our retail partners on driving PS Plus.

The High Street says it wants more digital product.

Gara: The digital opportunity at retail is in its infancy really. Retailers add huge value by creating communities of gamers, and being the place for people to come and hang-out with like-minded people. But also they can do things that we can’t do, like monetise those that don’t have or want to use credit cards, or want to monitor their use.

Coultate: Physical retailers can    offer impulse purchases easier than other forms of retail. It’s a fantastic thing for our industry to have dedicated staff in-stores that can drive that impulse purchase.

Vita is a year old now. How do you evaluate its performance so far?

Gara: Vita really, really responded as we went into Christmas. We had a pre-Christmas lull where sales were quite low. But that absolutely exploded 20-fold from that low-point into the peak of Christmas. That’s very encouraging and shows that with the right promotion and software we can light that fire.

The cupboard looks bare in terms of upcoming titles though.

Gara: It looks bare in terms of what is announced. The cupboard won’t be bare.

Last year it was about the family. With your line-up this year, is the focus back on the core?

Gara: Last year we majored on the family audience because Wonderbook happened to be the biggest title we had. That does not mean we are losing our relevancy with the core gamer. Just look at our partnership around FIFA 13 or Assassin’s Creed III as proof of that. But we did try and focus on the family audience. As we come into this year the first party release slate is different, but that doesn’t mean we flip and we just change direction. It just means we have more ammunition in-house to focus on the core gaming audience, but we won’t let go of the family agenda either.

Pannell: There is a range of Wonderbook titles coming and the Essentials range. We’ve got games like Rain and Puppeteer that have broad appeal. You underestimate the more accessible content we have coming.

Gara: And more that still hasn’t been announced.

Your PS3 line-up is quite strong for a console in its last year.

Gara: Where will most of our sales going to come from this year? It will be PlayStation 3. We want to sustain momentum for PS3. Will it be as big as last year? No. Because we are quite late in the cycle. But PS3 still needs to be the backbone of our sales this year.

Also, not all markets are in the same place as the UK. The UK is an early adopter market that sold hard and fast into PS3. But PlayStation is represented in many markets that are less developed than the UK. PS3 will not run out of steam overnight by any means. There are tonnes of markets where the PS3 is still growing. Even if the UK flips to PS4 quite hard and fast, it will be one of the few markets that do that.

Pannell: We have the software that is going to drive the hardware this year more than any other platform. We are investing in these games to be triple-A blockbusters.

"Vita really, really responded as we went into Christmas.
We had a pre-Christmas lull where sales were quite low.
But that absolutely exploded 20-fold from that low-point
into the peak of Christmas. That’s very encouraging
and shows that with the right promotion and software
we can light that fire."

Fergal Gara, SCE UK MD

 

It’s been an exciting start of the year but it’s been a challenging one for retail. How are you supporting them?

Coultate: We want a healthy UK retail landscape. We’re doing what we can for HMV and Blockbuster, and we talk to them all the time. It is undoubtedly tough, but we are lucky to have exciting things to be positive about.

Gara: We held on strongly last year but the market is not as healthy and the inevitable consequence is there has to be some downsizing or resizing. But we have laid the foundations for the kick in the market that everyone is looking forward to, so hopefully we can reignite the market and stabilise the retailers that are there. And maybe bring some who have left to sector back into the sector. Here’s hoping we can do our bit to revitalise retail.

WH Smith stocked Wonderbook last year. Should we encourage more non-games retailers to stock our titles?

Gara: There is more work to do to make sure the retail base is in strong enough shape to take us into the next cycle. It can happen in more than one way. It could happen with a retailer re-entering the space or entering the space for the first time. Or it could be that the existing players extend their portfolio of stores to make sure there are enough game outlets on relevant High Streets. We certainly don't want to see us become an online-only market.

What was the reaction from retail to PlayStation 4?

Coultate: We didn’t say everything but we probably said more than what was expected. People want good new news and we delivered that. We had retailers taking pre-orders within an hour of the press conference finishing. That’s fantastic. We just need to strike that balance between now and then and focus on both platforms. Retail has PS3 numbers to hit just like we have.

SCEE President Jim Ryan says the UK is one of the markets he wants to see more from. Is there much pressure from your central European hub?

Gara: There is pressure, but there is also support. Yes, if you look at the European region we are really the only territory that stands out as ‘should be doing significantly better’. We are doing everything we can to achieve that. We are taking several of the right steps. But it’s definitely not all done. We are no way sitting back, no way thinking ‘job done’. Every week we come, reflect and work out what we can do better.

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Tags: Sony , PlayStation , uk , fergal gara , murray pannell , Alex Coultate

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