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Is there life in the Vita?

Sony seems unenthused about future handhelds - but Vita's success in Asia suggests that a strong regional market still exists for such devices

It will not have come as a surprise to very many of you, I'm sure, that Sony is not entirely enthusiastic about the prospect for a handheld successor to PlayStation Vita.

Speaking to Bloomberg at TGS last week, PlayStation boss Andrew House said that the company doesn't view handheld gaming outside Asia as a major market opportunity. Where Nintendo has seemed game to challenge the dominance of smartphones while simultaneously building a business on them, Sony now seems ready to entirely exit handheld hardware and cede the space entirely to smart devices.

In the context of Sony's experiences in recent years, this does make sense. Vita underperformed woefully in North America and Europe, and while it's carved out a substantial market for itself in Japan and Asia (it still takes up a pretty solid chunk of store space in physical game retailers in Japan), the narrative around the console is one of failure. It's easy to ascribe that to the rise of smart devices, and there's an unquestionable logic to the assertion that consumers already carrying around a powerful device with a large LCD screen don't need or want to carry another just for gaming.

"There's no question that Switch is in some regards the console a successor to Vita might have been; the question is whether it could ever have made sense for Sony to actually do that"

The counter-argument suggested in some coverage of House's comments (which, we should note, do not explicitly rule out a "Vita 2" or say that the brand is entirely dead; they simply express a total lack of enthusiasm about the sector) is that Nintendo's Switch has shown that handheld hardware still has a place, if it's done correctly.

Certainly, the handheld aspect of Switch's hybrid identity has been a big selling point for the device; it's still rare to see them "in the wild", but portability within the home is a big deal for a lot of players. There's no question that Switch is in some regards the console a successor to Vita might have been; the question is whether it could ever have made sense for Sony to actually do that.

One thing worth considering is that for Sony, the handheld business has always been a sideline. Ever since the PlayStation Portable launched way back in 2004, the stated purpose of Sony's handhelds has been to make "PlayStation-quality" games portable. PSP was effectively marketed as a handheld PS2, and PS Vita was the logical successor, a handheld PS3. Some games could even be played across both devices; shared save data meant you could play a game on your home console and then continue it elsewhere on your Vita, which is a slightly clunky precursor to the basic functionality of the Switch.

Yet the language used is telling; for Sony, handhelds were always something that supplemented the main console experience. This contrasts with Nintendo, which has essentially viewed handhelds as a pillar of its business equally important to (if not more important than) home consoles ever since the 1990s.

It makes perfect sense for Sony, given this perspective, to be willing to give up portable hardware in favour of trying to get the same benefits ("expanding the PlayStation experience in portable form") out of smartphone devices people already own. Nintendo's motivations with Switch are quite different, and even if it's true that Switch is a great proof of concept for the viability of handheld hardware, it's equally true that Switch is presently eating the lunch of any hypothetical Vita successor.

"It doesn't seem beyond the realms of possibility that Sony could design and launch a Vita 2 exclusively for Japan and Asia... capitalising on those areas where handheld gaming remains successful and profitable"

The huge success of Vita in Japan is mirrored in the dramatic demand for Switch in that market; while supply of Switch hardware has settled down elsewhere, it remains constantly out of stock at Japanese retailers, and commands a high premium from scalpers on online stores and auction sites. Nintendo's historical strength in Japan is one reason for this, of course, but it also seems likely that the same consumers who drove Vita sales are now investing in the similarly targeted Switch - and that the developers who have continued to support Vita with local market titles in Japan and Asia are also likely to make a move to Nintendo's platform soon.

Part of the problem for Sony in attempting to recapture that market is simply that it isn't a global market; as the dramatic difference in Vita's fortunes between Asia and the rest of the world demonstrates, this is a hardware category whose demand is very much focused in one region. Switch has surpassed that issue not least by merit of capitalising on Nintendo's global appeal, though it will be interesting to see if Asian markets end up taking a significant lead over western markets in the long run on Switch just as they did on Vita.

Leaving Nintendo out of the equation momentarily, though, the reality is that Vita's performance over its lifespan was far more complex than the simple narrative of failure often attributed to it in English language commentary - and as such, the question of a follow-up or successor should not be such a foregone conclusion.

After all, while this is a console that did poorly in the west, it did very well indeed in several Asian markets - some of which are strong emerging markets for videogames that will only continue to grow in the coming years. If, as seems likely, the demand for handheld gaming in those markets is strong (I maintain that the trend of young people in fairly compact accommodation not buying TVs is a big part of this), it represents a market opportunity. It doesn't seem beyond the realms of possibility that Sony could design and launch a Vita 2 exclusively for Japan and Asia, ignoring western markets entirely and instead capitalising on those areas where handheld gaming remains successful and profitable.

"While Sony may be unenthused about the notion of a Vita successor, it's perhaps telling that it's also not shutting the door on the idea entirely"

Could Sony do this? Yes, it could. Will it? That still seems unlikely, simply because Sony views itself as a global company and its current philosophy is to reduce its product line-up - focusing on a smaller number of products with significant appeal - rather than expanding it, as the introduction of such a regional device would entail. Launching an Asia-only device, even one with good prospects, would also put some of the company's development resources in a tough spot - it would be hard to justify putting a major internal studio to work on a title that wouldn't get a global launch, and also hard to justify launching hardware that wouldn't be supported by major internal studios.

That being said; the success of Vita in Asia represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Sony. There's a large regional audience which the company will be loath to leave entirely unsupported, and yet figuring out how to support them - short of simply saying "play our smartphone games", an eminently unsatisfactory response - is extremely tricky. The hybrid model of Switch may present a part-solution as the company thinks about its future products; for now, while Sony may be unenthused about the notion of a Vita successor, it's perhaps telling that it's also not shutting the door on the idea entirely.

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Latest comments (2)

Andy Samson QA Supervisor, Digital Media Exchange2 months ago
Sony barely succeeded with the PSP and staggered with the Vita. Now they're afraid to venture in a business model that to them would weaken their grasp in the home console market. They're afraid to dip their toes in anything that has to do with portability. Despite the success of the PS4, they simply can't afford taking risks right now. Sony as a conglomerate is still bleeding money. Nintendo has successfully carved out a niche that could soon start a trend. They've taken the lead in making a patented hybrid system and has actually partnered with a very formidable ally in mobile technology. Sony's back in their Ivory tower again, their failure to adapt will be their downfall.
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Richard Browne Partner & Head of Interactive, Many Rivers Productions2 months ago
What's the install base of the Switch vs the PS4? Nintendo's been doing this a long time, have a demographic for the 3DS and the right IP (Pokemon) to drive it. Sony always approached handheld wrong, we told them VIta would fail when they first showed it to us, SCEA knew it would too. Development cost and risk never added up. A hybrid PS4 could work as a niche concept but if you look at the core PS4 market they aren't playing portable games. Destiny online with voicechat is not something for the bus.
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