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Interview: Sony's Lempel On PSN's Move Beyond Gaming

Interview: Sony's Lempel On PSN's Move Beyond Gaming Exclusive

July 15, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

Sony's been courting developers in a big way in recent months, hoping to launch the download-only PSP Go with a beefy content offering. And although it's not revealed all the specifics behind its strategy for the new handheld, it certainly looks to be taking advantage of the popularity of do-everything connected mobile devices like iPhone.

With its frequent hints at non-gaming applications in development for the device, perhaps Sony's even angling for some of that market share.

Apple's success has been a watershed for the concept that an online store can act as both a content delivery and storage hub for multiple devices just as Sony seems to at last be finalizing with its PlayStation Network, which is already directly accessible from its PlayStation 3 home console, its handheld platform, and connected home computers.

But rather than riding the wave that devices like Apple's have accelerated, PlayStation Network operations director Eric Lempel tells Gamasutra that this has been Sony's vision for its platforms and network all along.

"The other devices really haven't paved the way," says Lempel. "I'd argue we may have paved the way." It's true that the PSP didn't have direct access to digital content at the time PS3 launched, he adds, but "it's always been part of our plan."

"It's just a matter of how fast can we move, and how fast can we develop that stuff," he says. "We didn't decide, 'Oh, look at that -- let's do it.'"

Thinking Bigger

Digital content has the potential to extend the value of games purchased at retail, says Lempel, and that's a major part of Sony's strategy. But he makes it clear that Sony's thinking bigger than retail video games.

"What do people want next? Our devices are capable of doing a lot more more than gaming," he says. "There are a lot of other things we can do. What are the other services we can offer, both digitally and wirelessly? What are the other things we can add to our devices that make them even more?"

"It's something we're looking at," Lempel adds. "It's something we're hearing from consumers, so it's something we have to look at -- giving the consumer a choice."

Industry-watchers often wonder how the rush to smaller download-only titles might affect the traditional packaged goods market, from the price of games to the depth of content on offer. But according to Lempel, choice means there's no rush to abandon packaged goods.

"Lots of people are now comfortable with downloading, and that's part of why Go will exist," he says. "But other consumers are happy with packaged products. We're going to see how that goes, so there are no plans to change either market right now."

Retail is still a very viable business for Sony, he adds. "Everything's doing really well at retail, and we want to continue that. Ultimately, the consumer will decide how they want to purchase products. We like giving them that choice, and our retail partnerships are very important to us -- they're the key to getting that hardware out there."

Finding Its Audience

But the PlayStation Network is growing rapidly, says Lempel, adding, "We're in a really good place right now." The service has 25 million registered users worldwide, he says, and its revenue for the SCEA region is up 300 percent year over year.

"That's some great growth," he says. "E3 gave us a lot of momentum on the network -- in the week of E3 our sales grew 48 percent week over week. We also just saw a tremendous amount of traffic, and a lot of people downloading the free E3 trailers."

Video downloads to the home are also a big part of PSN's offering and strategy, says Lempel. Today is the one-year anniversary of PSN's video download service -- it started with 300 movies and 1,200 television shows, and within the last 12 months, Sony tells Gamasutra that the offering has grown to 1,900 movies, 35 percent of which are available in HD, and 9,000 TV shows, thanks to partnerships with "every" major movie studio and over 20 TV networks.

There are other benefits to direct-to-consumer delivery besides providing content, Lempel adds: it's a way to receive feedback from users and evolve the experience according to their responses.

"We really know firsthand what people like," he says. "We came from a world five years ago where it was hand-raisers... Now, it's like, 'I'm doing this activity,' or, 'This is the content I'm downloading,' so we know that's what you like, and it helps us shape the future of the network."

Attending to that consumer feedback to evolve the network becomes a core part of the network strategy, then. "Right now, we do a few things to customize the experience for each individual consumer -- and going forward, we'll really see what people doing and what they like and changing that experience on a user-by user-basis," says Lempel.

Checking All The Boxes

What about PSN's rival, Xbox Live, and Sony's widely-publicized assertions that it was finished playing catch-up?

"When we launched the PS3, everything that we wanted to be there wasn't there," Lempel concedes. "It just simply wasn't possible yet, and there's a lot we have to learn, and lot of things we didn't have time to do focus on and change."

"It wasn't really about catching up with Xbox Live," he says. "We definitely look at the competition to see what works, but we always have a lot of plans on our own that, to be quite frank couldn't come out at day one."

Lempel says that following PS3's launch, the PSN team became accustomed to a barrage of questions on why they lacked certain features that its competitor was already offering -- from an achievement system to social features to a robust hi-def video delivery service and original programming.

"Now, looking back, we've delivered on everything," says Lempel. And new features are continually being added through free firmware updates -- "I can't think of many other products that you don't pay for on a regular basis," he says.

"I think we're different. It's a different offering; it's what we want to offer, we check the box on everything that the majority of the gamers want and then we have it."

Continual updates, from new content to performance enhancements, weren't possible in earlier PlayStation generations, and now that the capability is there, Lempel says Sony continually evaluates how it can leverage the capability -- including tweaks that can extend the console lifecycle.

Continuing Evolution

"A lot of firmware updates we do [are] performance enhancements," he says. "Sometimes we just improve how software plays -- we've done that and can continue. We're constantly looking at ways to give [developers] more processing power and memory, to make it so that they can get more out of the PS3."

So given that the company seems to be where it's aimed to be on both its home console and its handheld thanks to the PlayStation Network, is the company looking at interoperability and content-sharing between games that exist on both platforms?

"I definitely think so -- it's something we're encouraging," says Lempel. "There's a lot to take into consideration when you set out to do something like that, but we strongly encourage [it]."

"The next evolution is two things: Games that can be played simultaneously on PS3 and PSP is definitely something we're looking at. It takes a lot to get that in place and make it work," he adds. "And then it's about getting content that could be compatible in both places and could scale."

Looking ahead, Lempel says Sony is enormously confident about the upcoming holiday season. "On the Network side, I'm specifically looking forward to supporting all of these initiatives by rapidly expanding the PSP offering, growing content on the game and video side; Home will have an incredible amount of releases later this year," he says.

"There's just a lot of new stuff, and we'll be rolling out new features either later this year or early next to help enhance that."

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