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“This is Just the Start” – Sony Ericsson Talks Xperia PLAY Launch, US Market and Their PlayStation Partnership

May 11, 2011 Written by Sebastian Moss

Analysts and gamers have been calling for a fusion between PlayStation and Sony Ericsson ever since the PlayStation Portable was announced, with many touting the “PlayStation Phone” as a true iPhone rival. While the Xperia PLAY is more Xperia than it is PlayStation, it is still the first truly dedicated gaming phone since the ill-fated N-Gage, with a slide-out gamepad and the might of Sony Computer Entertainment behind the product. But one month in to the device’s European release, has the phone been a success? Will it be big in the States? And what’s left to come for the device? We asked these questions and many more in an exclusive interview with Dominic Neil-Dwyer, Head of Market Development at Sony Ericsson.

Hi Dominic, could you start by introducing yourself and telling us about your work at Sony Ericsson?

I’m Dominic Neil-Dwyer, Head of Market Development at Sony Ericsson. My job, or part of my job, has been responsibility for the launch of Xperia PLAY within sales and marketing at Sony Ericsson. I’ve been working with a lot of the game’s publishers, Sony Computer Entertainment and also the guys at Android in launching the product.

Would you say it has been a successful launch compared to other SE phones and other smartphones?

I think we’re very pleased with the launch, I think it’s very early to say if it has been great or not. I think it has been really excellent in terms of that it’s going to plan, in terms of the presence, we’re getting very strong support from operators, we’ve obviously had a very high profile with a limited expenditure so far, and we’ll be putting a lot more into the promotion and the campaign. So we’re very pleased with where we are on the launch of the device. Of course, speaking from a global perspective, we haven’t launched in all markets yet.

Why is that? Why has it taken so long to get in the US and quite a lot of the bigger markets?

Yeah, well it hasn’t taken so long, it is working to plan. The plan was a staged launch for the device anyway, and that’s due to different variants and operators. As a device, because it’s a smartphone, you have different requirements in different markets. So that’s why there’s a different phasing of launching the device.

And in the UK at least, it did have a little bit of a troubled launch – some operators pulling out due to shipping issues, O2 delaying the phone until June due to “bugs” – do you think that will have a long term impact, or is that just a short term, minor ‘blip’?

No, I think very much short term, and for all feedback and discussion and forums and online and face-to-face – y’know, showing people and talking to people – the device itself and the confidence we have around the growth of it: it’s a new category in mobile, we have a lot of confidence about it’s future, so I’d say I don’t really see it – no one in the company really sees it – as an issue at all. It’s more something that I think the press and people have taken on as “Wow, this is an issue”. It’s not, it’s not at all. With people that know the phone industry, you have certain requirements to operators and sometimes you hit those, and sometimes you don’t – it was just one of those things.

And for Xperia PLAY optimised games, have the sales met your expectations?

I think we were pleased with that, it’s more something that you have to ask all the partners, are they pleased and has it met their expectations. I mean, we know you had an interview with Gameloft, and they are pleased. So I think, generally, people are pleased, it’s very early because, as you know, in certain markets we’ve had full coverage, some we haven’t. I think everyone’s pleased with where we are right now. The expectation is our need to grow going forward, but from a, obviously, sales perspective of the device, more publicity, more announcements about games, etc.

But talking about the PlayStation Pocket [the app that lets you buy PS1 titles] – looking at the sales figures through Android Marketplace, that’s placing most games at between 100-500 sales. Does that seem rather low?

I think there’s also an awareness thing for people that are getting their hands on the device and where they are choosing to purchase games. There’s only a few, at the minute, PlayStation One titles there, and there’s more coming on a regular basis, and there’s the whole PlayStation as a content provider exclusive to the device, the story about that, that will emerge and people will see. So, there’s no concerns, it’s a revolutionary device, it’s shaking up the market, we’re very pleased with it. In terms of getting the PlayStation Certified program out, generally, we’re very happy. I think we’ll make a full assessment of if it has achieved our expectations fully, further down the line, so we’re very happy. We know there’s a lot more to come that we’re not, obviously, releasing yet. We’re releasing as we go, rather than telling everyone the full story, and I think everyone appreciates that you have a good line-up at the start of selling a device, because it is a smartphone and it has a good line-up – and that line-up will grow – and the feedback we got on that line-up is that it is a good line-up, so we’re very happy where we are.

Do you think Sony themselves will be making any games for it?

Completely new games you mean?

Yeah.

