Farewell to the PSP: Part 2 – Hopes and Fears for the Vita

So how will PS Vita fare? Everything about it points to a device that was designed not to fail, rather than one created to succeed. The second analogue stick, not one but two touch control interfaces, support for 3G data and social media apps as well as compatibility for all previously released portable Playstation games and the presence of all manners of motion sensors point to Sony’s attempts to shore up the Vita for all eventualities. With so much tech on offer, Sony’s announcement at E3 2011 that it was going to cost $249.99 was generally well received, but 3DS’s poor initial sales and Nintendo’s subsequent price-cut to $169.99, not to mention the Vita’s own struggles in Japan, reveal a troubling reality: dedicated portable gaming devices of today are playing to an entirely different audience , one that is more unforgiving and less tolerant than in 2004, or even 2007. It had been apparent for at least a couple of years that the portable games industry would be heavily affected by smartphones, but Nintendo’s recent travails show that the transformation is deeper and wider than we had realized. PS Vita and 3DS aren’t just competing to be successful; they are engaged in a mortal struggle for survival. Although many people quite understandably maintain that it’s the games that will ultimately make or break the Vita – and I’d asserted the same about PSP – I’m not so sure that that’s going to be true this time around. Sony is trying to sell what is essentially a secondary device at a time when people’s need for a secondary device has been less than ever. Before and for the first few years of PSP’s existence, the holy grail of convergence hadn’t been found yet, and consumers worldwide accepted the need to carry more than one portable gadget at any given time as something that they just had to do if they were even a little serious about music or gaming on the go. Phones were still primary devices, but iPods or other MP3 players were essential in order to enjoy more than a couple of albums’ worth of songs and therefore laid claim to being just as central as the RAZRs and Chocolate phones at the time. Same was true for portable gaming: phones were so terrible at providing worthwhile gaming experiences that anything more involving than Snake or Arkanoid had to be found elsewhere, and PSP and Nintendo DS filled that gap. The gap is not nearly as gaping as it used to be: iPods to are still being bought, but where before even casual listeners were buying them now they fill only specific needs – jogging and working out, for example. The same is now true for the portable PlayStations: where in 2004 PSP was one of only two portable gaming options (three, if you count Gameboy Advance), now it’s the most expensive one out of many. The gap still exists for those users who either cannot afford smartphones or, like children, are not supposed to have them, but many of those consumers have chosen to plug it with iPod touch. As for the quality of the games themselves, smartphones present to Sony and Nintendo the same kind of problem that Wii did to Sony and Microsoft: Wii was said to be so successful despite the weaker hardware because its graphics were past the point where casual gamers and laymen could substantively discern visual fidelity of games, so that the superior looks of PS3 and Xbox 360 games weren’t as much of a selling point for them as they had been in previous generations; in a similar vein, the mobile games on iPhone and Android devices are of good enough quality (and sometimes quite excellent indeed) that for most people the choice between spending $200+ on another gadget they have to lug around, and simply using the phones they already own and buying games costing a fraction of their Vita counterparts is a simple one. Uncharted versus Angry Birds may be a no-brainer for hardcore gamers, but $40 versus $0.99 is a no-brainer for everyone else. And since smartphones do everything else so well – web, tweet, Facebook, productivity – on top of the one thing that people can’t do without, it’s no incentive for Sony to tout the Vita’s myriad of additional features. Comparing PS Vita with tablets and smartphones isn’t apples and oranges, either, because iPhones and iPads have now encroached so deep into portable gaming territory as to render mutually exclusive analysis moot.

