The Vita Interview

By Christian Nutt

Today, Sony launches its latest portable console, the PlayStation Vita, in North America and Europe. The PSP, its last attempt, initially fared well -- until a mixture of piracy, shovelware, and a drought of killer titles killed the platform dead outside of Japan. Has the company learned its lessons from that system well enough to make a success of this one?

If only it were that simple. This time around, Sony also faces stiff competition from Apple's iPad and Android tablets such as the Kindle Fire. The market has changed drastically since the PSP launched and all Sony had to worry about was Nintendo -- which has seen a major resurgence of its Nintendo 3DS handheld since its lackluster launch, too.

To find out if the company has what it takes to make a success of the Vita, Gamasutra spoke to Scott Rohde, Sony's senior vice president of its Worldwide Studios organization, to draw a bead on precisely what's changed and how seriously the company takes these threats to its success.

You executed a very large and diverse launch lineup, with different kinds of games, but it just doesn't seem to be generating the kind of buzz I feel like it would have been generating a couple years ago. Do you agree, and what do you think about that?

Scott Rohde: Well, it's an interesting point, and I think that the difference is there's just so much out there -- a lot of different things to experience these days. But I am incredibly confident that when people get this thing in their hands, they're going to be thrilled beyond belief with what it is they're touching and playing, and they're going to realize that it's something they haven't experienced before.

And I think you see that sentiment from some of the people who have been able to spend some time with it, and I'm confident that that's going to carry over to the more mainstream audience as soon as they get a chance to get their hands on it.

When you say it's something people haven't experienced before, what do you mean by that?

SR: Well it's just something that there's a level of quality that you're not used to seeing on a handheld device. So for example, last night I was one of the lucky early few to get my hands on one of the proof cartridges for MLB: The Show. Of course, I've played various different sports games on all sorts of different platforms, whether it be the PSP, the DS, even the 3DS and iPhone, iPad, what have you. This experience on MLB is so far superior to anything I've ever played on a portable device that it really leaves everything else in the dust.

And of course it's going to sound like I'm coming from a biased perspective, but at heart, I'm a gamer that owns all of these devices, and plays on all these devices, and I can tell you right now, everything else I own is going to gather dust for a while, because these experiences are so far superior to anything else.

Is that because of the horsepower of the system, or its control, or just the actual games that are being made, in your opinion?

SR: I think it's a little of all of the above, and I think when you also take into the account that there's a lot decent cross functionality between our home console the PS3 and the Vita. I think there's a lot of neat messages to go for here. So again, specifically with MLB, horsepower in terms of everything you can do graphically on that machine, there's going to be a lot of people that pick this up and say, "Wow, this really feels like the same quality I'm used to on my PS3," and that's a huge statement.

I mean -- not making this up -- completely independent of this interview, I just came back to San Diego after a lot of travel, and I was literally walking to each of the engineers and artists on the team telling them how impressed I was with the game, just in terms of its graphic quality. But not only that, the fact that I can play it on my Vita and I can save it to the cloud, and I can go pick it up at home, that's a great experience.

How long have you been at Sony personally?

SR: I started in late 2003 so, if you can do the math, it's eight-plus years.

So you were there for the entire lifespan of the PSP.

SR: Yes, I was. You know, there's nothing quite as “fun”, in air quotes, as a hardware launch. So I was around during that time, for sure. In fact, when I was just walking around with this team, I was talking about the incredibly vast difference between the launch of PSP and the launch of Vita in my book.

Which is the fact that many teams really struggled to get a comparable experience out the door -- an experience that was comparable to the PS2 -- and there are a lot of teams that are already achieving great heights in that manner for Vita, when compared to the PS3.


When you look back at the PSP, it had very high highs, very low lows. What did you learn personally, and as an organization, from the PSP's journey?

SR: Man, I could probably talk about that for three hours all by itself. But again, I think what was special about PSP in relation to Sony was it was the first time that Sony, as a company, was trying to support two platforms at once. So that, by its very nature, made that launch a little bit rocky. We still did okay. We got some good games out the door.

I think the point you're making is a lot of the better games came in the first two or three years of the lifecycle of that machine, but there weren't a lot of amazing killer games that launched. And this time around, we started planning for development of this machine about three years ago, in terms of developing for the software, and how we were going to be able to transition.

