Sony's Fergal Gara on PS Vita launch: 'We're seeing encouraging signs'
22nd Feb 2012 | 16:28
This morning Sony Computer Entertainment's impressive new handheld,
With the hustle and bustle of the midnight launch behind us, CVG managed to sit down with SCE UK's newly appointed MD, Fergal Gara, who kindly agreed to meet with us on PS Vita launch day.
Gara, by his own admission, came from the "ruthless, very commercial world" of retail, and now he wants to bring his sharpness and commercial focus to the world of PlayStation.
The Sony UK boss agrees with earlier comments from within the company that a lot rides on the performance of Vita, but in our interview he tells us he believes the market is ready for something "fresh and new" in gaming - the UK especially.
In our interview the MD touched on Vita's positioning as a cross-play device, the possibility of future price cuts and of course early indications of how many gamers have run out to secure their handheld on day one.
What are your early indications following yesterday's launch of the PlayStation Vita?
Very encouraging. First of all, the excitement of a midnight console launch was great to see - it's my first time seeing that first-hand, on this side of the fence. It was fantastic to see that enthusiasm.
We are in a new world, of course, where early sales don't only come from queuing at midnight, and there are a hell of a lot of pre-orders shipping today, which have been ordered either through retailers or online specialists, so judging the numbers at this stage is very hard. But people are coming through with re-orders, which is always exciting to see.
We presume you have plenty of stock?
We've got enough to satisfy demand; it depends how big those re-orders are and how the week plays out. We're seeing encouraging signs, but it's very, very early.
Are you seeing decent tie-rates, and people buying lots of accessories? Memory cards are a particular must-buy.
Memory cards are attaching at a rate of greater than one to one. We've only got detailed data from a couple of retailers right now, but there's an unusual pattern in that in some retailers, it's the 16Gb card that is selling the best and in others it's the 8Gb one, but so far, nobody is selling the 4Gb ones the most. Which for me is a little bit of a contradiction, because the best-selling console at the moment is the Wi-Fi model, and people are going for the trade-up on the memory card.
Yet we expect people to buy more games as packaged media than as downloads, and that's what the Japanese evidence suggests. So we really don't know how it's going to play out, other than that people have got a lot of choice here.
We've got our eye on one of those 32Gb memory cards, but they aren't on sale in the UK yet. When will they be?
They're not available here yet, although we did respond as soon as we got the early sales figures from Japan, and we ordered a volume of those, as again the first evidence we had completely contradicted our European assumptions, I must admit, as we thought that markets like the UK are very much about price. And in some ways it is. However, memory cards are breaking that rule.
In terms of numbers, what would constitute a successful launch in Europe over the first fortnight or month, say?
We're not going to quote numbers today, but I think we all know what a successful launch looks like.
I think Sony said it sold more than 500,000 PS Vitas in Japan - have you got the latest Japanese sales figures?
That's the last number released; I don't think we've published any updates since then, but it continues to sell well.
David Wilson, UK PR head: That's in the first two weeks, up to the first week of January.
In December, Andrew House stressed to us how important for Sony the PS Vita's launch is. Is that the case in Europe as well as Japan?
Absolutely: we haven't had a launch for five years, and the industry hasn't had as fresh a new launch, I guess, for many years. We saw a significant iteration on the DS last year, but we see the PS Vita as more of a start-again console. It isn't an iteration on the PSP - we said: "OK, let's package up everything we've learned from our PSP experience and everything we've learned from the broader market, go back to basics and design something from the ground up".
The market needs something fresh and new. I think the market is ready for it - the UK market in particular, where console penetration is extremely high. And I think it's very important for the PlayStation brand, because the story we're not really hammering hard at this early stage, in order to keep it fairly simple, is the whole Cross-play story - something which is powerful today, and will become more and more so as the developers get to grips with its possibilities. It's what I call a better-together story: the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita are each other's best accessories.
Apart from WipEout 2048, which games support Cross-play?
MotorStorm RC is probably one of the best examples of where, for less than a fiver, you get the console edition and the portable edition. So really, we're packing a lot of value and the whole PlayStation ethos into that title.
Is it true that playing PS3 games on the PS Vita via Remote Play has been blocked?
Jonathan Fargher, SCEE PR: We haven't blocked it. We showed the Killzone camera, streaming games to the PS Vita, but regarding that specific feature, we'll be making more announcements in the near future. As you know, PS3 firmware updates add new functions all the time.
FG: I think we're getting our heads around what it is we want people to be able to do, and what we should promote. With or without that remote Access, I think there's a huge amount in Cross-play that remains to be explored.
And the AR games remain something of an unwritten book, although there are a few at launch like Fireworks and Table Football. Is that something Sony is looking to push later in the year?
We haven't seen where the studios may take that concept, but I think at the launch, we've packed a lot of free and interesting games in, and a lot of free demonstrations of what the possibilities are. I think that's a great studio. Where we'll take it, via the Sony studios or third-party ones, isn't clear yet.
You alluded to 3DS - which didn't sell well until Nintendo dropped the price. You get an awful lot for your £230 with the PS Vita, but is a price-drop on the radar?
Not currently - it will take several years for this investment to p[ay back as it stands, so if we have to do more with the price... Clearly, we'll have to view how consumers respond - do they value the amount of technology packed into that box? One benchmark I would draw is that it is round about half of the price-point of an entry-level tablet, and considerably less than a high-end smartphone.