You have to feel for Sony’s plight. PS Vita, purely from a hardware standpoint, is not overpriced – far from it. Eurogamer’s breakdown of its components shows that the margin is thin, so $250 is, given the hardware, still great value, and the positive impression I got from the E3 presentation last year still remains. But at the current price point the Vita is simply setting itself up to be perceived as not affordable enough by the general public, particularly now that 3DS is $80 cheaper. It’s not difficult to foresee the sales trouble in Japan being replicated elsewhere, unless Sony follows Nintendo’s lead and engages in some strenuous price-cutting measures. Nintendo’s coup, though belated, was to recognize that the price of the device matters, and has always done: one of the reasons for the success of the Wii and the NDS was simply that they were cheaper than the alternatives, and the same goes for many of Apple’s products – the 11-inch, 64gb MacBook Air at $999 is a value that has yet to be beaten by notebooks and ‘Ultrabooks’ of the same class, while competitors have struggled to match, let alone best, the 16gb iPad’s $499 price. In both of these cases the likes of Samsung, Asus, HP and RIM have championed their devices’ greater power and flexibility – not to mention the tired old ‘openness’ cliche – to the general disinterest of consumers, who failed to see why they should pay just as much, if not more, for gadgets without Apple’s buzz and content. Given that PS Vita is now competing with iPod touches as well as 3DS, its higher entry point needs to be justified with more than mere specs. Given time, Sony may well establish a significant ecosystem for the Vita, but to do so its market share needs to be at a certain level for developers to be incentivized into making apps and games, and this will not happen until Sony boosts momentum with a price-cut. As perverse as it is to demand a cut before the Vita has even been released in North America and Europe, it would be just as foolish to imagine that somehow the problems in Japan are isolated and that everything is going to be just fine elsewhere. Sony may be content with making profit on smaller sales rather than suffering another loss-making launch as Digital Foundry suggests, but I’m sure that isn’t what they originally had in mind with the Vita. Based on the PSP revisions and the corresponding reduction in prices, we all know that cheaper Vitas are coming sooner or later, and with the expected reveals of iPad 3 in spring and iPhone 5 after summer this year, sooner rather than later would be a painful but ultimately necessary path for Sony to take.

What else should Sony do, short of cooking up a Vita phone? A few springs to mind: one, the company cannot allow games droughts like it did with PSP, because the public will simply not tolerate it this time when there are dozens of iOS and Android games coming out every week. Sony needs to guarantee a steady flow of games of any and all kind no matter what the circumstances are. Two, Sony needs to think back to what it did so well for PSX, which was to incentivize developers disenfranchised with the existing industry structure. Back then, Sony courted studios with the promise of greater share of revenue and more bilateral working relationships, things which Nintendo was notorious for refusing to grant. Today, the single biggest gripe for developers – particularly small and independent ones – is visibility. Visibility for their games is paramount for the success of their products, and this is something that is increasingly becoming a problem on various platforms, from the Android App Store to XBLA. Sony needs to share the burden of marketing games on the Vita with the developers and do so in an open, cooperative way. Three, it’s high time that Sony started leveraging their record label and movie studio to bear fruit on their consumer devices. While the likes of Spider-Man and Kelly Clarkson won’t be provided exclusively to the Vita, Sony will do well to create both a purchase-and-delivery mechanism which makes utilizing such content easier and more convenient on the portable, and a differentiating advantage (be it price or features) for Vita users choosing to purchase Sony content. The corporation’s failure to integrate its separate entertainment holdings is well documented but it beggars belief that after all these years it still hasn’t happened. Four, Sony must come up with a usable management software for the Vita. Drag-and-drop is arguably never the best way to organize your music, photos and videos in any situation, but for storages running up to 32gb it is simply inexcusable, and something must be done to remedy this, hopefully with a better solution than a doltish effort like Media Go.

So we await PS Vita’s release with both excited anticipation and slight trepidation. In the same way that PS3 will probably end up as the greatest console ever to come third in the console war, the Vita may become dedicated portable gaming’s most impressive device that’s also its last. While unthinkable at the all-conquering height of PS2’s success and the hubris-filled launches of PSP and PS3, there is now considerable sympathy for Sony Computer Entertainment and its latest gadget, and I personally would also like to see the Vita do well. It’s another reassuringly full-featured package, typically Sony in its marriage of sleek aesthetics and uncompromising specs, filled with options and potential. But hardware alone has never been a guarantee of success, and in this age where content is king, that seems to ring truer than ever before.

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