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Interview: Why Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play Is Not Another N-Gage
Interview: Why Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play Is Not Another N-Gage
July 4, 2011 | By Frank Cifaldi

[The audience for the Xperia Play is a "younger, cooler crowd," according to Sony Ericsson's Dom Neil-Dwyer, who tells Gamasutra that it will find its audience with those seeking "something new."]

When the longstanding rumors of a "PlayStation phone" were finally put to rest with the unveiling of Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play, industry watchers were left with more questions than answers. Who is the device for? Why is it so focused on vintage PlayStation games? What can it offer game developers that other mobile devices don't?

We caught up with Sony Ericsson market development head Dom Neil-Dwyer at E3 to clarify some of these points, and try to define just exactly why the Xperia Play will work after Nokia's disappointing N-Gage.

What are you trying to accomplish with the Xperia Play? Who is it for?

We're trying to create a new market basically. So we're bringing together a small phone with great gaming capabilities to create something new in the market, something different, something to differentiate it.

The biggest obvious differentiator for the Xperia Play is its game console-like features. Is there research to show that that's what people want in a smartphone?

Yeah, I mean we've got research showing that from a gameplay standpoint, the touch screen experience for certain types of games is not one that people find particularly enjoyable.

Also, I mean, it's more than just the keys. In terms of game development, and in terms of discoverability for game developers, when you pop open the device [opens it up to show the game menu] right there are the games.

So what it offers game developers is great discoverability, and that's why we're getting game developers actually supporting and working with us. It's because it's a great solution, but obviously it needs to build up a decent install base.

The initial feedback from Verizon from only two weeks on the market is the profile of the consumer of this device have been buying premium Android games, which is a flip to the normal Android smart phone. So the opportunity to monetize for a game developer is a lot higher on Xperia Play.

So what you're saying is the Xperia audience, at least so far, is more willing to pay for premium games more than a typical smartphone consumer?

I mean I'd say willing but also we're enabling them to find the games through very easy intuitive discoverability.

You're marketing a smartphone with video game buttons, targeted to video game players. If your market research shows there is a need for this type of device, why didn't that work for Nokia with the N-Gage?

Because it wasn't a smartphone, and it wasn't a phone first. As you can see from the design of [the Xperia Play], when you hold it in portrait it's a smartphone. It's not a game device that you can make some phone calls on, it's a smartphone. When you've got the game keys hidden and you're just holding it like that, people wouldn't know what it is, but obviously when you pop it open it's a great gaming device.

The people that are going to be buying this are looking for something new. There's just a sea of touchscreen devices out there and they're looking for something cool. So that's the type of consumer that we're looking for. I bumped into someone here at E3 that had one and they're exactly the type of person we're targeting, which is a very cool, young person that wants something different, right? And that's basically our target audience.

I'm a cool, young person attending E3, and I'm pretty satisfied with the gaming experience I get on an iPhone. What's the difference?

I mean an iPhone audience know, it's been around for a while now, the iPhone, and even though you're bringing out different iterations, it's pretty much the same thing. There are people that adopted the iPhone early but, you know, they're probably now looking for something a bit different.

By that logic, how long is this going to be new? How do you keep this fresh?

Well let's start selling some and getting people, and then I'd be happy to tell you in a year's time! The content keeps it fresh. Obviously we're constantly adapting, thinking about the UI and stuff, so yeah.

A lot of the appeal for game developers for something like an iPhone or another touchscreen device is that once you've designed the game for that touchscreen, you can apply that same game design for all of the other touchscreen devices out there. What is the incentive for creating a button-ized game that couldn't really easily go cross-platform?

The iPhone, yes it's very wide, or even Android, it's a very wide platform, but the fact is I don't even know how many apps there are on Android now. Two hundred thousand? I just read a report this week on who's making money on Android, and people are finding it difficult to monetize.

So if you can work with a manufacturer like ourselves, we give you the profile, we give you the audience, we give you the discoverability. We're not asking for your game to be exclusive for a long period of time to Xperia Play, so at least we give a game a good start. And we think the experience is much better. So the game starts with a really kind of positive momentum and profile, and that's my assumption of why they're working with us.

