PlayStation: Looking Forward

This past week SCEA’s Director of Hardware Marketing, John Koller, said that the PSP had just had its best ever year of sales “and we’d look to go about 10-15 percent north of that this year”. He went on to say much the same of the PS3, “we also had our best sales year for PS3 last year and we’ll look to go north of that by a similar percentage”. In this context, “year” refers to Sony’s financial year that runs April to March, which is why we do not yet have numbers for PlayStation’s sales for the year just ended. We should have those numbers towards the end of this month.

Koller says that he expects that level of growth for the PSP for a number of reasons, “but primarily because of the entertainment packs and line-up of software that’s coming.” For the PS3 he expects it to be driven “by our first-party software line-up, which is outstanding, but there’s some third-party titles coming. The line-up’s very strong.” Good of him to point out that “there’s some third-party titles coming” alongside the “outstanding” first-party software otherwise the PS3 shelves in the shops might start looking a bit bare. I doubt that the third-party publishers would appreciate that phrasing though.

This got me thinking about what we have been told that we have to look forward to over the coming year that could justify Koller’s sales growth forecasts by encouraging Joe Public to take the PlayStation plunge. It is worth spending a few moments to consider his seemingly modest 10-15% claim. We need to remember that these are estimates for the North American market, which is Sony’s weakest in terms of market share for the PS3. Though Koller himself does say of his numbers that “you could probably extrapolate that globally as well”.

Now I am no PlayStation fanboy, but I do consider myself a supporter of Sony’s game consoles, ever since the début of the killer duo comprising the original PlayStation and WipEout tempted me away from the world of PC gaming. What I, and I guess most of you as you are reading TSA, want to see is Sony selling lots of hardware, as a big installed base will attract more developers and publishers and hopefully mean more exclusives too. I would hope and expect that in Sony’s European and Japanese markets the PS3 will see greater growth than is forecast for North America as the 360 is a weaker competitor to the PS3 outside of Microsoft’s homeland. In Japan even the PS2 still often outsells the 360 on a weekly basis, as it did again for the week ending 29th March.

So what do us current, and potential future, PSP-toting members of the community have to look forward to? Koller first mentions entertainment packs. The PSP bundles that we already know about (only confirmed for the US so far) are the Hannah Montana one, featuring a lilac PSP, and the Assassin’s Creed pack, which promises “other content that will be announced later” along with the bundled ‘piano black’ PSP. Personally I am hoping that other content is a sun-shade for the PSP’s screen shaped like Altaïr‘s hood. With Hannah Montana coming to PSP, Sony is trying to extend its market into that which the Nintendo DS has firmly clasped within its clam-shell grip, the appallingly named ‘teen and “tween” girl gamers’. It will be interesting to see just how successful Sony will be at gaining the attention of an audience so different to those the PSP normally sells to.

The PSP’s upcoming software releases also target both that new market and what we would consider the more typical PSP owners and potential purchasers. Those tempted by the Hannah Montana PSP will also be able to ‘enjoy’ Ubisoft’s Petz series of games, which among other animals “allows young players to create and care for cute, furry pets chosen from many different breeds of… dolphins”! Now I have seen a few real dolphins myself and I do not remember ever feeling obliged to comment on how furry they were. Mind you, in other respects I expect a pet dolphin would be much like a pet cat; turning up only when it wants a bit of attention or a nice fish dinner.

Us more typical PSP gamers are seeing Sony’s handheld transition from sharing titles with the PS2, to it benefiting from the PS3’s catalogue of IP. We have just seen the release of Resistance: Retribution and other confirmed first-party titles are LittleBigPlanet and the Alaskan-based Motorstorm: Arctic Edge. Third-party titles will include the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed, a selection of EA Sports games including Madden and Tiger Woods and the release of Dissidia: Final Fantasy which has unsurprisingly been a big hit in Japan. Rock Band Unplugged will also be arriving on PSP. It will not ship with a peripheral like the DS versions of rival Guitar Hero, but will instead be more reminiscent of Harmonix’s PS2 game Amplitude. A Good Thing in my book.

It is also not unreasonable to expect that this year we will see another annual refresh of the PSP hardware, with the smart money being on the PSP(-4000?) becoming UMD-less. Considering the growing momentum behind digital distribution, with the PSP gaining its own native PSN Store, instead of relying on a PC, and new releases like Resistance: Retribution becoming available from the store at the same time as the UMD is launched, dropping the battery-draining UMD drive would seem to be a logical step. For Sony it would also remove all those mechanical components, reducing the manufacturing cost.

So what of the PS3’s forthcoming releases. As I am looking to see what will make someone pick up a PS3 instead of the other HD console, I will start with the big PS3 exclusives we already know about. In no particular order we can expect to see InFamous, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, God of War III, White Knight Chronicles, MAG, Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time and Heavy Rain. Sony also have some unannounced titles up their sleeves, likely to be revealed at E3 in June. Myself, I am hoping this year will also see the release of Gran Turismo 5 and Team ICO’s new game.

For some other reasons to be positive about the PS3 this year, we can look to comments that SCEE’s president, David Reeves, made in a recent interview with NowGamer. When asked when we could expect the movie download service our US brethren are already enjoying, he said, “by end of this calendar year you’re going to see the same in principal PAL markets, (UK, Germany, France, Spain).” He was also asked how Sony would build on the success of the PS Store. After admitting that the store is not without faults, he goes on to add, “we need better payment methods, particularly in Europe, we need a next-generation browser, but now we’ve got the engineers to do it”. Have we got these engineers to thank for adding cut’n’paste to the browser in the last update? A new, better PS3 browser would certainly be very welcome. Fingers crossed, the better payment methods would include the PSN Cards that Europe is still missing out on.

One thing that Sony have been working towards since the launch of the PS3 is reaching a break-even point on the hardware costs. At its launch the cost of manufacturing a PS3 was estimated to be about twice the retail price. In the last year Sony have said that the disparity has been reduced to about $50. I never realised a bunch of PS2 chips, 2 USB ports and a memory card reader cost so much. This year Sony expect to reduce costs even further “replacing the current 65 nanometre Cell chip with a 45nm one probably in the middle of the year, reducing power consumption – so less heat shielding, less metal in the machine”, according to Reeves. If Sony can reach, or even surpass, the break-even point on the PS3 this year, they will be more open to considering lowering the retail price of the console.

So there you have it. Looking forward, there is lots to look forward to this year for PlayStation.

Sources: vg247, US PlayStation Blog, NowGamer