While Sony has been managing some financial woes, the Sony PlayStation brand keeps chugging along. With the recent successful release of the PlayStation Vita in North America, Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) has a lot of gaming goodness in store for PlayStation fans this year. We recently had the opportunity to speak with SCE Canada’s Director of Public Relations and Marketing, Matt Levitan, to discuss how the PS Vita is doing, whether SCE would ever consider a Kickstarter program for one of its IPs, what’s on tap for the PlayStation Move, and whether gamers will ever see The Last Guardian.
Game Rant: Thanks for speaking with us. So how is the PS Vita doing in sales?
Matt Levitan: We’re up to 1.4 million now globally. We are beating if not exceeding our sales projections and certainly meeting and exceeding what retail anticipated the console would do. All things are really positive. I’ve been working on the [Sony] brand for the better part of 17 years and I think this is probably the most amount of software we’ve sold in the first month of any console that we’ve ever had. PS3 was obviously pretty constricted in terms of its allocation and we’re exceeding that and we’re certainly exceeding the original PSP, so it’s good news all around.
GR: The PS Vita appears to be underperforming in Japan, but doing well in North America. Can you offer an explanation as to why that is?
ML: People seem to think that North America isn’t as heavy a handheld gaming market as certain parts of Asia, but I think a lot of it comes down to, whether your launching a handheld console or a home console, what games are available that people want to play. And I don’t want to put it all on the back of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but that was our big game that we launched here in North America and it’s performing extremely well. I think that people always look for that killer app that they want to play when they buy a new piece of hardware. Based upon the sales numbers I’m seeing, right now it’s Uncharted.
I know [Vita] was strong out of the gate for the first few weeks in Japan, and I don’t know what [Sony Japan's] sales projections are, but I understand that they are meeting them. But all I can do is really speak to is North America and we’re really happy where we are so far.
GR: The PS Vita clearly contains some amazing tech and has been compared favorably to this generation’s home consoles. With that in mind, does Sony have an ideal lifespan for the product? How long does Sony plan to rely on the PS Vita as its premier handheld device?
ML: Good question. We’ve tended to try to have a strategy here at PlayStation to have as long a lifecycle as we can for each of our products. You’ve hear everybody from Jack Tretton on down mention the fact that we’ll go anywhere from 8 to 10 years. We still have a market for the PS2 after it launched in October of 2000. When you look at Vita, at $249 today, with the launch catalog and the apps it has, it’s a great device but what we learned with the PS3 is we kept adding more features and functionality every year through firmware upgrades and we plan on doing the same with Vita.
I think [Vita] will just get better with time as opposed to becoming less competitively positioned against anything else that is out there. Whether it’s more apps, more services, or better games, I think, from a tech point of view, we’ve built a device that has a great screen, all the control functionality you need, and everything needed from an architecture standpoint. Now it’s just a question of keeping content coming each and every month. That may be games, apps… all kinds of different stuff. I think that we are committed to Vita for the long haul and it’s going to get better and better every year.
GR: How does Sony plan to show both the gaming and non-gaming public that the PS Vita is the best mobile device for entertainment?
ML: It comes down to what types of games you want to play. I have tablets where I download games and I find a lot of that stuff offers really rudimentary game experiences that are touchscreen. But if you want to jump into a console experience like Uncharted, you really do need the dual analog sticks, you need all of the buttons, the configuration to control the camera, and an aiming reticule. It’s hard to play those games on an iPad or any other device. It’s great that everyone has all of these different options. It probably brings more gamers into the market, to be honest with you. But once [people] get the chance to see what’s being offered on the Vita versus what is being offered on the iOS devices and Android devices, [they'll] see that they get much more of a console experience [on Vita] and that’s really where we’ll have to try to differentiate things moving forward.
I don’t think we’ll have a problem with it. Certainly Uncharted has shown a pretty good console experience out of the gate. Once we start launching BioShock, Call of Duty, and all of these other big franchises that people love at home and they see how great it is on the go, I think the promise starts to become true, and people will understand why we built it with the specs that we have.
GR: In such a crowded mobile gaming market, how do you convince third-party developers to support the PS Vita?
