Vita Goes Mobile
Sony's Vita strategy wisely embraces mobile - but still has much to prove
On the face of it, you wouldn't expect PlayStation Vita to have a lot to prove. It's the successor to a console which has sold 70 million units in spite of stiff competition from one of the biggest gaming success stories of the past two decades, the Nintendo DS, and it arrives on the market less then a year after Nintendo botched the launch of the DS' own successor. It's high-spec, reasonably priced and lavished with all the hardware design expertise Sony can bring to bear. What's not to love?
In spite of all that, there's an inescapable note of pessimism in a great many of the discussions I've had about the Vita. More than once - more often than not, in fact - the question of whether the system could be an outright flop is raised, which seems almost ludicrously bleak when you consider the quality of the console and the support being mustered for it.
Yet it's not actually a ludicrous question, because the reality is that the Vita is launching at a time when the handheld market as a whole just doesn't look all that healthy. Nintendo made some shocking mis-steps with the 3DS, certainly, but its mistakes weren't fundamental enough to justify the critical and commercial battering the machine received in its first three months on the market. That can only be understood in a wider context - a context in which most consumers who might have thought about a dedicated handheld own a smartphone, a tablet or an iPod Touch, and can't justify the expense of another device that only does games (and horrendously expensive games, at that).
The failure of the 3DS isn't a boon to Sony - it's a portent of disaster.
When you turn the picture around and look at it that way, the failure of the 3DS isn't a boon to Sony - it's a portent of disaster. Yes, it would have caused sleepless nights for the firm's bosses if the 3DS had a stunning launch and was selling like hotcakes around the world, but that might actually have been preferable to the situation as it stands, with the 3DS heavily discounted (making the Vita look uncomfortably expensive, a factor which could have significantly influenced Capcom's decision to push its upcoming Monster Hunter games on the 3DS instead) and the industry questioning the relevance of the whole dedicated handheld sector.
Sony, to its credit, is not taking the situation lightly. Everything it revealed about the Vita this week at Tokyo Game Show felt like an attempt to distance itself from Nintendo's mistakes, and to ensure that it could never be accused of repeating them. Some of those things were straightforward, like the massive launch line-up of software - patently designed to fend off the extremely damaging (and not entirely fair) accusation that the 3DS doesn't have any games. Others are much more fundamental strategic differences.
Primary among those differences is Sony's tentative attempt to embrace the mobile market that threatens to engulf the dedicated handheld market. Two key pieces of information in that regard were forthcoming this week. One is that the Vita will be supported by reasonably priced pay-as-you-go 3G data plans in Japan (which is quite a big deal, since that kind of plan essentially doesn't exist in that market at the moment - it's less exciting for Europeans who have been used to that sort of thing since the launch of the iPad, obviously). The other is that Vita is now officially considered to be a target platform of PlayStation Suite.
That second piece of information was something that many of us had assumed for some time, but which had never quite been confirmed or explained. This week, Sony set things straight - Vita will, indeed, be running games which are created for PS Suite Android devices. What this means is that developers will be able to (relatively) easily create games to run across Vita, Xperia Play and Sony Tablet devices, as well as any other Android devices which decide to support the PlayStation Suite software and app store.
This is important for a few reasons. Firstly, it represents an embracing of the app store distribution model and business model which Sony's rivals - chiefly Nintendo - have thus far shied away from. Rather than betting against the app store model, Sony wants to have a foot in both camps - almost certainly a wiser decision than trying to throw its lot in completely with either the Nintendo camp or the Apple camp.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this gives near-instant critical mass to PS Suite. While most commentators agree that Suite is an important and positive direction for Sony, there has been a lot of concern over just how the platform was ever going to reach the point of actually being relevant to the market. Sony's tablet devices and the Xperia Play don't make up a substantial enough chunk of the market for developers to be interested, after all - but add Vita to the equation and suddenly it's a much more attractive prospect, not only to developers, but also consequently to other hardware manufacturers who may have previously baulked at the requirements for PS Suite to run on their systems.
Sony, unlike Nintendo, is taking important steps into the market that threatens to kill handhelds.
In practical terms, what this means in the short term is that Sony has opened up the potential for low-cost, iOS-style gaming hits to be available on the Vita. Many questions remain to be asked, however, not least of which is what the company is going to do with regard to pricing (previous efforts at bringing iOS titles to established game consoles have generally involved ridiculous price-hikes) and how open it will be to the concept of freemium games. Yet the point still stands that Sony, unlike Nintendo, is taking important steps into the market that threatens to kill handhelds.
This is very positive for Sony, but it doesn't quite allay fears about the future of the Vita. The reality of the situation remains - this is a dedicated gaming device in a world that doesn't seem to have any huge requirement for dedicated gaming devices any more, and while you and I will probably buy one because we love some of the more traditional gaming genres and control mechanisms enabled by Vita, one can't help but wonder how much of the wider market feels that way.
What Vita needs to prove - and hasn't shown just yet - is that it's a device that justifies being carried in my pocket alongside my Android or iOS phone, offering major functionality and possibilities above and beyond what the phone can do. In part, I fear that Sony's thinking may still be rooted too firmly in Japan, where older "featurephones" still dominate and iPhone-style smartphones are only now seriously taking root - giving the Vita a major window of opportunity. In the West, the company certainly has its work cut out for it. Vita will almost certainly be a success, but to be a success on the scale that Sony - and the industry - wants to see, it must go a lot further to prove itself to a market which, right now, is already very happy with what's in its pocket.