Along with many other eager gamers, as February 2012 approached I began absorbing every snippet of info about the Playstation Vita I could find. I read and re-read previews and press releases, and it all looked so good; this would be the console that proved the critics and doubters wrong, that the handheld market is still viable, and that not everyone is satisfied with just an iPhone and Angry Birds on the bus to work. I own a Vita, and it is an excellent piece of technology - it is comfortable to hold, is clearly powerful, has a myriad of innovative control inputs…the list goes on. Kotaku called it "the most powerful and physically capable gaming handheld ever made." So why isn't it a success?
Sales in Japan (traditionally a stronghold of handhelds and Sony in particular) slumped soon after release, dropping to a miserable 4000 units in the week of November the 5th. Even its predecessor, the now 7 year old PSP, outsold it 3 to 1 during that same week. Also in the same week came the revelation that the 3DS (all models) had sold over 180,000 units in the same period - giving people who claim that handhelds are dying out little evidence to base their view on. The question remains then; why is the Vita not the success it ought to be? What is Nintendo doing right that Sony is doing wrong? A lot of these bullet pointed articles suggesting what Sony ought to be doing are popping up across the gaming news sites, so here's my take on it:
Sadly, it all comes down to money. Nintendo realised this, and just 5 months after the 3DS's release they slashed the console's price by nearly a third, dropping from 25000 yen to 15000 yen (around £196 to £118, using conversion rates as they were at the time). Such a drastic move was always going to be a risk so soon in a console's lifespan, but it paid off; the 3DS's sales picked up and effectively rescued the handheld's future. By lowering the price, the 3DS became a justifiable purchase for gamers who had previously been put off, thus bolstering sales and install base. It has been 10 months since the Vita launched (12 in Japan) and no such price cut has been effected; while one has been discussed by Sony on various news sites, it will not be until 2013, with no word on how much it will be. If Sony do implement a price drop, it is likely that an increase in sales will follow.
2. Memory card
Something that I was genuinely shocked at was the price of Vita memory cards. While I can understand why Sony felt the need to use proprietary memory after having been so badly stung with PSP piracy (possible largely in part due to the widespread use of the ProDuo memory stick) the price of the Vita memory sticks is almost unjustifiable. The 32GB stick right now on Amazon is almost £60, compared to just £13.99 for a Sandisk SD card of the same size. This presents a very large hidden cost with the Vita, and with no memory stick included with the console (and a pathetic on-board memory) it's unsurprising many felt cheated by their Vita purchase. While changing this to something like SD or reverting to Pro Duo is probably something out of the question now that the Vita is in the public's hands, at least a significant price drop would go a long way to convincing consumers the Vita is worth having.
This is a fairly obvious one, yet it's something Sony still haven't got right. Since the Vita has released, the total number of full price games that aren't ports or stripped down versions of games is incredibly small. Gravity Rush is, in my view, the only Vita title that feels like it couldn't have been done anywhere else. Sequels like Uncharted: Golden Abyss are good and demonstrate the console's capability, but something like the Naughty Dog franchise isn't designed for a handheld and feels pared down, somehow lacking. So far, the title I have spent most time on is Rayman Origins, and that is available on many other platforms. In order to really make the Vita a no brainer, Sony need to create their killer app: a must-have game only available on the handheld. Which leads me to...
4. Monster Hunter
It is hard to understate how important the Monster Hunter franchise is in Japan; it has consistently topped the sales charts in the country year after year. Monster Hunter Freedom 2 (released only on PSP) was the highest selling game of 2008, beating titles like Pokemon Platinum. Monster Hunter Portable 3rd (also on PSP) was the called the fastest selling PSP title ever in Japan. The fact that Monster Hunter outsold the enormously popular and long running Pokemon series should have convinced Sony that, if anything, that was the series to hang on to for their handhelds. And yet now it is exclusively on Nintendo platforms - Nintendo even redesigned their entire 3DS system to make the game playable. That pretty much sums up how important the franchise is in Japan, and if I were Sony I would have fought tooth and nail to get an iteration of the series exclusively on the Vita.
Before gamers start lamenting the slew of journalists writing the Vita off as a failure and deeming it dead in the water, I want to say that I really, really want it to succeed. I bought one of the damned things, and it's incredibly frustrating to see a product with so much potential have its growth stunted by some extremely questionable decisions on Sony's part. It's not all bad though; as of late Sony does seem to be taking some steps in the right direction: the introduction of PS+ on the system (at no extra cost to existing subscribers) is a welcome move and one I am sure will swing the decision for some potential buyers.
This article was not written to suggest what the Vita could have been; it was meant to show what it can still be - with some smart thinking and planning, I am certain the Vita would flourish. As 2012 draws to a close, Sony will be evaluating the handheld's performance, and with more games announced for 2013 (such as Media Molecule's new title Tearaway) I can only hope that next year will see the Vita where it deserves to be; in the hands of many more gamers across the world.