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PS Vita could be the first post-retail system

With a bit of vision correction, Sony's handheld is well positioned for a long and potentially lucrative life

"I'm very proud to showcase for the first time in North America the successor to the PlayStation Portable. What you've come to know as NGP, or Next-Generation Portable, is officially named PlayStation Vita. So what does Vita mean? Vita means life."

That was Kaz Hirai at Sony's E3 2011 press conference, just before he detailed Sony's grand vision for its second major foray into the handheld gaming world. Vita may mean life, but that original vision for the platform died a very quick death.

Hirai was promising an all-in-one device that would be deeply integrated into its users' lives. It would have 3G support, integrated social media functionality, and location-based gaming. Put together, those features would bring players closer to their entertainment while bringing them closer to each other. That was the goal, anyway.

Sony never made a good argument for why consumers should pay for 3G service on their Vitas, especially when they were forced to go through AT&T for it.

Sony never made a good argument for why consumers should pay for 3G service on their Vitas, especially when they were forced to go through AT&T for it. The Vita's 3G couldn't be used for real-time online multiplayer games, and the benefits of the Near social networking functionality were never clearly explained to users or taken advantage of by developers. When it came time to release a cheaper, smaller redesign of the Vita, Sony dropped the 3G functionality entirely. Earlier this week, the company said an upcoming firmware update would scrap its Maps application and remove some of Near's features for all users, even those with the original 3G hardware.

The other big sales pitch for the Vita was that it was the most powerful handheld of all time, that it would play host to a new generation of portable AAA-caliber content. And to be fair, there was some of that. Uncharted and Assassin's Creed both saw original Vita games that, while not up to par with their console siblings, were more-than-respectable attempts to forge new territory on the handheld. But more common than that were updated re-releases (Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Final Fantasy, Persona), middling games that only vaguely resembled the franchises that spawned them (Batman: Arkham Origins, Silent Hill: Book of Memories), or worst of all, Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified (its 33 Metacritic rating is the second lowest ever for a Vita game).

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The PSP Go was a sexy piece of hardware that arrived after the PSP was all but dead and only played a fraction of that platform's games.

In some ways it's a little reminiscent of the Vita's ill-advised predecessor, the PSP Go. The digital-only version of the PSP was never set up to succeed, from the way it cut retailers out of the ecosystem almost entirely (they could still sell accessories and PlayStation Network cash cards) to the consumer unfriendly way it slashed the system's library of available titles (many PSP games were never released digitally). The PSP Go hardware was slick and attractive, but Sony was trying to sell it without proper software or retailer support.

The Vita's struggles have similar roots. When Sony launched its new handheld on the strength of two major selling points--3G-enabled social integration and portable AAA titles--and followed through on neither of them. Predictably, the Vita floundered. The big publishers stopped supporting it, and retailers gave it limited shelf space. Usually, that would add up to a dead console.

Yet the Vita enjoys a zombie-like undeath. All reason suggests the system should be dead and gone, and it certainly doesn't appear "healthy" in any sense of the word. But where the PSP Go died a quick and quiet death, the Vita stubbornly presses on, animated by unseen forces. Grim metaphor aside, this could be a very good thing, both for Sony and the industry. (Well, some parts of the industry.) With the Vita, I believe Sony has accidentally created the first viable post-retail console, a system that not only doesn't need a presence in Walmart or GameStop, but might actually fare better without it.

The Vita doesn't need a presence in Walmart or GameStop, and might actually fare better without it.

The Vita suffers from an image problem. Just ask Drinkbox Studios' Chris McQuinn. His company has been a supporter from the beginning (Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack was a launch title), and its upcoming Severed is a Vita exclusive. Speaking with GI.biz last year, McQuinn acknowledged the Vita's reputation, but said it was undeserved; the studio's own Guacamelee sold nearly as many copies on Vita as it did on PS3 despite the vast disparity in installed user base.

"I think what people fail to understand is the purchasers of Vitas are very, very engaged game consumers," McQuinn said. "For them, the attach rate with games is very high. There might not be a lot of Vitas out there, but the people who do own Vitas are very serious consumers; they buy a lot of games."

They just don't buy them at retail. The next time you're at a big box retailer, hunt down the Vita section, assuming it still has one. It's probably a pretty sad sight, a small slice of shelf space with a handful of ancient retail games, a few overpriced memory cards, and accessories like power docks or carrying cases that aren't even compatible with the currently available hardware (that's if they actually have any systems to sell). Maybe there's a copy of Minecraft, or a newish Japanese RPG of minor repute.

If Sony caters to the indie audience that is already making and consuming successful games on the system, it can extend the Vita's viable lifespan indefinitely.

