PS Vita: The Struggles it Faces

The PlayStation Vita is without a doubt the most powerful handheld gaming device ever released. It boasts impressive graphics, slick controls and a large, viewable screen with touch input. It outperforms its main competitor the Nintendo 3DS in basically every department, and offers an overall far more modern gaming experience. It does all this and more, but the PS Vita is nevertheless far from  certain to be successful.

The reasons for this sad fact are varied, but most prominent among them is this: It wants to be as good as a home console… but it isn’t. Not because it is designed badly, but because it just simply isn’t a home console. The fundamental flaw behind the PS Vita is the fact that it doesn’t offer the consumer a separate gaming market. The games available on the Vita are in essence scaled down versions of console offerings, designed more as an afterthought than a priority by developers. They often don’t have the feel of a polished handheld game, rather they can sometimes feel like poorly made console games. The most blatant example of this rough shod method of development is the widely panned Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, a title developed especially for the Vita and one that Sony hoped would bring new buyers to their shores. Unfortunately, Black Ops Declassified was a great example of a game whose developers just didn’t seem to give a toss. It was buggy, had terrible AI and bland missions, and was in short a terrible advertisement for the console.

The Vita suffers greatly from the fact that many of its titles are also available in superior versions on home consoles. It is true that the Vita appeals to those who want to take their home titles with them, but when the Vita’s versions just don’t provide the same experience as their big screen alternatives, it can feel like something of a letdown to play them. This isn’t true in all cases of course. There are great examples of games for the Vita which take advantage of its hardware offerings to the fullest extent. One of which I am particularly looking forward to is Soul Sacrifice, which looks set to introduce some really cool mechanics not seen before, but that’s another story.

Still, degraded games are not really a problem that Vita’s competition suffers from. The Nintendo 3DS offers gamers what they have traditionally sought after in a handheld console; a casual format that can be used to kill time on the bus or in the car, but which they don’t have to pour large amounts of commitment into. The 3DS occupies a place in the market that has always existed, and with its causal focus and colorful titles is likely to also appeal to the large, junior market. The Vita on the other hand attempts to carve new ground and appeal to all ages and demographics. While this is an admiral attempt that should be applauded, it nevertheless makes it hard to sell meaningful numbers to a typically conservative buyer’s market.

3DS games are also mostly standalone titles which means that they will probably be the focus of their developers skills and revenue hopes, and will therefore be generally more polished than games like Declassified, which promised to bring in a minuscule amount of developer Treyarch’s revenue and publicity. The 3DS controls its gaming niche, while the Vita struggles to obtain a piece of the hardcore demographic’s pie.

The PS Vita is not the first Sony handheld to suffer this fate. Its predecessor the PSP, suffered from the same issue. A relatively small catalogue of games with an even smaller amount of quality ones, coupled with a desire to appeal to the hardcore market without backing it up in software, meant that by the time it’s product cycle had ended the PSP had offloaded well under half the number of consoles that its main competitor the Nintendo DS had. That’s not to say that it wasn’t possible to have good games on the PSP. Ports of the PlayStation 2 GTA titles were standouts, as they offered the fully featured experience of the original as well as displaying competent visuals. Unfortunately, they were still only ports of popular titles, and the PSP suffered from a lack of home grown content of a similar quality.

PS Vita

A powerful machine certainly, but is it viable?

One of the most worrying pieces of evidence pointing out the struggles the Vita faces is ironically the news of its increased sales in Japan recently. Figures confirmed by gaming website Gematsu show the Vita increased its sales by six times the previous week’s numbers in the hot Japanese gaming market following a generous price cut. In the week prior to the shocking numbers, the Vita had been limping along with just over 10,000 units being sold, but by the time the next week’s figures were released, those numbers had shot up to an astonishing 61,000 units! While these numbers might appear on the surface to be a positive sign for Sony’s flagship, in reality they display in painfully clear terms just how much the console is suffering compared to its rival. Not only did Sony have to implement a heavy price cut to get these numbers, the awful fact remains that they were still outsold by the combined sales of 3DS models in the same week (and the 3DS achieved this without a discount).

The very latest figures out of Japan show the Vita sustaining these numbers into the next week. The Vita reportedly even increased on its last week’s sales, up to 63,000 units  The launch of Soul Sacrifice may also have contributed to the numbers, with the title selling almost 115,000 copies in the week. While it is good to see the Vita maintaining these impressive sales figures, the fact remains that they are being achieved under a substantial price cut. That said, the Japanese discounting of the vita may be just what it needs to increase its exposure and perhaps even convince consumers to continue buying en masse if and when the price cut is repealed.

One piece of positive news to come out of these figures is for the consumers. While Sony had previously insisted that its price cut would only apply to Japanese markets, the massive surge in sales must make it tempting to introduce the aggressive strategy to outside markets such as the US and EU. It would be surprising for Sony to pass up the opportunity of increased sales, as the Japan experiment was obviously something of a means test to gauge consumer interest in the discounted product.

None of this gloomy news means that the PS Vita is in any way a bad console. Quite the contrary, it offers the highest in portable gaming technology. Unfortunately, in the fickle video game market, quality hardware doesn’t automatically transfer into high sales figures. Developers are only going to create content for your device if you can prove to them that it’s going to make them money. Juggernauts like Call of Duty might be convinced to release a scaled down version of their blockbusters, but knowing just how much effort they’re going to be putting into something not liable to benefit them much is a risky business.

The important thing to remember is that the PS Vita doesn’t suffer through any fault of its own. The device is polished, powerful and would be a compelling medium for developers were it only a better seller. No, what will truly hurt the Vita are deep-set gamer sentiments and a lack of development. Unfortunately, the PS Vita appears to be occupying a sort of no man’s land in the market. While it isn’t selling catastrophically badly, its sales to this point don’t indicate a level of interest necessary to make it a class leader. In a market where investments are generally expensive, consumers are going to look for the best answer to their entertainment needs and stick with it. The issue is that many of these consumers would rather have an arcade style experience for their handheld gaming while leaving the hardcore titles to be enjoyed in all their glory on the big screen. Owning both a true home gaming system as well as a scaled back handheld version of the same experience simply doesn’t make sense in many people’s minds.

The Vita’s future relies on the machinations of two essential parties, the consumers and the developers.  Convincing consumers that the Vita will give them the experience they crave in a better way than say, the 3DS, will require developers to produce some special games for these buyers to sink their teeth into. Games like Black Ops Declassified are quite simply the wrong way to go about establishing the Vita as a serious gaming machine. Rather than rough versions of home console mega-blockbusters, the Vita needs more games that will establish a following in their own right, and show off the strengths of its hardware, rather than its limitations.