Mobile games not a threat to Vita, Sony says

17 Feb

Sony’s next-generation handheld video game system, the whimsically named Vita, officially launches on Feb. 22 after shipping out this week to those who pre-ordered it. It’s a very impressive and attractively priced device - you can read my full review here.

SCEA president and CEO Jack Tretton.

At the Vita’s launch party in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, I chatted with Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, about the Vita, PlayStation and game trends in general. The Vita, as it turns out, comes along at a time of major change in the gaming industry.

Smartphones and tablets have opened up an entirely new frontier for the industry, with people who wouldn’t previously be caught playing video games now idling away hours on Angry Birds and the like. Nintendo, Sony’s traditional rival in the handheld market, has already felt the pain as people have turned away from the more expensive and involved software produced for such devices and toward cheaper and simpler mobile games.

In discussing Sony’s long-term strategy with the Vita, Tretton said he’s not too worried about smartphones and tablets.

Is the Vita being sold through the razor blade model, where the hardware is cheap but you’re going to try to make money on the software?

What we do at Sony is we invest in the technology long term. Ideally, with economies of scale we’ll be able to cost reduce the unit, make it more profitable and ultimately hit an even more attractive price point. We invest heavily on the front end and say, ‘We’ve got to bring this out at a mass market price point that people can reach.’ At $249 with the technology under the hood, we’ve clearly delivered that from day one. It’s only going to get better in terms of the product offering.

Was there a lesson learned from the PlayStation 3, which initially came at a relatively high price?

It was $599 when it first came and again that was the same investment. It was a steep hill to climb for both us and the consumer back in 2006, but the dividends are really being paid now. There’s no technology out there that comes close to it and while some of the technology from our competitors is looking long in the tooth, PlayStation 3 is just hitting its stride. If you were one of the first consumers to buy it at $600, six years later you still have a state-of-the-art device. If you got it a little later in the game you’re still getting state-of-the-art technology for $249. We’re always making that investment in the long term as opposed to something that’s going to be a short-term win financially and technologically but that’s going to run out of gas. We look at things in 10-year product life cycles and in order to do that we have to invest in the technology. Unfortunately, the consumer has to make a bit of an investment as well, but that’s what’s really the staying power of the PlayStation brand. People have had really good experiences for multiple years and when they go back and amortize their investment dollars and the amount of entertainment they had, they’re very satisfied consumers and they come back generation after generation.

Is that 10-year life cycle accelerating at all? There seems to be a shift toward digital games.

Actually, it’s getting longer. If you look at the distance between the PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2, it was five years. From 2 to 3 it was six years. We had that 10-year life cycle on PlayStation 1, we’re in the 12th year on 2 – we’re still selling it – and as I said, we’re going into the sixth year of PlayStation 3 and we’re just hitting our stride. I really think you’re going to look at a 15-year life cycle on PlayStation 3. So, thanks to technology, the tail seems to be getting longer as opposed to shorter.

What happens when competitive forces come into play? Nintendo will have a new console this year – if it’s a big hit, how will that affect Sony’s plans?

I’m obviously prejudiced but you’d be hard pressed to find a technologist who can cite a device existing or coming that is on par with PlayStation 3. I’m not an expert on new machines like the WiiU, but the idea of using a second screen exists today with PlayStation Vita. There are multiple games where the Vita acts as the second screen for a PlayStation 3 game.

What about the competition from smartphones and tablets?

The irony is, if you’re a gamer, you’re never going to confuse a smartphone or a tablet with a gaming device. It’s just lacking in interface and technology. The way that you’re used to playing a console doesn’t exist without extended peripherals on a smartphone or a tablet. I think they’re the farm leagues for dedicated gaming systems. They’re doing more to add to the interest in dedicated gaming systems than they are detracting from it. They’re demystifying gaming because they take it down to its simplest form, but ultimately you find yourself wanting more and that’s when you graduate to something like a PlayStation Vita or ultimately to a PlayStation 3.