It is a partnership with PlayStation, with PlayStation Classics that are exclusive to the device that are going to grow, so they obviously are working. And, it’s a cost to make those available to the device, so they are doing that. And then there is the rest of the rollout of what was announced by Kaz Hirai back in January that also involved this device as the lead device of all that activity. I think you can clearly say that there is a lot more to come from that side of the partnership. I can’t… it’s up to them as a game publisher as to when and how they announce all those games that are coming. But yeah, there’s going to be loads more.

And – obviously without going into specifics – are there other exclusive deals with publishers, like the timed exclusive BackStab, or was that just a launch thing?

There’ll be more exclusives to come, yep. So, I think we’ll be announcing some more soon. We’ll also be sharing some at E3 – by the way, we’re going to be at E3 – with partners, and we’ll be making some pretty big announcements at E3.

Can’t wait. You talked about marketing – how much was spent on launch, and how much will be spent over the course of the campaign, as a ratio?

I tell you what’s interesting – I’m going to answer that in a slightly different way and then come back to the answer – but, what’s different about this device, and how we are approaching it as a company, will be the sustained marketing around this device, so if you look at the smartphone industry, what happens is there’s significant expenditure at the launch of the device and then it sort of tapers off. This device has a full commitment behind it from Sony Ericsson, both in terms of gaming generally – this is just the start so we’re putting a lot into this area, we plan to lead in mobile gaming. This is just the start, our investment behind it, both from a development point and as a category is significant, and then obviously in terms of marketing communications we intend to support this device in a way that is very different to other smart phones actually. So as a percentage of the actual expenditure, we’re planning the whole year expenditure, I would say it’s not – and also I’m looking at globally – the exact percentage I don’t know, I haven’t added up all the numbers from the different markets, but I would say, there’s considerable, significant expenditure still to come for this device.

So will we be seeing adverts for the PLAY at the same time as NGP? Will they be competing?

We’ll continue to sustain our marketing for it, I think there is no competition. How we see it, and I know how PlayStation see it, they are completely different types of device and they are completely different purchase considerations. And actually, if you have an Xperia PLAY, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t have an NGP as well. That decision is down to the consumer. When you’re looking for a smartphone, you are not considering buying the NGP, so it’s a really different purchase consideration. And especially if you think of the PLAY, it’s on contract, it’s a different type of consideration. So we don’t see them as competing devices at all. And, in a way, we see them as very complementary devices. So, if you want a smartphone: Get Xperia PLAY, if you want something else: Get the NGP.

Running up to launch, Sony Ericsson were saying they were thinking of trying to sell the phone in game specific stores. Is that something you are still pursuing?

I’m not specifically in the UK market, but I know it’s something that’s been under discussion, and I think that it does open up new retail distribution, definitely, and retailers have shown an interest. So, I don’t know where those conversations are, I’m afraid, you’d have to ask the UK.

And another thing that was said running up to launch was that if the sales were strong enough, then they’d definitely consider doing a successor, or different Xperia phones with the slide-out gamepad. Do you think that it’s warranted that?

I would say that we… we have a full commitment to Xperia PLAY and to taking the initiative in gaming. I would just say that this is not just a flash in the pan. There’s nothing that has happened, I would say, generally, from all the indications, there’s nothing that indicates this should be a flash in the pan. So it definitely indicates there is a market, and that we are creating a new market, and we’re leading in that.

But whenever you create a new market, someone else will try and steal it. Do you know about any plans from other phone providers to create a similar type of phone?

No, and I think, for us, it would actually be good. We’d say: “Welcome to join, you’re welcome to join this space.” I think we’re not worried about anyone as we started and obviously we will maintain a lead, as in any market leader, just because of how we are working, and how we are working with PlayStation.

Are you worried at all about the PLAY’s power? It has decent power now, but if you’re planning on sustaining it for a long time there will be more powerful phones out there…

As you say, to be PlayStation Certified, and what that really means – I know there’s not really been a very clear definition out there – but to be recognized, and certified by PlayStation as a mobile phone, that’s for the gaming experience. So, you know it’s a combination of power and graphics and you could have a dual-core processor, but is it actually going to give you a better gaming experience? Does it do much in the way it’s optimised within the smartphone? So we’re not even concerned whether there’s dual-core out there in the market right now. We’re not concerned, this is PlayStation Certified, and it’s certified for a reason – it gives the best gaming experience on a smartphone. But as you say, the industry’s moving and also the type of games etc, so obviously we’re looking at… we’re not concerned in the timeframe, in the lifecycle of the device. But we’ve got our eye on the fact that we need to continue leadership, and we’re planning accordingly.

