Two weeks ago, Sony launched the PSP PC store with a whimper. It debuted just two days before Thanksgiving, offering PSP owners the chance to download some free themes and buy and download few old and new PSP games. I didn't hear about any of it until the weekend when it got mentioned on the 1UpYours podcast.

Why the quiet launch? Was Sony embarrassed about it?

Late last week I interviewed Eric Lempel, the PlayStation director of network operations in charge of the store.

And we talked about everything.

Seriously. I don't think we missed a thing. Want to know what the plans are for this store? The pricing strategy? Why it requires a PC? Whether it will support Macs? Which titles formerly on UMD will be coming to the store (he revealed that "SOCOM Fire Team Bravo" and "Twisted Metal: Head-On" will hit by year's end)? Whether UMD titles will ever be released on the download store the same day as they are in game shops? Which PS3 games he'd like to see on the PSP store? The plans for import titles?

And more, more, more. Check out the chock-full interview below.

One excerpt to get you thinking:

Multiplayer: In general the store looks like it comes one step closer to fulfilling a lot of PSP owners' fantasy of "I want to download everything. I don't want that UMD thing." A lot of people were thinking the PSP revision might even do away with the UMD and this whole thing is going to be like an iPod, it's all going to be downloadable. In your mind, is this a step closer to that? Is this a way of acknowledging those people in any way? Is this the PSP showing that download is where the future is?

Lempel: I would say the industry is at an interesting point right now where we have the ability to quickly deliver content to people. So the retail business is still very important to us. And the UMD business is still doing very well for us and our retail partners. I don't think we're ready to look at that and say, "This is the way it should go right now." But we're at an interesting point in the industry where consumers know they can get things fast and they're getting used to it with other devices from other companies. So it's something we always wanted to do. Technically we didn't have the ability in the past with some of our hardware. But now that we do we want to start opening up some of these channels and getting consumers used to that and experimenting with it.

I would say it's a glimpse towards the future. Definitely just by releasing a UMD title in the store it definitely puts ideas in people's heads, but no I wouldn't categorize this as a shift in business model at this point.

Multiplayer: Can you describe the PSP store and what the goals are for it?

Eric Lempel, Director of PlayStation Network Operations, Sony Computer Entertainment of America: The key feature is to get content to the PSP in a way that we couldn't do it before. You're well aware that currently the only way to get games to a PSP is to have [PSP Onwers] either download demos which we offer on our PSP website or to have them go to the store to buy UMDs. That creates some challenges if you want to create some new and original type of games that may not necessarily be -- I wouldn't want to say worthy, but -- up to the caliber of a UMD release and something that we can offer exclusively on the network. So we wanted to create a way to get those games out to consumers. That was one of the primary reasons for it. Examples of that on the PlayStation 3 are games like "flow" and "Calling All Cars" that we wouldn't sell on Blu-Ray but are clearly very popular and we sell them over the network. We've got a lot of interest from the developer community and our internal teams about doing games for the PSP that wouldn't be available on UMD so that's one of the main reasons why we did it.

The other piece of it is to get those PSOne classic titles to PSP owners that don't have a PS3 at this time. ... Clearly we don't want to ignore the giant base of PSP owners.

And the other thing was to really create a nice clean place where people can get a lot of content for their PSP that's all formatted correctly, that all works well. It's all something we've looked at and said, "This is something that should go on your PSP" [That includes] themes, wallpapers. We have the ability to do music. Longer term we'll be looking at movies and TV shows.

Multiplayer: Who is this really for? Which PSP owners are you trying to reach?

Lempel: Short-term, right now, it's for the more engaged PSP user, but longer term I think everybody is going to want to check it out. We made a little bit of noise around the launch, but there isn't a whole lot of content that's really new. But there will be. You'll be seeing a lot more content coming on there in the near future that is made exclusively for the PSP and isn't available anywhere else. The other side of it is PSP owners now that are getting into PSP for the first time may not find some of those older UMD titles that were really strong at retail. There's only so much shelf space at retail. This allows us to open up the whole library of PSP titles.

Multiplayer: A bunch of questions come to mind about this. Many people are asking about the requirement to access this store via PC. Does the road map call for a point where I can access the store using just my PSP?

Lempel: Clearly that's something we're thinking about. With the capability of the PSP it's something that should be possible, so it's definitely something we're thinking about. It's just a matter of priorities and some technology that we need to make it all work right and make sure the content is delivered securely, just to protect some of our [intellectual properties]. Yeah it's definitely something we're thinking about.