We still had some teams finishing up their PS2 lifecycle, a lot of teams building on PSP, the bulk of our resources on PS3. But we started creating a nice transition plan to get some of our top teams onto Vita.

And in addition to that, we had very distinctly different meetings with the hardware creators, so we were heavily involved in the design of the machine, the way it feels, the fact that we all stomped our feet and insisted that this thing have two analog sticks.

If we're going to create a hardcore machine, for hardcore gamers, it absolutely had to have those two sticks. That was square one, right? So we definitely learned a lot from the PSP, and I think we definitely resolved a lot of those problems, moving into this cycle.

Sony's been very, very open about the fact that piracy really hurt the PSP, so I was wondering if you could dive into a little bit about the efforts you've put into preventing that this time.

SR: That was front and center in the early specs of this machine. We needed to have something that would combat piracy from day one, and that's why the cards that you can purchase for the games are in their own proprietary format. And these days, so many people say the word "proprietary" is a bad word, but it's something that we felt was completely necessary to make sure that people could not pirate these games. I mean, it's a custom security solution on each one of these cartridges. That is something that we are confident will protect us from piracy for the long term.

It seemed like the strategy for the PSP was to bring franchises such as God of War and create roughly analogous experiences on the PSP. It seems like that's basically what you're aiming for again, and I'm not sure that strategy was a hundred percent effective.

SR: Well, I'm not sure that's our strategy. I think our strategy is broader than that. I think there's some different experiences that wouldn't necessarily play as well on the console, things like Escape Plan. We do a lot of research in this area, and there are a lot of folks out there that feel that there is a void for this big, deep experience available on a handheld, and so we think we hit that market pretty well with our launch lineup, with a lot of diverse experiences, like you talked about earlier.

But then again, the main difference here is talking about a lot of experiences that can transition across our different platforms. Games that can play directly against each other, games that share data. There's a lot of different ways to get more out of your Vita experience so you never have to leave that PlayStation family, whether you're at home or on the road.

When it comes to educating your developers about the different functions of the Vita, particularly in terms of social functions and maybe things that are new to the console space -- GPS-related functions like Near -- do you think they make a difference, and are you making sure developers are utilizing them in effective ways?

SR: Yes. So I'm going to rewind about a year and a half, or maybe a year ago, to start answering that question. So one of the tasks of first party development that's crucially important is getting the development community and the third party community really excited about developing on any new console. And so one of the things we did, and particularly with a game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, is we had an early level of that game running, man, probably as long ago as 15, 16 months ago.

And I personally went on a tour to a lot of our publishing partners and was able to put that machine in their hands, and explain to them everything that the machine could do. Now I'm talking about the physical controls, the quality of the OLED screen, things like that. And that did wonders. I mean, essentially, that trip inspired almost every publisher to just dive in headfirst and say, "Wow, we can't wait to develop on this platform!"

And something similar started to happen a few months back, to talk about all the different social features you're referencing. We did the same thing, to make sure that people understand how these add to the value and stickiness of games, and we highly encouraged them to integrate those features into all their games, whether it be dropping gifts in Near or just utilizing the 3G functionality and the GPS functionality to enhance the way we do leaderboards, and asynchronous competition, and things along those lines.

People have a new way of looking at things than they did in the past. You could be pretty assured with the PSP that people really just thought about, "I stick a game in; I get my gameplay out of it." It's not like that anymore.

SR: I hear what you're saying. I think that the entire industry, across all platforms -- including the iOS phones and tablets -- I think that absolutely there's a lot of people out there kind of wondering what their gaming experience will be like.

And are they happy with the mobile experience? Are they missing that premium portable experience? Do they want a hybrid between the two? And that's something I think that the Vita is poised to offer, that other machines can't offer. You can get the more simple experiences even with some older downloads, or you can get these super-premium, connected, high-end experiences. And I think that that's a nice place to be in.


The iPad 3 is heavily rumored to be launching in March, and whether or not it is a big technical leap over the iPad 2, Apple is presumably going to be launching iPads year-in and year-out, and soon they will be on par, right? Does that kind of thing concern you?

SR: Well, I don't think it concerns me at all. And you have to understand, like I said earlier, I'm a fan of all these devices. I really honestly am. I'm an iPad owner, and that's not something that I'm ashamed to admit, of course. And I'm also telling you that as soon as I got my launch edition of the PlayStation Vita, that iPad is absolutely gathering dust.

