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PlayStation’s Jack Tretton On Today’s Vita Launch [Video]

Today marks the American launch of the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s latest handheld gaming device. We talk with Sony Computer Entertainment America president Jack Tretton about producing a dedicated game system in the era of smartphones and tablets.

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FAST COMPANY: What are you feeling as the launch approaches?

JACK TRETTON: This is my fourth launch now at Sony. They never get old. I equate it to the Super Bowl. You only get to launch a few times in your career. And just like the guys that play in the Super Bowl you say, “Take a look around and make sure you soak it in.” It’s so incredibly exciting. You build up something for years and you get to see all the consumer excitement on launch day. And later, you look back over the course of the product’s life cycle and all it’s accomplished and you remember that launch date forever. February 22nd is going to be a lifetime memory for me.

As you have seen the Vita come together, what feature has surprised you?

I am amazed at how quick technology moves, in such a short period of time. If you think back to life without cell phones or other things and it is hard to remember. But being so close and so involved in the industry, I remember every ounce of innovation. I remember the first time I saw the original PlayStation. It just made my jaw drop and I said, “That’s like nothing I have ever seen.”

I think the great thing about the Vita is that I saw the promise in the original PSP of the ultimate portable gaming device for an older consumer, a console gaming experience with multimedia capabilities. And I think for it’s time, in 2005, it was an incredibly noble effort. But it’s great to sit here in 2012 and see really the culmination of what was the vision back in 2005. To have those dual analog sticks, and the front and back touch, and the front and rear cameras, and to really look at how beautiful that OLED screen is–and look at the power it has under the hood–it really is the vision we had back in 2005 brought to full life.

What game are you looking forward to playing on the Vita the most?

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I’m a Hot Shots Golf addict. I am spending all of my spare time building up all my attributes. I am already online and competing in tournaments. I thought I would get there early and get ahead of the game. But I am amazed I wasn’t the only one with that idea. I thought I would have to compete with some Japanese consumers who had a two-month headstart on me–but good old fashioned American ingenuity and Canadian ingenuity–you look at the top of the leaderboard, it’s already a bunch of Americans and Canadians who had their hands on it for a week.

What would you say to those who feel that in this day and age of smartphones and tablets, a portable game system can’t succeed?

I guess everybody is entitled to their opinion. My first assumption is that they are not gamers. If you’re not a NASCAR fan–and I can’t necessarily say that I count myself as the core NASCAR fan–the non-NASCAR fan, they’d say it’s a bunch of people taking left-hand turns, waiting for an accident. If you are a NASCAR fan you would think that was incredibly ignorant and people don’t appreciate the depth of it. I think the same is true about gaming.

If you are a gamer, you are not going to be at all confused when you get a Vita in your hands and you play something like an Uncharted: Golden Abyss; you are not going to be at all confused as to why there would be a market for a dedicated game platform. But if you’re not a gamer, and you are not into that in-depth experience, and you don’t spend the type of hours and dollars that gamers do playing it, then I can see where you would say, “Why would you need a dedicated portable gaming device when there are smartphones and tablets?” I would tell you, that quite frankly, that is not our target audience for day one. But the good news is that I welcome all those consumers in because just a few short years ago, those people didn’t play games at all, but now smartphones and tables are whetting people’s appetite for gaming.

I think they are more of a potential consumer for us in the near future, than they were back in 2005 when we debuted the PSP. I see it really being more additive to the ecosystem and we are trying to bring that PlayStation experience to those consumers before they get a hand on the Vita, with things like PS Suite where they can experience PlayStation quality gaming on an Android smartphone or on a tablet. It’s not a part of the industry that we are intimidated by.

The 3DS had a rocky launch with a $250 price point and Nintendo lowered the cost. Are you worried the $250+ prices will also slow the market’s acceptance of Vita?

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I think at the end of the day, we are in a fashion industry and what drives people are the must-have item. It’s what my friends have. It’s where the best games are. I think software drives hardware. I much prefer a system that is $249 with a great launch library–we have 26 games and 100 games that follow that. If you play an Uncharted: Golden Abyss, you appreciate that $249 value immediately. If the contrast is that it is incredibly reasonably priced, but it doesn’t have the software library, I’d rather make my way with the $249 pricepoint and the launch library. I think people will respond very positively to the price point.

If you had two minutes to show something from the vita to reluctant gamers, what would you show them?

Talking about it and even showing them video really doesn’t do it justice. We have invested so heavily in our pop-up stores and promotional events, and actually bringing Vitas to retail and setting up full-blown displays, because you can’t do it justice describing it. You have to put it in people’s hands. As soon as people hold it, they are immediately drawn to the OLED screen. They get the nice comfortable feel in their hands. They see the dual analog sticks, the shoulder buttons, the d-pad, the things they are very comfortable with. And then the casual gamer will be very comfortable swiping and using the touchpad. And then that rear touchpad is going to appeal to the casual gamer and the core–for the first time, if you are a core gamer, all ten fingers can be in play, controlling different characters on the screen.

Our goal as gamers, is to get the most immersive experience possible, and to have as much control as possible and having it as intuitive as possible. And I think the Vita really marries those together. So what I would do is just let somebody hold it and not do a lot of talking. I would point out some of the key features they should notice right away. But I would really try to get them to spend some time with it and try one of the 26 launch games, depending on the genres that appeal to them. If they even got a passing interest in gaming, we got a good chance of getting them on board.

Ultimately, what is Sony’s strategy with the Vita?

To me, the message is simple; the strategy is simple. First and foremost, it’s not a debate to us whether there is a market there for us. I think we carved out a heritage in gaming. We know what we are talking about; we invested million in this dedicated portable handheld device. And then we evangelized to consumers, retailers, and to the development community–and I think they have responded very positively.

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The target audience is a PlayStation owner, male, early 20s. Now, that’s the center of the bullseye, that’s not the entire target. But if you say that is the center of the bullseye, you’ve got all your PlayStation network attributes, all your trophies, all your friend lists that immediately crossover. You got cross-play opportunities using your PS3 content, cloud saves, picking your games up and continuing them on your PS Vita. And I think we expand the first circle out from that to non-PlayStation 3 owners, but core gamers, and that’s an extremely large audience. And then we start to fan out to those consumers that even have a passing interest in gaming–and there is a Billion of them worldwide, 163 million in the United States.

So to me, the easiest question in the world is do you think there is a market for this, do you think the gaming industry is healthy and expanding. I think it is expanding like no other industry or other form of entertainment out there. To be focused on gaming, and to have a device that is just targeted to that audience, is extremely exciting to me. I think at the end of the day, every device has a core competency and ours is gaming. So if you are a gamer, check out the Vita. And if you are not a gamer, keep an eye on your friends, because you’ll want one soon.

Want more?

Follow the author (@khohannessian), video producer (@adambarenblat), or Fast Company on Twitter.

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