Things are not looking good for the PlayStationVita.
First codenamed the “NGP” or “next generation portable,” interest was sparked after its initial announcement. Rumors and speculation surrounded the portable device for months, and upon its release, we saw that the Vita had great promise with a strong launch library and a great deal of potential.
But since its release, the Vita has only sold 1.8 million units worldwide, continually being vastly outsold by its Nintendo 3DS counterpart while facing off against the ever-growing market of Smartphones and tablets. NPD numbers for April 2012 didn’t show any Vita games gracing the top ten, and all around buzz regarding the handheld has seemingly died down.
So, what happened? Where has the Vita gone, and what does it need to do to get its hype back?
The Vita sits in a very precarious situation, entering into an already crowded handheld market dominated by the 3DS, Smartphones, and tablets. Mobile gaming has changed dramatically over the last few years, spurred in part by the developing market and widespread appeal of smartphone gaming applications and their accessibility and affordability.
Here’s the thing; the Vita only appeals to a very specific group of core gamers. While it does support some additional apps like Skype, it does not have the all-encompassing personality of Smartphones. At its core, it’s a gaming device, and not everyone wants to tote around a separate gadget strictly for that function.
And where the Smartphone leaves off, Nintendo picks up. The gaming icon has retained all of its key franchises such as Zelda and Pokemon, using them to continually pump out games that are both recognizable to the general public and enjoyable. Plus, the 3DS has a great deal of appeal to children, who might not own an iPhone and manage to get their mobile game on with a 3DS complete with kid-friendly games.
This isn’t to say that the Vita has no appeal at all; again, it’s just a very specific type. Regular people off the street are more likely to be drawn to games like Mario or Angry Birds over Uncharted or Mod Nation Racers, simply because the former are more streamlined and recognizable to casual gamers. The latter appeal to gamers more in the know, especially fans of the PlayStation brand.
In effect, the Vita needs to ask itself where it belongs. From the start, it’s been trying too hard to fit in with all the others. Sure, t has games, but they’re specific and lack the appeal of Nintendo or Smartphone devices. It has touchscreen and tilt controls, but again, so do the others.
What it needs to do is open itself up for innovation and create something that really challenges the other products on the market, offering something that no one else has touched on. It has a ton of power and a lot of potential, but it seems as if that potential hasn’t even begun to be tapped into.
One realm of possibility is cross platform play. Part of the Vita’s appeal started with this, and the game MLB 12 The Show was the first game that allowed for cross platform saves. Gamers who owned both the PS3 and the Vita and both the console and handheld copies of the game were able to transfer saves between the two and carry the experience with them on the go, then return later and pick up where they left off on their consoles. This is an idea that hasn’t been extensively explored in gaming, and with a bit of working out the kinks, cross platform play has some serious promise to offer to gamers.
The Vita also sold itself well on the idea of being able to join in on multiplayer matches on the go, no matter where you were. And, with a 3G model, you can be connected to the network (nearly) anywhere you go. The problem? There are not enough games that offer multiplayer options like this to keep players enticed.
Which leads to the next point…
Arguably the biggest problem the Vita has is its limited software library. It had a great start, with games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, and Super Stardust Delta ready to go from day one, and the portable’s launch library has repeatedly been called one of the strongest launch lineups in history.
But after the dust has settled, there’s been a total drop off in Vita game releases and sales. New game releases are few and far between, and the ones that do come out tend to be mediocre at best.
While there are some promising things on the horizon for the Vita such as Call of Duty and Resistance: Burning Skies, it’s almost sitting in a strange abyss with nothing new and exciting to pull in consumers and move units off the shelves.
Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto commented on this, saying “It’s obviously a very hi-spec machine, and you can do lots of things with it, but I don’t really see the software and hardware that really makes a strong product.”
Even Sony president and CEO Kaz Hirai acknowledged the portable’s lack of software support as a major negative to its overall draw. “For a game platform, like Vita, the software is the key to success. How good the software is, that is the key to business success. We have to reinforce the software area in order to improve the business, that is the basic line.”
So, what’s to be done? As stated before, the specs of the Vita are definitely impressive. Sony absolutely needs to capitalize on this to secure the market for itself. So, instead of churning out scaled-down standalone stories of already-established Sony franchises, why not create something entirely new and exclusive to the handheld? Turning around and focusing on developing a constant stream of strong new IPs specifically for the Vita that offer a compelling and unique experience not delivered on any other platform would not only bring new buyers into the fold, but also increase its overall appeal to gamers worldwide.
Even since the release of the original PSP, Sony has always had a dangerous business model for their portable hardware. Priced at $249.99 for wireless-only and $299.99 for a 3G-supported system, the Vita does not include any form of internal memory. Therefore, buyers will also be forced to shell out another $20-$100 for a memory card if they want to be able to run their system efficiently. Add to that the $40-$50 price point of brand new games, and you’re looking at a near-$500 price tag for purchasing the system, and a $15/mo fee for 3G support, should you choose to activate it.
And while memory and some game keys were included in the 3G supported model’s launch price, the money still seems extreme when stacked up against the competition.
Let’s put this in perspective. For $500, one could purchase a brand new console with a sizable hard drive and some games, a new laptop or notebook, or a tablet. For less than $500, consumers could walk away with a 3DS and games, or an iPhone with games and myriad other apps that allow them to use their Smartphone for nearly every aspect of their everyday lives.
Let’s not forget that the 3DS was in a similar situation upon its release; it had a weak launch library and a steep price point, but once it dropped down and more solid titles came through for it, we’ve seen its numbers take off.
Put simply, the price is not worth what you get. This will be painfully apparent to consumers on the outside, who will see no point in purchasing the system when they can get what they consider to be a similar experience on a more affordable device.
In order to stay competitive, the Vita’s going to need a price drop, and fast. It could certainly provide the push necessary to see a spike in sales numbers, and getting rid of separate memory card purchases would help entice consumers when they’re considering what to buy with their hard-earned dollars.
Despite its losses, Sony is continually optimistic about the Vita’s future, estimating that it will sell 10 million units by the end of 2012. With the promise of a very strong E3 showing and announcements galore, it’s a safe bet we can expect to see Sony attempt to do something big with it this year. There’s no denying it’s been a very rocky start for the handheld, but with a turnaround in software production, an emphasis on finding is place, and a much-needed price drop, the handheld could potentially become a force to be reckoned with in the mobile gaming market.