Vita Goes Mobile

Sony's Vita strategy wisely embraces mobile - but still has much to prove

On the face of it, you wouldn't expect PlayStation Vita to have a lot to prove. It's the successor to a console which has sold 70 million units in spite of stiff competition from one of the biggest gaming success stories of the past two decades, the Nintendo DS, and it arrives on the market less then a year after Nintendo botched the launch of the DS' own successor. It's high-spec, reasonably priced and lavished with all the hardware design expertise Sony can bring to bear. What's not to love?

In spite of all that, there's an inescapable note of pessimism in a great many of the discussions I've had about the Vita. More than once - more often than not, in fact - the question of whether the system could be an outright flop is raised, which seems almost ludicrously bleak when you consider the quality of the console and the support being mustered for it.

Yet it's not actually a ludicrous question, because the reality is that the Vita is launching at a time when the handheld market as a whole just doesn't look all that healthy. Nintendo made some shocking mis-steps with the 3DS, certainly, but its mistakes weren't fundamental enough to justify the critical and commercial battering the machine received in its first three months on the market. That can only be understood in a wider context - a context in which most consumers who might have thought about a dedicated handheld own a smartphone, a tablet or an iPod Touch, and can't justify the expense of another device that only does games (and horrendously expensive games, at that).

The failure of the 3DS isn't a boon to Sony - it's a portent of disaster.

When you turn the picture around and look at it that way, the failure of the 3DS isn't a boon to Sony - it's a portent of disaster. Yes, it would have caused sleepless nights for the firm's bosses if the 3DS had a stunning launch and was selling like hotcakes around the world, but that might actually have been preferable to the situation as it stands, with the 3DS heavily discounted (making the Vita look uncomfortably expensive, a factor which could have significantly influenced Capcom's decision to push its upcoming Monster Hunter games on the 3DS instead) and the industry questioning the relevance of the whole dedicated handheld sector.

Sony, to its credit, is not taking the situation lightly. Everything it revealed about the Vita this week at Tokyo Game Show felt like an attempt to distance itself from Nintendo's mistakes, and to ensure that it could never be accused of repeating them. Some of those things were straightforward, like the massive launch line-up of software - patently designed to fend off the extremely damaging (and not entirely fair) accusation that the 3DS doesn't have any games. Others are much more fundamental strategic differences.

Primary among those differences is Sony's tentative attempt to embrace the mobile market that threatens to engulf the dedicated handheld market. Two key pieces of information in that regard were forthcoming this week. One is that the Vita will be supported by reasonably priced pay-as-you-go 3G data plans in Japan (which is quite a big deal, since that kind of plan essentially doesn't exist in that market at the moment - it's less exciting for Europeans who have been used to that sort of thing since the launch of the iPad, obviously). The other is that Vita is now officially considered to be a target platform of PlayStation Suite.

That second piece of information was something that many of us had assumed for some time, but which had never quite been confirmed or explained. This week, Sony set things straight - Vita will, indeed, be running games which are created for PS Suite Android devices. What this means is that developers will be able to (relatively) easily create games to run across Vita, Xperia Play and Sony Tablet devices, as well as any other Android devices which decide to support the PlayStation Suite software and app store.

This is important for a few reasons. Firstly, it represents an embracing of the app store distribution model and business model which Sony's rivals - chiefly Nintendo - have thus far shied away from. Rather than betting against the app store model, Sony wants to have a foot in both camps - almost certainly a wiser decision than trying to throw its lot in completely with either the Nintendo camp or the Apple camp.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this gives near-instant critical mass to PS Suite. While most commentators agree that Suite is an important and positive direction for Sony, there has been a lot of concern over just how the platform was ever going to reach the point of actually being relevant to the market. Sony's tablet devices and the Xperia Play don't make up a substantial enough chunk of the market for developers to be interested, after all - but add Vita to the equation and suddenly it's a much more attractive prospect, not only to developers, but also consequently to other hardware manufacturers who may have previously baulked at the requirements for PS Suite to run on their systems.

