"We still believe the Vita has a role"

PlayStation's UK MD on the Slim's new screen, Vita TV and the handheld's future prospects.

The people of Sony Computer Entertainment are in a good mood, which is understandable enough. The launch of the PlayStation 4 was a resounding success, and it's been backed up by some eye-opening numbers. In the UK, Sony's new console outsold the Xbox One at a ratio of 1.5:1 - a clean switch from the balance between the numbers of Xbox 360s and PS3s on these shores.

Sony's not stopping there, though, and this morning it announced that it's finally bringing the revised PS Vita Slim out over here, some four months after it launched in Japan. The new model's not a clear-cut improvement over its predecessor - it's slimmer, lighter and with a more appealing form, but the switch from an OLED screen to an LCD one is certainly a compromise.

We sat down with Sony Computer Entertainment's UK managing director Fergal Gara just after news on the Vita Slim dropped in London this morning to discuss PS4 to date, and where he thinks the handheld is heading.

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Only the black model of the slimmer Vita is making it across for launch - hopefully other colours will soon be joining it.

Sony seems to be in a really good place right now.

Fergal Gara: Definitely. Obviously the big thing went well, but it's more than that - it's a confidence in the team, and a string of good announcements coming out. Okay, we announce different things in different regions at different times, but the overwhelming message is that PlayStation's on the front foot, and it's delivering new innovation, and that innovation is being well received.

That positivity is being reflected by the players.

Fergal Gara: Yeah, it doesn't matter how we feel - it's how they feel. How we feel should reflect how they feel. The way we've approached things for the past few years is dig deep and try harder, and really do what we do with excellence. We've worked hard on that, and got a lot of it right which is fantastic, and the reward in that is the reception gamers give us.

Did that reception - specifically those sales - exceed your expectations?

Fergal Gara: If we rewind to January last year, prior to launch, the sales way exceeded our expectations. If you wind forward to last October/November, the sales were exactly my expectations because they were the stock we got. The sales potential exceeded my expectations, and the pre-orders were so huge that we knew we were in with a problem with any likely stock volumes that we could possibly get. We knew we were in with that good problem to have, but nonetheless it's a problem. Our job is to satisfy gamers, and we're not going to do it completely as we would like in the short term. It's still selling out every week.

It's a good problem, but when do you expect it to disappear?

Fergal Gara: I don't know exactly - there's no scientific formula for the remaining demand that's carried from launch. There'll be some people waiting for next Christmas, and some people who just want it. My best guess is that it'll have erratic supply until around about April time - it might be a little earlier than that.

The ratios you showed us between Xbox and PlayStation earlier on were eye-opening. They're heartening numbers, but with the Xbox One having a big exclusive in Titanfall soon, do you think you've got enough to sustain that ratio, and that the balance will be maintained in a year's time?

Fergal Gara: We take nothing for granted. A strong start is just that. Do we have lots of good stuff coming? Yes we do. Do they have strong stuff coming? Yes, we think so. So it's continue to maximise every opportunity we've got. The best opportunity we've got is that momentum, and people are coming back to PlayStation. There are lots of new people, too - I won't draw conclusions as to where they came from, but it's been really exciting. The likes of inFamous is shaping up well, that's going to have significant demand. Is it going to be bigger or smaller than Titanfall? I don't know. It's a play in the very same time window, and that's good to have.

"[Vita TV] may well make great sense for UK gamers, and if it does my hand will be in the air to launch it over here very fast."

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Borderlands is one of the Vita's biggest hitters this year. Worrying, then, that we're yet to see it in action.

It's good to have an exclusive with a release date attached to it, but there's obviously another exclusive without one. Are we going to learn more of DriveClub's whereabouts soon?

Fergal Gara: I don't have any announcement on it now. The only reason that product was delayed and we haven't accurately communicated a revised release date is that we want it to be right. There's a fair promise in that title in what it wants to do with social features and really innovating in the driving genre. There's no point in it coming out and half doing that job. It was quite ambitious and didn't quite get there in the timeline hoped. That's not great, but it's far better to bring it out at the standard...

Will sales be hurt by missing that release window?

Fergal Gara: There are two ways of looking at that. The range of titles that were available on PS4 at launch was bigger than any other launch we had, so there was a lot to choose from. If it comes out some time during the coming weeks and months, there's probably going to be less coming out at the same time, so you can look at it both ways. It's great to be first, but it's also good to hit a period where maybe a little less is going on.

We're primarily here for the Vita Slim today, of course. Why's it taken so long for it to come over here?

