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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From a technological perspective, 3DS already looks outdated, while question marks remain over just how long Vita can remain competitive bearing in mind the breakneck speeds of development in the mobile arena.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.

The Vita version of Uncharted demonstrates how next-gen mobile technology is almost a match for what top developers are achieving on current generation home console platforms.

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.

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Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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