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Sony PS Vita: Game Changer or Game Over?
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Sony PS Vita: Game Changer or Game Over?

Sony’s new portable gaming machine packs a punch, but is the PS Vita the right hardware for the wrong time? A careful look at its potential…

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Sony has finally unleashed the beast into American and European retailers as the PS Vita expands its reach outside Japan and – with any luck – into the hearts, minds, and hands of anxious gamers looking for the most powerful handheld experience yet. Sure, they may have already picked up Nintendo’s 3DS or any one of those fancy iPhone or Android things, but we’re talking serious ‘big boy’ gaming here, on a scale most thought we’d never see in our lifetimes.

The initial reviews have been almost uniformly positive, with most noting the Vita’s penchant for giving the hardcore gamer exactly what he wants: hardcore gaming. Note the terms “hardcore gamer” and the pronoun “he”, as those seem to be the two groups Sony’s really aiming for with their next-generation portable, with a marketing campaign keen on putting all those uppity casual mobile gamers – and their cheapie games and apps – in their place.

But what of the chicken little critics who question whether there’s even room for something like the PS Vita in today’s market, let along your pocket? While most are no doubt the product of unsavory types hoping to grab some traffic for their blogs with narrow-minded prognostications and panicked ideas of the “console-free” future, there may be a nugget of truth buried underneath the noise. The better question is whether there’s a even a market for big-budget, console-quality games on a portable machine, especially since the very essence of being ‘portable’ doesn’t lend itself to playing console-style games easily.

The Cost to be the Boss: Paying for Power

Technically speaking, the Vita is a beast: quad-core processing power, 512MB RAM, a big and beautiful 5” OLED touchscreen display, dual analog sticks, and more buttons and control options than you’ll ever need. Yes, the Vita is insanely powerful for handheld hardware, easily the most pixel-pushing monster we’ve ever seen. For now, at least.

It won’t be long before Moore’s law will be in full effect. It’s happening right now, in fact. Impressive when it was announced last year, the Vita’s OLED screen tech is fast-becoming standard on most of today’s smartphones, and with its razor-sharp 960-by-640-pixels at 326 ppi, Apple’s Retina Display already bests the Vita’s 960 x 544 pixels at 220 ppi (in a punier 3.5” vs. 5” screen). Nintendo’s 3DS grafted a second analog nub to its chassis this year, and its a fair bet that next-generation iPads + most leading-edge phones and tablets will boast enough power to rival or even blaze past the Vita’s quadruple cores sooner than you’d think.

With its turbo-charged tech and seemingly limitless control schemes the critics have lauded the PS Vita’s ability to play PlayStation 3-quality games on the go. What they’re not telling you is that you’ll have to pay PlayStation 3-quality prices to do so, starting with the hardware itself. The cheapest Vita, the WiFi-only model, will set you back $250 – the same price as a PS3 console. And because it lacks internal memory of any kind you’ll have to invest in one of Sony’s new propriety memory cards, the cheapest being the 4GB at $20 (the most expensive, 32GB, is a whopping $100). With taxes you’re already pushing $300 and that’s without any games. Factor in another $50 if you opt for the 3G model, plus extra for any carrying cases or covers to help protect that beautiful new screen from scratches.

And then come the games, which average between $40 (Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3) and $50 (Uncharted: Golden Abyss). Oh, there are plenty of lesser-expensive titles, and even more choices available to download on the PlayStation Store. But if you really want that new PS Vita to sing then you’re going to have to pony up the bucks; graphics like these won’t come cheap, and you probably aren’t buying one to play yet another version of Angry Birds. Plus, since your entire collection of UMD games aren’t compatible – and a good chunk of your prior PSN downloads – you’d best get used to the higher prices.

Sony’s design team has been in a state of flux in the post-Ken “Father of the PlayStation” Kutaragi era, marked by a string of failed experiments and a startling lack of vision on their part. As the PlayStation Brand assumes its rightful place at the head of Sony’s corporate dinner table – as evidenced by Kazuo Hirai’s ascension to company CEO – its no surprise that a gigantic conglomerate corporation like Sony would want the most attractive way to best utilize their significant movie, music, and gaming licenses in a familiar form-factor. The PlayStation does this and more, but its been a bumpy ride to hardware homogeneity.