Multiplayer: Why did it make sense to launch on PC? Some might say, "Hey, that doesn't seem intuitive. Why would they introduce the PC into the equation?"

Lempel: For one thing it was easier. It was easier to create the service and the system on the PC at first. Also, with a lot of content, the PSP is great and has a great screen, but we would need to create a different type of navigation, a different type of browsing system to get through all the content that will be on there.

There are also technical challenges behind the scenes that lean toward delivering the content securely, making sure it is protected. Especially because we are dealing with paid content. That creates some challenges as well. That's why when you use the PC store you use the PlayStation Network downloader application. You download that app quickly and it delivers it securely to your PSP and also protects the content. We figured we could wait and take longer to develop [the store] just for the PSP, but we wanted to get this out sooner rather than later. And also if you look at other space of portable devices, if you look at something like an iTunes, it's kind of the same thing. I guess the downside is the Apple devices don't go online, so you wouldn't expect to buy something from the site but at the same time people are used to going to a PC to purchase a lot of content and download them to the device.

Multiplayer: Speaking of iPods, iTunes supports a syncing function that allows me to plug my iPod into my computer and automatically get new content. Are there plans for anything like that for the PSP store, so I could just plug my PSP in and get new videos or demos on the store?

Lempel: Sure. It currently doesn't support any functionality like that but that is a feature we're looking into. We want to do some testing, get consumers used to it, see how they would like things to work. We understand that a lot of the free content on there, people are interested in a good amount of it and they'll want to just sync up, not browse.

Multiplayer: I think I keep tabs on things pretty well, but this seemed like kind of a low-key launch. Was that always the plan? Are you guys planning something bigger down the road?

Lempel: That was the plan. We thought we would just get it out there. It was a different way to deliver stuff. We do have some original stuff like "Syphon Filter: Combat Ops" which is getting great reviews. But we felt like if we made a big splash there might not be enough there to make everybody happy now. We're going to ramp up slowly... We really didn't want to position this as something that's going to replace all the other ways of getting content for your PSP at this time.

Multiplayer: Is this PSP store accessible if I access the PSN via my PS3?

Lempel: No. You're going through the PC only at this time. Technically that's possible, but in order to avoid any confusion, the services are new to a lot of users. If we threw a "Syphon Filter" up there, we don't want PS3 people downloading it and then realizing they can't use it. We'll start off this way but in time we could change that.

Multiplayer: Let's talk about pricing in all this. You have $14.99 for the UMD titles [titles that were originally released on disc for PSP but are now downloadable via the store]. And for the downloadable original titles, you have $9.99. How uniform are those prices and how did you come upon those pricepoints?

Lempel: It's similar to pricing on the PlayStation 3 store. Each title is evaluated separately. With the UMD titles we're taking a different approach, where we're looking at what that title is selling for in the market or last sold for. We want to keep it around the same price because that's what it should sell for. And obviously there are a lot of contractual obligations behind the scenes where we have to meet certain prices.

Multiplayer: Right. Retailers would want you to keep it the same, right?

Lempel: Exactly. And we don't want to cause any channel conflict. We'll keep it there. And other titles like "Syphon Filter," each title goes through a lengthy evaluation process. .. Clearly we want to offer great games at a great price for consumers.

Multiplayer: Is it fair to assume other PSP Store games will all be $9.99?

Lempel: With games, and especially with these network games that can vary in size and quality and length of gameplay, we have to look at it carefully and price accordingly. We may create some type of tiers, but no I wouldn't expect everything to come out at that price.

Multiplayer: You should put out a game at a million dollars and see if anybody buys it. It would be very exclusive.

Lempel: [laughs] We should try it. You never know. Or at least start somewhere. Let's start at $300.

Multiplayer: What's the selection process for the UMD titles and is there any guaranteed time window affecting which titles are available? In other words, is the title always going to have been out in retail for at least six months or something like that before it comes to the store?

Lempel: We're actually working on that policy internally. As you can see we've only offered two first-part titles on the store. We're working on that plan so we can roll it out to our third-party partners. At this time I can't discuss the policy.

Multiplayer: Can you say if there are any plans to eventually have it day-and-date with releases in the store? Or that it won't be day-and-date?

Lempel: Right now it won't be day and date for those titles just to avoid any retail conflict. We appreciate what the retailers do for us. We know this would create some challenges for them.

Multiplayer: How did you pick "WipEout" and "Gangs of London" to be the first two UMD released?