Whatever is there, it isn't going to sell anyone on a $200 investment. Instead, it's going to reinforce perceptions that the Vita is a deeply unpopular system with a desperate shortage of interesting games. Changing that perception would require big-name retail games from mainstream franchises, and both Sony and its third-party partners have made clear they have no taste for such an endeavor. The best Sony could possibly be hoping for is that Remote Play functionality with PS4 games takes off and the Vita shelf space can quietly be folded into the PS4 accessory shelf space.

The good news is that the Sony doesn't actually need a home run at retail here. Vita can win in the long run not by aiming for the fences, but by playing small ball. If Sony caters to the indie audience that is already making and consuming successful games on the system, it can extend the Vita's viable lifespan indefinitely.

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The Vita redesign was a good opportunity to target a new audience. Instead, Sony bundled it with the system's only AAA release in recent memory, Borderlands 2.

As it stands, the Vita hardware has more than enough horsepower to run most indie games. Given that most of the envelope-pushing in indie games is done on a thematic level rather than a technical one, that should hold true for some time. And since there will be no AAA publishers on the Vita demanding a faster, better, more expensive version of the handheld, Sony won't be in a hurry to roll out a next-gen piece of kit, either.

So small developers get a platform capable of showcasing their best efforts, but without having to go up against the AAA competition of consoles or needing to stand out from the horde of new App Store efforts. They also get a platform with multiple release windows: original launch, PlayStation Plus giveaway, and (if it takes off) PlayStation Now streaming library title. Gamers get a well-designed piece of hardware with a diverse array of interesting games mostly free from AAA trends (for better or worse), all of which have passed Sony's certification and curation criteria. And Sony gets a cut of every sale and a chance to make back whatever money it sunk into its original PS Vita vision, not to mention a new market and the first sustainable niche console. It's a classic win/win/don't-lose-as-badly-as-everyone-thought scenario.

If the system's niche is a specialist device for a specialist audience, it should be treated as such. Either pull it from the shelves entirely or change the pitch in a fundamental way.

On some level, Sony has already realized this. Last year, Shu Yoshida suggested that the future of Vita software was going to be independently developed cross-platform titles, as Sony acknowledged a drop-off in first-party support. Months later, Sony UK chief Fergal Gara said the system had "found its niche" as a specialist device and was enjoying "robust and consistent" sales as a result.

Unfortunately, Sony hasn't put the Vita in the best position to capitalize on those revelations. If the focus is shifting away from major retail releases and toward downloadable ports, the system's memory cards can no longer be offered as an expensive luxury. They need to be cheaper, or better yet, replaced by a non-proprietary format in a future iteration of the hardware. And if the system's niche is, as Gera said, a specialist device for a specialist audience, it should be treated as such. Either pull it from the shelves entirely or change the pitch in a fundamental way. The Vita is unlike any other gaming system before it, and Sony is making a mistake trying to sell it like one.

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Latest comments (7)

Paul Murphy Owner, The Vita Lounge3 years ago
This was a great read. The Vita really has fallen into a niche for being a system where you can play some really outstanding titles, and has a very dedicated fanbase that is appreciating these games, as well as a whole host of weird and wonderful Japanese titles which are increasingly being localised. It really has moved from what it was intended though, and an increasingly vocal group of people cannot lose sight of this.

I'm not sure that pulling it from retail is a good move, as although it's not going to shift millions of units, you'd think they would want that audience to grow but they do need to find a way of making what's at retail more appealing. GAME having digital downloads is a great start and you are seeing more demo units in stores now, but they need more training or understanding on what's actually available.

I love my Vita and it's easily my most played gaming system and as such my PS4 doesn't really get a look in, even with remote play and my gaming tastes have evolved mostly thanks to the Vita.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 3 years ago
3G was there for Japan, a feature that would give it a demonstrable standout feature over DS, AND IN THEIR HOPES, GIVE THAT Japanese consumer a reason to switch. The problem is that Vita was designed for a pre-smartphone era. In Japan giant flip feature phones are still common, and they hoped the Vita would give them what they didn't have, and give school kids something their parents could trust them with. But while 3G hardware only adds $15-20 to the build cost, there's a lot of design and testing that goes into it that is very, very expensive, which is typically made up for by gouging the consumer. Unfortunately no one seemed to care enough to make it worthwhile. At the time, and still, AT&T attempts to lock in customers by hooking their service to hot new tech. The iPhone, Vita, Kindle Fire phone, they likely gave plenty of moeny to support those costs to lock it in.

