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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.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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