Sony on PS4 vs. Xbox One: "It's nice to feel you're ahead"
Sony UK managing director Fergal Gara talks to GameSpot about the PlayStation 4's line-up, the battle for preorders, and why the console looks set to sell-out this Christmas.
After its triumphant showing at E3 in June, Sony stood up at Gamescom 2013 to announce the launch date for the PlayStation 4: November 15 in North America and November 29 in Europe.
Much has changed across the next-gen landscape since Sony last made a big public show for the PlayStation 4--Microsoft's Xbox One policies have been utterly and completely reversed--though a captive audience expected to see Sony recreate some of that E3 magic as it stepped up to the plate on Monday evening, ahead of a jam-packed public PS4 showing at the bustling trade fair in Cologne, Germany. After a string of hardware and software announcements, including a price drop for the downtrodden PlayStation Vita, Sony Computer Entertainment president Andrew House slipped in a sly put-down of rival Microsoft.
"While others have shifted their message and changed their story," said House in front of a global audience waiting on tenterhooks for him to announce the PlayStation 4 launch date, "we were consistent in maintaining a message that is fair and in tune with consumer desires."
Consumer desires, and more specifically gamer desires, is the very area that Sony continues to focus on when it talks all things PlayStation. With its bright and broad showing championing smaller indie games and downloadable titles, the company's focus feels new and refreshing.
After the conference, GameSpot spoke to Sony Computer Entertainment's UK & Ireland Managing Director Fergal Gara, formerly trading director at Wal-Mart subsidiary Asda, to see how House's bold statements about the company stood up off the stage.
So how are you feeling after last night's announcements?
Gara: Really good. I think we were confident going into last night, and we're at least as confident this morning. It was great to flesh out a bit more detail around the PS4 plans in particular, and to underline some key strands of our strategy by demonstrating them. For example, the indie publisher agenda, or the Remote Play agenda would be just two that instantly come to mind as things that aren't new, but they were sort of proven and underlined in a nice way last night.
Those two things, second screen gaming and indie games, have become major points of discussion over the last few months. Why do you think that is?
Gara: There's a broad belief across the industry that there is a role for second screen, and there are various apps being developed that will give you a second screen experience. to me it means two things, there are two strands in that: first of all the complimentary screen, for example maps for what you might be seeing on the screen. Then there's taking that a level beyond, which is what PlayStation Vita does. We're talking about a full remote play experience, a full PlayStation 4 experience, away from the console. Both are important, we've got both in play, and that's really exciting.
You can see an energy coming from the publishing community to develop for it, and we've got lots of tools we've developed, and it's down to gamers to respond and say that's good or that's not good, and it becomes big or not. But there's certainly energy behind it.
When it comes to the indie publishing space, it goes back to the vision Mark Cerny went through on February 20, which is that this is a five-year project to understand the needs of developers, to give them the best place to create, and to give gamers to play. And if you're going to be the best place to play, then you've got to have the best range of content. Sure some of that will be relatively wacky and relatively eclectic, but we need to be a broad church. That's what the brand is and should be, and there's some tremendous creativity coming out of that camp. You can see a real energy amongst that development community to self-publish, and there's a real willingness and a warmth in coming to PlayStation. Lots of that was underlined last night.
I also think the advent of digital consumption plays very well with indie developers. If you think about how the market has polarized in recent years towards huge blockbusters and lots of displaced product struggling in the middle-ground, what we might see is a reemergence of a middle-ground. I don't see the big brands disappearing by any means, but we may see a reemergence of the middle-ground that can be published digitally in a lower risk, lower cost kind of way. Then if the product does well, and starts to pay back, it can become a disc product, or a more heavily marketed product, or just an extended product. Digital retailing just offers tremendous flexibility. I think there's a few things coming together which means it's right that there's a spotlight on indie gaming.
For people who read gaming news every day, I think it's safe to say Sony has won over that crowd. But isn't there a worry that gamers who just play Call of Duty and FIFA every year, that you're not attracting those guys?
Gara: Well, I think there's a marketing challenge for us. If you're a player who plays CoD and FIFA and that's almost it, well, there's a marketing challenge to get them to try something new. Trying something new could be something very quirky, something at a great value price point, it might be five, or ten, or fifteen or twenty pounds rather than a top-tier price point. But there are many, many more gamers beyond those we call Top 10 gamers--those who play the mega titles--so we've got choice and variety and content for them.
Who knows who's going to produce the next hit? We're just opening the gates and saying come join us, and there will be some surprise hits in there that will spill out into the bigger market of top 10 and more casual gamers. I think we've just opened the door, and who knows what will float to the top, but we're giving it every single chance we can.
