Sony’s Vita Problem

The history of video games is littered with failures and object lessons in how to not to market a console. For every success such as the Atari 2600 or the original Playstation, there is a failure (Atari 5200, I’m looking at you, despite having owned one). It doesn’t matter if the hardware is decent or better (Dreamcast, which is still getting games released for it to this day), or has the weight one of the most well-known gaming brands behind it (*cough*Gamecube*cough*), there are no guarantees of critical, much less financial, success.

Sony’s successor to the Playstation Portable (PSP), the PS Vita, was released in late 2011 in Japan and early 2012 in North America. While popular opinion holds that the PSP is considered to be a moderate success, it in fact sold over 80 millions units worldwide. Not exactly pocket change. In fact, in Japan the PSP is receiving a healthy stream of new games.

The Vita, on the other hand, has been struggling over two years into its existence. Despite being a powerful piece of hardware, able to deliver console-quality graphics on the go, the Vita has utterly failed to make an impact against the Nintendo 3DS juggernaut, much less into the mindshare and wallets of consumers. For a good while the PSP was outselling its successor. But how could a superior device fail so hard, especially from a giant such as Sony?

Where to begin?

Sony stumbled out of the gate. Badly. The high cost for the device, as well as expensive proprietary memory cards, hurt the system as it was simply too much of an upfront cost to appeal to all but the most ardent gamer. Even if the system had the superior hardware, it wasn’t making dent with convincing a large amount of PSP users to upgrade, 3DS users to migrate / buy a secondary system, and bring in new people.

The game line-up didn’t exactly blow people’s minds. Uncharted is a beautiful looking game and is (IMHO) very good. Unit 13 was underrated. But games like ModNation Racers, Supremacy MMA or Reality Fighters aren’t exactly system sellers.

Or even quality.

The library has improved (Persona 4 Golden is one of my favorite games ever, and considered one of the best games for the system), but games like Killzone Mercenary or Tearaway should have come out much earlier in the system’s life, not much later after owners had to endure lackluster titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and Army Corps of Hell. The damage, even if in perception only, was already done.

And in the absence of “AAA” titles, Sony has resorted to pushing indie games on the Vita.

Is there anything wrong with that? No, but two issues come to mind. First, no one spends $200+ on a system to mostly play indie titles, many of which look like I played them on my NES back in the mid-80’s. Second, the price for these indie games often comes at a premium compared to their smartphone or PC counterparts, sometimes 2 or 3 times as much. Take Terraria, for example. The iPhone edition costs $4.99, but sells for $15 on the Vita.  Yes, we can argue over porting costs and development time, but at the end of the day, why would people spend the “luxury tax” to play the game on their Vita when they can just play it, for less, on their smartphone or PC? The pricing structure is out of whack and only hurts the Vita.

Let’s be blunt: Sony is pushing indies because it serves them. It inflates the number of games in the Vita library, but is really just a smokescreen for their failure to procure any extensive amount of buy-in from the large developers. Because let’s be honest, no indie game is a system seller. None.

Remote Play with the PS4 is another strategic out for Sony; they can sell the idea of the Vita playing PS4 games, but again, it’s a smokescreen for the lack of platform-specific content on the Vita. I’m not saying that it is a bad idea, but I did not buy a Vita to be a gamepad for another console (which, in turn, is another $399 investment, and that’s before games).

The biggest red flag for me last year with how poorly Sony handled the Vita? When Borderlands 2 was announced. Not because of the game itself, but because of a comment a Sony rep made at the time. They stated something to the effect that in order to get Borderlands 2 development going for the Vita, they had to establish a whole new group to work with developers and try to get them to bring the title to the Vita.

Really? A company with Sony’s experience and money and it took them that long to figure out they needed to dedicate resources to reach out to get developers to bring games to the Vita? The lack of foresight is shocking. It shows that Sony hasn’t been keeping their eye on the ball with regards to the Vita. It takes a particular brand of hubris to allow the Vita to have floundered as long as it has.

Is the platform doomed? I don’t think so. Is it in for a quick turnaround? Unfortunately not. Once Sony can settle on what they want the Vita to really be, we’ll get a clearer picture of what the future holds for it. And as long as the answer is “indies” and “Remote Play”, I suspect Vita fans will continue to be frustrated.

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