Sony has spent over a year trying to convince third-party developers to support the PSP again. Their recommended recipe for success: bigger names and shorter games.
How does Sony go from making the darling of portable gaming devices to an afterthought?
And, more importantly, how did Sony spend 2008 privately working with publishers to turn that situation around and line the PSP up for its best gaming year ever?
"We did have a bit of a downturn last year in terms of software quality and quantity."
John Koller, head of marketing for PSP, told MTV Multiplayer that story as part of a wide-ranging interview about Sony's four-year-old gaming machine. The topic of today's portion of the interview: Sony's pitch to bring the PSP back to the gaming forefront.
"We did have a bit of a downturn last year in terms of software quality and quantity," Koller told me as we began our interview with a look back on how the PSP fared in 2008. "We had a few big games like "God of War" and "Crisis Core," but we knew going in that there were going to be some quantity issues and we wanted to ensure that 2009 and 2010 would see a tremendous resurgence. This has been about a year-and-a-half roadshow project in talking to the publishers and making sure they understand how best to create games for the PSP.
Koller said the 2008 PSP gaming line-up was soft because the PSP hardware sales had been soft 18 months earlier. He recalled feedback he was hearing nearly two years ago. "A lot of the publishers were looking at that and were saying, 'Is the installed base going to be near where I need it to be in order to recoup my costs?' That all changed when we launched the PSP 2000 in September of 2007. The sales have been on a very strong trajectory ever since."
But how to get publishers back on board? It wasn't as simple as showing them a graph with an inclining ascent of PSP hardware sales numbers. Publishers had reasons to prefer making games for PSP's rival, the Nintendo DS. "If you look at it just from a strict unit sales metric, PSP games outsell the DS counterpart," Koller explained. "But the DS games require much less development investment, because the graphics aren't as good, the gameplay isn't as deep. In general it's just not created for a more sophisticated, mature gamer, but usually [someone who is] under 12." The result, Koller said, is that publishers felt they could make more money making games relatively cheaply for the DS.
According to Koller ... almost every first-party PSP game has been profitable.
Koller said that Sony's PSP team spent 2008 "making the rounds" with every major third-party game publisher, sharing data and showing how PSP games could be more profitable for publishers. According to Koller, Sony was backed with evidence that almost every first-party PSP game has been profitable, a "positive gross margin," to put it in his words.
The trick would be how to convince other game makers that they could have the same experience.
Sony presented a "recipe" for success, suggesting marketing budgets and even offering ideas about which publisher franchises might best suit the PSP. "The number one request we had was: look at franchise games, and don't port them." Koller mentioned, as he did last year in an interview with MTV Multiplayer's Patrick Klepek, that the high-selling "Transformers" and "Iron Man" games were cited as successes.
PSP fans might shudder at Koller's mention of "Transformers" and "Iron Man" games, neither of which received good reviews. That's not lost on Koller. "We did get into quality, and we did get into size. So quality is very important, obviously… Size is another thing. Many of the publishers had gotten caught up in the idea that 'We have to make a console-sized game' and it's just not true. We launched 'God of War' last year in March with eight hours of gameplay. When we launched it there was an immediate reaction [against that]. But when you realize how a PSP is used, you use it for 10 minutes, put it down for an hour, pick it up for 15 minutes -- eight hours was a very deep game. If you look at that size, that translates into development investment." Translation: it's cheaper, publishers, if you make shorter PSP games.
"Many of the publishers had gotten caught up in the idea that 'We have to make a console-sized game' and it's just not true."
Another thing the Sony PSP team pushed to publishers was PSP-PS3 connectivity. Make the games talk to each other, they urged. "If you have a big franchise, think about ways you can connect it to the PSP," Koller said of the pitch to third parties. "Of PSP owners, 30% own a PS3, so that cross-ownership rate is growing. It's a very strong loyalty. And there's a really good opportunity for a publisher -- or even us on the worldwide studios side -- to have two sales, plus the consumer loving the interaction between both of them." Sony's connections between the PS3's "Resistance 2" and the PSP's upcoming "Resistance Retribution" offer a showcase for this kind of two-system/two-games link.
"It's kind of hard to ignore a 15 million-plus installed base," Koller said. But the time to talk hardware is past. If 2009 is the year of the PSP game resurgence, it is the "LittleBigPlanet," "Rock Band," "Assassin's Creed" and other major games coming to Sony's portable that will need to be hard to ignore.
Tomorrow: Sony's view of PSP's future, teases included.
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