Sony, unlike Nintendo, is taking important steps into the market that threatens to kill handhelds.

In practical terms, what this means in the short term is that Sony has opened up the potential for low-cost, iOS-style gaming hits to be available on the Vita. Many questions remain to be asked, however, not least of which is what the company is going to do with regard to pricing (previous efforts at bringing iOS titles to established game consoles have generally involved ridiculous price-hikes) and how open it will be to the concept of freemium games. Yet the point still stands that Sony, unlike Nintendo, is taking important steps into the market that threatens to kill handhelds.

This is very positive for Sony, but it doesn't quite allay fears about the future of the Vita. The reality of the situation remains - this is a dedicated gaming device in a world that doesn't seem to have any huge requirement for dedicated gaming devices any more, and while you and I will probably buy one because we love some of the more traditional gaming genres and control mechanisms enabled by Vita, one can't help but wonder how much of the wider market feels that way.

What Vita needs to prove - and hasn't shown just yet - is that it's a device that justifies being carried in my pocket alongside my Android or iOS phone, offering major functionality and possibilities above and beyond what the phone can do. In part, I fear that Sony's thinking may still be rooted too firmly in Japan, where older "featurephones" still dominate and iPhone-style smartphones are only now seriously taking root - giving the Vita a major window of opportunity. In the West, the company certainly has its work cut out for it. Vita will almost certainly be a success, but to be a success on the scale that Sony - and the industry - wants to see, it must go a lot further to prove itself to a market which, right now, is already very happy with what's in its pocket.

Latest comments (10)

Antony Carter Senior Programmer, Epic Games6 years ago
Good article but i dont agree that Nintendo's mistakes weren't fundamental enough to justify the critical and commercial battering the machine received.
I think its complete lack of software and massively overpriced launch price were Grave mistakes, there are 2 good first party games out now but there both N64 remakes, 6 months on were still waiting for new software. Also, once word gets out to the masses that there is a hardware redesign coming its going to see another heavy blow to sales. Nintendo's Mistakes were definitely fundamental to its poor sales.

I think the handheld market will be shrinking from the last generation as all the casuals now get there fun from there smart phones instead of a DS, but i still believe the core gaming audience will be there to support these handhelds, and if Sony can get some cross over sales from PS Suite then they've hit the nail on the head in terms of strategy.
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Daniel Hughes Studying PhD Literary Modernism, Bangor University6 years ago
I'm impressed by Sony's effort to get Android style games onto Vita--it's a move I think Nintendo should have made with eShop, to court some of the better Android and AppStore developers and ask them to bring their games on board. Obviously for the foreseeable future Nintendo aren't going to do that, but if Sony get quality Android content onto Vita, then it does lessen the appeal of Android devices as game playing systems--if you can get those app experiences on Vita, alongside the more traditional software, then it has quite a range of compelling content.

I also think you attribute too much of 3DS's slow start to the smartphone boom--as Antony points out, Nintendo did make fundamental errors. Nintendogs was a poor choice of launch title, as the expanded market that drove the original title's success only came on board when Nintendogs was given a chance to build up momentum in the Christmas period. Early adopters shelling out £200+ for 3DS are never going to be the Nintendogs crowd--there was no excuse for Nintendo not launching with Zelda, really. The price was far too high, the marketing message confused, and the hardware didn't have all its built-in features from launch. The system also launched during the slowest sales time of the industry. I disagree with you Antony when you state 3DS sales will dip with word of a redesign--there is no redesign coming at this point, and with the price now very reasonable, and Nintendo bringing out Mario Kart and Land globally this Christmas, 3DS sales are going to go from strength to strength in the near term. I wouldn't be surprised if, next month, Nintendo announce Zelda and Nintendogs bundles.

