Interview: SCE UK MD Fergal Gara

MCV sat down with PlayStation UK boss Fergal Gara shortly after E3 to discuss Vita, Wonderbook, the challenges at UK retail and how PSN can grow the market for all.

Vita has had a difficult start in terms of sales. Has it been a total disappointment?
We would love it to be selling more and we intend to make it sell more and help it sell a lot more. The feedback from many consumers who’ve got their hands on it is positive – so that’s a very good start. The key thing for the rest of the year is the key software drive for the console so as we look towards September, LittleBigPlanet, that really is taking the concept on another level because of the Vita functionality. And of course the other key big third party IPs – Call of Duty, FIFA, Assassin’s Creed – will do tremendous things for the Vita. So it’s our job now to take that strength of software and give people more reasons to buy.

I think we haven’t quite hit the spot with the killer software just yet and I have every reason to think that will happen in the next few months.

How are you supporting Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed on Vita? Are these almost first party titles for you?
Our first and foremost job is to drive install base and those IPs are owned by those guys so we’ll put our arms round them and work collaboratively with both teams to make the best of it. You saw an example of how Assassin’s may be presented there with the white Vita pack and bundle. That’s an example of how you can take the game and go the extra mile by working together.

What can we expect from the tie-up between Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation on Vita and Assassin’s Creed III on PS3?
I think we’re able to show a lot more of what Ubisoft have done with Assassin’s Creed but that’s not just in terms of creating a parallel storyline, there’s a real reason to own the PS3 version and the Vita version and that’s what we’re about today really because we’re multi-platform at home.

Moving away from Vita for a moment, what is your internal big-bet for PS3 this Christmas?
Well, by far and away the biggest number we’re going after is Book of Spells because that is a new concept and you saw it yourself. A lot of what we had at E3 is a pick of the best of many of the different tools we’ve got as a business. Whether that be motion control, whether that be augmented reality, whether it be still making the best of the PS3 at this stage of the lifecycle with The Last of Us and Beyond, for example, pushing brand new boundaries. And whether that be using Vita together with LittleBigPlanet 2, which demonstrates cross controller.

Wonderbook was probably my favourite announcement at E3, but then I do get quite excited by new concepts. What’s been the general reaction?
I was a little worried about would people get it and particularly for this demonstration it really has landed very well with people so the response has been fabulous.

As killer apps go, an exclusive Harry Potter spin-off is quite a coup.
It’s a killer hook if nothing else was good, which plenty else is.

How much focus are you placing on Wonderbook this Q4?
Wonderbook is top of the pile and certainly the biggest number we’ll be going after and it’s tremendous that we have such great early feedback. I still think there’s a job to do. There’s still a lot of communicating to do and we’re not going to get them all in here. There’s a big practical side of how do you communicate it, how do you work with retail to demo it where appropriate etc., etc. That planning is going to start right now and we have retail in and so we can start really taking E3 down another level and getting the requirements that apply to them in the UK.

Does that mean retail is going to play quite the role in this?
Well, yes. When it comes to choosing the right retailers, I actually think it will be a particularly broad church on this one. The specialists see a very key role for them in it, especially the power to demonstrate and introduce it to consumers. But also it’s going to appeal to mums who value the creative power and the educational power of the product stoking kids imaginations, so therefore you’d expect the likes of Argos as a key toy retailer and supermarkets to do well with it. The interesting hybrid that it is between book and video game means the likes of Amazon fits very nicely with some of its core strengths and maybe it will be appropriate to take it into traditional book retailers as well. So these are many of the questions we’re trying to work through over the next couple of weeks. But the main thing is – everybody’s interested.

In that sense, is Wonderbook this year’s Skylanders?
They’re clearly very different but I think there are lots of similarities really which are: how do you extend the concept of what a video game is? How do you cross that divide between toys and video games and in this case, augmented reality and video games? So blurring the edges near so there’ll be many retailers where it will not, and should not, maybe sit just on an old video game shelf. Maybe be out in a pod; maybe out in a Christmas toys offering. There’s various places of which it lies in, similar to Skylanders. That’s where the parallel lies for me.

With J.K Rowling involved and the Wonderbook concept being worked on by the London studio – Book of Spells seems a very British game. Does that Britishness help you in the UK?
Yeah, but I don’t see that as an exclusive thing though. I mean I had a glimpse of it a few months ago and it was just like this is very special, we’ve got to put this across now and make sure the consumers understand what it is we are offering them then this should fly because it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The feedback that we’ve had this week as well is that is special, that is creative, that is different, that is pushing boundaries and that’s what you want to be doing in a sector like this.

How will Wonderbook get bundled?
On day one when Book of Spell lands, you need the book, you need the software, a PS3 and a Move controller. Some will have the PS3 and just need the controller and software. Others will have a Move and just need the book. But Wonderbook should bring new people into the PlayStation 3 universe, and they need the lot, so we need to think about their needs and how to put the product together with that in mind.