And why? It's because there's a totally different kind of premium experience that I can have on my Vita.

My iPad is now relegated to a handful of emails here and there, and when I want a gaming experience I am going to pick up my Vita, so it doesn't concern me if the iPad has more horsepower or something along those lines, because the PlayStation Vita is specifically built with gamers in mind, and the iPad is not. It's a multifunctional device.

So there's a place for both of these devices in our world, and I firmly believe that is true.

We recently spoke to Ben Cousins, who is heading up Ngmoco's new studio in Sweden. He says that he sees tablet play patterns as being more like consoles and less like smartphones. He said specifically that they could support games like Uncharted and Skyrim, and that's what he's going for.

While you're right that right now that there isn't necessarily a problem, I think there's a strong chance that there are people out there that have the talent and the ability who are going to be making it a problem for you. What do you have to say to that?

SR: I think it's fair enough. There's a lot of people making bold predictions out there, making bold bets. Let's just say that that was the case, that the scenario that you just outlined for me... I mean, you're still talking about tablets that cost 500 dollars, right? That's a pretty significant investment. And then I can guarantee you that if a Skyrim-style experience is going to come onto those platforms, it's not going to be for 99 cents.

You're talking about a totally different paradigm in tablet gaming, and if you're asking for all of that, with the experience that you're missing from having those tactile controls like the sticks and buttons, it's a totally different experience. So I think there's a ways to go before that scenario comes true.

I do believe there's a spot for tablet gaming out there. When you do the research, you can see console-like patterns of play times, meaning extended periods of time, but again, for the premium experience that people are used to on their consoles, you're going to need some of those traditional controls that all touch device just can't offer. And again, if you're paying for a device that only has touch controls, and you're paying what you're going to pay for a dedicated gaming console, I think the hardcore group is still going to lean towards the portable consoles.


Uncharted: Golden Abyss

You can't just talk about the Vita in isolation, paying for the system, because people do have to buy the memory cards and they can get really expensive, really fast. Are you comfortable with the accessories?

SR: Sure. I hear you. But, again, it's still cheaper than what we're talking about for a current-generation device like the iPad, by a pretty wide margin.

Do you see Nintendo with the 3DS, or do you see Apple with the iPad as more of your direct competitor?

SR: In the portable space, specifically?

With the Vita, yeah.

SR: I think that those guys are on pretty equal footing. They're different crowds, too. I think the one thing that the iPad has over the consoles is the fact that it's a game console disguised as a device that can be appropriated in the business workplace, right? I think that's probably the major difference.

When you have a 3DS or a Vita in your hand, you are proudly proclaiming, "I am a gamer, and I am playing games." I think the tradeoff when you go to a tablet device is that you don't get those controls. So you can secretly play your games, if you will, but you're missing out on the full gaming experience that is available with the dedicated consoles. Does that make sense?

When the 3DS came out there was all this hue and cry about how it was dead on arrival, and then Nintendo dropped the price and it bounced back. Are you taking notice of that?

SR: Well, absolutely, and really it just kind of proves the point that I'm making -- in that there's going to be a healthy market for dedicated handheld gaming. And I think the point you're making is maybe that market only exists when the price comes down to a lower level. And only time will tell.

I think that, again, the PS Vita, I think it's inarguable that it's a premium experience over what the 3DS has to offer. It's all about what kind of great software will appear on both platforms. I think that in addition to the lowering of the price, when Nintendo came out with a few key franchises on the 3DS, that is when it started to take off.

And you saw the same phenomenon in Japan, when Monster Hunter took hold for the PSP. Very late in the lifecycle, that machine just took off like crazy. When you're talking about portable game titles in a relatively small gaming market, that were selling three, four million copies late in the lifecycle of a platform, that's pretty amazing.

Of course we take note of all those things, and we're really confident that we've got a great launch lineup, and a lot of great things in the works for the next couple of years for the PS Vita, and it's a machine that we're proud of. We think when gamers get it in their hands they will fall in love with it.


Yeah, I definitely want to talk about the coming lineup. Now I know, obviously, you can't speak to what specifically is coming. I've been around long enough to know that you have to have a big splash at E3. That's how it is. What can you tell me about that? Because obviously, that's a question on people's minds.