Do smartphones and tablets eat away at some of the casual gaming audience you could have on the Vita?

No, not at all, I think they add to it. We’ve got games at retail from free and 99 cents all the way up to the $59.99 console games. It just continues to add to the number of consumers who consider themselves gamers. We’ve got a billion people worldwide who are gamers today. There’s plenty of other forms of entertainment out there so I thank the smartphone and tablet for really demystifying gaming and bringing more people into our wheelhouse.

One of the criticisms of the Vita, not to mention other Sony products, are all the proprietary measures, such as special memory cards and power cords. Some other companies have moved strongly toward standardized features, so what’s Sony’s thinking behind that?

Our devices are very ubiquitous in terms of your ability to use them in conjunction with each other. As far as the proprietary memory is concerned, all memory is not created equal. It’s not relative to a gig versus a gig. We have a high level of storage device that ultimately works best with the Vita. If you compare high-speed memory devices at four gigs for $19.99, we’re actually on the low end in terms of pricing. If you look at basic memory in its cheapest form, if we actually gave that to consumers to use with Vita they’d find it wanting from a performance standpoint. We always say you get what you pay for and believe me, we’re investing in the consumer. We’re not trying to get fat on a proprietary format, we’re trying to give people a proprietary format that works best with the technology we’ve created.


Posted by on February 17, 2012 in sony, video games


2 Responses to Mobile games not a threat to Vita, Sony says

  1. Parallax Abstraction

    February 17, 2012 at 8:46 am

    I still firmly believe there is a market out there for devices targeted towards hardcore gamers in the portable space. The unsustainable fashion trend growth of iOS is impressive and there’s no doubt that will be a big part of the gaming landscape going forward but much of the press claims dedicated handhelds are dead simply because iOS exists and I think there’s no basis for that. The 3DS had a rocky start because it had a dismal launch lineup and was overpriced for what it was. Even after the discount, Nintendo still makes money on each one sold which tells you how crazy that price was. Now that it has a more reasonable price and better software, it’s selling quite well. The Vita has an astonishing amount of tech for its price and a much better launch lineup. The Japan launch has been bad but if you look into it, that’s largely because the launch lineup has few titles that appeal to a Japanese audience and that will change. These things are never going to sell iPad numbers but they don’t have to in order to succeed and I think Sony and Nintendo know that. Comparing the two is kind of like comparing the sales of the Xbox 360 to laptop computers. Of course computers outsell it by orders of magnitude every year because everyone uses computers and not everyone games but the 360 is still a huge success.

    I’ve played what are considered many of the best iOS games and they’re simply a different class of game. They’re shallow timewasters, whereas the experiences on things like the Vita are deeper and more complex. There’s nothing wrong with shallow timewasters, Hell I’m probably splitting an iPad 3 with my girlfriend so I can get in on them. But I don’t believe that the success of one means the other can’t also succeed. I pre-ordered a Vita and as someone for whom games are a big part of my life, I think it’s a fantastic device and it’s always in my big, right beside my 3DS. I’m guessing there are more than a few other people who think similarly.

  2. Dave Mackie

    February 17, 2012 at 10:02 am

    “We always say you get what you pay for and believe me, we’re investing in the consumer. We’re not trying to get fat on a proprietary format, we’re trying to give people a proprietary format that works best with the technology we’ve created.”

    If Sony is investing in the consumer, the last line of the above quotation should read:

    “We’re trying to give people a format that works best with the technology we’ve created.”

    A unique hardware format may be necessary to meet the needs of a new technology, or to accommodate a new design. Too often though proprietary hardware formats are all about generating profits. I guess if the new format is going to be the next standard, that’s different. Looking at Sony’s track record however, that’s not often the case. They often come up with great ideas, but their preoccupation with “proprietary” often limits user experience, and hamstrings a technology’s adoption.


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