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PlayStation on mobile: a calculated, necessary risk
Brand power does not impress consumers all by itself, Sony should be extra careful
Sometimes the most interesting stuff is hidden in the most boring of places and that is exactly what seems to have happened with Sony these past two days: the Japanese giant called its annual corporate strategy meeting in order for its leadership to give investors an overview of where the company is heading... and the information just casually mentioned within that presentation was worth more than ten press releases of the typical kind. Among other things, we learned that Uncharted 4 is coming to PC, that Sony is planning to introduce virtual opponents or companion characters in PlayStation games by leveraging the company's artificial intelligence department, as well as that the PS5 is about to break even (already!), an achievement of some note.
Most important of all: we got confirmation, maybe in the most decisive way yet, that Sony wants to finally have a significant presence in the mobile space using PlayStation intellectual properties.
It is not the first time, of course, that the Japanese company has expressed this ambition. Sony had formed a company called ForwardWorks all the way back in 2016, in fact, with the exact purpose of publishing smartphone games based on PlayStation characters. Nothing came of it, which is why two years later Sony founded PlayStation Mobile Inc., the publishing label under which mobile games Run Sackboy! Run! and Uncharted: Fortune Hunter were released. Interestingly, this is the same label that published the four PlayLink titles (games played on the PS4 using a smartphone) as well as the two PS4 games that found their way to PCs so far, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone.
This time around it all seems much more serious, a part of a greater plan even. Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, practically confirmed it: "We have been thinking about how players enjoy our content and have had some early success with experimenting with mobile games and apps to provide more choice to gamers. Mobile is just one of the areas we are exploring to reach millions of gamers beyond our platforms. PlayStation has a huge catalog of diverse first-party IP that can transition to smartphone gaming and complement our AAA games or live service games. We are exploring the mobile market with some wonderful PlayStation franchises so please stay tuned."
This is where things start to get... complicated.
It's no wonder, of course, that Sony wants to bring PlayStation IP to smartphones. The company has invested billions during the last 25 years cultivating these brands, characters and stories, after all, and there's a lot - a lot - of money to be made in the mobile space. That market's overall revenue is almost double that of the console market, increasing with every passing year. The success of titles such as Call of Duty Mobile or Genshin Impact (not to mention PUBG or Fortnite) is so great, and the pie of that revenue so big, that Sony understandably wants a piece of it.
But the mobile gaming waters have proven to be very, very dangerous for established IPs. It is extremely easy to release mobile games or supplementary apps/experiences - based on popular console titles - that sound good on paper... only to find out that they tanked in practice because they are not what people expected or wanted them to be. This is not the same expansion paradigm Horizon: Zero Dawn and Days Gone followed: everyone knew what to expect of the PC versions of those PS4 titles and all we had to do was evaluate the quality of the transition from one format to another. A mobile game based on e.g. God of War will most probably not look and feel like a God of War game at all, just like Uncharted: Fortune Hunter had nothing to do with the main Uncharted games gameplay-wise.
So it all becomes a kind of calculated risk on Sony's part: how can the company use its most valuable brand, that of the PlayStation, in a way that will not disappoint traditional gamers, will pique the interest of casual gamers, will not dilute the strength of its franchises while actually adding something to them, something useful for the future? For every Pokemon Go there is a Super Mario Run, for every Lara Croft Go there is a Lara Croft Relic Run: successful and indifferent mobile games based on the same IP. There can be no doubt that Sony will absolutely have to claim a place in the mobile market at some point, but the company has to tread very carefully into this unfamiliar territory. Does the name Sega ring any bells?