Iwata's misinterpreted message at GDC this year still rings true--content is king. Nintendo's first party content still has a bigger market presence than anything Sony have brought up, and Nintendo's move to get Monster Hunter will prove vital in winning over the traditional base in Japan. In the long run, however, Nintendo have nothing on the scale of Brain Training or Nintendogs coming--Animal Crossing and Mario Kart will make for excellent 'bridge' titles that sell out from the core base of the machine and shift millions of systems, but they'll need more than that to build on or even match the success of DS. Granted, it's hard to call what's going on inside Nintendo's internal teams, but if they did have a title they believe can be the next Brain Training, surely Nintendo would have shown it by now?

It could very well be Sony's decision to have Android style experiences on Vita is absolutely vital to Vita's long-term viability. Hardware is sold on the strength of the content it can use, and if as many argue the traditional market is coming to an end, then the new experiences must come to dedicated handhelds in order to appeal to the wider market. I still think it's too soon to call--smartphone and tablet gamers may yet decide that Vita and 3DS are a good step up from their previous experiences. The decline of DS and PSP coincides with the rise of smartphones, but both systems were also passed their natural peak and were following the usual cycle of a traditional machine. Nintendo's ability to turn out system selling titles can't be understated, and Vita has strong Western third party support no handheld has ever really experienced. Even if only a minority of smartphone and tablet gamers make the jump to traditional handhelds, it could still boost the traditional market by tens of millions of users.

Both systems could be very successful machines--both systems could easily go onto PSP or GBA levels of success, but even in that scenario, the traditional market would have shrunk. A 220 million plus install base would have gone to a 140-160 million install base in the space of one generation. Sony are making a good move in bringing app experiences to Vita, and I hope that in the next year or two Nintendo make a similar move and accommodate app store developers on the eShop. It's going to be an interesting battle for both companies, and I hope they both help traditional handheld gaming retain its place in the industry.

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Fabien Roussot Developer, Gunjin Games Ltd6 years ago
I don't know if I'm the only one out there in this situation, but I still don't have a smartphone because I don't need one. My old 256 colors screen samsung still does the job fine with a week of battery life.
I was planning to get a 3G tablet, to complete my phone and be able to browses the web and interact with social networks anywhere I am. If the PS Vita offers of decent browsing experience and apps for me to check my facebook, gmail, etc. I may just skip the tablet and just get a PSV. It's cheaper, more powerful and I would be able to do everything I want/need anyway.
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Spungo McGee Reviewer 6 years ago
"What Vita needs to prove - and hasn't shown just yet - is that it's a device that justifies being carried in my pocket alongside my Android or iOS phone"

You must have really massive pockets.

That's not as glib a comment as it might sound - the enormous size of the Vita is going to be a seriously limiting factor if it's going to find itself in a fight with iOS and Android machines. You CAN'T put it in your pocket, so immediately it's left behind in the house unless you're taking a bag out with you, and people don't take bags with them everywhere. A smartphone, on the other hand, can (and does) go just about anywhere with you, and when you've got an electronic device in your hands all the time anyway it's absolutely natural to want to play games on it too.

Core gamers will buy a Vita to play in the house (where there's often competition for the telly), but most of them will never see fresh air, because the truth is that - like the 3DS, except even more so - it's a portable rather than a handheld.
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Liam Stockley Studying Computer Science, Nottingham Trent University6 years ago
I think it's a little early to be calling the the 3DS a failure. There are some great games coming up for the 3DS, just as there is for the Vita.
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Ryan Burch Web Journalist and Graphics, Metro Group Inc.6 years ago
I am just trying to be brief in this comment.

It's really funny to see all the industry insiders freaking out about the mobile space and its effect on portable gaming. The industry seems to be way too concerned with hitting the extremes of the scale, rather than focusing on hitting every point of the scale.

To illustrate my point literally, The 3DS is extreme gaming, iPhone/iPad is extreme mobile, and Xperia Play is the middle.

New gaming devices need to built with the same mentality as a gaming PC is built. The device is spec'd so the system can run games of various degrees well, in turn running non-gaming applications really well because of the high performance equipment.