Watching Sony fiddle with hardware design these days is like watching evolution in motion as they’ve released several permutations built off a familiar design: the DualShock controller. Among the samples include the original PSP, the castrated PSPgo, as well as their duo of Android tablets, the tapered Tablet S and the dual-screened folding Tablet P, both of which featured PS Suite compatibility. Heck, even their failed Google TV controller and its scads of buttons had vestigial elements of the design.

For most technology watchers, however, it was probably the poorly-received Xperia Play smartphone that most looked towards for glimpses of just where Sony might take their Next-Generation Portable machine. With its sliding control cabinet, download-only storage, and Android operating system, the Xperia took the best bits of the PSPgo and matched them with the best of the smartphone world for something both parties could get behind. Sadly, shoddy tech and a lack of support nipped that dream in the bud fairly quickly.

Yet, despite years of trial and error and failed prototypes, the PS Vita’s final design looks familiar: it’s the original PSP design with a secondary analog stick, and little else. It’s PSP 2.0, only with all of the whizz-bang toys like touchscreens, gyroscopic accelerometers, and GPS to help keep pace with the ever-changing technology zeitgeist. It’s being lauded as ‘the ultimate handheld’ and the ‘best portable’ gaming device ever created. Technically, maybe, but let’s call it what it really is: a home console that’s been shoehorned into a portable enclosure.

Just as with the original PSP the Vita doesn’t have a built-in shield to protect that giant screen, and the plethora of buttons extends its size way beyond the scope of most pockets. And with a battery life just hovering around ‘terrible’, you won’t want to stray too far from an outlet.

To be fair, this same criticism could be tossed at the 3DS, as Nintendo didn’t stray that far from the original DS design plan for its 3D-powered successor (like the Vita, basically adding an extra analog stick and calling it a day). Then again, the original DS’s fancy lid not only protected the dual-screens but also flipped closed and quickly put the system in hibernation mode, further reducing its size and making it very pocket-friendly. Plus, its folding design meant its backside also doubled as a stand on flat surfaces for easy stylus writing and comfy media watching. It was a portable designed to be portable, so it’s not really a surprise Nintendo would want to carry over what worked. Alas, the Vita makes no such concessions to those looking for an ideal portable experience, instead requiring them to pony up even more for luxuries like screen protectors and stands.

That cute tag-line just above is Sony’s marquee saying for advertising the Vita’s 3G features, letting those with 3G-enabled units take advantage of AT&T’s network. But not full advantage, as is seems the Vita’s 3G features are limited to web browsing, messaging, and checking out leaderboards. The only multiplayer available is smaller asynchronous (i.e. turn-based) bursts, relegating the real-time beefier gaming and downloads bigger than 20 Megs to bandwidth-friendly WiFi connections.

Limiting connectivity isn’t unusual in the smartphone market, but given that many next-generation phones now ship with built-in hotspot features and libraries of multiplayer games and you’ve got a questionable investment with what’s on the table. Factor in the added cost of driving your Vita on the 3G highway ($50 hardware premium + data plans at 250MB for $15 or 3GB for $30) and it’s hard to justify paying for such puny access. Honestly, you’re better off investing in a mobile MiFi and paying for data access separately if you absolutely need to download big files and play online. Which is really a bummer considering you can easily game on iOS and Android devices – iPad included – over their respective 3G networks.

Games, Games, and More Games Still

Of course, having the best technology and all the buttons in the world won’t mean anything if you don’t have the right software to take advantage of them, and Sony’s been praised for what appears to be an impressive lineup of launch games, certainly among the strongest for any new platform in recent memory. They might seem a bit familiar, especially if you’re a dedicated fan already rocking a PlayStation 3. Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, FIFA Soccer, Rayman Origins, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, BlazBlue: Continuum Shift…all good in their own right, but what if you’ve already picked them up for your stationary PlayStation 3? Sure, the Vita’s launch has all sorts of itty-bittier downloads and exclusives, but you probably didn’t buy one for anything less than PS3-quality excellence and quality. Like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which might not be as grand as Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but its oh-so-close.

