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PlayStation Vita turns one: do or die for Sony’s handheld

Sony

With all the hype and excitement surrounding the announcement of Sony’s PlayStation 4 this past week, another milestone slipped under the radar. A year ago last week – February 22nd to be exact – the PlayStation Vita celebrated a year on sale in European and North American markets. Heralded as the “Next Generation” of on-the-go gaming, it boasted the most powerful specifications of any portable system, and promised a console quality experience no matter where you were. The system arrived to stellar reviews. It looked as though Sony would have a hit on its hands. However the Vita has, in all honesty, failed to gain traction with the consumer. Sales are below expectation; having originally set a goal of 16 million units sold in the fiscal year 2013, this was first reduced to 12 million, and then 7 million as Sony tempered their expectations. Even this modest goal will most likely not be achieved as at last count the handheld had sold approximately 4 million units since launch. But is the system dead in the water, or are the reports of the vita’s demise greatly exaggerated?

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One common criticism of the Vita, and one that is easily dismissed, is that the console lacks any sort of competent games library. This couldn’t be further from the truth. At launch, it had arguably the strongest line-up of titles present at the initial release of a new system. There was a solid batch of established franchises such as Uncharted, Wipeout and Lumines, and throughout the launch window, owners saw the release of impressive titles such as Gravity Rush and LittleBigPlanet. PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale, Need for Speed:Most Wanted and Persona 4 Golden showed the system had life beyond its initial release period. At E3, Sony unveiled another two promising announcements surrounding PlayStation Vita – PlayStation Plus support and Cross Buy. The latter would see a free Vita copy of certain titles bundled with their PS3 counterparts, while the former promised the same support for free games and discounts as its console brethren. Add to that a constant slew of quality PlayStation Network titles (Sound Shapes, Super Stardust and Escape Plan being amongst the standouts), and there’s no arguing that there isn’t something for almost everybody.

“Sparse release schedule”And yet, while the back catalogue of games is suitably impressive, the sparse release schedule of 2013 must be a major worry. Outside of Keiji Inafune’s Soul Sacrifice, the brilliant looking Tearaway and Killzone Mercenary, the Vita lineup this year is somewhat lacking. Of course it’s early in the year, and with E3 still to come, there’s ample time for previously unannounced games to make themselves known. But the fact remains this is compounding the vicious circle the Vita currently finds itself in, with potential customers waiting to see what support the system will receive from development teams, and those same development teams waiting for a larger install base before they will commit to the system. Getting studios to develop for the handheld needs to be of the utmost importance to Sony, and they themselves need to show the way with stellar first party support.

Even this in itself has its own pitfalls. Whenever word breaks that an established first party title is being developed on the Vita, development is being done by a different studio to the console version. It’s as if the teams want their games on the portable system, but don’t want to commit their core resources to creating it. Golden Abyss was developed by Bend Studios and not Naughty Dog, and the upcoming Killzone game was farmed out to Guerrilla Cambridge, whose shooter history doesn’t inspire confidence. Occasionally this strategy pays off (the God Of War PSP titles being a prime example) but with others it is an unmitigated disaster. One only has to look at Resistance: Falling Skies and the dreadful Call of Duty: Declassified for evidence. It’s hard to imagine Naughty Dog or Quantic Dream putting their full weight behind a Vita title, and if the first party studios don’t have full confidence in the system, neither will consumers.

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Also of concern entering the Vita’s second year is the lack of a discernible “system seller”. While the Vita has many highly praised and well reviewed games in its catalogue, it is missing a title that people need to buy the system for. There’s nothing that evokes the feeling that it’s an experience only available on PlayStation Vita. This is a side effect of the home console feel that was targeted. Anybody who wants the full Uncharted experience would more than likely opt for the PS3 version. Again, while Bend Studios did more than an admirable job translating Nathan Drake and co. to the handheld, it still amounts to an experience derived from the console titles. The Vita is in need of those titles that scream “Buy Me”, much like a Mario title on Nintendo’s rival platform. It needs that “killer app” that will make the system more desirable than it is currently. After all, it is the software that sells systems.

“A fully fledged system”Last week, they had the perfect opportunity. The eyes of the world were upon Sony as it made known its plans for the next generation of home consoles. There was speculation that the PlayStation Vita would receive some much needed attention at the event. A Japan focused Vita presentation mere days before further served as a precursor to these hopes. But the PlayStation 4 event came and went, with scant new information with regard to the Vita being unveiled. Sony is definitely not dropping support for it, and even went so far as to call it the “ultimate companion” to its next generation system. But it would be a safe wager that very few owners bought their Vita to be a companion to their home console. They want a fully fledged system in its own right. Steaming content from the PlayStation 4 as well as Gaikai is all well and good, but the network requirements of that particular functionality would serve to make this mobile console a lot less mobile.

There is one factor above all else that is limiting the potential of the PlayStation Vita: the price. When the $250/€250 price point was first revealed, it was seen as the perfect balance, the sweet spot for the system. But this was a time when the Nintendo 3DS was similarly priced. It also didn’t factor into the equation the cost of the proprietary memory cards that are required for the majority of the Vita’s library. $250 is attractive, almost $350 with a large card (which is all but a necessity for the majority of titles available, as well as the library of download-only games and PlayStation Plus freebies) isn’t as appealing. At this point, a price drop is a must. At the aforementioned Vita presentation in Japan, a price drop was announced which was equivalent to $50 reduction. Yet Sony have said that this drop won’t be seen in the US or EU territories, despite the evidence that this would lead to a large uptake in purchases of the system. Black Friday deals in the US, which were at the $199 price range, were extremely popular, selling out in all retailers where they were available. Sony needs to take a page out of Nintendo’s playbook, and reduce the cost to increase demand.

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For all the mismanagement, negative stories and press-written obituaries of the PlayStation Vita, it’s not all doom and gloom for Sony’s handheld system. It wasn’t too long ago that another system launched at a high price point, and was pronounced a failure. Sony needs to take lessons from how it got the PS3 back on track after its disastrous beginnings. The Vita is a solid system, a desirable piece of technology and gaming platform, and with the right direction, can recover from its lackluster beginnings and become a fully fledged success in its own right.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2013. Get in touch on Twitter @michael_ormonde.

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