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Interview: Sony's Koller Talks Trending Younger, Fighting Piracy With New PSP Initiatives
Interview: Sony's Koller Talks Trending Younger, Fighting Piracy With New PSP Initiatives Exclusive
June 1, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

Sony's got a new idea for the troubled PlayStation Portable gaming handheld: the company announced today it will unveil a new line of PSP software titles priced at $9.99, and add free downloadable game vouchers to PSP Go retail packages.

The PSP performs well in Japan, but has yet to see the same success in the U.S, where hardware sales have declined dramatically and its software routinely gets outsold by DS software as much as eight to one. To help boost the system on our shores, Sony's hoping the new software plan will help it face the PSP's struggles on two fronts: growing a younger audience and fighting piracy.

"We think there's a lot of opportunity for us to drive the average age younger for the platform," SCEA hardware marketing director John Koller tells Gamasutra. Specifically, the initiative's aiming to expand the PSP further into the 12 to 14 year-old age range.

"We in the last few years have been centered around this 16 year-old range," he explains. "There's various strata in the demographic, but 12-14 seems like it has a lot of opportunity, in terms of software sales and in terms of overall hardware install base."

The new PSP "favorites" line will include well-known first-party titles like SOCOM: Fireteam Bravo, Loco Roco 2, Patapon 2, Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow and PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe. But the program also enjoys support from third parties like Rockstar, EA and Konami, who are adding titles like Silent Hill: Origins, The Sims 2 and Manhunt 2.

Mature-rated Manhunt 2 for 12-14 year olds? Naturally not -- the PSP "favorites" line has another purpose. While the new $9.99 price point "is a lot more available to that younger consumer," as Koller says, Sony is also hoping the lower price point will discourage piracy, which the company has long asserted is a major drain on the platform.

"By no means is this a small thing -- we think $9.99 is a more natural impediment to piracy, because we have seen very publicly the attrition of some software sales at the higher price point," Koller explains. If the price is already low, he reasons, there's less incentive for piracy. Plenty would rather pay 10 dollars than go through the inconvenience of stealing. "We have a double-digit amount of titles coming very, very shortly, and that's expected to grow pretty substantially," says Koller.

It seems something like a re-angling for the PSP, which with its multimedia features and ability to sync with the PlayStation 3, always seemed like the more "adult" portable hardware item on the market opposite the all-ages-friendly Nintendo DS.

But that was never the intention, says Koller: "The PSP Go... was the product that was angled toward older consumers," he explains. "The PSP-3000 has been on the market for a while now, and it has always been marketed right into that teen demographic."

In that way, this major price cut for the PSP "favorites" is no kind of fire sale, Koller asserts. "It's more of a stimulus, that will allow the 12-14 year-old consumer to purchase what they may not have been exposed to," he says.

And the piracy prevention is major, too -- it's "absolutely still an issue" for the platform, according to Koller. "People can offer varying percentages in terms of lost revenue, but we'll leave it at the fact that it's significant," he says. "We want to protect our business, and we really see the need to ensure that piracy does not dissuade publishers and developers from continuing to put out good products."

"We really need to continue to show leadership... to try to put an end to what's been attrition on the revenue side for [developers and publishers]," he continues. "Through a program like this, we're able to shut down some of the more heavily-pirated areas."

Reducing price and angling younger is what Sony did vis a vis the PlayStation 2 when it was trying to push adoption of the new-generation PS3 -- can the move to "trend younger" for the PSP-3000 signal any kind of push for adoption of the PSP Go, the success of which it's been thus far hard to view as definitive?

"You are right, on the console side, where we did look at new PS2 demographics when the PS3 launched," says Koller. "Obviously we had to have a stratified console audience... but in this case there's no such parallel at all. We're actually trying to drive that age younger by providing options."

But the PSP Go is getting what Sony hopes will be a shot in the arm, too -- a "value pack" worth $80 will now be bundled into all retail PSP Go units on the market. "What we have heard from the PSP Go customer is they really like the idea of digital, but there's some education required for these larger game downloads, and they want the opportunity to try it before they buy in," explains Koller.

Sony hopes that after consumers use their vouchers to download LittleBigPlanet, Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters and SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3, they'll feel comfortable enough with the experience of downloading full-sized retail games to the system that they'll be willing to try more.

These initiatives are all apparently part of Sony's endeavors to, as publisher relationship VP Rob Dyer told Gamasutra recently, "fix retail" performance for the handheld. But Koller says that largely "we're still very, very happy with where PSP is in the market."

"There's an opportunity for larger game handheld product in the market; we frankly think that that younger teen demo is ripe for that type of product," says Koller. "We have seen some attrition from piracy, but the larger platform is still a good platform for us, and we will be in the handheld market going over. It is very important for us going forward to continue to maintain the PSP brand and platform."