Lempel: They are two very popular titles that have been on the PSP for some time. In the next few weeks we are releasing two more titles to round out some of the earlier hits, which would be "SOCOM Fire Team Bravo" and "Twisted Metal: Head-On."

Multiplayer: PSOne downloadable titles -- the same ones available to PS3 users are also available to PSP users. Is that the plan going forward?

Lempel: That will continue to be the case. As soon as we have one of those titles that has been tested and identified as ready to go it will be available on both stores.

Multiplayer: Does that by extension disqualify PSOne titles that use dual analog from being part of this service since they wouldn't be usable on PSP?

Lempel: In some cases, yes.

Multiplayer: People have been pretty happy with the PSN store on PlayStation 3. But I'm sure you've heard the grumbles about why there aren't more PSOne titles available. And I hear that the store available to Japanese consumers has more PSOne titles available. What's the roll-out plan for gamers in the U.S.?

Lempel: We're actively looking at a lot of titles. We have a giant list internally that we track that we try to convert to classic titles. We run into some challenges with the testing process. Some of the titles just won't work properly. But in addition to that there are some legal issues we run into behind the scenes that prevent some of these titles from being released because some of the agreements point in the direction of being released on certain platform and nowhere else or there are music licensing issues. .. But we are working to really ramp up and expand the number of titles we have on both stores.

Multiplayer: So hopefully an acceleration of the pace. So people shouldn't feel accustomed to the pace they saw?

Lempel: No. Not at all. I would hope not. We're really trying to roll out as many as possible. It's taking some internal baby steps. But we'll get there and there will be a ton of titles available soon.

Multiplayer: The PS3 PSN titles -- titles you mentioned like "flow" or "Everyday Shooter," a game I really like -- will the PSP store at all support those games being played on PSP? Or is that a whole other ball of wax.

Lempel: It's usually a whole other ball of wax. But what a lot of those developers are asking about are ways to modify the titles, go back and do some work to get them available on the PSP. Like you said, I think "Everyday Shooter" and "Flow" would be great on the PSP. That's something we're looking at.

Multiplayer: That would be very cool. Let's talk about originals. You've got one title up there already as well as "Beats," which is coming [this week] on the PSP store. Can you ballpark the number of titles coming in that program? And what's the vision for PSP originals?

Lempel: We're still currently locking down the release schedule for next year. I don't have a good ballpark number for you because a lot of titles are still in a pre-development phase... We're definitely committed to this. Developers really want to do this, because similar to the PS3, it allows some of these developers that really aren't ready to create full-fledged PS3 games or long-form PSP games access to the network and a consumer... I would say there will be a lot of stuff coming. Similar to the PS3 store, we just rolled this out and we've talked to some people about it but it's taking a lot of people time to ramp up and get used to it. For our launch last year with the PS3 store we had a good amount of content. As weeks went on there was a trickle of good content. But now in recent months we've really ramped up and we're doing full-fledged releases every week that are really big and have a lot of worthwhile content and I would expect the same thing on the PSP store.

Multiplayer: And do you think the attitude of the games that would be on PSP would be similar to those on PS3? Because a lot of PS3 titles feel almost art-house, and I mean that only in the positive sense. Very small, young teams, or in the case of "Everyday Shooter," just Jonathan Mak, effectively by himself, going for things that are much quirkier than the things you see on Xbox Live Arcade and feel more modern than the vintage stuff you're getting on the Wii's Virtual Console. Is that the sensibility also for the PSP originals?

Lempel: It is, but it's a little bit of both. I would say we're certainly seeing, like you said, kind of the independent game showing up on the PS3. A lot of those games lend themselves to the PSP and I think there are other types of games that would be even better on the PSP. And developers might prefer to put them on the PSP than the PS3. But we're also looking at original content that isn't exactly in that genre but stuff like the "Syphon Filter" game we released and other long-form established franchises from first and third parties. It'll be a little bit of both.

Multiplayer: Can you say how many originals are planned for the PSP by the end of the year?

Lempel: For the end of the year, I think it's just the two.

Multiplayer: In general, is the store going to see updates on a weekly basis?

Lempel: Right now it will be the same as it is for the PS3 store, which is Thursday. We're definitely going to try to have content on a weekly basis. But part of the reason to go with this soft launch is to not build the expectation that you'll see the floodgates open every week. I think people see that on the PS3 and they love it. We want to get that on the PSP but we're just not there yet.

Multiplayer: There are lots of people clamoring for a "God of War" demo on the store. Is that possible?

Lempel: It's possible, but it would require some work from the team and we'll have to revisit that on the product development side to make that happen.

