The Case for PlayStation Vita
Digital Foundry on how PSVita offers a sneak peek at the future of mobile gaming
It hasn't been a great year for the next generation of dedicated mobile gaming devices. Despite garnering positive notices from the press, Nintendo's 3DS failed to capture the imagination of gamers at launch with the company slashing prices even before the release of franchise heavy-hitters such as Super Mario. In the meantime, PlayStation Vita is gearing up to launch with the press wondering how Sony can possibly succeed if Nintendo palpably failed to meet its targets.
There is no market as fast-moving and dynamic right now as mobile gaming, and the issues facing fixed platforms like PlayStation Vita and 3DS are two-fold. Firstly, the basic make-up of the average mobile game has shifted away from console-sized epics with price-tags to match, more towards snack-sized, more disposable titles where even £7.99 is considered an expensive proposition.
Secondly, the existing platform holders invest in a fixed architecture that they expect to last for at least five years, while the rest of the mobile sector innovates and refreshes their product line-up virtually on an annual basis. Compare Infinity Blade on the first iPad with its smoother, more detailed iPad 2 brother and the notion that such a radical improvement was achieved within just one year - and one product cycle - is absolutely remarkable.
Vita's custom SoC features quad core ARM Cortex A9s while its PowerVR SGX543 4MP+ GPU is one of the most powerful mobile graphics chips on the market today
From a technological perspective, 3DS already looks outdated, while question marks remain over just how long Vita can remain competitive bearing in mind the breakneck speeds of development in the mobile arena.
"It's unquestionable that within a very short time, we're going to have portable cell phones that are more powerful than the current-gen consoles," id software tech mastermind and games biz prognosticator John Carmack recently told sister site IndustryGamers.com.
"People have exaggerated the relative powers - the iPad 2 is not more powerful than the 360. It's still a factor of a couple weaker. But the fact that it's gotten that close that fast - that means that almost certainly, two years from now, there will be mobile devices more powerful than what we're doing all these fabulous games on right now."
On paper, things don't look so good for the 3DS, operating with a relatively slow ARM CPU, 128MB of RAM and vintage 2006 PICA200 GPU which lacks features we would expect from any modern graphics core - such as programmable pixel shaders. Nintendo products have never been about the specs, they've also concentrated on the concept. Unfortunately the challenge it faces is that the iTunes App Store is also concept-based, with a rich seam of original, fresh titles that encompass games and beyond. Nintendo's core advantage - autostereoscopic 3D - simply hasn't been translated into compelling gameplay ideas as we hoped it would when we first saw it at E3 2010 and primarily its future hopes lie on the company's brilliant internal studios delivering the goods.
From a technical perspective, PlayStation Vita is clearly a far more competitive platform. Its custom SoC (system on chip) features quad core ARM Cortex A9s while its PowerVR SGX543 4MP+ GPU is one of the most powerful mobile graphics chips on the market today. In terms of all important RAM, Vita is remarkable in that it has 512MB of on-board memory plus an additional 128MB dedicated entirely to the graphics core: in other words, in terms of base specs at least, that's more RAM than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 - though how much of that will be sucked up by the OS has yet to be revealed.
Bearing in mind that the iPad 2 features dual core A9s and a dual core version of the exact same PowerVR technology, it's clear that Vita represents a significant leap ahead of the current tablet. Interestingly, the new Sony handheld will also launch in the same time-frame that iPad 2-equivalent tech finally makes its way into the forthcoming iPhone 5.
While there's a very real danger that smartphone and tablet tech is just one generation away from the Vita spec (which Sony settled on well over two years ago), the platform holder has an extremely important advantage: a fixed platform architecture means that the OS and the development tools can be targeted exclusively for that single piece of hardware.
And it's important to give context to John Carmack's statement about the relative power of mobile hardware: performance isn't just about the raw specs, the level of access that game-makers have to that tech is equally important.
