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Joystiq interviews Sony PSP's John Koller

Joystiq Staff

Sony -- the PSP included -- has taken some flak lately with their image and presence in the gaming industry. Some of it seems to be warranted, but the majority can basically be narrowed down to outright fanboyism. I sat down with John Koller, senior product manager for Sony's PSP, to discuss just how successful the PSP really has been and what we can expect in the future for Sony's first real venture into the handheld gaming business.

Tell me about the latest firmware update coming to the PSP?

What this latest version [2.80 out this Thursday] is going to include is video RSS so you can save video channels to your Memory Stick and also there is going to be an available download of World Tour Soccer. And, of course, we've got the usual security patches included.

What's the scheduled time frame for firmware updates, if there is one?

It's not necessarily set in stone, but it's generally every six to eight weeks.

Talk about the success of the PSP in Sony's eyes. Has it reached Sony's expectations?

It absolutely has and there's certainly room to grow. I think that a lot of the functionalities added over the past year have added to that kind of target consumer who would be interested at launch -- the hardcore gamer. We started out with longer games for that kind of gamer and are just now getting into more pick up and play titles for the casual gamer. I think the success of the downloadable content, Internet access, the addition of TiVo and other things have added quite a bit to what many people considered to just be a gaming machine at launch, but it's really a lot more than that.

But that wasn't Sony's plan, though, to just be a gaming device.

No, it always was multifunctional. There was the appearance right at launch that it was going to be pigeonholed into just a gaming machine. We didn't necessarily want to go down that route. Gaming will always be at the heart of this. But, this has other benefits then just being a gaming system.

What can we expect with PS3 functionality?

We're going to announce more later, but what we've stated publicly is that it's going to be a remote control for the PS3.

Talk about that.

Well, we showed at E3 in F1 how the PSP was used as a rear view mirror, but there will be a lot more than that and that's kind of a good example of what it could be.

Besides the PS3 association, PS1 games will soon be available to download. What can we expect?

At a point this fall, which hasn't been determined yet, you'll be able to download PS1 games to play on your PSP.

How will the controls work when converting a PS1 game to be played on the PSP?

For the most part, most games will be playable. If there's a dual analog game, then it's going to be a little more difficult to have that mapped over correctly. But for the most part, virtually every PS1 game should be playable.

Do you have a price set for how much each game will cost to download?

No, we're still working that out. That's a dual U.S./Japan deal that still being discussed.

Are there any plans to bring the white PSP to the U.S.?

Not right now. Europe is bringing it to some territories, but we're not going to launch it here in the U.S. for now.

Let's talk about some of the criticism the PSP has taken, for instance load times. What is your policy on approving games that can have excessive load times and has that been addressed inside Sony?

It's something that we're looking at. This isn't just a PSP issue, it's cross platform within our company and really across the industry. Some games just take longer to load, but it is something we look at in the testing process and continue to look at and it will be improved.

Will Sony continue to support and back a UMD movie format?

We are absolutely still behind UMD. There are still a number of studios that are behind it and sticking with the format. And, to be honest, it's a format that will stay with the PSP throughout the life of the system. I think the growth area is going to be in the downloadable area. The future is bright for the downloadable area, it just depends on the DRM and how it gets worked out and how that's proven to the studios to work. Technology for it exists and we just have to prove to studios that the content they create is protected.

There have been rumors about a possible PSP 2 that will have a hard drive and no UMD use at all. Is there anything you can say about that possibility?

Nothing yet, but there are plans in place of how we're going to grow the console. We've talked about how the PSP at its very base is going to be how you see it today in terms of form factor design and whatnot. As far as what is included in any next-gen PSP we haven't even gotten into yet. We're looking more at enhancing the current version.

It was just announced that GTA: Vice City Stories will be $50. Is there a price you guys like to keep titles at or are you simply taking advantage of the market who will buy the game regardless?

Third-party publishers make their own decisions as far as price. We don't have a say in that. First-party Sony titles generally stay around $39.99. But, generally speaking we like to keep them in a certain range from a Sony perspective. But, other companies are certainly allowed to price where they will. It's the same issue with the UMD and movie studios pricing it at what they want.

Talk about the impact on PSP sales that you've seen with the recent retail success of the DS Lite.

There has been no impact on sales. We have had steady sales since before the DS Lite and to today. Looking at it objectively they've had a very successful launch, obviously, and I think they're seeing a lot of Nintendo loyalists jump back in the market and there's a lot of retail initiatives to trade in your old DS for a DS Lite. If you look at the numbers, they did very well in June. But, if you look at our numbers since launch until now, we have outsold the DS by approximately 900,000 units in North America. Statistically speaking they had a holiday head start on the PSP, so in terms who have sold more overall has been a back and forth.

What is the difference between Nintendo's and Sony's vision of where to take the handheld market?

They live in the gaming part of our competition and they have made a sharp turn to sort of the shorter Brain Age-type of games, which I think has been really successful for their consumer. I think they cater to more of the younger consumer whereas we cater to more of the older one, 18-24 target. We've had the longer, deeper software titles whereas they have gone shorter and more kid friendly. That's their business decision and they've made a successful career out of going that way and I don't expect them to change that. I think for us we can look to expand if we want to go younger and we'll certainly make titles for them as we go along.

What has Sony learned from the PSP?

We've learned lot of things. The first thing was how we market the product. You don't want to be all things to everyone because then you're nothing to no one. So, we've really tried to make gaming the heart of what we do and added many multifunctional elements to differentiate ourselves from the DS or the Video iPods. On the product side, it's constant learning. We look at consumer demand then place that in the product. This is not a product that sits on shelves and lives or dies, we can constantly update it. The UMD situation is an area we have been adapting to all along. How we operate in the download area is key. That's ultimately where we want to be as far as overall content like music, movies and games. We want to be in a place where a target consumer can easily access content to put on their Memory Stick. That's not to say we wouldn't want to continually utilize UMD, because we do. There's a tandem marketing push there.

As far as software sales, a recent report came out that showed the DS had more million or more selling titles than the PSP. Is that a concern?

Obviously software is where we make our living, but I don't see it as being a huge issue. I think there's a growing strength in that kind of middle range that we've seen. Nintendo has some loyalists that buy their branded titles, like Mario, no matter what, so that is what you're seeing.

So, overall, would you say the PSP has been a success?

Yes, we've been thrilled with the success of it. It has actually sold better in its first year then any of our other consoles in PlayStation history. It has brought in more retail dollars and we've been very very happy with that.

What do customers ask for the most for what they want in the PSP?

The top three things are connecting the PSP to the PS3, a digital camera, and instant messaging, which you can do when you access the Internet.

What about the image of the PSP just being a place for awful ports?

I think at launch we were painted unfairly for having a lot of titles that were thought to be just ports from the PS2. Most of them weren't, but some third-party titles were. We have a very firm no port policy because we want these game to stand on their own.

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