Fergal Gara: It's a case of judging the right time for each market, really. I think it's great to bring it out on the back of the PS4 - we know it's got a role with PS4, and we're seeing that in the data. We're ready to bring it out. It's proven its sales potential over Christmas - it's a very seasonal device really. Its low point in sales can be a little bit worrying, but for two Christmases in a row it's exploded. It's a good time to bring out a refreshed model. It isn't a fundamental shift, but to hold it, it feels like a big move on. It doesn't feel 20 per cent lighter and smaller - I think it feels like 50 per cent lighter.

Some people are concerned about the OLED screen going, though. What's your take on the reaction to the downgrade the screen quality?

Fergal Gara: Well, is it a downgrade, is the question? I think screen technology has evolved significantly since Vita was introduced. OLED was the high end around then - and it remains at the high end. The thing that's changed is LCD technology has improved, so we believe the differences are very small. Also there's a key to getting the thickness down using LCD technology rather than OLED technology. It can be focused in on, 'Oh, I'm not sure that's quite as good.' But we wouldn't introduce the device if that compromise was significant. We think it's very small, if not imperceptible. It's giving bigger advantages than disadvantages - it's helping with the battery life, with the thickness. We think they are bigger wins than any subtle - if any - reduction in visual quality.

Is it helping you sell at a profit, with the different spec?

Fergal Gara: There's a whole load of things to try and keep costs in a good place, and pass that value on to the gamer. So exactly what role it plays in that mix, I don't know.

What's going to happen to the older stock - it's being phased out, but how long until they're gone completely?

Fergal Gara: Well, the stock levels are very low, and that's why bringing it out next Friday is suitable in this market. That's one of the factors in choosing our timing, and stock levels are very low.

There were some other things introduced in Japan, like the 64GB memory card. Are there any plans to bring that over?

Fergal Gara: Not specifically to announce, but I think that's one of the key opportunities we have, and one of the key bits of feedback we need to focus in on. I don't have an answer on that right now, but like everyone else we want to know what the gamers want, and if we can give it to them we will.

And how about the pricing of the memory cards? It's still a sticking point for many people.

Fergal Gara: Well it moved on quite a bit last year and it's in far more acceptable territory. I think the second thing we've done with the Vita 2000 is put 1GB onboard. So if you play games on gamecard or want to use it as a streaming device then you don't need to touch any memory cards at all. Is there a further price reduction on memory cards? That's not planned just yet, but they're certainly better value than they were.

And there's another product you won't be able to announce anything on, but the Vita TV - a lot of people are interested in it. From the performance in Japan and the demand over here, is that something that's becoming closer to being a reality over here?

Fergal Gara: Well, it's out in Japan and it's had a brief window, so in the coming weeks we can study that success and see what that means for a UK market. It's a multi-functional device, so what's it being used for, and what significance does that have. One of its key features isn't yet a reality in Japan, which is how Vita TV reacts with PlayStation 4, because PlayStation 4 isn't out yet. There's still a lot to learn about should it and when should it come to the European market. It's another one of those great things to have in the family, and it may well make great sense for UK gamers, and if it does my hand will be in the air to launch it over here very fast.

We know [the Vita] might not be enormous, but it still can be a healthy business and a very nice PlayStation product.

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The new model's significantly lighter and prettier - though the screen's not quite as sharp.

The Vita hasn't really met expectations in its life so far. Could this be the shot in the arm it really needs?

Fergal Gara: Well, we don't think the Vita's going to sell as well as PSP, unless we get a very pleasant surprise, so the current assessment will be it has a strong existence and a strong reason for being, but the market it occupies is no longer as big as it was. It entered a wider and more complicated world, and we all know what has happened to portable gaming. It's got bigger, but it's permeated many devices. It's still a superior device, and it offers a better screen experience, so it plays a role for the committed gamer. But also it's also a very exciting accessory to PlayStation 4, so it has a very different role to other devices. But it may not be as huge as PSP, which sold 75, 80 million units across a number of years.

Did you have your expectations in check before the Vita released?

Fergal Gara: The landscape changed over the development cycle, and by the time it landed the world had moved on a fair bit, and expectations had to be adjusted a bit. But there was a big vision for the device, and the PlayStation 4 was known and the plans for that were coming together so we could see a road map. We're still proud to support it, we still believe it has a role. We know it might not be enormous, but it still can be a healthy business and a very nice PlayStation product. It may not be everybody who's got one, but show me someone who has one and is disappointed. I've yet to meet that person.

Are you still thinking of getting big names on there? There was Call of Duty and now Borderlands is coming, but we've seen nothing of that since its announcement.

Fergal Gara: It's still on the road map. And one of the great things is that with a bigger breadth of developers interested in the Vita, we're getting better at bringing in a wider community to develop for all of our platforms. There's more and more announcements in the pipeline, and we'll release them as appropriate. And Call of Duty: Ghosts is playable on Vita - you have to have a PlayStation 4, though.

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