This article originally appeared on ramp.ie on May 8th 2013
The Vita may be a commercial flop but it can still carve out a niche
In 2005, after many a rumour and much speculation, Sony entered the handheld gaming market for the first time. The PlayStation Portable was a device typical of such a technologically driven company, one with a delicious spec sheet and a rich multimedia feature set. Not only did it seem to be a well-equipped gaming machine but it could also house MP3s, and films were viewable on these newfangled ‘UMDs’. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it wore proudly a large, widescreen display, a window into this all in one future. Against Nintendo’s initially strange DS, it seemed light years ahead. So how come it ended up such a miserable loser in the battle for gamers’ pockets? The entire system was a miscalculation from Sony. They didn’t realise what most people actually wanted out of their portable devices. They overreached, trying to seize it all and ended up with very little. Seven years later, we have the PlayStation Vita and despite its predecessors failings and a now radically altered marketplace, Sony seem intent on making the same mistakes all over again.
There’s such a great number of factors in gaming that go against the Vita’s inherent characteristics, that its very existence comes as a surprise. Firstly, the landscape of portable gaming is much different now than it was a couple of years ago. Like it or not, we’re living a post iOS world, where devices dedicated solely to games are of much less necessity. Mobile phones have begun to pack within them a surprising amount of raw power. Who would have thought something like Infinity Blade would even be capable of running on the same device as WhatsApp so soon? But more importantly, the availability of extremely cheap 99c games, that are capable of being played on something few of us ever leave the house without, opens the door to a staggeringly large and varied potential demographic. And most of this audience, especially in the tough economic times we live in, aren’t willing to fork out the cash for what they perceive as unnecessarily specialised consumer electronics.
Of course, there will always remain be a dedicated crowd whose needs aren’t met by the App or Play store, otherwise the Vita or the 3DS might not have made it this far. It’s an unquestionably more hostile environment now though, making survival that much more difficult. When Nintendo launched the 3DS after the astonishing success of the DS, it was assumed that a favourable commercial outcome was guaranteed; this wasn’t to be the case. The 3DS struggled for some time, with both an underwhelming line-up and sales figures, so much so that Nintendo slashed the price significantly after just six months. Recently, it’s been looking much brighter with increased sales figures and a general air of positivity. With the right games, price, and the benefit of a reputation as a family company who know handheld gaming, they’ve been able to turn things around. Sony, on the other hand, don’t seem to have any of these crucial ingredients for success.
That isn’t to belittle the developers Sony does have under its wing; the likes of Santa Monica Studios and Naughty Dog have created some great games this past generation. But in the portable space, such a thing has never happened. Certainly they’ve had the odd success, but they’re too few and far between and despite their mainstream appeal, haven’t pulled in a big enough crowd. And their more experimental efforts have fared even worse, such as the joyful LocoRoco from Studio Japan but these imaginative titles also failed to find themselves a viable audience. Perhaps it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of just what it is that consumers want in a handheld game. With the PSP, Sony’s philosophy was to recreate a console-like experience on a smaller screen, which was terribly misguided then and remains so now. They do seem to have at least gotten better at delivering what one might call a ‘console experience’ in bite size chunks, the greater power of the Vita and its dual analogue sticks having been a huge help in this regard. But the continued lack of commercial success from this angle should be serve as an obvious warning that this isn’t the right approach. What the system needs is exclusives, designed and tailored with the Vita’s many considerable specific strengths in mind. And so far, we just haven’t seen enough of that.
Sony do have to be commended for attempting to redirect some of their efforts. In the past few months, a surprisingly large amount of indie developers have pledged their support to the system, citing a very positive working relationship with the company. Many of the games in question already exist on the PC and home consoles but the significance of their portable début shouldn’t be underestimated; Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Thomas Was Alone, and more, are all hugely appealing portable prospects. It may not provide a massive boost in hardware sales but if Sony can carve out a place for the Vita as the go to indie games machine, it would certainly help to please an increasingly hungry portion of the existing fan-base. Tied into this strategy of courting of indies, is Cross-Buy, which allows a single purchased copy to be played on both PS3 and Vita; it’s a clever and tempting value proposition for sure, especially with save game transfers. A huge amount of these smaller games have begun to support this feature, such as the charming Guacamelee and it seems like it will only become more commonplace in the future, especially in light of Sony’s impressive early emphasis on Vita / PS4 communication.
It might just be that there isn’t a place in the market for a Sony crafted handheld anymore. Even if the platform ends up with some more must-play titles (Media Molecule’s Tearaway seems like the best contender to fit this bill at the moment) it’s entirely possible that the demographic they’re targeting is no longer a reality. With Nintendo, you have a family friendly name that requires less of a financial investment, one with a storied history that commands a certain level of assured quality when it comes to portable gaming, something the 3DS is definitely beginning to live up to. Public perception of Sony as makers of handheld gaming devices may just be too weak to ever allow the Vita to perform well commercially.
It is still relatively early days though. A regular smattering of indie darlings, with the odd exclusive in between, might be enough to validate the Vita’s continued existence. But outside of the dedicated core who are in it for the long run regardless of what happens, a comeback seems more and more unlikely. We may very well be witnessing Sony’s second and final foray into handheld gaming.