Those with sharp memories might recall how this is strikingly similar to what Sega attempted with the Game Gear, a similarly-shaped portable that was technically superior to the blurry, bulky monochrome Gameboy, and even let users watch TV with the optional TV Tuner (multimedia!). But among its many detractors was Sega’s misleading promise of being able to play “all your favorite games” anywhere you wanted; truthfully, most Game Gear games were little more than watered-down and inferior ports of hit Genesis titles, which meant settling for less and paying more.

Nintendo’s strategy, on the other hand, was to build experiences around the Gameboy’s strengths and weaknesses, creating unique games that weren’t just tailored to its inferior technology, but to the very essence of portability as well. True, you wouldn’t be getting scaled-down ports of Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, but Super Mario Land and Link’s Awakening hardly felt like compromises. Enter big blockbusters like Kirby’s Dreamland and Pokémon and you’ll begin to see why Nintendo was able to sell their black-and-white handheld for so long.

In all fairness, the PS Vita is hardly the Game Gear (or even a TurboExpress if we’re being nostalgic). Sony’s plans to make the Vita play nice with elements of the PlayStation 3, including cross-platform play and shared purchases, is intriguing and possibly the device’s Trump card. But expecting gamers who have already purchased games on their PS3 consoles to repurchase them just to be able to ‘play them anywhere’ isn’t going to work, just like it didn’t work when they tried the same thing with the PSP and PS2. The Vita’s powerful hardware and near-parity with the PlayStation 3 might make it a dream for developers seeking quick ‘n easy profits with a quick port, but this sets up a nightmare scenario: Will anyone choose a similarly-priced PS Vita version of a game they could play on their bigger HDTV on the PlayStation 3? Unless Sony adopts Apple’s ‘Universal App’ practice of interoperability between the two platforms, this is highly unlikely.

The sobering truth is that the cost of developing games that take advantage of the Vita’s considerable powers may not be worth the investment, especially for anything other than ports of pre-existing AAA titles whose recoverable budgets are factored in against cumulative multi-platform sales, with the Vita just one among many. This problem isn’t limited to the Vita; the escalating costs of developing big-budget, graphically intense games for the home consoles has strained even the most successful developers, many who’ve watched their profits for blockbuster titles diminish while their fortunes for the casual mobile market are busting through the roof.

AAA-blockbusters don’t lend themselves easily to portability, and the experience on a 5” screen, no matter how crisp ‘n clear, will never be more impressive than a decent home setup. The mobile world is dominated by the likes of Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, and more tower defense games than you can shake a level 5 troll at. The Vita can easily handle these – and then some – but probably not willingly. Likewise, having a library of apps like Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, etc., may help bridge the gap, but smartphones and tablets are already the go-to devices for these experiences and much more, and usually come in less unwieldy packages.

It’s likely that we’ll see plenty of support for the Vita from the usual gaggle of port-friendly publishers like Activison, EA, and Ubisoft, each offering ‘versions’ of their most popular titles alongside the many other versions. I wouldn’t hold my breath for many AAA-powered exclusives, outside of Sony’s stable of in-house developers, much like what we’re seeing with the PlayStation 3 and its library of Xbox 360 quality efforts. Again, one could argue this symbiotic buying behavior also happens with Nintendo and their consoles and propriety first-party games, but they also produce the most desirable system-sellers like Super Mario, Zelda, Brain Age, and Mario Kart. As good as they are, Sony’s yet to have the same success with franchises like Uncharted, God of War, and LittleBigPlanet, outside of their most loyal-of-loyal fans.

As attractive as those dual-analog sticks and blistering visuals are, its impossible to imagine that even the most adventurous hardcore gamer opting to play Vita versions of Call of Duty, Battlefield, or even Madden instead of their high-definition console counterparts.

There’s no denying that the Vita hasn’t enjoyed the best reception since it launched in Japan last year, starting off with a bang before slinking down the charts into ‘danger’ territory. It’s not that the Vita isn’t selling well compared to the competition, it’s not selling well at all. Since December it’s held steady near the bottom of the charts, easily bested by the likes of the 3DS, PlayStation 3, Wii, and – most embarrassingly – the original PSP. Vita games haven’t faired any better, with no blockbusters worth noting or new titles appearing with any regularity on the software charts.