Multiplayer: I've seen some questions out there, one being Mac support. The store doesn't currently support Macs, correct?

Lempel: Correct. That has to do with the PlayStation Network downloader application. It was designed for the PC initially and it would take some work to get that working on the Mac. It's something the team in Tokyo is looking at and we definitely hear a lot of the feedback because we know the Mac community is big and certainly contains a lot of our consumers as well. We do hope to support them.

Multiplayer: They're noisy too.

Lempel: [laughs] They don't like being discriminated against.

Multiplayer: If I download a title via the PC store and put it on my PSP, if I'm lucky enough to have two PSPs or my wife or my brother has one, can I share the games with other people?

Lempel: We do allow you to download it to a couple of systems within your group of systems. If you have a PS3 account it's the same account you use on the PSP. There's a limit to the amount of consoles you can use that content on. So your PSP becomes part of that group.

Multiplayer: How many machines?

Lempel: Currently it's five.

Multiplayer: We've managed to talk about every Sony platform ever made I think except for PS2 and PocketStation. I won't ask you about PocketStation, but PlayStation 2, are there any plans for any PS2-related content for this PSP PC store?

Lempel: No, not at this time.

Multiplayer: I saw a title called "B-Boy" advertised on the U.K. version of the PSP PC store. Is that game coming here?

Lempel: That was a title that was actually released [in stores] in the U.K. earlier. So it was a natural transition for them. The nice thing about the store is that we may be able to do some of that as well as part of, I guess we'd call it, an import title. We could start doing that and it's something we're looking at. Right now that one isn't scheduled for release... We feel like if the users are ready and there is a demand we can certainly looking into releasing a few of those titles for the store.

Multiplayer: What's the actual group that does this that handles the store?

Lempel: The back-end development of the technology comes out of the same team that creates the PlayStation store and the hardware out of SCEI, our Tokyo group. But the actual operations and implementation and any type of user interface changes and game scheduling, that's all here with our PlayStation Network group.

Multiplayer: Your job is not just dealing with the PSP store but also the PS3 store and firmware updates and all of that. Can you tell me how many hats you wear?

Lempel: That might take a while. Currently I'm director of operations for PlayStation Network. That covers everything on the Network. Like you said it's PSP store, it's PS3 store, it's firmware updates, it's a lot of things behind the scenes I don't think a lot of people would be interested in hearing about, things to make a lot of the online games work, working with third parties, and there's a whole "Home" piece as well.

Multiplayer: I was wondering if this whole PSP PC store was just a way for you to be able to write a blog post that didn't involve firmware upgrades.

Lempel: [laughs] That was a way so that somebody couldn't say to me 'we want the in-game XMB.' Or that I could just put one out and not hear that.[Editor's Note: At this point we talked about firmware for a bit, which I'll cover in a future post]

Multiplayer: Is there anything else we should talk about the store?

Lempel: I think we've covered everything. Some of the key points for the multi-console users is you can use your existing account. It's the same username, the same password. It's the same wallet. So if you had funds in that wallet you can now spread them around across both stores.

Multiplayer: Can you share any numbers about how well the store has done so far?

Lempel: We don't have any numbers to release yet, but we are happy with the launch. It was a pretty strong launch even if it was a somewhat softer launch in terms of messaging goes... So far, so good. The key thing is to get people to learn about this.

Multiplayer: Sounds good. One last question: in general the store looks like it comes one step closer to fulfilling a lot of PSP owners' fantasy of "I want to download everything. I don't want that UMD thing." A lot of people were thinking the PSP revision might even do away with the UMD and this whole thing is going to be like an iPod, it's all going to be downloadable. In your mind, is this a step closer to that? Is this a way of acknowledging those people in any way? Is this the PSP showing that download is where the future is?

Lempel: I would say the industry is at an interesting point right now where we have the ability to quickly deliver content to people. So the retail business is still very important to us. And the UMD business is still doing very well for us and our retail partners. I don't think we're ready to look at that and say, "This is the way it should go right now." But we're at an interesting point in the industry where consumers know they can get things fast and they're getting used to it with other devices from other companies. So it's something we always wanted to do. Technically we didn't have the ability in the past with some of our hardware. But now that we do we want to start opening up some of these channels and getting consumers used to that and experimenting with it.

I would say it's a glimpse towards the future. Definitely just by releasing a UMD title in the store it definitely puts ideas in people's heads, but no I wouldn't categorize this as a shift in business model at this point.

The PSP Online Store - A Glimpse Towards The Future


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