Q&A: Behind the new PlayStation Store-front

SCEA's PlayStation Network head Susan Panico talks about the PS3's newly revamped shopping experience and its launch hiccups, video downloads independent of Home, coming "this year."

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After a rough first 13 months on the market, the PlayStation 3 is having a good 2008. Though it still trails the Wii, Sony's high-powered console outsold its archrival the Xbox 360 in January and February, according to industry-research firm the NPD Group. March was essentially a tie between the two consoles, with the 360 eking out a 5,000-unit victory.

The new and improved PlayStation Store.
The new and improved PlayStation Store.

Perhaps more importantly, Sony's 2008 software lineup for the PS3 is its most robust yet. Following next week's launch of the dual-platform Grand Theft Auto IV, the electronics giant has lined up a string of high-profile third- and first-party exclusives, including Haze (May 20), Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (June 12), LittleBigPlanet (Q3), SOCOM: Confrontation (September 16), Resistance 2 (TBA '08), Killzone 2 (TBA '08), and Gran Turismo 5 (TBA '08).

Last week, Sony gave consumers a taste of what's to come with the release of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. The partial version of the full-fledged game was released both on Blu-ray Disc and via the PS3 version of the PlayStation Store, the console's online-commerce service. Shortly before the game went live, Sony took down the old, Web-browser-based PlayStation Store, which had been criticized for providing a slow shopping experience.

Last Tuesday, the new PlayStation Store went online. Besides being based on in-console software (via firmware update 2.30), the store offers a new, more streamlined interface, and it organizes content into eight sections: new releases, downloadable games, view all by title, add-ons, demos, videos, featured items, and themes & wallpapers. The 900 pieces of content on the store were also reorganized for easier access.

One thing that the new PlayStation Store doesn't have is television shows for sale and films for rent, a service that Xbox Live Marketplace provides. Curiously, the dearth of such premium content comes in spite of the fact that Sony Pictures Entertainment cranks out hundreds of television episodes and films each year. Indeed, Sony Computer Entertainment America has leveraged this relationship to sell both the PS3 and PlayStation Portable, bundling each with premium films on Blu-ray Disc and Universal Media Disc (UMD), respectively.

PlayStation Network senior director Susan Panico.
PlayStation Network senior director Susan Panico.

Why isn't Sony leading a similar charge with downloadable video on the PS3? Will the video service launch be part of Sony's ambitious Home service, which was delayed this morning? To answer these questions, and to learn more about the new PlayStation Store, GameSpot spoke with Susan Panico (pictured), SCEA's senior director of PlayStation Network.

GameSpot: What led to the store redesign? Was it purely in response to consumer feedback?

Susan Panico: We definitely listened to our consumers, and they had a lot of good feedback. Their comments were closely aligned to our internal PlayStation Network team's "wish list." The store UI's original design did not take our cultural usage model into full consideration. There is new leadership over PlayStation Network in Japan, and they have been great in listening to our market feedback. There were a lot of things we wanted to do on day one which were not achievable at the time. Many of those changes are reflected in the new PS Store design, and a few additional usability features will be coming down in the back half of the year.

GS: Why release it now?

SP: We wanted to release it as soon as the majority of our needs were met. Based on a list of end-user priorities, the timing was now.

GS: What do you think its biggest improvement is?

SP: One key improvement is purely in design. The revamped PlayStation Store is much more in line with the PlayStation brand--more sleek and current. Also, the way content is categorized makes it much easier to browse and find things. As a PlayStation Network user, my favorite improvement is that content is now marked when you purchase it and doesn't disappear when you buy it.

GS: There have been widespread reports of problems with icons loading and some other slowness issues. What is the cause of the issues? What is Sony doing to address them, and when will they be fixed?

SP: We are aware that many users have experienced delays while the PlayStation Store thumbnail icons are being downloaded. This is a temporary consequence of a new system implementation and high global traffic levels, which we are working quickly to resolve.

GS: Is this update the first in a series? If so, when can we expect the next wave?

SP: The next update will be in coordination with the launch of the video-download service.

GS: In a post last week, SCEA senior vice president of marketing and PlayStation Network Peter Dille said that details were "coming very soon" about a "video service for PS3 in a way that separates the service from others you've seen or used." What exactly did he mean?