And as for the Go? "It's right at forecast," says Koller. "We've been happy. We've always been very open about the fact that it was always going to be a very small percentage of the broader platform."

But while Sony says it's content with the digitally-savvy, early-adopter market slice for now, it believes there's still a growth area ahead for the PSP Go as more of the audience goes digital. "As a manufacturer, you want be obviously ahead of that curve, and we're certainly going to be right in the mix when digital adoption does become a muich bigger part of the consumer lifestyle," says Koller.

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Jeremy Reaban
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The trouble with this theory is, if you've got a hacked PSP, then you can't really even connect to the PSP store. And how many pirates are really going to un-hack their PSPs, just so they can purchase (some) old PSP games for $9.99?

And why is Sony only doing this to a few titles? They've got launch titles they are still selling for $15 and up. That's just crazy. Indeed, if it were about price, people could have bought UMDs of all these games years ago, since unlike digital games, they get discounted rather steeply a year or two after release.

Pricing is only part of the trouble, though it's about new content as well. Why would anyone get excited about The Sims 2 being only $9.99, when it's a five year old title (port of the PS2), while every other platform in existence will be getting the Sims 3.

And Sony is severely lacking in another area - its back catalog. Only maybe half of its PSP library is on PSN, including many big titles (and many of its best). And what, maybe 2% of its PS1 library? If they had every PS1 RPG, then a lot more people would be interested in it. Instead, it's got the whole catalog of XS Games. Which no one wanted even in the PS1 days.

Thomas Lo
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Sony's problem is that it is too late to the game. It was too late to the mp3 game and lost its dominance of the portablue music player market to apple. It was too late online and for 4-player games during the PS2 era and give microsoft the ability to establish itself. Sony needs to have BOTH software/platform development lead ALONG with hardware, not the other way around. It's again too late now to integrate the PSP online, many early adopters that would be the most profitable people have stopped using their PSP's.

And even now the PSP market is in decline and it is doubtful a PSP2 will reinvigorate things. Sony really needs to stop being so proprietary and get in the game earlier. Think of how the market would have been different if Sony had released a PSPhone before the Iphone. Now as it is, much of the adult portable gaming market will go to iphone and other high-end phones and much of the casual market will go to the DS lite. Sony's niche is not great right now and it needs to refocus and not have crazy hardware guys like Kutaragi in charge.

Alan Youngblood
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Thomas and Jeremy: While you are right on certain points (Sony needs to re-release all of the good PS1 titles), I disagree on some of the other things.

Sony's main problem with the PSP is one they have from the start with every Playstation branded console. The problem is an issue of marketing. Their hardware has always been high quality and capable of doing lots of great things--PSP is no exception. Their prices, although often hefty compared to competing consoles are likely justified. The problem arises when most consumers just don't "get it." When the PS3 was released it was an over priced paper weight to me. I waited to buy one until recently. Now it is one of my prized possesions. The hardware is actually slighty less powerful (I have a PS3 slim), but I like it more. Why? Because of what it does for me. I knew that before I bought it. I can watch Netflix on it. I can play many awesome games. I can quickly and easily buy new ones or get demos on PSN store. I can compare trophies or play metal gear online with friends. And what's more Sony told me all this in a witty advert before I bought it. PS3 went from why do I need this black box? To it only does everything. Does the PSP do anything? Sony hasn't sent a clear message to its consumers in the west. "Everywhere just got better" but how and why?

I think lower prices is a good step for anti piracy and releasing more games that are already in the PS1 and PSP catalog via PSN store are good moves. Targeting a younger audience sounds like a good move as well although without anymore data or research on that demographic and cultural grouping's spending patterns and interests I can't say that for sure.

For what it's worth I love my PSP and I'm sad that the platform isn't doing better in many ways in the west. Just don't announce PSP2 at E3 and you'll have better luck reviving the current one.

Jeremy Reaban
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Well, I have to disagree - the PSP hardware has sold - there are 17 million of them in the US. But the software doesn't, that's the real problem.

Sony needs to be able to convince the people that bought them, to actually do something with them, except (apparently) just keep them in a drawer gathering dust.

$9.99 re-releases of 5 year old games isn't going to do that. (Especially as some of the third party titles aren't even on PSN)

Today EA just announced some new Harry Potter games. For every platform in existence except the PSP. How is that going to help with the 12-14 demographic Sony now craves?

Mark Venturelli
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These PSP Go vouchers should be retroative too. I know a lot of people who are selling their PSP GOs. Maybe something like this would prevent the second-hand market from growing of that first wave of consumers (who paid an absurd price for the handheld, it's worth mentioning).