Sony's Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida was only stating the obvious when he told the audience at EGX that the "climate is not healthy" for a successor to the company's struggling handheld console, the PlayStation Vita, but sometimes even the obvious makes for an interesting statement, depending upon who's stating it.
The likelihood of another handheld console from Sony turning up in the foreseeable future is considered to be incredibly low by almost everyone, and it's notable that there's never been so much as a whisper about what such a successor might look like or comprise; it's so vanishingly unlikely to come to pass, why even bother speculating on what might be? Yet for commentators and analysts to dismiss the notion of Sony carrying on in handheld is one thing; for such a senior figure at the company to seemingly join in that dismissal is another. The final step of the long and strange handheld journey which Sony started with the announcement of the PSP's development all the way back in 2003 won't come until the Vita reaches its official end-of-life, but Yoshida's statement is the moment when we learned for certain that the company itself reckons the handheld market is past saving.
It's not that there's any lack of affection for the Vita within Sony, including Yoshida himself, whose Twitter feed confirms that he is an avid player of the system. Even as weak sales have essentially rendered AAA development for the Vita financially unsustainable, the firm has done a great job of turning it into one of the platforms of choice for break-out indie hits, and much of the success of the PS4 as a platform for indie games can be traced back to the sterling work Sony's team did on building relationships and services for indies on the Vita. For that alone, it's a shame that the console will apparently be the last of its line; there are some games that simply work better on handhelds than on home consoles, and some developers who are more comfortable working within the limitations of handheld systems.
"When the competition...is replaced every couple of years with a better model, the best set of buttons and sticks on earth just can't compete for most consumers"
Yoshida is right, though; mobile phones are the handheld killer. They may not be as good at controlling the kind of games that the PSP and Vita excelled at, but mobile devices are more powerful, more frequently updated, carried everywhere and heavily subsidised by networks for most users. Buttons and sticks make for wonderful game controllers, as Yoshida noted, but when the competition has a great multi-touch screen and accelerometer, a processor faster than most laptops only a few years ago, and is replaced every couple of years with a better model, the best set of buttons and sticks on earth just can't compete for most consumers. Even if Sony could release a Vita 2 tomorrow which leapfrogged the iPhone 6S, within a year Apple, Samsung and others would be back out in front.
That's not to say that this battle can't be won. Nintendo has still managed to shift a dramatic number of 3DS consoles despite the advent of the smartphone era - though in typically Nintendo style, it chose not to play the competition at their own game, favouring a continuation of the DS' odd form-factor, a 3D screen and a low-cost, low-power chipset over an arms race with smartphones (and, indeed, with the Vita). Crucially, Nintendo also pumped out high quality software on the 3DS at a breathtaking pace, at one point coming close to having a must-buy title on the system every month. Nintendo's advantage, as ever, is its software - and at least in part, its longevity in the handheld market is down to the family-friendly nature of that software, which has made the 3DS popular with kids, who usually (at least in Japan, the 3DS' best performing market) do not carry smartphones and generally can't engage with F2P-style transactions even if they do. Vita, by comparison, aimed itself at a more adult market which has now become saturated with phones and tablets.
So; is that the end of Sony's handheld adventure? Trounced by Nintendo twice over, first with the DS' incredibly surprising (if utterly obvious in hindsight) dominance over the PSP, then with the 3DS' success over the Vita, Sony nonetheless carved out an impressive little market for the PSP, at least. Vita has failed to replicate that success, despite being an excellent piece of hardware, and 12 years after news of the PSP first reached gamers' eager ears, it looks like that failure and the shifting sands of the market mean Sony's ready to bail out of handhelds. With the stunning success of PS4 and the upcoming PlayStation VR launch keeping the company busy, there's seemingly neither time, nor inclination, nor resources to try to drive a comeback for the Vita - and any such effort would be swimming against the tide anyway.
I would not go so far as to say that Sony is dropping out of handheld and portable gaming entirely, though. I think it's interesting, in the context of Yoshida's comments, to note what the company did at TGS last month - where a large stand directly facing the main PlayStation booth was entirely devoted to the Sony Xperia range of phones and tablets, and more specifically to demonstrating their prowess when it comes to interacting with a PS4. The devices can be hooked up to a PS4 controller and used for remote play on the console; it's an excellent play experience, actually significantly better in some games than using the Vita (whose controls do not perfectly map to the controller). I use my Vita to do simple tasks in Final Fantasy XIV on my PS4 while the TV is in use, but it wouldn't be up to the task of more complex battles or dungeons; I'd happily do those on an Xperia device with a proper controller, though.
Remember when the Vita launched and much of the buzz Sony tried to create was about how it was going to interact with the PS4? That functionality, a key selling point of the Vita, is now on Xperia, and it's even better than it was on the devoted handheld. Sony's phones also play Android games well and will undoubtedly be well-optimized for PlayStation Now, which means that full-strength console games will be playable on them. In short, though the Vita may be the last dedicated handheld to carry the Sony brand, the company has come a long way towards putting the core functions of Vita into its other devices. It's not abandoning handheld gaming; it's just trying to evolve its approach to match what handheld gaming has become.
"What's happening with Xperia - in terms of remote play, PS Now, and so on - is an interesting look at how consoles and smartphones might co-exist in the near future"
It's not a perfect solution. Not everyone has or wants an Xperia device - Japan is the best performing market for Sony phones and even here, Apple is absolutely dominant, with iPhones holding more than half of the market share for smartphones. If Sony is being clever, though, it will recognize that the success of the PS4 is a great basis from which to build smartphone success; if the Xperia devices can massively improve the user experience of the PS4, many owners of those devices may well consider a switch, if not to a new phone then at least to one of the Xperia tablets. It might also be worth the company's time to think a little about the controllers people will hook up to the Xperia to play games; I love the PS4 controller, but it's bulky to carry in a bag, let alone a pocket. If the firm is serious about its phones and tablets filling the handheld gap, a more svelte controller designed specifically for Xperia (but still recognizably and functionally a PS4 pad) would be an interesting and worthwhile addition to the line-up.
Nonetheless, what's happening with Xperia - in terms of remote play, PS Now, and so on - is an interesting look at how consoles and smartphones might co-exist in the near future. The broad assumption that smart devices will kill off consoles doesn't show any sign of coming true; PS4 and Xbox One are doing far, far better than PS3 and Xbox 360 did, and while the AAA market is struggling a little with its margins, the rapid rise of very high quality indie titles to fill the gap left by the decline of mid-range games in the previous generation means the software market is healthier than it's been for years. If consoles aren't going away, then we need to be thinking about how they'll interact with smart devices - and if that's what Sony's doing with Xperia and PlayStation, it's a strategy that could pay off handsomely down the line.