The Vita is simply too expensive to take off the market, so they'll tread water with it until they figure out what to do. They've moved a bunch tompeople looking to try out remote play, but it's not going to be enough to get things going. Repurposing the Vita into a set top box is a good idea, but it's expensive for what it is, with again a limited audience who would purchase it over a Roku or a Chromecast or an AopleTv.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.3 years ago
Hang on. There are two devices on the market with rabid fanbases. One selling better than the other, sells more first party software than the other, sells more peripherals,than the other, has just as much indie support as the other, still has retail support... yet one is doomed and the other is set for a post-retail renaissance?

Vita's biggest reason for failing was it's jack of all trades master of none direction. It tried to be everything without doing anything exceptionally well. Dedicated devices with better 'X' simply prevented Vita from ever establishing itself. And that's on top of the market eating that mobile already did to begin with, which, truth be told, was going to brutalize 8th generation portable consoles anyway.
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Show all comments (7)
Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 3 years ago
But with the news of removing maps and youtube with the next firmware, it sounds more like the PS-vita is being dumped by Sony..

You've already got a free SDK for the vita with PS-Mobile (or Unity for PS-Mobile), but it would be better if Sony just released the full SDK using the same developer registration (and if it were up to me, also the PS3/PS4 SDK's)..
Even the PS3 could have an extended life if they were to make the SDK free for all (indie and wannabe) developers, as they will make money through PSN-store sales (which ofcourse would be the only way for developers to sell/distribute their games)..
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Christopher Garratty Associate Counsel, Activision Blizzard3 years ago
@Andrew: I think it looks more like a re-focus from Sony. Most people have a phone to hand that will deal with the youtube and maps software, so I don't really feel that this is a great loss. Also, probably worth noting that it is more likely that Google is no longer supporting the YouTube and Maps apps due to low traffic via them, rather than Sony making this decision unilaterally, though that is pure speculation on my part.

This leaves Vita to focus on being a gaming device. Personally, I feel like it has a much improved library of late, and with titles like Swapper, Rogue Legacy and Transistor being free downloads via PS Plus, other niche titles like Grim Fandango being cross buys giving me access on my PS4 and Vita, and other Vita exclusives (in Europe) like Danganronpa 2 means it takes a decent proportion of my gaming time (and money).
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 3 years ago
Gotta agree with Jim here.

The Vita is a great piece of hardware - I don't regret buying it. However it's severely limited by SONY's execution of the user experience on the console:

1. The Console is locked to a single user profile. Oh, you can change it but that can (supposedly) be done only every few months and the Vita has to be essentially factory reset in order to do this... you also have to navigate the terribly designed website SONY made for account users to register and delete devices in their profile.
This is a huge step away from the multi-user experiences of the PS3 and PS4.

2. The memory cards are locked to a single profile. I'd have no problem if it was just the games - that makes sense. But the whole card is locked to a single user and cannot be inserted and mounted without the Vita trying to exterminate all data on it no matter how much free space there is on there!

3. Remote connection just isn't thought out well at all. It's great on PS4, much more fleshed out and could be a viable alternative to the main screen of the TV/monitor the PS4 is attached to but that comes with too many caveats to really work at this moment in time:
- You have no ability to remap controls when remote connecting (at least in all the games I've tried it on) and this is really needed because of the propensity of developers to put L2 and R2 on the rear touchpad.
- You can't use remote play on all games (Minecraft springs to mind!)
- The profile using the Vita cannot use a PS4 controller (which would render the first sub-point moot) but a second profile can whilst you use the Vita as a screen.... which is crazy!

4. You can't change any settings in the PS4 menu when remote connecting which means that the whole reason you're using the remote connection can be rendered pointless when you have to interrupt the main screen activity in order to change something like making sure the network is detected properly...
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Daniel Hughes PhD Researcher, Bangor University3 years ago
While I'd love to see a renaissance here, we're talking about a system with a similar install base to the Wii U, after more time on the market, in an even more competitive market than the home console scene, with lower ongoing sales than the Wii U. Is Sony's cut of fees from indie and small scale games enough reason for a struggling corporation to keep the system on the market? Sony seemed to be positioning Vita as a PS4 accessory this time twelve months ago, but they've gone very quiet about that, too.

Like others here, I'd love to see a renaissance for Vita. It's a brilliant piece of hardware with some excellent games. But I think it's too little, too late. I think you do have something, though, Brendan, in your idea of what a dedicated handheld needs to be going forward. Maybe Vita will be a little like Dreamcast in that regard; badly mismanaged, but forward looking in a number of ways that the market won't appreciate right now. But as Jim has pointed out, there's another handheld on the market with somewhere near 80% marketshare. Even if sales are declining, 3DS will have sold near as much (~9 million units) in the last financial year as Vita has in its lifetime. Right now that more traditional idea of a dedicated handheld is performing far better, and if anyone stands to gain on the lessons learnt from Vita, I think it's more likely to be whatever Nintendo launch next, rather than Sony.
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