ML: Third-party support has been spectacular so far. We had a launch event in Canada and Ubisoft showed off five of their games and even Ed Boon was there showing off Mortal Kombat. We’ve always had a good relationship with third parties, we’ve always been able to build an attractive platform, and always had a customer that has a really strong appetite for buying a lot of games, which our competition can’t always say. We have a pretty active customer that will be in stores each and every month looking for new releases and looking to buy new content. So that’s very healthy for us – certainly keeping those ratios high. A third party always looks at our consoles with expectation that it’s going to be that kind of crowd – a very core gamer if you will. And I read a ton of reviews and I watch reviews on a lot of the content that has been available for the Vita. I was watching one of Marvel vs Capcom the other day and it’s amazing to see how even with first generation software the third parties have been able to make games that look as good or very close to their PS3 versions. So I think they recognize the power of the system and they’re already building great content for it. I think that’s only promising for the future – games like Rayman Origins that look that good and play that great. I think all third-party developers will look at this and say “Sony has a really attractive platform we can develop for.”
GR: Rayman Origins would be great…
ML: Yeah I loved it on PS3 but it was weird because I actually didn’t finish it. Then I saw it coming out on Vita and I thought, “I’m just going to wait and finish this on Vita.” It looks and plays as good as on the PS3. It’s remarkable. The processor is strong enough to be able to create that same art experience and have that same level of graphics, physics, and A.I. as a PS3, which obviously has a more powerful processor.
GR: Now one of the premiere mobile brands is the Angry Birds franchise. Rovio recently stated that they would be willing to bring their next installment, Angry Birds Space, to the PS Vita. Is Sony planning to do that? If so, are there any concerns about bringing iPhone or Android-type games to the Vita?
ML: It’s an interesting question actually and the one thing when we talk about Angry Birds that doesn’t get mentioned all that much is that Angry Birds is actually available right now as a mini on the PlayStation network. Not the new one, obviously, but we have an Angry Birds game that you can go right now and download for your PS3 or your Vita. And I think we’ve always had the best selection of software on the PlayStation. I think that’s how we won the first two generations of the hardware wars, which we fought with PS1 and PS2. We had every genre covered, we had every third-party working with us, and whether they were the Resident Evils or Final Fantasies or Metal Gears, every game was playable on a Playstation platform.
I’m not in charge of third-party relations, but I’m sure someone [at Sony] is looking at Angry Birds Space and thinking “it’s a great franchise, it’s a great game, why wouldn’t we offer it, right?” So I think, without a doubt, in bringing great content to the Vita, why wouldn’t we?
GR: Any PS Vita games that you are personally looking forward to?
ML: My favorite first-person shooter in the world is BioShock, so I’m very much looking forward to BioShock Infinite on the PS3. To think of what that world would look on Vita is very exciting to me. I like Resistance 3 a lot, too, so I’m looking forward to Burning Skies. And as a sleeper, I would say Sound Shapes. It is so different than anything you’ve ever played.
GR: Sounds like PS Vita fans will have a lot to look forward to…
ML: I’ve had a chance to see the release list over the next six months and the entire year, and you can imagine if you get Uncharted: Golden Abyss on day one, what the games will look like in year 2 or 3.
GR: There’s always the fear that you can have the best tech in the world, but if you don’t have the support, the device won’t be worth owning. Is it fair to assume that the Vita won’t have that problem like some of its predecessors?
ML: I think the third-party support will be there, and certainly internally from our own worldwide studios. We’re very much committed to it. Like buying any of our consoles, you know what you get in the first six months – you have to put some faith and some trust in us that in year 5 or year 8 that you’ll still get some amazing games and that we won’t abandon the system in 3 to 5 years and make you buy something new.
GR: Will the PS Vita offer similar functionality as the Wii U controller where you could use it in tandem with your PS3?
ML: The tech is certainly there, so it’s a question of how developers want to group and bundle their content. Somebody could create a game today that you install on your PS3 hard drive that also has a Vita component to it that ties those two games together. We have a game that used to be called Ruin but is now called Warrior’s Lair that is an RPG that is similar to that. It is a PS3 game that essentially has Vita components to it. You’d be able to use that Vita as a second screen or take that experience on the go as well. That’s the difference with Vita in that it’s not tethered to that home console unit. You could use it as another controller potentially, but still unplug it and take it anywhere in the world.
GR: Recently, there was a report that the Sony Move shipped over 10.5 million units. Although most would agree that the Move is the most accurate motion controller, many complain about the lack of Move-centric games.
ML: Like Move required rather than Move compatible?
GR: Exactly. Can we expect to see more such titles releasing in the near term?
ML: 100%. Looking at the catalogue and release list this year, it’s a big resurgence year for Move. It’s a relaunching year, if you will. It starts with Sorcery, which comes out in May and we are very much looking forward to. We showed Sorcery a couple of years ago at E3 and it really wowed everybody and people were looking forward to it. Then it kind of went back to the drawing board for a little while and we made it more adult and darker. We aged up the main character and added some different narrative and story elements to it. I think at the end of the day it will be a much better product and will be something that a PS3 gamer will be excited about.
