The Interview: Fergal Gara, VP and MD of Sony Computer Entertainment UK and Ireland

10 Dec 2014

Fergal Gara, vice-president and managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment UK and Ireland. Image via Sony

Irishman Fergal Gara, as the head of Sony’s Computer Entertainment division in the UK and Ireland, is guiding the PlayStation and its various technology as it marks 20 years on sale.

It may not feel like it, but 20 years ago, Sony had been trying to force its way into the two-horse race that was the gaming industry.

Nintendo and Sega were the two major players that had pushed asides console-makers including Atari and Commodore International, and in the early Nineties may not have noticed, or pretended not to, the growth of Sony as a major threat to their dominance.

With hindsight, Nintendo, and without a doubt Sega, will look back at this period with horror and regret after both companies refused deals with Sony to join forces and develop the next stage of their own console development.

In 1991, Sony wanted to play it safe and work with its compatriot Nintendo on developing the next Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) with CD-drive and 3D graphics, which was to be called the ‘Play Station’. The project was subsequently scrapped after Sony’s president at the time, Norio Ohga, found out Nintendo had begun working with Phillips instead.

Sony even got jilted by Sega, whose Japanese division ruled outright the possibility of working together on a console.

Twenty years later and with Nintendo lagging behind Sony and Microsoft in the console sales and Sega reduced to a software company, the pair no doubt hear the PlayStation 1 loading music in their nightmares.

In the midst of the build-up to PlayStation’s 20th anniversary celebrations in London, caught up with one of Ireland’s highest-achieving ‘players’ in the gaming industry, Fergal Gara, vice-president and managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment UK and Ireland, and who is the company’s face for the British Isles.

‘Remember when …’ and power of nostalgia

The surroundings at the anniversary celebrations reflected nostalgia. PlayStation (PS) consoles through the ages were set up in living-room stylings while Nineties music blasted from all angles and, one could argue, followed the belief that nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool.

‘For the Players’, PlayStation’s current slogan, even suggests a simpler time when games were games and none of the ‘home entertainment system’ suggestions of the future of gaming systems are discussed.

The PS1-themed PS4 playing off the theme of nostalgia, looking back over 20 years of the Sony console. Image via Sony

“Well nostalgia can play various roles,” said Gara when asked about the power of nostalgia.

“For our brand, we can show we’re an enduring brand and we’ve been there doing great stuff for the players for 20 years and we’ve been pretty consistent throughout and there’s been some really high points and some not-so-high points so it feels appropriate to celebrate that heritage.”

The real evidence, however, is in what Gara finds as the current trends of online purchases through the Sony PlayStation store.

“One of the things I look at with fascination every week is the number of PS 1 classics sold through the PlayStation store so nostalgia isn’t just us wanting to stir it up, it’s alive and well, at least for a proportion of the gaming community week in, week out,” said Gara.

Gamers leading consoles or consoles leading gamers?

One question that begs answering is whether the gaming industry, now considered more lucrative and valuable than almost all forms of entertainment, is led by consumer demand, or whether what consumers supposedly desire is carefully orchestrated by companies such as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo?

For example, most recently, Xbox maker Microsoft found itself in a lot of hot water following the announcement of the Xbox One, when players were told the Kinect camera would be on at all times. This raised privacy concerns, and Microsoft enabled Kinect to turn off completely, in what was obviously a case of not listening to the gaming community.

At least from a game-development perspective, Gara said it’s not so straight forward as being one leading the other. “I think the possibilities have opened up with each and every generation,” he said.

“Of course, PS4 was inspired by what we think the gamers actually want from a console today and what do game developers want, so we develop the platform that that responds to.”

Celebrations in London for the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation

Gaming in the time of iPhones

Prior to the PS4’s launch in November 2013, Sony would have been undoubtedly nervous about what it might be facing in an altogether different market than when it had launched the PS3 in 2006.

The iPhone smartphone was still waiting for its commercial release and the gaming industry failed to predict a rapid shift towards ‘casual games’ playable on mobile devices. After the Sony PS Vita handheld gaming console was launched in 2011, its sales slumped and it has experienced peaks and troughs, which Sony now aims to stabilise by linking it heavily with the PS4.

Three years on, it’s certainly not going to be considered in the same league as, say, the Nintendo Gameboy, as an iconic mobile-gaming device, but Gara admitted the PS Vita is targeted at a niche market.

“(The PS Vita) has a role as a specialist device and it has a role as a companion device for the PS4, but I’m certainly not going to sit here and claim the Vita is going to knock the iPhone out of the market.”

Lack of ‘game face’ for Ireland

While Ireland is home to the EMEA operations of some of the world’s largest tech companies, at least until 2020, the island remains relatively untouched by the big-budget game developers, known in the business as ‘AAA’ developers, at least from an actual game development perspective, as Electronic Arts (EA) has its customer relations division in the country.

So why are we unlikely to see the next Call of Duty or Candy Crush developed in Ireland? As an Irish person at the top level of the gaming industry, Gara feels that tax breaks, that don’t exist in Ireland for gaming, are the key.

“The UK remains a very big market for AAA development, which I think is down to heritage, experience, people teaching each other, decent pools of talent and good enough education, which I think Ireland has as well in the right technical areas,” he said.

“Other countries that have done well are the likes of Canada, which has tax breaks, so it probably takes a brave move for someone to set up a meaningful studio, for the tax infrastructure to be right, and then gather a bit of momentum.”

The Sony Project Morpheus VR headset still has no confirmed release date. Image via Sony

Project Morpheus and VR

Companies are scrambling to get on board with virtual reality (VR) technology both in gaming and even regular consumer use, as has been seen with social network Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift in March.

Sony, meanwhile, is developing the Project Morpheus VR headset, and appears to be the only console producer looking into VR directly.

Sony is pinning a lot of hope on the headset, which is still in its infancy and still without a release date. Gara thinks developers still have a lot of work to do to get it just right.

“It’s a little early to say how big it’s going to be, but having tried plenty of the demos I’m dead excited about what it might bring to the gaming market and think it’s tremendous that we’ve introduced it to the development community,” he said.

“There’s a great example of what we’re offering to tech and we’re saying to developers, ‘we need your ideas, come forth and show us what you can do with it!’”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic