Games for nongamers are in style, and on its redesigned handheld, Sony is meeting demand with—among other offerings—My Stylist, a wardrobe organizer
As one of the leaders in the game-console industry, Sony (SNE) has a reputation for putting hard-core gamers first. But in the coming months, the company will release new software created by Reina Araki, a former designer of packaging for Sony products who admits to being "terrible" at games.
Her idea for the PlayStation Portable console: a wardrobe organizer for fashionistas. Araki's My Stylist doesn't really qualify as a game. Its aim is to restore order to your closet. Snap photos of your clothes with the PSP's attachable camera and store it on a memory stick, and the program suggests outfits and keeps track of what you wore. It helps you avoid the fashion faux pas of showing up to an event with friends in an outfit you've been seen in before, and one day it will likely let you go online to consult friends or coordinate your wardrobe with the season's newest offerings.
Araki's inspiration was her own daily ritual of agonizing over what to wear to work. "I thought it would be great to have my own fashion stylist," says the 28-year-old Araki.
Campaign for Casual Gamers
When My Stylist debuts later this year for the handheld PlayStation Portable console, you can bet Sony's hard-core base of 18- to 34-year-old male gaming fans won't be lining up to get one. They generally prefer heart-thumping slash-and-shoot encounters, as in Monster Hunter or the role-playing adventure of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII.
But Sony's new games chief can hardly wait. Kazuo Hirai, who took over as Sony Computer Entertainment's president and chief operating officer in June, is now pushing hard for projects like Araki's that don't cater to die-hard gamers. That's because the PSP's allure as a gaming and multimedia gizmo appeared to be fading. Last fiscal year through March, Sony shipped just 8.4 million units, down 41%, from 14.1 million the previous year.
It's a big comedown for a company that holds the industry's record for console-game sales. But Hirai has a plan to re-energize PSP sales: marketing to the masses. "We spent so much time talking about PSP as a great portable entertainment video game device," Hirai says in an interview. "We're now extending that by saying here's another way of enjoying your PSP." (BusinessWeek.com, 9/19/07)
Courting Nintendo-like Success
In many ways, Araki's lucky break reflects the changing dynamics of the $30 billion gaming marketplace. Video games are now reaching a wider audience, thanks to a shift in focus to innovative gameplay, a combination of online social networking and multiplayer gaming, and new nongaming uses for portable consoles. The key for Sony will be to transform the PSP from an entertainment system for tech geeks into something more versatile and less intimidating that ordinary consumers will want.
That poses a huge challenge for Sony. Hard-core gamers still make up its main audience. In contrast, Nintendo (NTDOY) has succeeded in wooing nongamers with a touch-panel for its handheld DS and a motion-sensing wand-like controller for its Wii living-room machine. Nintendo also has redefined what constitutes games with such hits as Nintendogs, which involves training and playing with puppies.
And it's testing the DS for uses beyond just gaming, including one trial at baseball's Safeco Field in Seattle where you can order food, watch the game's closed-circuit video, look up player stats, and play trivia on the DS. Over its lifetime, Nintendo's DS—whose November, 2004, launch gave it a one-month head start on Sony's machine—has outsold the PSP more than 2 to 1 worldwide. By the end of 2009, the DS could top 100 million vs. 51 million for the PSP, according to market researcher IDC's forecasts.
Hoping for Holiday Hits
Hirai is hardly throwing in the towel. His crew has planned a big marketing push around the PSP's redesign. The console, launched on Sept. 20 in Japan, is lighter and thinner, sports new chips to speed its command-response time, and comes in pink, silver, and blue, along with white and black. Sony already offers add-ons such as a camera and a Global Positioning System, and it will soon sell a digital TV tuner for the PSP in Japan. There's also a software upgrade that will make it a cinch to play games on a TV screen, either by directly connecting it to the set or by linking to Sony's PlayStation 3 living-room console. So far this month, the PSP has been the hottest-selling console in Japan, according to market researcher Media Create, which tracks weekly industry sales.
As the yearend shopping season nears, Sony hopes to keep the streak alive. At the Tokyo Game Show over the weekend, it showed off My Stylist, Talkman Travel (a guidebook, translator, map, and customizable mash-up travelogue in one), and Patapon (control a one-eyed critter by tapping rhythmically), which all target the nongamer and are being developed in-house. (Two of the three were ideas chosen at a contest Sony hosts in Japan for independent and aspiring game developers.)
Still, Sony has a lot to learn from Nintendo. Nintendo didn't have a booth at the Tokyo Game Show. It prefers to spend more time in direct marketing, sponsoring events on cruise ships, sending free DS consoles to blogging moms, and donating Wii machines to retirement homes. The DS's continuing strong sales have made outside developers eager to contribute. In October, Tokyo game company Konami (KNM) will release Dream Skincare for the DS, offering makeup and beauty tips from renowned beautician Chizu Saeki. And later this year, Konami will follow with two workout titles, Dokodemo Yoga (Yoga On-The-Go) and Dokodemo Pilates (Pilates On-The-Go), both offering a show-and-tell training regimen.
Analysts doubt the PSP's redesign will make a big enough difference to lift it past the DS. For first-time users, the Nintendo DS's double-screen layout and touch-panel mechanism are easier to manage than the PSP's multibutton configuration. That explains why a Brain Training game for both consoles can be a 5-million-unit hit on the DS but a flop on the PSP. "Games for nongamers are an effective way to reach more consumers, but it's not that simple," says Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Tokyo-based game market research firm Enterbrain. "Nintendo also invented new hardware."
Araki would disagree. She's been showing her pink PSP to friends who have never heard of it. "Once they learn about it, they're excited to get one," she says. "But they're my friends and so I take the time to explain it to them." That's a lesson Sony might try working into its marketing strategy.