We also have a variety of family-friendly gamers coming down the pipe. But what I am looking more forward to is those core gaming experiences and there’s a few big ones that are coming that haven’t been announced yet, which will be announced at E3 or before, that are on this calendar year that look really good. So for anyone invested in the Move, look out. This will be a good year for content.
GR: Speaking of games, is there anything you can tell us about the status of The Last Guardian?
ML: I wish I had more information. I think everybody was hoping that they would see it in 2011. Unfortunately, it didn’t show up. We have a couple of development groups with SCE, Polyphony is another one with the GT franchise, [that] get enough time to finish the game as much time as they need to make it the game they want it to be. Team ICO has that same kind of freedom. They have a game-making process and they have a vision for it. Kudos to Sony for letting them make that game that they want to make as opposed to saying it’s got to be out by this holiday season. We don’t care if it’s a single A, double A, or triple A game. Sony won’t say, “if it isn’t on the shelf by November 1st, you’re fired.”
I know once people get the chance to play it, they’ll be blown away. What I have seen so far, I have really been impressed. Like all the other gamers out there, I can’t get it soon enough into my hands. I understand the need to know more. It’s certainly in development still, I’ll tell you that much.
We have more pre-orders in Canada for The Last Guardian than any other game that isn’t available yet. That goes to show you that there’s some excitement for the game. We just have to hope that the enthusiasm doesn’t wane before we get it on the shelf.
GR: Are you familiar with the Kickstarter project Tim Schafer successfully launched? Is there any chance that Sony would ever take that approach with a popular Sony IP but that poses a potential financial risk to bring to market?
ML: We’re fortunate that we have a great bunch of franchises that we can bring back at any given time. Shuhei Yoshida, who is in charge of our worldwide studios, is the guy who is tasked with which ones he wants to bring forth and which ones to pull back on. He’s done a fantastic job so far in keeping some of our bigger franchises in the top of minds of consumers and you never know what’s up his sleeve and what’s coming down the road next. But I don’t know, in terms of something the gaming community funded, I’m not sure how that would be looked upon if Sony did it. People would probably look at us and think, “You’re Sony. Don’t you have the money to do this yourself?”
I love Loco Roco. It’s one of my favorite PSP games. I don’t know if there will be a Loco Roco 3 game. I certainly hope there will be. It would be great for the Vita. But I’m sure someone needs to run the numbers and say, “how many copies of Loco Roco would we need to sell in order to make this game.” That’s certainly the challenge. We need to make our money back and make a profit.
GR: Schafer basically avoided this issue by essentially making his Kickstarter program a “pre-order program.” Couldn’t Sony do the same thing?
ML: That’s what I love about the gaming community, too. There’s so much passion and there are people who love the content and the franchises and characters so much that they’re willing to say, “we have so much faith in you as a developer and the games that you make that I’m going to give you money for a game that you isn’t even built yet. I’ll put money down now.” I don’t recognize any other industry where that would take place.
GR: Sony recently released Mass Effect 3 as a fully downloadable game. Is that something we’re going to see more of from Sony going forward?
ML: We’re very careful about how we manage it and how we handle our retail relationships. We recognize that people still want physical content. Yes, people have big hard drives and they want to download games but what’s the value to a gamer in terms of walking into a store and buying a game – having the disk, having the instruction book, something they can give to a friend for the weekend or trade in – there’s value to that, we recognize that and we want to make sure that we continue to address that going forward. But the service is too good not to have that offering 24/7. We’re really proud of our service and the available content.
GR: Fans of Twisted Metal were really happy with the game, but there were a lot of complaints about online matchmaking and playing online in general. This has been a problem for other online offerings as well. Does Sony plan to do anything about alleviating this issue during this generation or during the next generation?
ML: We have our individual studios and third-party developers building their own online modes and managing a lot of their own servers. On the one hand, it’s great because they have their own area of expertise and own accountability for that, but at the same time, they’re trying to gauge what the traffic will be like, fixing last minute bugs for games before they come out, playtesting stuff. I would when there is usually an issue, it’s a usually not a long-term issue. It’s usually a few days or a week before a patch is released.
You can always expect that if there is an issue, then somebody figures we have to fix that, and in a couple days there’s a patch or fix for it. That’s the healthy part of our architecture.
Based upon the above, Sony fans certainly have a lot to look forward to at this year’s E3 Expo. Tell us about your experiences with the PS Vita and PS Move to date. Also, let us know if there’s particular Sony IP that you would support via Kickstarter.