So Minecraft is a timed exclusive?

It's a period of time, yep.

Alright. I would like to speak a bit more about the audience you're trying to create, your target consumer. So this is sort of a techie audience, looking for a more robust experience?

I would say that it's not necessarily so techie. It's more about people that are wanting to be up on the trends. So I think there's two types of people. One is someone who's just in this because it's the only way they want to play games, because touchscreen games aren't great, and the other reason is a very kind of cool consumer. So I wouldn't say techie.

So is that audience what you're seeing reflected in your numbers? Are they leaning toward the more console-like experiences in terms of their download history?

What types of games they're downloading, you mean?

Yeah. iPhone numbers lean more toward the simple sort of bite-sized experience. You said your audience is paying for the premium games more than most audiences might, but are they leaning more towards robust, deeper games than the sort of quick ones?

It's quite a diverse profile, but also when you look at the type of games on there, it's quite a diverse range. So they're playing a first person shooter and then they're going to download something like Cordy. So we're seeing people are buying a wide range of games. It's not just the hardcore because also it's about user experience, right? I mean you yourself, do you play games on the phone?


So sometimes you've got time to have a longer game and then sometimes you do not. So if I take Crash Bandicoot I'm still playing that game and its like, weeks. I still haven't finished it. And sometimes it's just inappropriate to play that game because I've only got five minutes.

Well sure, certainly. But what I'm asking is, does your audience look a bit different than other mobile platforms, in terms of download habits?

So actually I'd say they're different in terms of their profile in age. They're kind of a younger, cooler crowd.


The average smartphone purchaser is around 30, and then this is a younger crowd, they're like the leaders, the trend leaders, so you see a younger crowd. It's not skewed to a particular type of game I would say.

The decision to distribute older PlayStation 1 games on your device is interesting, considering your younger market. Since they're younger they don't necessarily have any nostalgia for the original Crash Bandicoot. So how do these older games fit into your young-skewing business model?

So when we work with MLG [Major League Gaming], we go there, there's a lot of young people, they've never seen Crash Bandicoot, the Playstation 1 version. And they genuinely enjoy it. And they enjoy it because they've never played it before, so it's a new game for them so to speak, but also the difference in that game is the depth of it. It's an extensive game, so it's a really different experience for a phone.

What does the cost model for the PlayStation 1 games look like versus an original mobile game? Is it significantly less of an investment?

Oh what you mean to emulate?

The whole package, the emulation and licensing and certification and everything, I mean is this a business that has better margins perhaps than original games or is it vice-versa?

On the Playstation stuff I honestly don't know because that's [Sony Computer Entertainment's] thing. You know they're the content owner. We're distributing their games, so I mean you'd have to ask the guys at Sony Computer Entertainment, but what I will say is you know, they're making an investment to move into this space with a whole PlayStation Suite initiative, and they don't do things they don't believe can obviously make business sense for them and their partners as well.

So I would imagine they've got a business model behind there that makes sense.

Closing thoughts?

To game developers out there, we're really open to speaking to people, and the feedback we're getting from even the smaller Android developers is that they welcome the opportunity of a manufacturer giving them the support. Marketing support and investment, discoverability, to support them in making money, so that's what we're here to do.

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Paul Shirley
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He has a good point about the touch screen being a problem, a DPad would solve problems for my game. But the reality is Play wont sell enough to justify exclusive releases and we'll all need to make touch work for the bulk of the market. Which leaves the Xperia platform something to add some extra support for but not a primary market.

The discoverability issue smells of red herring. By definition Play owners are serious gamers, no-one accidentally buys a toy this expensive. Exactly the sort of folk that haunt gaming sites all over the web actively searching for games. The folk that would find games without Sony pushing them on their phone.

Still, that leaves the device as a simple route to target a self selected group of serious gamers, just not so convinced it needs Sony involvement!

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Hum, yes the interview seems rather gimmicky. With the huge consumer and developer support that the iPhone /Pad and all the I stuff has, I seriously doubt someone would be looking for something a bit different, just Because. If it was noticeably better, possibly. But the only real advantage I see here is the proper game pad (and now a days finger gaming is pretty solid anyway). I dont really understand the decision to release this phone. Seems like a worse version of the pspGO, too late, too pricey, and ultimately unwanted.