SP: I believe he meant that we strive do things in a "PlayStation-esque" way. Our first priority is to deliver things that are unique, PlayStation-defining experiences that you can't get anywhere else, and Home is a good example of this. We could create a 2D, menu-driven community service, but we wanted to up the ante and deliver a high-definition, robust virtual world to serve as the community destination for PS3 gamers.

GS: When can we expect the video service? By year's end?

SP: As Peter noted on the blog, "soon." It will be this year. We feel that it's important to spend more time on development to reaffirm our commitment to delivering a unique, quality experience.

GS: Will it launch alongside Home in the fall? Will it be part of Home?

SP: Video content will be available from the PlayStation Store on the PlayStation Network. Home is a separate service focused on gaming and community. Naturally, we continue to explore how all of our services work together.

GS: What kind of pricing are you anticipating for video content on the Store?

SP: We will have competitive pricing models. We will have more details on this at a later time.

GS: Many believe that, given Sony's vast film and television library and the PS3's built-in hard drive, that the PS Store should've had video DLC at launch. What's your response to that criticism?

The Gran Turismo 5 Prologue download page.
The Gran Turismo 5 Prologue download page.

SP: Our primary goal was to focus on delivering quality games and focus on getting that right. I think we've done a great job in meeting our goals in that we have provided dynamic, fresh content experiences that are unique to PlayStation 3 and that take advantage of the PS3's technology. As it relates to film and TV content, we are part of a broader entertainment company; the goal is to leverage these relationships and to provide content from all the studios and networks that are relevant to our audience.

GS: At the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, Sony announced that it would launch a version of its Connect service for video and music for the PSP. That never happened, and the Connect store shut down last month for good. Why did you wait so long for the big content push for the PlayStation Store?

SP: At the time, we had our sights on games, and though we continue to maintain this focus, we are expanding to other forms of entertainment. PS3 and PSP are multifunctional media devices, and we want consumers to enjoy the full potential of the hardware. PlayStation users are into movies, TV, comics, et cetera, and we want to offer our PlayStation fans a broad variety of entertainment options.

GS: One big issue for all of the downloadable systems is portfolio management. What criteria are you using to select which games to approve for release on the service?

SP: When evaluating games made specifically for the PlayStation Network, we look at a few things: First, does it show off the technical capability of the PS3? Second, is it a unique or original experience, perhaps even creating a new genre altogether? And finally, the game has to be a blast to play. If you look at the games available on the PlayStation Store--fl0w, Calling All Cars, Pain, Warhawk, and even the under-the-radar hit PixelJunk Monsters--the product-development community has done an excellent job in meeting this criteria.

GS: When there are cross-platform releases of content like Rock Band songs or Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo Remix on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, PS3 fans have to wait until Thursday for no apparent reason. Are you planning to ever release content throughout the week?

SP: We are open to suggestions, but we have found that both operationally and by consumer preference it works best to have a regular, scheduled "new release" day each week.

GS: The release dates for some content on the PlayStation Store are advertised ahead of time, but many are not. Why can't we get a better idea of what to expect from the store before the Thursday it comes out, or even two or three weeks in advance?

SP: Our thought was that in the presence of a fast-paced, online world, we wanted to keep promotions as timely as possible to the release dates of the product. Unlike other industries, the development schedules on games are constantly shifting, so again, we keep it to a week-by-week snapshot. Again, we are open to feedback on this.

GS: Why aren't we seeing original PlayStation games added to the store with more frequency?

SP: We are working as fast as we can to get the catalog of PS One games on to the PlayStation Store. The licensing and clearing of these titles can be challenging and time consuming. For example, the software publisher may not have cleared the music rights in the game past a five-year period, which prevents us from selling it on the store.

GS: What are you finding people decide when they are given a choice between purchasing retail copies of a game or downloading it, as they have been given with Gran Turismo 5 Prologue and Warhawk?

SP: A majority of consumers like to walk into a store, pick up a package, see it, read it, et cetera. Brick-and-mortar retail will always be a huge purchase destination. We do have a consumer set who are avid online gamers, avid PSN users and tend to try and buy online, and these "power users" are also major influencers amongst their peer group.

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