PS Vita UK Launch: A Sign Of The Times
A sparse crowd at Game's Oxford Street branch proved Sony's brand loyalty, but posed some important questions
The Oxford Street branch of Game at 9pm on launch evening isn't expected to be as busy as at midnight, by which time around 100 people will have braved the cold for the launch of PlayStation Vita, but for many of the 20-odd people queuing early it feels like a disappointing turn-out.
And if any of the people here would know its Michael Cruz, a 23 year-old self-confessed "Sony fanboy" who was here for the launch of the PSP.
"I was expecting the queue to be a lot bigger," he says. "I must admit, I am slightly surprised, but at the same time I can understand it... A lot of my mates who I've asked about it have said that they'll hold out until the iPad 3 comes out. For a lot of them, it's a decision where they have to sacrifice one for the other."
Most have people will have pre-ordered it and got it delivered for far cheaper than what I'll pay here. It's a shame, because from what I've seen the PlayStation 3 launch was a lot of fun
Jonathan Beecher, 35
Cruz's words touch upon a key source of the pessimism surrounding the release of Sony's cutting-edge handheld. When the PSP launched, iPhones, iPads and Android didn't exist, and it remains to be seen whether their arrival has forever disrupted the market for companies like Sony and Nintendo. The very existence of the Vita suggests that Sony has identified opportunity where many cannot.
Sony has positioned the Vita as a device that can offer console-quality games to the core audience, of which 35 year-old designer Jonathan Beecher considers himself a part. Beecher acknowledges that, for a midnight launch, the crowd seems "a bit quiet", but he was prepared for this possibility.
"The Japanese launch didn't really attract masses of kids," he says. "Most people will have pre-ordered it and got it delivered for far cheaper than what I'll pay here... It's a shame, because from what I've seen the PlayStation 3 launch was a lot of fun."
Beecher addresses two important issues, the first being that, however many people attend tonight's launch, the declining fortunes of high-street retailers like The Game Group will also play a significant role. But standing in the cold for hours on a chilly London night is more difficult to justify when Amazon can offer next-day delivery, and it's difficult to identify what attendance at this kind of event signifies about the Vita's fortunes.
One thing is certain: the people here associate Sony and PlayStation with quality, almost without exception. Beecher has been buying and enjoying Sony products for years, but beyond any lingering brand loyalty he believes the Vita serves a need that the 3DS and the iPad cannot satisfy.
"I'm the kind of gamer that wants to play FIFA and things like that, or I want to kill something, and the 3DS isn't set-up for that," he says. "I had a play on the 3DS before Christmas because they were doing ridiculous deals - £150 and you got a free game. But I just couldn't imagine myself playing it a lot."
When I draw a comparison with the iPad, iPhone and other tablets and smartphones, Cruz dismisses it as "apples and pears" - a common reaction among those queuing for their Vita.
"They do their jobs very differently," he says. "The amount of input control you've got on a Vita compared to an iPhone. Fair enough it's still borrowing from the iPhone family, so you can see at least they're taking a look at the market, seeing what people want and what people are used to, and trying to cater to that as well."
Sony has invested a great deal of effort in making sure retailers around the country had Vita handsets to show to customers upon request. Given the similarities between its design and that of the PSP, there was a pressing need to give consumers first-hand experience of its numerous additions and improvements.
For Ivan, a 24 year-old assistant manager in retail, the strategy proved decisive for his launch day purchase. "Once I put it in my hands that was it," he says. "I knew I was going to by one, I just wasn't sure how quickly. But I picked it up and I was pretty much sold... The fact that they've got controls and the touch-screen, it caters for everyone. You can't really say that you don't like it."
For 18 year-old student Ali Tarrigi, the sophistication of the hardware justifies what he admits is a high retail price that "could be a problem for some people."
"But from what I've seen they've packed into this, the power of it, the graphics, the front and back touch-screens, the OLED screen. You can see where the price-point is coming from."
Perhaps inevitably, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is the most popular launch title among the almost entirely male audience gathered here. WipEout 2048, Gravity Rush and Lumines are also highly anticipated.
"I'd say that this is the best launch [line-up] I've ever seen for a console," says 23 year-old charity worker David. "In previous launches it's only looked like there were a couple of really worthwhile games, but with PlayStation Vita it looks like nearly every one is worthwhile."
If the core audience is its focus, Sony has accomplished that rare feat of marrying strong hardware with an appealing launch line-up. If the dissenters are to be believed, the Vita's fate may be sealed by the popularity of smartphones and tablets as gaming devices, but there are other concerns.
The problem is that, yes, the games are cheaper, but that's only after you've got the memory
Tom, 21, is applying for the new MA Game Design at the Royal College of Art next year, and he found the promise of smaller, download-only releases particularly interesting. However, he claims that a game like Motorstorm RC at £5 will make the prices of blockbuster games seem unreasonable.
"When I first saw Motorstorm RC I was quite impressed, and then I found out it was going to be £4.99 online. Obviously, Uncharted is a complete rip-off, even though everyone is going to buy it anyway."
Of greater concern are memory cards, which are a basic necessity to play games on the system. With a 16GB card retailing for around £40, many of those about to spend hundreds of pounds are doing so with a touch of bitterness. Tom calls the price of memory cards "absolutely ridiculous", explaining that he had purchased a 16GB SD card for his 3DS that morning - it cost £8.50, including delivery.
"The problem is that, yes, the games are cheaper, but that's only after you've got the memory. I think you can't even buy a 32GB card, because they're probably scared to release it here because it would probably have been £100. Ultimately, it depends how big the games are, because if they're 500mb..."
On this matter, Ivan is in full agreement. He insists that, if Sony is selling the digital versions of their games cheaper, it is a "great thing" for the platform. But if digital was such a core focus, some local or peripheral memory should have been included in the price.
"It looks like they've just taken a memory card, changed the shape and made us buy it," he said. "They should have just thrown it in with the price, really. You know, give is a gig."
"I might not want 16GB, but throw in a gig so at least I can play it."