Is this the product that the Move has been calling out for?
This, for me, is certainly the most inspirational product we’ve seen for the Move in the two years since it’s been out. Though I would highlight Sports Champion 2 is a really solid successor to the most successful title we’ve had so far so that’s great and there’s further innovation there. But if you asked me what’s the stand out title, it’s indisputably Book of Spells.

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You were one of the only games companies to support GAME in its recent crisis. Why? What made you different?
Well, first of all, I came from retail so therefore looking at where we were with our various retail relationships was one of the first things on my list. And, basically, I saw plenty of room to improve. GAME was the biggest specialist in the market so understanding how we were doing with them was high on the list and the answer was – plenty of room to improve.

We also had a new console launch [Vita] and we also needed the power of the specialist to show, demonstrate and sell the product like that. So, for multiple reasons it didn’t feel right to be over conservative in pulling away from GAME. It was about very, very close communication about working together really to manage exposure, help them deliver a great job for Vita and also not be the guy to put the nail in the coffin, because there was hopefully a surge in sales to be had for them. So it didn’t on its own save them, but it certainly helped keep things going and it might have been the thing that kept them out of trouble so it was great to be able to support them through that period.

The dynamic in the retail space has changed quite a bit. HMV and Blockbuster are behaving more confidently. Do you feel there is a bit of change now, an opportunity for more people or is it still really tough?
I think it’s still tough but you just look at the UK market over the last five to ten years and people forget that the industry was around this 1.6 billion level. We then has an unprecedented explosion up to 4bn, so we are coming down off that peak and it has been a steep ride for many, and has involved fallout on many, many levels, not least of all for retail.

So what we’re seeing is not really a surprise, a bit of a readjustment if you like and it isn’t just happening to the specialists on the High Street, there is a bit of a reappraisal around space and the commitment from other retailers so there’s a bit of a re-steadying of the ship going on, and we’d love to see as many of these retailers as possible maintain their interest in surveying the space because down the road many of us are going to be doing our best to give another injection into the market whenever the next cycle starts. Nintendo being first to the table.

When will we be able to write some positive headlines?
We’re hanging in there. And those who can hang in there should benefit from another surge. I mean none of us know the exact timing or exactly how big the market is going to be in the next phase. I think we all know there’s a lot of work going on.

Why is it important for a company like Sony to inject new IP and new ideas into this time?
New IP is the lifeblood of the industry and I don’t think that is limited to a current generation cycle anyway. It’s not a conversation I’ve had but I don’t see any immediate reason why, just like Gran Turismo, you don’t go from platform to platform and keep on going.

When you launch a new IP it doesn’t have to be when you’ve got a brand new console. We’ve got to keep the new IP going. For me, what’s most impressive about the new IP here this week has been the diversity of it, the fact that it’s appealing to different consumer groups, radically different consumer groups. Take Beyond and Book of Spells, they could hardly be farther apart. Also, many of what we presented at E3 makes the best of our broad strength – handheld, console, motion gaming– it’s a really interesting hybrid of all the bits coming together so that’s exciting and that’s what we should do as a format holder. We want to be and we are dedicated to being a broad church. That’s what we are and that’s particularly important being fairly well on in the life cycle of the home consoles – embracing both your core audience and the people who can still come into that.

There’s 200 PSN games on the way. How does the PlayStation Network perform in the UK?
I think we need to put our arms around it a bit more in each of the territories. What can I tell you about the UK market? Well, they’ve got the biggest appetite for digital content in Europe which is not a huge surprise. So the hunger for it is there, the growth is there and also I think we’re pushing more boundaries than maybe we give ourselves credit for. Whether that be high calibre new games that are PSN only, Journey being a great example, whether it be the way we’re integrating that offer with retail by not making it digital and physical separate but the two being very much in partnership. Whether it be the day and date of our releases that we are driving. I think it’s a really exciting part of the proposition that now needs to sit more centre stage.
So that’s a bit of work I think we can…. The pieces are there, we just need to pull them together and shout about it more.

What role can retail play with PSN?
They have a role for many reasons. First of all, yes, you can engage in digital content by simply having a PSN account and using your credit card via the console but there are several drawbacks to that. First of all, you’ve got to have a credit card. Secondly, it’s more a pull rather than a push and a sell, and as a retailer there’s an awful lot to be gained from impulse purchasing or from advising people to buy a certain digital product that can only happen in a store. For our PSN store that’s not going to naturally happen to the same extent so getting the visibility out there and creating innovative combinations, so physical with digital and PlayStation Plus. We’re really willing and able to work with retailers to put extra combinations together. I’m certainly intrigued about how we broaden our way we go to market now with not just doing what we’ve always done, but bringing in digital into our product mix.

What are you telling your UK teams at the moment in preparation for Christmas?
One of our biggest opportunities I think is teamwork, which sounds trivial, but actually when it’s done well it’s powerful. We’ve just moved the office around and one of the reasons we did that is to get the people who function front and centre going to market, working together more closely, create more dynamic communication, create better working relationships and I think that alone is one of the powerful things we can do to become a high performing team. I think we’ve been an okay team and I want us to be the best team out there so it’s a journey and there’s several pieces falling into place now to enable that. It’s a small but important step.

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