Sony on PS4: "the format war is a marathon, not a sprint"

Price, cameras and Steam Box with PlayStation UK boss Fergal Gara.

Sony's PlayStation executives hope with PS4 this time things will be different. This time, Sony launches alongside Microsoft, not 16 months afterwards like with PS3. This time, Sony is cheaper than Xbox, not hundreds of pounds more. And this time, Sony is taking a gamer-first approach - and that, it seems, is translating into real world business.

The bottom line is, PlayStation 4 is riding the crest of a wave of goodwill boosted by strong showings at E3 and Gamescom and, crucially, Microsoft's disastrous messaging. But important questions remain. Sony knows if it doesn't put enough consoles on shop shelves to satisfy demand for Christmas, gamers may turn their attention to Xbox One instead. In the UK in particular, where Xbox 360 enjoys a healthy lead over PS3 in install base terms, Sony can't afford to take its eye off the ball.

And so, amid the calm before the storm, we sit down with Sony UK boss Fergal Gara at EGX 2013 to discuss the PlayStation 4's impending launch, availability, the juicy format war and new challengers in the living room.

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The new DualShock 4 controller.

What's the PlayStation 4 stock situation in the UK? I've heard shops stopped taking pre-orders on Sony's request. Will those who have pre-ordered definitely get their console at launch?

Fergal Gara: First of all, the majority of retailers did not stop taking pre-orders. They said you probably won't get it on day one. We chose to advise them to do that because we were taking the most conservative view on the stock situation, and the worse thing you can do, we feel, is to over promise and under deliver. In order to do that, you've got to start with the minimum number you're likely to have for day one and say, after that number, tell people they may not get it for day one.

Everybody who has pre-ordered to date will definitely get a console prior to Christmas. The cut-off date for that was 5th August. More people will be pleasantly surprised on day one by theirs being ready. But I'm also in the middle of lots of furious internal discussions about exactly what is the number for the UK. That sounds like a big internal haggle. It's not quite like that, but the full and final exact factory volume number is subject to a certain amount of variability. Those things are going well. There are no major shock disappointments coming out, which is great news. But I don't know precisely what day one is going to be, and precisely what pre-Christmas is going to be. Hopefully it only goes up from the assumptions I'm working with.

Nobody who's got their name on the list right now is not going to get one in 2013. That's a good start. And there will be more on top of that. People who have not pre-ordered yet still have an opportunity to get one prior to Christmas. And if they don't they'll get it very soon thereafter. So the overall volume point about the UK in those first few weeks of launch is substantial. We will fully catch up demand, probably not before Christmas but relatively quickly thereafter. That's my current expectation. So, a bit tight for the first few weeks before evening out quite quickly.

If I haven't pre-ordered will I be able to walk into a shop on launch day and buy a PS4?

Fergal Gara: That's a trickier question to answer. We're working with retailers and saying, look, this is the planned allocation for you. Some people have decided, right, turn off the pre-orders completely because I want to have a bit of free stock on day one. Others are saying the fairest thing to do is keep the list going, and the first on the list gets the first console. Basically they're behaving in a linear fashion rewarding first come, first served.

That of course means unless we're pleasantly surprised by a bigger launch day volume than expected then it's unlikely there will be free stock unless maybe people don't turn up. So it'll differ by retailer. But a second batch of stock will be within the week probably, so we're not talking about droughts for months and months.

Sony announced it had received one million PS4 pre-orders at Gamescom last month. Can you tell us how many pre-orders there are right now?

Fergal Gara: I can't give you a number because I haven't added up all the other countries! What I will say on behalf of the UK market is it's not slowed down. It's kept going. Demand is very very healthy indeed. And even though we're pouring cold water on it by responsibly trying to manage expectations, it's not quenching anything! There's tremendous demand.

I personally feel it would be a dreadful thing for people to think they're going to get one prior to Christmas Day and that not work out. They're not all going to be bought by 18 to 24 year-olds who are a bit more grown up. There are going to be some considerably younger people who want a PS4, and if that doesn't arrive on Christmas Day as expected and we've misled people to think that could happen, that's not good, and we would not feel good about that. So we're very carefully managing the expectations and I'm pleased with how that's going so far.

Do you anticipate setting records with PS4 for launch console sales in the UK?

Fergal Gara: It's very possible, yes. And the pre-order levels are the highest we've ever seen, full stop. So pre-orders only need to convert into real sales and that happens.

Andy House said last week we're holding a forecast of five million units of PS4 for the financial year. That's 50 per cent up on PlayStation 3 for the same time window.

