On a cold January evening earlier this year, a 17-year-old walked briskly into a store in Ludhiana. It was almost closing time but that didn’t worry him because he knew exactly what he wanted — a Sony PlayStation (PS) with three specific games from the racing genre. It turned out the seller didn’t have any of them in stock but the boy wasn’t willing to wait; he ran across the road to another retailer and went home with his purchase. Atindriya Bose, PlayStation’s country manager, who was witness to this interesting occurrence on one of his sales tours, says, “What amazed me was his high level of product awareness.” After all, PS’s competition is strong — Nintendo has been selling consoles since the 1970s and Microsoft’s Xbox has been around for more than a decade now. While it was a pity that one of his stockists hadn’t updated his inventory on time, Bose’s mind was on pleasant things — a 17-year-old had just spent ₹10,000 on a PS product in a matter of few minutes.
PlayStation has been around in the subcontinent since 2000 but it was only in 2007 that its India focus slammed into place like one of its bestselling games. PS divides the complex demographic, otherwise broad-brushed as ‘young Indians’, into three segments. The first are the 8-15 year olds who depend on their parents and talk endlessly about games. What makes selling to these young buyers tricky is that they are not awestruck by technology or jargon, and they adapt and move on to new concepts and applications easily, which makes them fickle buyers. “It’s critical for us to be in touch with the early adopters and influencers,” says Bose. Then there are the young adults (16-23 years) making their way through high school and college. In fact, 60% of the PS3 sales volumes are fetched by this ‘middle tier’. This category is very well-informed and decisive as a buying class, even though they are still monetarily dependent on their folks. Here, the user borders on a certain level of passion for the game.
For instance, Abhishek Agarwal, a Mumbai-based 21-year-old, says he owns a MacBook, an iPhone, an iPad and a PS2 — he likes them all but he doesn’t see them as objects of lasting devotion. “I love technology and each machine has its purpose,” says Agarwal. His chief motivation to buy the PS2 was FIFA games. “I play at least five hours a week and buy every FIFA game released by PS,” says the football-mad graduate. He’s off to the UK for a Masters programme soon and, “I might even buy the PS3 there,” he grins. Such consumer behaviour can be a mixed blessing. A serious gamer like Abhishek may not make the switch to a newer console if the titles are not up to the mark. “We need to keep him involved with better titles,” Bose points out. The final layer, of course, is made up of financially independent 24-29 year olds. “The sense of self-fulfillment means a lot to them,” he adds. As PS fans grow older, they progress to more aggressive, role playing games like God of War and Assassin’s Creed.
Boys will be boys
The PS experience can be seen by its curious clientele at 200 exclusive Sony Centers plus large format retail outlets such as Landmark and Croma, and game counters such as Game4U and Origin Games, across the country. “We also have a presence across 20 cafés in eight cities, like Blur in Chennai and Zinklo in Mumbai,” says Bose. Other logical meeting points are popular and hip college festivals such as St Xavier’s’ Malhar in Mumbai. These interactions create curiosity among non-users to know more about the PlayStation experience, and regular gamers get a chance to check out new titles.
For an idea of the rich rewards of this youthful focus, take a look at the numbers: Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) sold 350,000 consoles last year, which is at least 70% of the total ₹500 crore market (the rest was split between players such as Microsoft’s Xbox and the grey market). SCE, Bose says, has been growing by 35% every year — it closed last year with sales of ₹410 crore, of which ₹350 crore came from the hardware business, while the rest came from software.
SCE’s research showed that India is one of those few markets that can deliver localised content. “In other markets, localisation is just translation of existing content,” explains Bose. For India, games titled like Hanuman — The Boy Warrior, Street Cricket Champion and Kart Kings sell alongside a game based on Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra.One, for which the company paid $1 million to license the intellectual property, and of which it went on to sell over 100,000 units. “Today, we have a market for the game [Ra.One] in Europe, and cricket also sells in the Middle East, Australia and England.”
All in the game
One of the challenges PS buyers have to face is recurrent expenses on new games, which are not cheap. If the games are priced somewhat steeply, it’s also because of high import duties. But, by 2008, India had become one of the few countries in the world to have its own disc replication unit. “Our Navi Mumbai facility has made it possible to sell PS2 software for as low as ₹500. It would have otherwise cost at least twice as much,” says Bose. “The plan is to now use the facility to make PS3 software.”
And what about that old menace which never went away: piracy? PS users, it turns out, are wary of it. Sagar Fernandes, a 22-year-old says, “Pirated software can play havoc with your machine; as it is, if the CDs are not clean, the game slows down badly. All the dozen games in my collection are original stuff.”
Bose says if the current growth rate sustains, SCE’s total console sales should double in the next three years. Of course, a lot of that growth will have to come from smaller cities. Today, the top eight cities bring in about 60% of the total sales, with the rest of it coming from smaller centres. By contrast, in 2009, 80% came from the top eight cities. Bose thinks a 35% growth each year should be possible. “Barely half of India’s internet youth population participates in gaming,” he says. “That is the big opportunity.”