I believe I'm waiting for the PSVita. This thing doesnt seem to have any real advantages.

Mike Kasprzak
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> The audience for the Xperia Play is a "younger, cooler crowd"

No doubt "youth" was used as part of NGage's marketing as well. Any more levels of youthfulness and coolness and the demographic will be living in refrigerators wearing diapers.

Christopher Boothroyd
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It is unfortunate that this article comes off as a fan boy attack on a new device that really is just getting out there. Journalism should be unbiased.

Jamie Mann
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Um. Where's the bias? As far as I can see, the interview asked some genuinely relevant questions:

1) What's the target demographic

2) Do people really want "traditional" gameplay - and controls - on a smartphone

3) Can the smartphone market really support premium pricing?

4) What differentiates the Xperia Play from the previous "d-pad+button" smartphone effort, the Ngage [*]?

5) What differentiates the Xperia Play from the iPhone?

6) Why would mobile developers choose to develop "d-pad+button" games which can't be easily ported to other Android/iOS devices?

These are far from puff-piece questions - and they're also the kind of questions which *should* be asked when a company tries to launch a new product into a market where there's a well-established company which effectively has a monopoly.

And judging by the answers, Sony Ericcson - or at least Dom - doesn't really have any good answers. Which is a little bit worrying...

[*] Aside from the minor point that the Ngage v1 hardware was designed by people on serious amounts of drugs - hold it sideways to talk? Remove the battery to change games?

Christopher Boothroyd
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The bias begins with the word "I" which is the BIGGEST no-no in journalism. This is the problem with the new social medium. Too many people who cant control their passions to deliver an objective impartial view. The moment the interviewer says "I am (Insert one: Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Republican, Democrat, Labour, Conservative, Fanboy...) " - any sane human will throw their hands up and say buddy has and angle or agenda. The best they can hope for is a label for gonzo journalism looking for conflict to move more eyes and ads.

BTW - Last time I checked Gamasutra is a self professed professional "hardware agnostic" news source - thus my disappointment at what is usually a top notchplace to read.

Victor Reynolds
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I think the idea is neat since i hate how devs try to cram a normal game meant for a controller/joystick onto a device that is touch screen only.

When my droid 2 contract is up, I'lll get one of these.

Besides, even if it does flop, its still an android smart phone...i can still do all the stuff my droid 2 can, and play all the same games...and more!

Kris Graft
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Just poking my head in here on a holiday...

The accusations of Frank being a biased "fanboy" are odd to me. I can't speak for him directly, but I don't think he has feelings one way or another for the Xperia Play. The somewhat incredulous tone is warranted and natural in regards to any new platform entering such a competitive space, and Dom seems to understand that. If you think that a market development boss at Sony Ericsson doesn't know how to handle (or be prepared for) pointed questions, you're being naive.

Christopher Boothroyd
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While I'm sure it wasn't his intention, you gotta admit he didn't even get halfway through the questions before he came barking out of Steve's corner. Objectivity, Impartiality, Fairness. If he's just a blogger then I apologize as they are not held to the same standards as a journalist.

Nicolas Marinus
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They are trying to compete for the title of "most innovative gizmo" with a company who has dominated that title for over a decade? Yeah, good luck with that one. Especially with a phone that looks kind of fun, but will not change the industry the way the iPhone did, twice.

Evan Combs
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I am assuming you are talking about Apple. If so you are wrong about them being the most innovative. For the most part all they have done is take other peoples ideas, and make them cool. Being innovative is different than having good marketing. I mean the iPad wasn't even Apples first tablet device, that dates back to 1993. It is rare for Apple to actually be the one who innovates, usually it is just Apple who makes the product popular.

Robert Green
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A better question would surely be "where are all the PS1 games?". A huge part of this device is that it can play PS1 games on a phone, but how many were there at launch? If they had managed to get a few dozen of the more popular PS1 games out at launch, with new titles being released every week or two, I think you'd see a lot more interest from gamers.