"We've got an industry that's been a bit jaded, a bit boring and not perceived as fresh and exciting as it might have been. There's a hunger for a fresh, new experience."

PlayStation UK MD Fergal Gara

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PlayStation 4 costs 350 in the UK.

With the economy struggling, and with people claiming the death of the console with the rise of gaming on smartphones and tablets, what's driving that growth in the console business?

Fergal Gara: The economy's not in great shape anywhere in the world, really, but if you've got a hot product, somehow that doesn't seem to matter. Just ask Apple!

We've got an industry that's been a bit jaded, a bit boring and not perceived as fresh and exciting as it might have been. There's a hunger for a fresh, new experience. And while the gap between PS4 and PS3 is very similar to the gap between PS2 and PS3, people's techno-appetite has accelerated in that time window. And also, their propensity to spend 350 on a piece of new tech is perhaps not as big a decision as it was once upon a time.

The way we've positioned the device, and its relative price position at 75 below PS3's launch price back seven years ago, makes it appear like a no-brainer, as in, it's really worth that. People are seeing the value in it. It's a mix of those factors.

But it has surprised us, we'll be honest. We expected strong demand, but what benchmarks did we use? Of course we used all our other console launch numbers, because that seemed a sensible place to start! We didn't then start factoring it up significantly.

I guess E3 helped.

Fergal Gara: E3 did help. It was quite a profound moment on that pre-order curve, there's no doubt about it. You think, oh well, that's a moment in time, maybe it does that again, but the momentum has kept on going.

You mentioned price. You compared the PS4 launch price to the PS3 launch price, but most will compare the PS4 launch price to the Xbox One launch price, and you come in lower. How significant do you think that will be when both are out?

Fergal Gara: Price matters, but price is not everything. Value is price and quality. What does quality mean in the gaming world? It means the quality of the machine and what it can deliver and it means the quality of the games and the gaming experiences it can deliver. I must say, I'm happy on all three of those. I'm very pleased we've got an attractive entry price point. I'm very pleased we're bringing to market the only first-person shooter that's been developed solely and exclusively for next-gen in Killzone: Shadow Fall. I'm delighted we've got a point of difference on the most anticipated launch next-gen title in Watch Dogs. And I'm very pleased we're bringing 18 digital titles to the platform at launch, including a bunch of indie titles within that.

So there is diversity. And we're showing off completely different experiences too, for example PlayRoom. You add all that together, and then the device's power and ease of developing for it is another thing that gives not just great performance day one, but it gives headroom and longevity. It means the thing is here to stay and it has plenty of headroom to grow in terms of the services and experiences it can offer.

The developers have hardly broken sweat yet. Let's see what they can come up with. It should be the ultimate toolkit for them to create the ultimate games for the gamer. That was the philosophy we outlined on 20th February.

"To force bundle a camera is probably against consumer choice."

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The new PlayStation Camera.

I spoke with Microsoft's Phil Harrison recently and he said the fact every Xbox One comes bundled with Kinect is an important point of difference between the next-gen consoles. I've heard there was a time when PS4 did come with the PlayStation Camera but it was removed. What motivated that decision? Was it purely to undercut the Xbox One? How important is the camera inclusion going to be for gamers?

Fergal Gara: Firstly, I was never involved in any conversation where the camera was definitely bundled with the console. I've seen a suggestion that somebody might have thought that.

We did think very carefully about it. We had the camera functionality. We had that tech in development and we had the basic box in development. A decision was taken - and I think it was absolutely the right decision - which is, to force bundle a camera is probably against consumer choice. It does not offer the game the choice, and therefore the most sensible thing to do as a gamer friendly brand is give them the choice. And I'm absolutely delighted we've done that.

There is an an advanced, sophisticated camera-based technology there as an option for PS4, but it's not a requirement. I'm really pleased with that decision.

Those who pre-order Xbox One get FIFA 14 free. How big an issue is that for you and PS4 in Europe?

Fergal Gara: It's an attractive offer. It was done for their reasons, which I assume was to stimulate pre-orders. FIFA is an amazing title, and it's done very well on PlayStation and I'm delighted it's coming to PlayStation again. In fact it's coming to five PlayStation devices this year: PSP, PS2, PS3, PS Vita and PS4. So FIFA 14 is alive and well on PlayStation.

It's a very compelling title so it's an attractive offer, but the reasons to do it and our reasons to not feel the need to do it are different. But we're offering values in other ways, as we've discussed. So we're very comfortable with our value position, with or without that FIFA offer.

