Has Sony just closed the door on the microconsoles?
Vita TV has the brand, platform and price to own the market
Not so long ago, Sony had a reputation which had particular relevance for journalists: they were a leaky ship, unable to keep anything under wraps until its big on-stage reveal. If something was happening at Sony, it wasn't unusual for the news to be broken on tech sites and fan blogs well before the PR machine had all its ducks in a row, ready to whip away the velvet curtain. Now, it seems, the corporation has remembered how to keep secrets, announcing the PlayStation Vita TV with not so much as a grainy mobile photo appearing online first.
The news follows on from a strong E3, where Sony left Microsoft reeling with well-guarded news of free second-hand trading, a lower price point and a rippling set of hardware specs. With Vita TV, Sony has now tossed its not inconsiderable hat into the ring of the micro-consoles, and nobody really saw it coming.
Onstage at the pre-TGS press briefing which happened just a few hours ago, Andrew House unveiled the little white box almost casually. At the end of a presentation which had focused on forthcoming games and a new 'slim' model Vita came a new piece of hardware which follows in the footsteps of a few other trailblazers, but adds a totally new feather to Sony's cap.
Initially, it seemed that the company might had pulled a bit of a Wii U - revealing a new product without really explaining what it was or why you need it - but once the dust had settled and the translators had explained the slightly ambiguous lifestyle trailer, Twitter came alive with interest. Positive reactions were split over which feature was the clincher, but there's little to dislike about a machine with that feature set at that price point.
"Sony is thumbing its nose at not just Ouya and Gamestick et al, but Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple and, potentially, Google, too"
With a £60 machine which can play Vita games on a TV, stream PS4 content to another screen and access all of the video on demand services which have become consoles secondary raison d'etre, Sony is thumbing its nose at not just Ouya and Gamestick et al, but Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple and, potentially, Google, too. Nothing the Vita TV does is unique, but the combination of them all is. Plus, I can't help but feel that Sony has an edge on nearly all the new competitors it's just earned.
Take a look at the Ouya, for example. After engaging millions worldwide with a high-profile Kickstarter campaign and some savvy hiring and promotion, Ouya is on the market and off to a surprisingly rocky start. Customers have been disappointed with the UI and strorefront of the machine, not to mention that the allure of playing smartphone games on a 40" screen has been a relatively short-lived one.
When Ouya was announced, we knew it would be a bit of a sacrificial lamb - a new concept breaking new ground and likely taking the fall whilst the kinks were worked out for the next generation. Making enough money to get to Ouya 2.0 was surely always the aim, lodging the idea firmly enough in customers heads for as long as it took Android technology to produce a handset which attracted games of the sort of quality and depth to be enjoyed on a big screen. Once the ecosystem is established and filled with top-tier content, the market can be secured.
In a way, that's just happened, and it wasn't Ouya pulling the trigger.
I should be clear here that I'm playing a bit of devil's advocate. There's a clear market difference between a machine which plays 69p games and one which will set you back £35 for the biggest titles. The Ouya is out there to capitalise on the mobile explosion, particularly the throw-away, scatter-gun approach to marketing and design which cheerfully occupies much of that space.
"When Ouya was announced, we knew it would be a bit of a sacrificial lamb"
Whilst Sony has made incursions over those borders with cheap minis and free-to-play experiments, it remains largely enemy territory. The Vita has always been about high-quality games on high-end hardware, something which has undoubtedly made it a hard sell in recent months. Presumably, Vita games aren't getting any cheaper, but they are still going to be a cut above what's available on the Android storefront. Sony doesn't have the breadth of the Ouya's potential offering, either, especially given that not all Vita games are going to playable via the system, but quality should win out here, too. Vita TV also has access to the PlayStation Network and PS+ - more weighty assets in the war for recognition and perception.
That said, Sony does desperately need to work on its Vita catalogue and it's going to struggle to attract the big names whilst its install base is so limited. Whether the addition of a second platform for Vita games will swing that balance remains to be seen, but it is opening that catalogue to an entirely new market. It seems unlikely that there'll be Vita TV only titles on the cards, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that there'll be a few which are played almost exclusively on the housebound box.
TV streaming, essentially moving into Apple TV's backyard, is an obvious extension of the faculties of the PS3 and Xbox 360. Research shows that many consoles are used more for Lovefilm and Netflix than they are gaming and Sony's deals with services like Hulu and NicoNico Douga show a real commitment to making the Vita TV a true multimedia box. Top it all off with the admittedly niche option to stream a PS4 game to your bedroom when someone is watching a film on the TV in the front room and you've got a pretty complete package.
"the headshot factor here is that, in Japan at least, it's running at about £60. Carry that price over globally and you've suddenly got something that's an impulse buy and not a saved-for consideration"
But, for me at least, this is about nailing the price point. This is undoubtedly a frivolous, luxury item. It's an addition to existing tech, a garnish for your multimedia meal. It's by no means necessary or life-changing and you're likely to already have devices with some roughly analogous functions. But it's Sony. It's going to be good hardware, from a reputable, globally recognised manufacturer. It's got big brands on board and a solid, deep catalogue of games. It's small, it's pretty and it's slick. All great, but the headshot factor here is that, in Japan at least, it's running at about £60. Carry that price over globally and you've suddenly got something that's an impulse buy and not a saved-for consideration.
If you're a parent who wants to give their children a little privacy, or retake the living room for a while, this is cheap enough to be absolutely ideal. If you're a student with a shared television or a partner of someone who enjoys watching you play considerably less than they enjoy watching anything else, it's a boon. Like most exciting things in our market, it's undoubtedly an experiment, too, but I for one hope it's a successful one.