Gaming controls can be added to tablets and phones, used for gaming and normal UI functions. Sony made a big mistake dedicating the controls for gaming only. They should have made those buttons work for navigating the Android OS.

Sony seems to be on the right track with their technology strategy otherwise. If they get the Vita supported by non-gaming developers and market it like a tablet, they could have some great success with. Microsoft is developing its next OS to be on any device and get Xbox Live a multiplatform service, and that's great too. Nintendo...they need to act like Apple, an Apple that cares about gaming.
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Art C. Jones Writer / Blogger 6 years ago
"designed to fend off the extremely damaging (and not entirely fair) accusation that the 3DS doesn't have any games"

I really agree with that one. I have been surprised at the attack on the 3DS library and can only explain it as anti-Nintendo gamer rage.

In addition to the obvious Zelda & Starfox there have been a lot of great games, that if listed for the Vita launch would be seen as great.
SF4 for example
or Dead or Alive
or Shadow Wars
or Resident Evil (which got saddled with its own media-created controversy [note: is was not the first {or second!} game on the 3DS to do saves that way...but the press seemed oblivious to that])

And there were a lot of competent games as well between PES, Pilotwings, Nintendogs, and Ridge Racer.

Not having a Mario game at release certainly hurt, but calling the library lacking I can only attribute to either not playing the games (a pretty common place to comment from on the internet for some reason) or just hating Nintendo (in which case the games still weren't played, but in this case of fanboy rage the speaker never intended to play the games to begin with).

I think the biggest problem Nintendo has run into is there is a strong anti-Nintendo climate from the Wii (really from players who apparently think of systems being life or death struggles where you must align yourself to one and hate all others). There were a lot of people waiting and desperately wanting the 3DS to do badly so they could release their venom of anger towards Nintendo. I think we're starting to get past that now, but it was an impossible situation. Nintendo has been in a corner for the last 12-18 months where they can't do anything right in the game media's eyes. I hope that continues to change b/c there is a lot of good gaming to be had on every platform, including Nintendo's ;).
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Aaron Tichenor developer 6 years ago
excellent article! you sum up the situation concisely. i can only hope that their release lineup is of sufficient calibre to warrant sony employing an in-your-face marketing campaign to really highlight the play experience difference between vita and smartphones.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
I think Sony and Nintendo are better off if they focus on the core gaming audience rather then the casual audience, but at the same time leave the door open for casual gaming developers to make games on the system and the means to deliver it. I think there are plenty of iOS and Android based devices that can offer casual gaming content, but cannot deliver a hardcore more focused AAA gaming expirience simply because the hardware limitations and the fact that it is always changing. new harware is delivered on a monthly basis from many many companies. So it would be suicide for a developer to make games for all types of hardware. The smart phone market doesnt have the means to deliver a AAA gaming expirience simply because the smart phone market caters to all types of users, and hardware specifications vary greatly.

But SONY and Nintendo have a hardware specifically designed for huge games. I think SONY is taking all the right steps. The network and means to deliver casual content is there. I still wouldnt pay 250$ for it, id stock up on games until a price drop. But PS Vita is defenitly a console Im looking to buy.
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"...most consumers who might have thought about a dedicated handheld own a smartphone..." is not a fact; it is speculation. Most people I know who have an smartphone/tablet would never have considered gaming before purchasing one, and still probably won't consider anything more involved than Angry Birds. It's an entirely different market, with a small degree of crossover. But the same people who used to buy a Gameboy for Pokemon are not the same people who casually play Angry Birds and Cut The Rope. Similarly, those who play such games are not likely to have ever been interested in portable Uncharted, Resistance, BioShock or any of the other fantastic announced games.

And the people who want to play games such as Uncharted etc, are not going to just settle for handheld casual titles when (for half the price of a damn iPhone anyway) they can get a dedicated handheld gaming rig where they can experience the greatest and best games the core gaming industry has to offer.
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