With rumours rife of an imminent PlayStation-branded handset, it seemed strangely prescient that we bumped into Sony Ericsson's gaming guru, Peter Ahnegard, at the Leipzig Games Convention only a few hundred metres from the plush PlayStation stand.
However, despite the obvious omens Peter remained somewhat tight-lipped and reticent to discuss the subject… Not that it stop us from asking, naturally.
Pocket Gamer: We've had Walkman music phones and Cyber-shot camera phones, so where does gaming fit in Sony Ericsson's handset priorities?
Peter Ahnegard: Gaming is probably the most mature content area we have today in mobile phone and Sony Ericsson has always reflected that, having games embedded on our handsets for many years. That said, at the same time it's an area Sony Ericsson hasn't really put all its focus on yet in the same way we have with the Walkman-, the Cyber-shot- and the Bravia-branded handsets. However, regardless of the branding, we've always had games on these phones.
Essentially, you're saying that gaming is a secondary but ever-present function in the Sony Ericsson plan?
If you think of the mobile like an onion, then at the absolute core it's all about making calls. Then perhaps the second layer is music, if we're looking at a Walkman phone, but games is always on the third or fourth layer of virtually all our devices.
However, we absolutely see that gaming is on the rise and certain handsets have worked extremely well with downloads from operators and the gaming experience was really strong – the W550i for instance.
What developments are you working on to promote gaming on your current handsets?
The hardware is developing incredibly fast. If you look at something like Moore's Law, which describes the doubling of speed in computer processors, it really doesn't apply to mobile handsets because the market is moving so much faster. Partly, of course, this is because we can use technology that has already been tried on PC, console and web to get up to speed.
The power of the phones we're creating now is phenomenal. Smartphones like the W960, P1 and associated families have hardware acceleration and OpenGL ES and are capable of providing gaming experiences on a level similar to PSP, certainly somewhere between PS1 and PS2. The key challenge is to communicate with consumers about these capabilities and what they can do with our phones.
We see this as the main issue, as well as one of our responsibilities – to reach out to consumers and tell them about gaming. This is something we're starting to do with marketing. Whereas campaigns used to be focused purely around specifications – how big the screen was, how many megapixels the camera had, etc – we're now starting to see campaigns focusing on what you can actually do with the phone.
We also see that embedded games have an important role to play and this is something we're doing a lot of work into: embedding titles that really show off the capabilities of the handsets.
What about the development community?
Of course, it's not just the consumers that we need to educate. There's the developers and publishers, too – we need to support them. We have a big responsibility there and we recognise that. Our vision is to help these communities as much as we can and to work together so that we don't get games that 'just run on mobile phones', we have games that are specifically for mobile phones.
It's fair to say that you're seen by a lot of the community as standard bearers, providing some of the best form factors and hardware for gaming. Yet despite this you don't really shout about it, why?
That's very nice of you to say and of course I have to agree that we are known for our high-performance handsets in gaming – certainly within the development industry and hopefully amongst consumers. For instance, at this year's Game Developers Conference there was a mobile competition for developing a game and out of the nine proposals demonstrated, eight were shown on Sony Ericsson handsets.
The developers are constantly giving us their feedback and we're trying to deliver everything we can to support the development community and make development and porting as easy as possible for them. We're certainly not the biggest handset manufacturer and don't have massive resource for support, but I think we have done it responsibly and sensibly. However, I also agree that this position is currently very unexploited from a press and marketing viewpoint.
How much are new Sony Ericsson form factors affected by gaming?
It's a tricky balance. The latest craze for slim handsets doesn't really go hand-in-hand with gaming comfort. Console controllers are bulky for a good reason and have been designed with specific elements in mind, e.g. the need to be hardwearing, ergonomically comfortable, etc. The same considerations go into our phones and there are lots of elements that affect gaming performance, from the spacing between buttons to joypad position. We have to accept that some devices simply won't be appropriate to drive some games and, in many cases, gaming or other entertainment content isn't the prime concern behind the design.
That said, though, we're definitely at a stage where content is having an effect on the form factor. Whilst it used to be more the case of creating the forms and then at the end look for content to fit within them, right now content and form factor are developed in tandem and interact with one another.
Okay, on to the direct questions. Is there a dedicated category of gaming phones within Sony Ericsson?
We won't be marketing them specifically as gaming phones, but games will be factored in the consideration of more devices going forward.
So when is the PlayStation phone coming?
I've been waiting for that one! To explain our position I need to look at the brands we've developed so far, in particular the Cyber-shot and Walkman phones. When we looked at all the assets we could muster for music and imaging the services, downloads and overall proposition, we felt that we could create something that really lived up to the values of the brand and fill all the required boxes. We're not launching a brand of handset simply because we can, but because we can lead up to the expectations of the consumer.