To me it sounds like you're trying to put all the cards in the right place, so when the next hit comes out it's already on PlayStation.
Gara: There's a bit of that, but there's also… what does the PlayStation brand stand for? And what has it stood for many years, it's stood for being a broad church, really, and having something for everybody. Without strength in that area, we wouldn't deliver upon that objective. You saw immense diversity in content last night. On one hand you have the ultra family friendly, quirky and innovative Playroom, and on the other hand you have esoteric indie content. Almost polar opposites in whom it appeals to. But there's nothing wrong with that, for me. That's exactly what having something for everybody should look like.
And you are getting lots of big-budget content at launch--you'll have Watch Dogs, you'll have Call of Duty. But it does feel to me like you guys aren't focusing on AAA as much.
Gara: I would say we're not focusing on it only. We're trying to focus on several camps, and I believe that's right. Other fantastically gamer-focused things that I would pluck out of last night are, for example, that trade-up route for PS3 to PS4.
Well, it will be down to the publisher to decide. That mechanism doesn't affect us, because we're not publishing any titles across both platforms. It's over to the EA's, the Activision's, and the Ubisoft's to go and decide what the differential is to trade-up. But I think it's exciting that we can offer it, because it gives gamers more confidence. We don't expect [the cost] to be huge. I think what roughly feels fair, is if… there might be more competitive pricing on the PS3 version of the game, so if you end up paying roughly the price of the PS4 game as it would be on shelf, plus a little bit maybe--that feels fair, doesn't it? For the flexibility. Get started early, but end up paying round about the price you would for a PS4 game from scratch, possibly plus a bit. That's the intention.
Microsoft's announced that FIFA 14 will. Will that make a difference on the high street this Christmas?
Gara: FIFA's a very significant title. That's a robust promotion, I would say. We are not seeking to accelerate our preorders any further, to be honest. [PS4 preorders] are breathtakingly high as they are right now. We do not have a preorder problem. We will remain focused on value, and there's lots we can do around launch to make gamers feel looked after in a PS4 world.
And, let's be clear, you can buy a PS4 plus FIFA 14 at full whack for less, as I would understand it, than a free FIFA 14 with an Xbox One. We will continue to focus on great value for the gamer. There's loads of instances on how that's real today, whether that be the price of the PS4, or the fantastic content proposition that goes with PlayStation Plus.
Amazon won't guarantee a PlayStation 4 at launch day anymore. Do you expect the PS4 to sell out?
Gara: It's highly likely there's going to be a shortage. Where we are today is, we're trying to think like a retailer and help them not to disappoint their customers, so we've advised them to say beyond August 5th, we're not guaranteeing day one delivery. So the very significant numbers of preorders they had up to that day we're very confident will be delivered for day one.
We hope that some more people will also get it day one, but as we finalise precise allocations by market and then by retailer, we can offer greater clarity there. For example, an Amazon customer that may have preordered on the 15th of August, might get good news. That's better than getting bad news. We're just trying to give them the clarity to communicate clearly with their customers. It's better to overdeliver than underdeliver.
To launch across 32 countries within about two-three weeks of one another, that's really rare. I guess they must be flying off the factory lines already?
Gara: The reason to choose last night to announce the date is clearly where it fitted in the production schedule. This date happens to be nicely timed for our confidence on production to have reached a certain level, so we were able to define the date, we were able to define the launch countries with a bit more clarity. We wouldn't be doing that if we hadn't built units, and we hadn't built confidence that they were coming out of the factory at the right pace. But is it a huge project? Of course it is. Getting to this moment, getting to launch in the month we wanted to after a several-year gestation period, is possibly the biggest achievement of all.
You've announced over a million preorders. How many of those are coming from the UK and Ireland?
Gara: A very significant chunk of it is the UK. There's definitely been a ground swell of support towards PlayStation. It was most pronounced around the E3 period when preorders went into orbit, and we thought maybe they'd settle down, but they've not settled down. It's just continued to go. We're a very, very big chunk of that preorder number.
I think we'll be able to sell everything we make, and everything we can make, in 2013. But it's a long term project, isn't it? We want it to run for many years, so we will get back into a free supply situation hopefully reasonably quickly.
And, finally, just how satisfying is it to see Andrew House stand on stage and deliver a cheeky swipe at the opposition?
Gara: Well, it's a competitive market you know. We're all competitive animals. We all come to work to do the best job we can by our gamers, but there is a part of that job that is about winning versus the competition. It's nice to feel you're ahead, it's nice to feel that we've got a lot going for us, and of course Andy chose to put bit of a dig in there. All's fair in love and war!'
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