Game developers who "write to the metal" get far more performance out of their target platforms than those who have to deal with the iOS APIs. Carmack himself has continually commented on the deficiencies of iOS for games developers in the past - whether it's multi-touch sapping an inordinate amount of CPU time, or the exaggerated performance hit that anti-aliasing used to incur on older iOS platforms, it's safe to say that the core operating system has been a challenge to game developers.
The advantages of the fixed platform approach are borne out by the visual quality of PSP games. Ready at Dawn's God of War PSP games may well be years old, running on what is now very outdated tech, but they still look great even scaled up to run on PlayStation 3 - very much a match for the majority of the games released since on mobile platforms, resolution apart. Another great example is Polyphony Digital's Gran Turismo PSP. Again, factoring out pixel-count, it's very close to the visual quality of the best iOS titles out there and still looks great even now.
Vita's hardware spec and development platform affords us a look ahead to the future of mobile gaming - tomorrow's technology today, with the full force of the largest collection of first party studios in the world behind it
While some may consider that the kinds of teams and budgets we're talking about with these titles make a comparison with existing mobile games a little unfair, that actually leads on to another reason why Sony's handheld platforms have more longevity: the links with AAA game development result in more ambitious, more technologically advanced games.
It's a connection that Sony is looking to foster still further with PlayStation Vita - we've already seen WipEout 2048 running on the mobile platform, with the same experience being developed in parallel on PS3. While the home console version runs at a higher frame-rate with a much higher resolution, the fact is that the strength of the Vita development tools is allowing for the same game to be running both on Sony's home console and its handheld. We see the same thing with the forthcoming Ruin - the exact same game operating on both machines (though when we saw it, Vita's frame-rate lagged somewhat up against a locked 60FPS on PlayStation 3) and you can even swap your game progression across from one platform to the other.
The potential of the interface with PlayStation 3 is such that theoretically there's very little to stop Vita offering Wii U style remote gaming features. Sony is on the record as saying that it already has a new iteration of the sorely underused Remote Play feature operating on the new hardware.
Perhaps the single most compelling argument against Vita - or indeed any traditional gaming handheld platform - is the shift towards bite-sized gaming with giveaway price points, a concept that John Carmack refers to in terms of gaming as a "diversion" rather than a "destination". The argument suggests that people simply don't want to pay big-ticket price-tags for gaming on the go and based on the lacklustre 3DS sales and the continued dominance of the iTunes App Store, it's safe to say that Sony has its work cut out.
However, the introduction of the Android-compatible PlayStation Suite has the makings of a suitably robust riposte. Initially, the platform holder's decision to launch its own ecosystem operating in parallel with the PlayStation Network might have seen a little bizarre, but with the introduction of Vita, PlayStation Suite shows that the new handheld doesn't just offer state-of-the-art console gaming in a portable package, but that it can also handle iOS style gaming too: it's a good start in achieving something that the PSP minis initiative perhaps should have addressed more aggressively.
Here's where Sony's decision to license existing non-exclusive mobile technology has paid off - while Vita runs its own OS, the underlying hardware's similarity with existing mobile devices allows PlayStation Suite software to run relatively easily on the new console, and Sony itself will be hoping that existing mobile developers will gravitate towards a "PlayStation Certified" platform that includes the Xperia Play plus its two new tablets. In many ways, PlayStation Vita appears to have been designed to be all things to all gamers, but I strongly suspect that it will be the last dedicated games handheld to have any real impact on the marketplace.
The release of high budget, high production value, console quality mobile games may well be Vita's speciality in the here and now, but we'll reach a point in the next five years where the sheer power being crammed into mobile devices means that all the things we're talking about here - cross-platform gaming, AAA console quality - will be achievable by default on the smartphones and tablets of the future.
In the meantime, Vita's hardware spec and development platform affords us a look ahead to this future of mobile gaming - tomorrow's technology today, with the full force of the largest collection of first party studios in the world behind it along with key franchises like Call of Duty. Of course, John Carmack's vision will eventually be fulfilled: Vita's utilisation of existing licensed, non-proprietary mobile technology is as good a sign as any that the era of the dedicated gaming handheld is reaching its natural conclusion. But we're not there yet, and it's likely to be some years yet until that quality level really arrives.