January 8th, 2008, 19:35 Posted By: wraggster
1up did a great interview with Sony's John Koller.
Actually finding Sony's booth within the monstrosity that is CES 2008 is a task in and of itself, but after some desperate twists, turns and semi-politely asking a few friendly fellow attendees, 1UP tracked down Sony's expansive presence at the technological expo. There wasn't much of a gaming display at their booth (though Metal Gear Solid 4 garnered its fair share of attention), but PSP senior product manager John Koller was on-hand to answer some of our questions about the future of their handheld, and we think you'll be surprised at some his answers (read: it doesn't sound like Remote Play for Lair was exactly "Sony authorized").
For more CES 2008 coverage, make sure to check out 1UP's CES 2008 page for the latest CES gaming news and PC Magazine's CES 2008 hub for everything else at CES.
1UP: The big thing you guys announced was Skype support. It leaked a little early...
John Koller: Yes, yes it did. [laughs]
1UP: But it makes my day more interesting, your day more interesting!
1UP: What brought about Skype? Why do you think it's a good fit for PSP?
Koller: You know, we looked at a number of different opportunities on a wide variety of levels, and Skype came about because consumers were saying 'we want VOIP or a phone, one of the two.' They've been knocking on our door for a long time for that. So, we went to Japan and Japan started negotiations with Skype/eBay and we were able to come to an agreement. For us, it really adds to the social communication aspect of the PSP. It's obviously a gaming device, but it's so much more. It has a lot of good multimedia features and functions, so this is a way for consumers to call others, and I really think it answers the call for that VOIP that they were asking for.
1UP: When do you expect it to roll out?
Koller: Probably in three to four weeks, probably end of January. It'll come in a firmware update.
1UP: Looking at 2008, what is something you've wanted to see happen with the PSP but hasn't happened yet? What do you want to do with 2008?
Koller: With 2008, we're looking at ways to expand the social communication area and navigation area, which kind of goes in the same bubble. We're looking to expand that area. In terms of challenges, we're looking at ways on the gaming side to truly hit certain demographics correctly. Whether it's snack-size or bite-size content that we put on the PSN store or larger, broader content like a Final Fantasy: Crisis Core that you put on UMD, we want to make sure we target against those demographics appropriately. I think in the past we've had a whole lot of games and a different variety of different demographics and different genres, but for us, we want to hone in from a marketing perspective on who these people are that we're talking to. I think we're getting to a good place with that; the teen demographic's been a big thing for us this last holiday.
1UP: You guys actually outsold the PS3.
Koller: We did, we did.
1UP: That's very impressive.
Koller: Handhelds in general did very well, PSP did excellent. For us, we looked at it being even a supply situation where our demand was so strong, our Entertainment Packs would hit the shelves and bounce out; they'd sell out so quickly. Great situation for us, but I think this year, following last year where we had a price cut and the PSP 2000 launch, I think it's going to be a big one, because we're going to expand the Entertainment Pack line, which obviously is a bundle opportunity. We have a lot of different things we can do with that, and we're going to look into a lot of opportunities on the feature and function side, so whether that's accessories or firmware updates, it'll really add a lot of cool things to the PSP. I think you'll see a lot of that.
1UP: Do you think it's going to be a lot on that end -- accessories and firmware updates -- as opposed to a revision of the hardware anytime soon?
Koller: Yeah, it'll be the Slim for now. In the near future, it's going to be all firmware update additions. If we add anything, it'll be through firmware updates. We've made our hardware revision for now, we did that last September. I think for us, the more features and functions we add through firmware updates, the more palatable a lot of those firmware updates become. More and more people want to grab those and download them. They're really easy to do and they're free, so why not?
1UP: One of the recent firmware updates added Remote Play to PS One titles, but it was more or less secretly discovered by gamers. Here, you have a really cool, new feature that no other handheld or console can do, so why didn't Sony make a big deal about it?
Koller: At the time of that launch, we were still testing a few things. Since it became public, you guys did all the work for us, but it's a great feature and we want to expand Remote Play. You asked the question about what things we want to do this year and Remote Play is a big part of that. Just from a PlayStation brand perspective, you look at the PS3 installed base and the growth is very healthy there now, PSP is extremely healthy -- we marry those and have them communicate and talk. How do we bring those two consumers together? A lot of our research says that is the same consumer, but how do we get them to talk? Right now, Remote Play is music, movies and photos that you can stream, but in what ways can we expand?