Up until today we haven't felt we could launch a PlayStation phone because it wouldn't be recognised as a true continuation of that brand of products.
Up until today? So does that mean we can look forward to a PlayStation branded handset soon, say before Christmas?
It's obviously something that we're looking at but right now I can't really comment. Before Christmas, certainly… but exactly which Christmas I can't confirm!
Okay then we'll leave it at that for now, but what about your vision for the future of mobile gaming?
What I really want to see – and I guess this is as much my own personal vision – is that mobile gaming is able to leverage the success of what happens in the PC/console markets. By this I don't think that we'll have a miniature version of Battlefield or World of Warcraft, but rather to integrate with these communities and offer something different.
The truth is that if you're at home and have access to other hardware, the mobile is a secondary gaming device. Maybe this is different if you're on a bus or even in some emerging markets where console penetration isn't very high but for the west, at least, it's true.
With this in mind, I believe we should take small steps and offer small mobile gaming services that tie into existing communities. The WoW trading house is an oft-cited example where this element of the game is distinct from the actual action. Lkewise, I see a similar level of admin that could be fulfilled over mobile whilst you're travelling home – imagine training characters or organising your armies in preparation for launching into battle when you step into your house. There's also the prospect of showcasing, taking characters, elements and achievements from your games and showing them off with friends at the bar.
Ultimately I see mobile communities as connecting with these existing worlds rather than competing with them.
That's an interesting perspective. So do you think mobile can be a primary gaming device?
Of course, mobile casual games will exist and always be requested by consumers and they will continue to offer great gaming entertainment in their own right. After all, at the end of the day it's not fantastic graphics or realistic physics that are essential to gameplay, as Tetris has proved, it's the fundamental rules of the game and how much fun it is to play with them.
Okay, but what we're saying is that the mobile handset has the potential to be a unique gaming device in its own right. In the same way the Wii has a funky controller and DS has a touchscreen, the mobile has a whole range of interesting functions that could be called upon, such as speech input, cameras.
That's certainly true, but we have to face the fact that every time a new gamer sits down with a mobile phone he has expectations born predominantly from PC and console games. Those expectations for both consumers and developers cannot be wiped away. In some respects the developers and publishers have to play safe and try to play to these expectations, which obviously doesn't help with innovation.
That said, I do think we have to start with a clean sheet. Look at the functions and limitations of the format, a particular screen size, camera and ask what type of games would be fun to run on this platform? As part of that we need to support the developers and innovation to provide support and opportunities to preload innovative titles onto devices to show what can be done. For instance, we have a new handset with an accelerometer. Essentially, this was so the handset could be used as pedometer, but there's an embedded game that makes use of it in a really cool way. Of course, this is just one handset and so there won't be tons of games on decks doing this.
Whilst we're talking of innovation, what do you think will make an impact and be exciting in the next 12 months?
During 2008, hopefully we will see something happen to connected games and this is definitely something I'm really really excited about. And I don't just mean high-score or sharing goals with friends, but opening up the possibility for whole new types of games.
Of course, there are barriers here that need to be solved, there's a lack of standards and nobody's really driving it just yet, but we're certainly excited about the potential and happy to support this if someone takes the initiative.
The same is true for location-based games. GPS is becoming more common than it has been previously and this again opens the potential to really create totally unique mobile gaming experiences. Imagine, for instance, a quest that was integrated with your established console game, which asked you to go out into the world and collect something from a particular place to bring back to your game.
And from the hardware side? What can consumers expect to see from Sony Ericsson in the next 12-24 months?
Well, as I said at the start, hardware is advancing incredibly fast. In two years I'd expect to see something like a Pentium 2 1GHz processor and memory of 60Gb in your handset. We will also see more 3D hardware acceleration with dual-purpose chipsets that enhance gaming and streaming video. Obviously this is likely to open the door to bigger games, either preloaded or side-loaded games. In South Korea, we're already preloading games of around 30Mb.
When it comes to connection, 3G will be the absolute basic, HSDPA is next and this opens the door to advanced connected games. Beyond that, I'm sure there'll be lots of interesting new features and gadgets coming to phones and you can be sure that whenever we see a new feature, we'll always be asking what sort of game can we make for this?
To underline Peter's vision for the future, he gave us a glimpse of some rather impressive Power VR tech demos showing off a smorgasbord of visual effects, from dynamic lighting and reflections on a metallic suit of armour to 50 individually coloured butterflies with collision detection, and Ridge Racer-style racing cars speeding by at 40 frames per second. You can see still shots of all these above and we're hoping to be able to upload some videos shortly.
So stay tuned for this and the latest gaming handset news!