So, what's the appropriate point of reference for its price? We need to wait and see, but we believe it's a step-change in performance and a step-change in capabilities compared to what people could do before.
Picking up on the Nintendo example, it's not for us to comment on their performance, but I would say that the strength of our software has been demonstrated very well, and that was on our to-do list early last year: to launch with strong software and to make sure the supply of quality software was maintained through the year and beyond. So we hope to start better, and that agenda will continue.
So presumably a big programme of PS Vita game releases is now the top priority for the rest of the year?
Absolutely. There are a lot of big-name PS Vita titles already announced or on the schedule - the likes of Resistance: Burning Skies and LittleBigPlanet, and massive third-party franchises that are coming to PlayStation Vita later in the year, such as FIFA 13, Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed. And those are just the ones we can talk about.
The PS Vita had a massive marketing budget - is that more or less spent now, or will it be sustained throughout the year?
We kicked off the TV campaign only five days prior to launch, so it was pretty tight and a pretty big bang. It's not only about broadcast TV of course - there's a media campaign. And let's remember where the majority of our audience live - they spend a big part of their lives online, so capitalising on what we do through online media and online promotion has been a very important part of the plan.
But we have plenty more budget to go, and conveniently for Sony, we're moving into the new financial year at the end of March, so we will be backing PS Vita significantly in the next financial year as well.
And presumably PS3 owners will have plenty of PS Vita marketing heading their way?
They will. We haven't said very much at all about how the best accessory for the PS3 is the PS Vita, and vice-versa, but there's more to come and we expect that to build. We wanted to keep the message simple at the start, which is: this is the best version of console gaming you can ever take on the move with you.
I know it's partly up to the retailers, but can we expect to see different bundles with games, memory cards and accessories emerging?
No plans as yet - we're open-minded as to how the rest of the year plays out, and we see it as a long game. Today is very important but the rest of the year is at least as important, so we need to keep an open mind as to how consumers react. What we're seeing this week is retailers creating soft bundles as we call them, representing what they think are the most potent packages, and as ever, they've done a very competitive and compelling job.
When will we hear the first sales figures?
We'll probably take a European view and decide when it's appropriate to release figures.
Presumably, you're expecting the UK to be the biggest market in Europe?
There are a lot of reasons to think that will be the case, but the interesting scenario for me is that PSP performed solidly across the continent for much longer than the UK. I don't whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. I suppose there's a PlayStation heritage which held on that much longer, or maybe there's the potential for market confusion there. But yes, historically, it's true to say that UK consumers have been a bit more hungry for new technology. I just read some reports from the European territories, and it at least sounds like the buzz and excitement matches the UK.
Tell us about yourself - your recent background before joining Sony was more in retail, wasn't it?
I've been involved in entertainment from different angles right from school. I graduated as an electronics engineer and joined the BBC's graduate scheme. It was the option to be involved in entertainment output and use the skills I had that attracted me to that. I spent five years there and went off and studied for an MBA, and then I pondered what I wanted to do next. Again, I was led back to entertainment, in the music industry. I still almost eight years within EMI, where I spent a long time initially working on opening up new retail channels - the supermarket sector was tiny at the time.
At least half of my time there was spent opening up the digital. And this was the old days where sending photographs to journalists would be done with glossy prints in envelopes. So I was building websites, building the CRM fan-bases, building web commerce onto those websites, selling physical product into the likes of Amazon, selling digital product into the likes of Apple. Pioneering new territory, with an entertainment theme, is something that has always excited me.
Then I took myself off into retail [with Asda]. It's a ruthless, very commercial world - if today's results are bad, how are you going to fix it tomorrow? But I do think it gives you a sharpness and a commercial focus, and that's something I really want to bring to Sony - getting everyone a bit more focused on the numbers, and what our consumers think of what we're doing for them, to be more responsive in what we do. It was at Asda when I first got my hands on videogames: when I took over, sales of games there tripled in size over that period.
What would you say is your biggest challenge since taking over at Sony?
One thing that's different is that I can't do an awful lot to change tomorrow today. This is an unusual week, but I can't get hold of the real-time data in the way that I could at retail - I can get bits and bobs from various parties. So you have to think a little bit more long-term - you have to be a bit more patient, and we need to think about how we can be a better competitor in this market, because I think we've sold ourselves a little short on that score.
I think we should perhaps have done that little bit better with PlayStation 3, although I still think there's a lot more life in it and that there's much more we can do with it yet. But I think we have to be a bit more hungry, a bit more feisty and a bit more focused.
You're uniquely placed to assess what is going on in the retail sector - games retail, bar the supermarkets, is in a bad place at the moment, so what are your thoughts on that?
It would be easy to look at the two-year trend and say that it's a disaster for videogames. But if you look at the size of the category... If you just look at the console sector and go back five years, there was an unprecedented peak which was so high that there has been an inevitable settling down. That high was created by there being four consoles at or around their peak, all at the same time.
Over that period, specialist retailers expanded, generalists like HMV expanded their presence in games, supermarkets got involved, the online retailers were becoming stronger; so the business expanded and spread out. Now there's an inevitable settling down; we haven't had an enormous console launch for quite some time, although PlayStation Vita can play a key role in changing that.
But it does mean the specialists are dealing with contraction, and that's not easy for any retailer. It's a difficult period. But much more so now than in the past, the specialist retailers are extremely important - they provide the best way of explaining what PS Vita does and showing what PS Vita does, more so than on any website. Do we value that? Oh yes we do.