SR: You said it yourself. Unfortunately, this is the part of these interviews that kills me, because you know I feel like I'm a gamer talking to a gamer and I just want to sit here and talk about everything I know that's coming out in the future, but I can't, is the bottom line. Just rest assured that there's a ton of things in development on both the first and third party fronts, and of course there'll be some fun announcements at E3, but there's a lot of goodness to come in the next couple of years, for sure, on the PlayStation Vita.

You said you've been working very strategically for the past three years to get the software lineup running, and it can't have all been culminating in launch, I assume.

SR: No, not at all. I think that there are some that argue that we may even have too much lined up at launch, but I know we've got a lot more in the works.

Again, referencing what you talked about for PSP, I think that there were too many droughts of killer titles. There were too many long droughts, and I think we recognized that. And we've put a serious investment into our long-term PS Vita plans, so there's a lot of stuff in the works.

Something else you have going on with this that you didn't have on the PSP and, I think, even more so than you do perhaps on the PS3, is you have different levels of games.

You have smaller, more bite-sized things in sort of the Mini vein, closer to an iOS title. You have PSN-level notable games, and you have retail games. How are you managing that portfolio, and what are your attitudes towards the different tiers, and what you need to hit?

SR: Well, I think it goes even more beyond that, when you look at there are even different tiers at retail, and that's something that's different than what we've done in the past, on consoles. And the bottom line is something that you hit on earlier: we want to have a very broad experience. We want people to eventually be purchasing very inexpensive games on the Vita, just really simple experiences, or even downloading you know free apps like Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, things along those lines, because it's definitely a part of the portable experience that's kind of par of the course these days.

But the bottom line is it's not something that worries us. We're not sitting here with a portfolio on a giant wall in a war room saying, "Okay, we need 10 of these small games, and 10 of these medium-sized games, and 10 of these large games." That's not the way we're working this. We're actually looking at each experience individually and saying, "Is this something unique? Is this something that's special that we can bring to the market?"

And if so, and if we can wedge it into my annual software development budget, then we pull it off, and I think that that's something that we're very proud of -- that the experiences are incredibly diverse. I mean, you're not going to find a platform that has something like Sound Shapes or Escape Plan on that level, and then all the way up to a premium sports experience like MLB or like FIFA that EA is going to come out with, or Uncharted or Resistance: Burning Skies. You're not going to have that diversity anywhere else. It's something we're very proud of.


Sound Shapes

What do you think about the importance of new IP to driving interest in a system? Because you spoke earlier about how Nintendo's 3DS really did pick up, and I agree with you that this happened when Mario and Mario Kart hit it. It wasn't new IP that got people really interested in the 3DS. What do you think?

SR: It's always an interesting mix, and that's why we're trying a selection of different things. And there's still things to come, over the upcoming months, that do introduce new IP on the Vita. But it's always going to be a mix, and I think that you have to have new IP.

The new platform launch is, without a doubt, the best opportunity to launch a new IP. If you were to launch Sound Shapes in year three or four of the Vita, it could easily get lost in the crowd, and people would never notice. But when it's out there six months before, at all the preview launch title events, and when it's out there as one of the few new titles that are available on the PlayStation Store, it's going to get a lot more buzz that way. I think it's important to sell the merits of the system with new IP.

The press has released its reviews of the final U.S. hardware. There has been any number of articles in the last couple days about what people think about the system. I wouldn't want to pull out, necessarily, a dominant thread, but you definitely see a lot of, "This is a really nice piece of hardware, but can it really succeed? I'm not sure. The market's changed too much." Does that bother you? Are you sick of hearing about it? How true do you think that kind of assessment is?

SR: Well, it certainly doesn't bother me, or concern me, because that's just the press doing their job, right? Everyone has to evaluate anything that comes out, whether it's in our industry or not, and there's always going to be pros and cons for any device that comes out.

The reason I can speak with so much confidence about the Vita is because I love to play games on any device. I've seen it for the last couple of months, where we've had our early test retail devices on hand, and I'm just telling you, anyone that gets it in their hands that is a gamer, you can't get this experience on anything else that's available out there. So when you get it into the hands of people, they are going to enjoy it.

Will that be a quick escalation to the top of the market in mobile? Will it be a longer curve before more people get involved with the PlayStation Vita? That's to be determined. But what I know is that the software that's out there from first, and the stuff that's coming from third, is a great, great lineup. The machine itself is excellent. The features that are coming online are only going to get better over the next couple of years, so you know, it's just not something that I'm overly concerned about at all.

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