You can see DLNA here [at CES 2008], which I think is underutilized. We'd like to be able to promote that more, which is just streaming from PC to PS3 and Remote Play to PSP. That's awesome, and nothing else can do that in the handheld world. What ways can we use to increase usage of that functionality? I mean, you can take your PC content with you on the road now.
1UP: In enhancing Remote Play, is that in the space of refining its performance? Right now, if you use Remote Play with the PS One games, if you stick to the slower paced games it works fine, but if you try to play Gran Turismo 2, it's not going to work so well over Wi-Fi.
Koller: Your question deals with your latency, where you are, the wireless [you're on], but I think in terms of ways in which we can expect it, without getting into too much detail, I think is really just expanding how they communicate in what ways and in what mediums. You mentioned the PS One, that was one thing we wanted to add because we have this huge library of PS One games and they can be streamed pretty easily, so why not do that? That was something that was pretty easy -- let's expand the growth of that library. That's one area. But, there will be a lot more. I think corporately you'll see a lot more.
1UP: It wasn't really publicly announced, but you could use the same functionality with Lair.
Koller: Yeah. Lair was a developer situation. That was Factor 5. They placed that [Remote Play for Lair on PSP] into the gameplay, showed that it was possible, and nothing's on the horizon for another game at this point, but technologically it's possible. It works.
1UP: With the PSP store launching now on the PC, for someone who doesn't necessarily always have access to a PC while on the road, they can't access the store through their PSP. Is changing that in your plans?
Koller: We're concentrating more on the PC right now. We're using the kind of TiVo-to-go model, where before you leave on your trip, you download a bunch of stuff and you bring it with you on the go. That'll be the way it is moving forward for the foreseeable future, but the idea you bring forth is certainly something that's palatable and I think that makes a lot of sense, but there's nothing on the immediate horizon for that. But, again, as we get more content on that PC store it's going to be very important. We have two games on there now and there's going to be a lot more coming.
1UP: You mentioned a desire to expand the demographics you're hitting. Is that the casual market you're talking about? The Nintendo DS seems to appeal to both males and females, while PSP, with its mature content and media functions, is primarily a male, ages 18-24 device.
Koller: The teen demographic we've kind of nailed, it's a good demographic for us. I think looking at the younger set, to a degree, as well as female, both those areas I would agree would be good areas for us to look into in the next few years. I think what'll dictate that is the quality of the games and quality of other content, so things like Skype, GPS and Internet Radio. Those appeal to more of a gender split than maybe God of War will. We look at ways to increase those opportunities. Japan in particular is really pushing for that; they're making a big push for the female demographic, as well. You know, we made no secret it's a male-dominated device right now, and if we add the female demographic, I think we'll be in very, very good shape. It's a push for us.
1UP: Japan is becoming more and more of a handheld market. How, as a company, do you balance between Japan's preferences and what American consumers want?
Koller: It's a little bit of a juggling act, but only insomuch as it impacts the various brands. I would say that North America is starting to trend towards handheld, as well. Not towards console, but just in general, there's a trend behind iPhones, iPods, the Touch, just phones in general have kind of increased [that], and Japan's lead the way a long time on that. I think the growth of the PSP installed base and the DS installed base has shown the handheld growth into an area that I don't think we've seen before in North America. For us, it's a balancing act because there's definitely a living room console demographic and that's the PS3, PS2 and then separate from that is this PSP that we happened to launch a couple years ago. It has appealed to a much different demographic than anything we've had on the console side before.
Now, we're starting to see a marrying on the PS3 and PSP, but it's still different and the person that's on the go -- we call it the "urban nomad," which is kind of marketingese for a professional or late-teen, early-twenties who bring stuff on subways and in class and what not. That's a lot different than the person playing PS3 right now.
1UP: To a large extent, the experiences brought to the PSP are console-esque experiences brought to a handheld market. Do you foresee that being your strategy going into 2008 and beyond?
Koller: That's a good question. There's two ways to look at it. The first is, if you look at it from a PC store perspective, those will be handheld-specific, bite-sized content that you'll probably not play on a console, unless you were getting it through the PS3 store. PSP is attuned for that because you can take it with you on trains, taxis, airplanes, what not.