In the UK Xbox 360 over its lifecycle has outsold PS3 I think 4:1. Are you confident you can reverse that trend for the next generation? How will you ensure a situation where more people own PS4 than Xbox One in the UK, which traditionally follows the Xbox-driven US market?

Fergal Gara: This format war, if you want to call it that, is a marathon, not a sprint. We're coming out of the blocks in a strong position, but we're conscious that is no-where close to job done, and we have to continually improve the proposition, proving what PS4 represents.

We've got a bit of history of doing that. To have a 16 month disadvantage and actually get any market share in the current generation, which is a very connected generation where friends get friends, took a lot of hard graft. Winning Europe and winning Japan despite that big disadvantage... globally we might even be ahead. They're both big numbers with different regional polarisations, but you're right, we are behind in the UK and that is not acceptable.

You've got to start good and keep on your toes. PS4 is a platform that can and will evolve. It will be great on day one but it will be far better in year two and year three as expectations rise and ideas are generated and these new tools are executed. That's the way to win. And obviously the gameplay and the core experiences are hugely pivotal to that. They are going to start really strong, but they have to continue to grow and continue to improve.

"Killzone: Shadow Fall is an uber file - I think it's cracking on for 50GB. It looks it, too, when you see it."

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Don't look down!

We saw with the recent release of Grand Theft Auto 5 that lots of people like to download their games rather than buy discs from shops. PlayStation Network, which was designed nearly 10 years ago, struggled with the demand and download speeds were very slow. For PS4, are you confident people will be able to download these huge games en masse from your servers and install them without technical problems?

Fergal Gara: First of all, it is definitely going to grow as a means of consumption. And there are big innovations in the PS4 to make it more attractive and more easy gamer wise to want to download. The Play as you Download functionality, for example, means you don't need the whole file before you go. This is a little bit counterbalanced by the fact the files themselves are getting bloody big. Killzone: Shadow Fall is an uber file - I think it's cracking on for 50GB. It looks it, too, when you see it.

It is still a relatively tedious process. We've done a lot of work on pre-delivering files. It's not perfect. It's not seamless. The file version of the game versus the disc version of the game maybe needs to go through additional QA and additional testing. Some of the problems that have occurred have occurred on older machines, which of course when you go into the next-generation you at least get to reset and start again and everything's the same age and new. That helps.

But it's a major area of focus. It's a major area of investment. The network will perform better on multiple levels, because it becomes not just a sales or gaming delivery but increasingly it becomes a social network. So it's got to be a compelling experience on multiple levels. It's going to be for no lack of investment, for no lack of effort and no lack of intention that things might fall a bit short. But we're definitely moving in the right direction, and I'm confident when step on and understand its importance.

PS3 streaming via Gaikai on PS4 is coming to the US in 2014. But there seems to be a holdup with regards to Europe, and Sony isn't committing to when the service will be available here. Can you explain why there is an issue in Europe? What is it that makes it different to the US?

Fergal Gara: It's exciting and embryonic technology, and we expect it to play an important part in our future, but it's early days. So to say, right, here we go, bang, at global launch it's perfect, we know we got it right, would be pretty presumptuous at this stage with such nascent technology.

So if you're going to bring something to market, slowly test it, evolve it, change it, pick the market where the technology and infrastructure is best suited. The US ticks those boxes. That's where the guys are and that's where the broadband is most consistent and most ready and willing.

But we know and expect it will be exciting and revolutionary. So the time to mature the product and take it global will follow. We'll see what the pace of adoption is. We'll see what the feedback we get is, and therefore how much work needs to be done.

I take great assurance that it's on the radar. It shows how PlayStation is becoming more of a brand and a service than just a box. In 1995 we were a box. In 2013 we're a set of boxes that connect together in interesting ways. In 2015 we'll be with and without boxes and on many more multiple devices. That's appropriate to the brand and exciting.

So I don't think we should feel offended or put out. It'll grow and evolve from that launch. I expect it to be a relatively soft-ish launch, experimental, and we'll evolve it, and then think wider.

"I don't think anything about it is significantly rattling our confidence at this point in time."

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The Steam Controller.

Valve has announced SteamOS, Steam Machines and a new Steam Controller. It's making a play for the living room, which PlayStation inhabits. Is it a threat to PlayStation?

Fergal Gara: In this market you've always got to expect some broadside disruptive technologies to come along, and it seems like a potentially good example of that. I haven't had a chance to study it in much detail. What I would say is, I don't think anything about it is significantly rattling our confidence at this point in time and what we're doing as PlayStation. We have to keep an eye on Valve and many other competitors.

We can't afford to ignore it. Steam is arguably the pre-eminent digital download service for gaming. So we'll watch it.

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