For the optimised games – some of them you buy from the store, some from the publisher’s website, some from elsewhere. Do you think that might cause confusion?

We’re not getting that feedback from consumers, and I think the actual way that games are presented on the device is very simple. It’s very easy, so yeah, when you then go into the payment, there are different purchase mechanisms, but I don’t think it’s bad. That’s the start, and I think we’ll evolve and improve like anything. I think we’re pleased, the feedback’s great, and we will continue to improve and evolve – that’s a part of the kind of software and delivery etc. We’ll continue to improve all parts.

Like you said, the way it looks now to access games looks really good, but at the same time, if I wanted to access hundreds of games, it might feel a little cluttered. Will this be updated?

Yeah, it is software based, so we’ll definitely improve. As with the smartphone, as we do software updates we’ll continue to improve all the bits of the phone you have. We’ll certainly improve and continue to improve. How it is now, as you say, is fine, and it looks good etc. But for the proposition and the content and as things evolve, it will evolve as well to continue making it easy for people, and make it even better. Right now, we can’t say what that is, but as the lifecycle moves on, it will improve, and that’s the thing about this device as a phone. Most phones, you buy a phone and it continues to do what it does, and you can get apps and stuff. The experience on Xperia PLAY will just improve over time with the types of games that are coming, and just the general product, which is very different to a normal smartphone.

So when do you think we will see the first big update?

We haven’t announced that yet. It will follow pretty much what we do with phones and our software upgrades, so I can’t say when, I don’t think we’ve publicly made that available, but I think people know that we do update and we do upgrade our user experience.

Will that be an E3 announcement?

No, no we won’t announce that at E3, we haven’t launched it yet in the States, so we need to be launching all across the place and driving up the sales. It’d be silly to announce an update before we’ve fully launched it.

It had the largest ad campaign in the UK for Sony Ericsson, is that the same in the US?

There’s gonna be a different scale with Verizon supporting it. It’s going to have significant support, I wouldn’t want to say… I think already, without spending much money, I think it has got the biggest amount of reach in terms of people’s awareness that Sony Ericsson has ever had. And in terms of brand awareness, I don’t know what the figures are but, just anecdotally, when we went to GDC, the guy at immigration who normally when you talk to these they all ask you questions: “Why are you here? What company do you work for?” In the past when I told them Sony Ericsson I don’t expect them to know the company because we don’t have a lot of brand presence in the US, but around GDC time he said “Ah, it’s that phone”. Definitely brand awareness has risen and the scale of awareness in the US is enormous. We’re already at a high level of awareness and people are waiting for Verizon to confirm when it’s going to be in stores.

And finally, it doesn’t have PlayStation Network support, is that something that was always decided? It does seem a bit odd considering the size of the network, and that you have to re-buy PS1 titles.

It was always, for launch, something that we planned that way, it wasn’t something that we changed. And I understand that people talk about that, that that’s something that would be an added thing that they’ve said they’ve wanted, and obviously we are with PlayStation. But also, I think we have this thing that it is a smartphone, and yes, with any smartphone, or any product, everyone says “We want extra, we want this, we want that” and you end up with a thousand features and you have to focus on stuff – when you are launching something. And then obviously, depending on the product, there’s additional things you can bring in through software upgrades. Our focus has been the enormous wealth of features you get from the smartphone – it has got a great music player, front and back cameras, fast internet browsing, multi-touch, etc, etc. All these great best in class smartphone features and on top of that you’ve got the further fantastic technology around all the gaming elements. And that’s what we focused on for launch, in the standard way you would assess what are the highest priorities.

So that’s something we could still see then?

It’s something that we know that people want, and as a handset manufacturer we always take in what people want. We take that into the scope and consideration for anything we do. You saw what happened with the X10 and the upgrades around Gingerbread, so we visited people and are now enabling that. We also recognize that people want to be on the latest smartphone OS – the Android platform, so we’ve enabled that. It’s just another one of those things that goes into the pile of things people want, and we just need to make sure when and where we deliver it at the right time. So it’s definitely something that we recognize people want from this type of device, so it’s definitely something that’s within that set of things that we’re listening to.

For more on the Xperia PLAY, be sure to read our interview with Gameloft’s Managing Director here, and their UK Digital Marketing and Community Manager here.

Dominic-Neil Dwyer