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The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss Sony's future in mobile and portable gaming

Great brand, but where's the strategy?
The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss Sony's future in mobile and portable gaming
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Given that we'd previously asked the Mavens about Nintendo's mobile strategy(or lack of), we thought it only fair to subject Sony to the same scrutiny. We asked them:

Do you think that Sony, with PS Vita, its Android tablets and a hand in Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play - not to mention platforms such as PlayStation Network and the PlayStation Suite for Android games - could become a significant player in the mobile space?

Acting as something of a hybrid between a phone and a portable console, Vita, Sony's PSP successor has attracted plenty of attention, and Kevin Dent of Tiswaz was certainly impressed, calling it "pretty revolutionary".

"The reason being that it delivers real hardcore player value. If I own a Vita and an iPhone, the world will actually still rotate."

In this way, Dent was arguing it wasn't in competition with the iPhone, but would actually succeed the Nintendo DS.

"I feel that the 3DS has been an abject failure, hence the recent price reduction, and we will see the Vita succeed at the expense of the DS," he predicted.

One good, one bad

He was less enthusiastic about Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play, ironically calling it "the greatest feature phone ever made", and saying his contacts had revealed that the sales numbers suck.

"My feeling is it will go away - silently hopefully," he added.

Thomas Nielsen of Progressive Media hoped Vita would be a success, though admitting, "It's difficult not to be pessimistic on behalf of any new hardware launch in the mobile space these days."

He said Progressive would support Vita, given it will provide a fresh route to market, but he thought Sony faces a 'tough war'.

"Niche/specialist gaming hardware is losing. Casual, non-dedicated gaming hardware is winning on all fronts. It's the reason we went into mobile games in the first place, but that change is also at the expense of some of the old giants," he stated.

John Golden of PlayPhone thought Vita would sell well at launch: "Probably a few million in global markets limited by the volume Sony can manufacture."

However, he wasn't convinced about the platform's longterm viability.

"The question for Sony and developers looking at Vita and its certification program with any interest is: Can Sony drive the Vita installed base to make it worthwhile for developers?

"How many Android devices from outside manufacturers will be 'approved' for certification to make up the difference? Will users carry two devices?"

Where's the focus?

When it came to Sony's tablets and its software platforms such as PlayStation Network and the PlayStation Suite, there was some confusion about how they all fitted into the bigger picture.

"With Xperia Play, the PlayStation experience was all about how games needed D-pads. Now with the tablets ... it's about something else? I'm getting confused what the PlayStation brand really is all about," said Nielsen.

Secret Exit's Jani Kahrama noted that the Android PlayStation SDK "will require the use of C# for development for Sony's own virtual machine, which sounds like a walled garden."

He thought the platform could be success in terms of Sony selling PS One games into Android, but wasn't sure about the wider implications.

"Without financial development support from Sony, it seems unlikely that mobile developers currently targeting iOS and Android will be spontaneously willing to move to a different programming language and cut their target market," he questioned.

Dave Castelnuovo of Bolt Creative agreed; "PlayStation Certified is kind of a waste because - come on - are there really modern devices that need to be 'certified' to be able to run a PS1 game? Are there many people clamouring for PS1 games?"

Yet, Kahrama remained positive about the underlining thinking.

"It's a bold message, particularly coming from Sony: you don't need to own a dedicated game console to enjoy games labeled with one of the industry's most prestigious brands."

Gated communities

New Maven, Will Luton of Mobile Pie, through Sony's acceptance of the free-to-play model on Vita was significant but that the company needed to be more open to the established best practice for digital platforms.

"It may have functioning delivery systems, but they're diffused across different platforms and seemingly will remain gated. That needs to change in order to get innovative killer apps first every time - three month old ports won't cut it," he said.

He compared this to the Android and iOS markets, which are much more open.

"The mobile platform holders aren't the arbiters of taste, but simply curators, and that fosters innovation, disruption and fresh blood, in turn refreshing genres, creating new business models and stars. I don't see that happening in the Sony ecosystem just yet," Luton said. 

Thomas Nielsen agreed; "Apple's strategy to allow pretty much anyone to develop and publish, it's turned things completely around.

"I have yet to see a strong response from Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft to fight that model, but Sony's introduction of the PlayStation brand in mobile is certainly a good move in the right direction.

"Allowing developers to target phones, handhelds and consoles with less effort will attract some attention, but this needs to be supported by strong business models as well. I have not seen much new in that regard," he said. 

"The original PlayStation succeeded in large part due to Sony's introduction of a new business model with the CD. As Sony looks beyond the traditional 'closed model' of consoles to expand its ecosystem, it has to consider the economics of today's freemium world," queried John Golden.

"What revenue streams can developers' forecast and what royalty payments will they have to pay Sony?" 

Overwhelming force

"I think John hit a lot of areas there," said Jared Steffes of Tap.Me.

"I am excited about the efforts Sony is executing; it is always tough to turn a huge ship. The certification process is going to be a large factor, but even more of a factor is the value proposition."

He argued that, while the Asian markets accept multiple devices for different functions, the US market expects it all in one.

"Americans have been open to devices that have multiple features but in the past they have had a difficult learning curve to get everything to work correctly. Now things just work the way they were promised thanks to iOS and Android's capabilities and user interface standards."

Given this, he was ultimately skeptical about whether Sony could balance its premium pricing strategy against other people's willingness to take a risk on their products.

What's my focus?

Dave Castelnuovo also pointed out that Sony's approach wasn't coherent in terms of its various businesses.

"I think its main problem is that there are too many divisions that all seem to be on different pages and competing with each other," he said.

"Sony Ericsson is doing its own thing with Xperia Play. PlayStation is doing its own thing with Vita, and the Sony tablets are driven by yet another department."

Given this lack of central strategy, he thought Sony would be in trouble.

"In today's market place, a company needs to be focused in order to build the hype it needs to outsell the competition," he argued.

"This isn't the camera business (or the feature phone business) where you need to come out with 10 models a year in every size, shape and colour. Customers want to buy the #1 device. With so many products how can Sony really get behind a single product?"