On the other side of the equation is: how do we launch games that appeal to the PSP set that aren't ports from console? I think that's probably what you're getting at, because there were a lot of those in the early years of the PSP, and what we're really emphasizing now - and you're starting to see -- with Final Fantasy: Crisis Core, God of War, are games that are unique, franchise games, big games, but are unique to the PSP. Daxter is another good example. Obviously, that was a huge franchise with Jak & Daxter, but we take Daxter out of the equation and make a unique game out of it, the Entertainment Pack does well and the game sells like crazy. We expect the game on God of War, I think you'll see more of that this year, and I think it's something we've really tried to push hard with both third-party developers and our first-party group.
1UP: What're you expecting from third-parties going into 2008? With the increasing presence of Nintendo on handhelds and console, a number of third parties seem to be going casual, almost funding the hardcore games with the casual titles. Are in you interested in that group, or do you remain committed to the hardcore?
Koller: I think we'd want to appeal to both groups, and the casual market I think we're really going to be able to get through the PC store eventually. Right now, it's a little bit more of a hardcore set simply because of what it is. As we go along this year, there are going to be a lot of games coming out that are a lot more casual in basis, so I think we'll be able to appeal to that group a lot more through that area. UMD, certainly, there's a lot of great casual-type games on that, as well, but I think the PC store's going to be a great avenue for that [type of game that is] quick pick-up-and-play. And, we talked about earlier, appealing to different demographics that we haven't hit before. On the UMD side, though, there's obviously hardcore and also some casual games, so God of War is a little more hardcore and maybe Final Fantasy, but then Patapon. I mean, that's obviously very casual. It's really split.
1UP: Why wait until God of War to unlock the processor speed? I'd heard before that was mostly a Japan-mandated decision. It seemed like the God of War team was finally the group to say "we really need this option" and they got it.
Koller: It was unlocked last year, actually, but it's the developer's call and they could make the decision. When we unlocked it last year, many of the developers were already in their cycle for launching for holiday, so they chose, in their case, not to increase the processor speed. But, ultimately, it's kind of an interesting discussion, because it's ultimately a development tool that may or may not impact gameplay. In God of War's case, it probably will, but sometimes you can ratchet down to 222mhz and still have a fantastic game and we've seen a lot of great games at 222mhz. I don't think consumers have noticed the difference. We'll see if consumers really notice it in God of War, but God of War is a great game anyway.
1UP: You mentioned UMD. What do you take as the new plan for UMD? It was a big splash at first, but studios seemed to put out titles that didn't really appeal to the PSP demographic. Now, studios don't seem to be abandoning it, but they're scaling back about it. What's your approach?
Koller: There's a few ways to take this. Your analysis was right on, though. They were releasing titles that did not necessarily appeal to the demographic, titles that may have launched well before that demographic was alive and for a lot more money than they were willing to pay -- $39, $49 in some cases, which is extraordinary compared to DVD prices, and I think consumers were saying "DVD vs. UMD? It's the same content, why am I paying $20 more?" I think that's a fair assumption by the consumer at any retail level. So, what we've done, SCEA [Sony Computer Entertainment America] has kind of taken it on our shoulders to make sure that we talk to the studios [and] get relevant content. You've seen a lot of that in the last year or so -- Wedding Crashers, Old School -- titles that really appeal to that demographic at the right price point. So, $14, $9.99, those types of price points that are just excellent for that demographic.
We, actually, at SCEA, we're going to be launching our own titles, as well, so we have a deal that we're going to be launching some studio titles on our own. We'll be distributing, marketing and selling content, so we'll be able to dictate -- you know, hand pick those titles that appeal to our demographic that we know intimately, and we'll put it at the right price point for retail. I think you'll see a lift. I mean, consumers still ask for it, but they say "gimme something I want at the right price point." And I think that's fair. You'll see that this year.
1UP: To wrap up, we have a pretty good idea of what PSP has going on into the spring, but when are we going to start hearing about the rest of 2008?
Koller: Um, we can turn that over to Brian. [laughs, points to PR rep. at the side] But, I can tell you we have seen a very healthy lineup, and from a quality perspective it's a very good year. There's a huge lineup of games now -- 360, 370 games out now -- and I think you'll see it added to significantly but from a really strong quality perspective. So, God of War's a good example and I think you'll see from a first-party perspective, how can we bring over very strong franchise titles as one pillar that are unique, non-ported and bring that casual, Patapon-type experience and have both of those as our pillars. I think you'll see that on the third-party side, too.
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