PS3 grew its UK market share in 2011, but Sony's flagship console still sits in the shadow of Xbox 360. In his first ever interview as Sony's UK and Ireland VP, Fergal Gara tells MCV how he's going to revitalise PlayStation in 2012.
SCEE President Jim Ryan told MCV in August last year that PlayStation needs to do better in the UK. Is that still the case? Or did PS3 make a sufficient comeback over Christmas?
We'd have loved to have seen a bit more. But I think it is appropriate to focus on how solid the PS3 performance is in the market. Last year PS3 scored its biggest ever market share, it gained five percentage points last year. That is a commendable performance.
We suffered a minor decline, but as you published yourselves this last week, the market suffered a hefty decline. It is the best performing console in the market. But does that mean it is fulfilling all of our dreams, aspirations and all of its potential? No it doesn't. And that is what I am here to propel on. But we're starting from a very robust position and we have to draw those positives from the year, and so whether you are looking at volume or at value, it was our strongest year in PS3's history.
MCV readers will remember you from your time at Asda. As a retail man coming into the PlayStation business, what do you think needs fixing?
The UK retail environment is renowned for being the most competitive in the world. And if you take the supermarket end of that, that's as blood bath as you can get. One thing you gain from that market is a competitiveness; you have to have it, plus an immediacy. You don't hang around and wait to react. I am used to daily numbers – if not hourly numbers – so if we were launching a big gaming title we would be on top of the numbers by the hour. We'd be the first in with a re-order. And that's really exciting.
What I find at SCE is that we've lots of passionate and committed people. But there's definitely an opportunity to up the pace of our competitiveness. We still have a bit of a hangover – at least in the UK company – from the days of being market dominant. I don't think we are as sharp as we can be. There's room for improvement there. So it's not change everything, but it is turn up the dial, and learn to compete as I have experience doing myself.
What are you focusing on to take SCE UK forward?
Vita is by far our priority in the UK. We start from a different place. Is the PSP being a little more faded in the UK an advantage or a disadvantage? I don't really know. But we have almost a clean sheet to bring a fantastic device to market.
The reaction of people who have got PS Vita into their hands and the reviews that are starting to gather momentum, these are indisputably positive. The device is designed to be an amazing gaming experience and that is the view that is taking shape out there. We now need to get Vita into the hands of more consumers, and there are some initiatives in place, whether that is through retail or through touring, to start doing that a lot more assertively. So that is the near-term focus, to get the team focused on every last detail of that plan and executing that. We have six weeks to do it.
Is there an element of the unknown about what Vita will do in the UK, and perhaps a need to be flexible in terms of how you approach it this year?
A point that has impressed me about coming to this business, is that there may have been a perception that Sony is a little bit in its own cocoon, a little bit arrogant if you like. If that was true, it is certainly far less true today.
Learning from the past, from our mistakes and from competitors, is alive and well. The best example is Vita's software line-up. I was a retailer who frankly took PSP down a step in terms of its profile at where I was before. The software line-up was the reason. We didn't have confidence that there was software coming through to propel it. We were seeing third-parties take their foot off the gas. So to start so strong with Vita gives us confidence. Does that mean the plan today will not get tweaked throughout the year? We would be foolish if we were that inflexible.
How have you found your first three months at Sony?
I have loved it and it feels reasonably familiar. If you take my last sixteen years of career history, I was at EMI for almost eight years before Asda and the process of taking a game to market is not widely dissimilar to music product. I also feel I've some knowledge of market dynamics and competitors, and a different perspective on how our competitors behave as I've sat in a room with them on many, many occasions.
It is my second time in a pan-Europe role, and getting to understand the different markets and the need to learn from my new colleagues across those markets has been really valuable and exciting.
You backed Move quite heavily this Christmas. Is it performing as it should?
I'd say we have a solid foothold with it. Could it, should it, have done more? I think so. It is the strength of the software that goes with it that is paramount. And we've had a widely different performance from the various Move titles. Sports Champions is by far the most successful, selling a couple of hundred thousand units, which is a healthy performance. But it does vary thereafter. So I'd say we are in the market, we have got a shout. Forthcoming titles are going to be important. We take some encouragement from things we can mention, such as Sorcery which is on the schedule, and other things that we know are bubbling under. It is a focus from a studio point-of-view to bring out stronger titles.
Microsoft believes ‘Xbox' has replaced ‘PlayStation' in the mainstream media as the word people use to describe consoles in general. Is this something you have found and is it even an issue?
There is an argument that perhaps some of that factor has happened here in the UK. What I would do is look forward, not look back. And as we look forward the PlayStation brand has got a hell of a lot on its side. We've got a robust performance in PS3 coming out of 2011, and we go into 2012 with a brand new, fresh and exciting format that is also a PlayStation. We enter the year with a real, unique selling point, which is we are the format holder with a high-end, home and on-the-move gaming experience. And how those two interact will be unparalleled and will continue to develop through the year.