What makes this all the more dire is that Japan is supposed to be safe ground for Sony. The original PSP enjoyed a renaissance in its home country long after most of the world abandoned it, thanks to a healthy stream of new Monster Hunter, Gundam, and every freaky combination of racing + dating simulator you could imagine (but probably better off not).

That the PS Vita should somehow become the industry’s ‘canary in the mine’ test for the viability of the dedicated portable machine is both ridiculous and unfair, as Sony has never been in the position to take on such a role. Last generation’s mobile fight between Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP wasn’t even close, with the DS moving over 151 million units and the PSP just over 70 million, so say nothing of the galactic software gulf between the two. Predicting the future of dedicated portable machines based on the Vita’s performance is the domain of idiots and trolls, neither of which seem to have any understanding of the facts or reality.

Nintendo’s 3DS had the rockiest launch in the company’s history, and its failure to immediately match its predecessor’s success was met with enough doomsday prophecy to make the Mayans jealous. Surely, if Nintendo couldn’t survive in this new age of smartphone and iPad gaming, nobody could. Even their squirrely stockholders pleaded for them to start releasing Mario games for their new mobile masters. It was the end of days for the company built on the back of magic mushrooms and love hotels.

Only it wasn’t. A substantial price-drop and flood of AAA-quality games changed everything overnight, and the 3DS became a true phenomenon, selling millions and becoming the fastest-selling console in Japan’s history. At the time of this writing the Japanese software chart is completely dominated by 3DS software, and all signs point to this success being duplicated across the globe. This happened because, after a stubborn start, Nintendo finally reacted to the needs of the market and their long term health, embracing the economic uncertainty and changing tastes of users who’ve come to expect a lot for 99 cents. Super Mario 3D Land may be the dazzling 3D entree, but there’s plenty of appetizers to munch on in the meantime. They realized that both camps can co-exist peacefully in this brave new world of iProducts, which is only appropriate, considering they basically created the market with their one-two punch of the “WiiDS Revolution“.

Sony can weather this blitzkrieg of competition if they’re smart, but, like Nintendo, it’s going to take a massive rethink of their strategy to do so. Even if they manage to stop the bleeding and the Vita finds itself in the same position as last generation, apart from the endless monster hunting and managing digital wives, this isn’t going to work outside of Japan. Sony’s relative success in Nippon for the Vita won’t be enough for them this time around, and if the pirates make the Vita as bootleg-friendly as its predecessor it’ll die a quick death. Publishers won’t tolerate their best moonlighting on the torrent circuit this time around.

Yes, the hardware is impressive today, but less so tomorrow, and by next year it’ll be proclaimed obsolete by the same techno snobs who sing its praises today. Never trust the techno elite; they swap out gadgets faster than their underwear.

Times have changed and it’s no longer a two-horse race for mobile supremacy; that’s already been long won by a company from Cupertino. It’s about survival at this point, and that means making the changes and shifts necessary to stay afloat. Just look at Microsoft, whose failure to convince users to adopt their Metro-planed Windows Phone meant snuggling up and playing nice with *gasp* Apple and iOS. Price-drops and accepting the upstarts and ‘garage’ developers into the fray helped save the day for Nintendo, and don’t be surprised if the Wii U is more tablet-console than console-tablet.

Sony has been struggling financially for years, sacrificing failed platforms and ventures lest they bring down the rest of the company. Perhaps Kazuo Hirai’s tenure at the top is just the spark they need, but they no longer have the luxury of time and money to finance a struggling platform out of a prolonged infancy like they did with the PlayStation 3 and its “Five Hundred Ninety-Nine US Dollars” phase. You’d best believe they’ll drop the PS Vita if it comes to that, and I’m not talking about the price.

Which would be a shame, as the PS Vita really does seem like a console at the crossroads; its best smartphone features are done better on a smartphone, its best gaming features done better on a home console. And therein lies the paradox; it’s a portable specifically designed to attract the hardcore gamer, yet if you’re a hardcore gamer then you’re probably not gaming on a portable in the first place.

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About the Author: Nathan Evans