Soft Launch: Fighting Over Vita Sales
Splitting hairs over Vita's launch figures disguises the real question - what does Sony need to do next?
As the industry holds its breath and waits to see what will happen to retail giant GAME, another question has raised its head for the consideration of gaming commentators - with PlayStation Vita now on shelves and in the pockets of consumers, has the system's launch been a whimper or a bang?
It's a more contentious - and in some quarters, more quietly bitter - discussion than you might imagine. Part of GAME's legacy in the UK market is that we don't get to see much in the way of figures from retail sales, which is why reporting on game sales in Britain is a faintly ridiculous Dance of the Seven Veils. "Game X has sold three times more than Game Y did, and Game Y sold 20 per cent more on Xbox than on PS3, and Game Z had the biggest launch since Game W back in January!" There's always the vague sense that you're meant to be solving the equation for X, but in the absence of any hard figures at all, the whole thing is rather pointless.
With PlayStation Vita, the initial reports that the machine had sold around a quarter of the numbers which the PSP managed at its launch (around 45,000 units) have been followed up with counter-claims from other sources (61k is bandied about a fair bit). Lots of people are pointing out that they've seen the Chart-Track figures, but they can't directly cite them, of course. Add to the mix the fact that Sony hasn't released any official figures, and that Chart-Track's figures need to be massaged a bit to reflect reality anyway, and you're left with an oddly heated debate over what should be a simple point of fact.
Sony is the darling of the media right now - at least in terms of Vita - the white knight who's going to rescue handheld gaming from the march of the iDevices.
Moreover, it's a debate over minutiae that completely ignores the actually important thing in all of this. Vita has achieved either one-quarter or one-third of the sales of the PSP at launch - does it really matter which fraction we're talking about? Moreover, it's achieved either one-half or two-thirds of the launch sales of last year's 3DS. Again, I'm not really convinced that anyone debating which of those fractions is more accurate has quite grasped the right end of the stick.
Let's recall, here, that the 3DS' launch was greeted with hoots of derision, the machine written off as a catastrophic gimmick and Nintendo forced into a red-faced U-turn on pricing as well as a massive acceleration of development efforts. You can split hairs over exact numbers all you like, but the fact is that the Vita's launch has been weaker than the 3DS', yet the reaction has been remarkably different.
Why the more positive reaction to Vita? Because gamers - and the vast majority of those who commentate on this industry class as such - want Vita to succeed. It's a platform designed from the ground up as a love letter to core gamers, and they've responded in kind, with love notes to the console clogging up the internet's leading sites over the past few weeks.
A big part of the kicking dished out to the 3DS at launch had less to do with the console itself than it did with the perception that Nintendo has "abandoned" the core gamer since the success of the DS and the Wii. Sony, guilty of no such sin and launching with a much more convincing range of software, is the darling of the media right now - at least in terms of Vita - and moreover, is the white knight who's going to rescue handheld gaming from the march of the iDevices, with their freemium games and casual players.
You know what? That's absolutely fine. Outside the minds of the internet's more moronic comment thread trolls, there's no law which says that writing has to be objective. If you're writing about games, it's probably because you have strong opinions on the matter (god knows that's why I'm here) and you're reasonably good at expressing them. You don't have to pretend to be Fair and Balanced; just know your own biases and be cheerfully honest about them.
However, there is a commercial reality to the PlayStation Vita launch which simply must not be obscured by sentiment and hope. Even given our lowered expectations - we all knew that PSP launched in the heyday of the handheld, before Apple turned our humble mobile phones into advanced portable computers - Vita's launch has been worryingly soft. Maybe the numbers pick up from here - let's not forget that the Nintendo DS did, after a similarly slow early start - but it's been a long time since the UK had a major console launch this weak, let alone one from Sony, a brand still much loved on these islands.
Nintendo's console had a massive price cut shortly after launch, which has told any consumer with even a little market savvy that handheld systems don't hold their price points.
Is there something above and beyond the pervasive influence of the iDevice which has caused this? Well, it's iDevice related, but if you want a more specific issue, launching an expensive handheld console the week before Apple is scheduled to unveil the hugely anticipated iPad 3 can't help much. If iPad 3 disappoints, perhaps the money burning holes in consumers' pockets will buy a Vita instead; I'm not convinced that hoping that Apple will launch something rubbish is a convincing line on a SWOT analysis sheet, though.
The influence of the 3DS is also an important factor. Certainly, consumers who have just bought a new Nintendo handheld are less likely to buy Sony's device - intuition suggests that the appeal of owning multiple handhelds isn't as high as the appeal of having multiple home consoles under your TV. More importantly, though, Nintendo's console had a massive price cut shortly after launch, which has told any consumer with even a little market savvy that handheld systems don't hold their price points. Why buy before the maybe-inevitable price cut?
Therein lies one of the crucial problems - pricing. The 3DS exacerbates it, the possible arrival of a cut-price iPad 2 next week will do so even further, but the fact is that the barrier to entry on PS Vita is high anyway. Yes, there are cheap games for the system, and that's absolutely crucial, but I'm not convinced that this fact has been conveyed strongly to consumers, perhaps for fear of undermining sales of full-priced titles. The RRP is high, and the price of the pointlessly proprietary memory cards drives the cost of entry higher still. It's a tough sell, and it'll take hell of a lot of press enthusiasm to sweeten the deal.
It's interesting, as a footnote, to observe that some analysts who are bullish on the Vita are already factoring an early price cut into their projections for the console. After this launch, even those deeply in love with Sony's new console would probably admit that that's more likely than not - however deeply it cuts the firm's already weakened revenues in the coming quarters.