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Handle With Care: PlayStation Vita’s Balance Sheet

Friday, 25th November 2011 06:15 GMT By Stace Harman

With the launch of Sony’s powerful, slick and connected PS Vita just around the corner, Stace Harman considers the consoles chances in a crowded handheld market.

Coming soon: PS Vita

Launched in Japan and Asian territories in December 17; international launch on February 22.

Comes in two flavours – standard WiFi, and 3G equipped. NTT Docomo and Vodafone are Sony’s “preferred” 3G partners, but other telcos may offer compatible sims and connections.

The 3G model is priced at $299/€299/£279/AUD$449.95.

12 first-party titles plus an unrevealed number of third-party offerings will be available at launch, along with bundled AR games and a system software suite which includes Flickr, Facebook, and more.

Will support PSP titles with upscaling, allow the limited transfer of UMD-based PSP games, and may even stream PS3 games.

PS Vita is undeniably a technically impressive and desirable piece of hardware. Having had relatively little hands-on time at previous events, I was looking forward to spending some quality time with it at Sony’s recent Vita showcase in London. Primarily, I was interested to see if I’d be convinced by it, in a way that I never really was by PSP, and I came away from the showcase impressed, but also slightly wary.
During the opening presentation, Michael Denny, senior VP of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, took to the stage to outline the company’s strategy regarding Vita, kicking off by reiterating that “Vita is a state-of-the-art portable device with games at its heart”.

Certainly, the games on show on the night combined with a strong first-party launch line-up reinforce his words. Don’t be tempted to doubt the strength of that line-up: any console launch that is accompanied by enough varied and attractive titles that you can’t reasonably afford all of its best offerings has offered a strong launch indeed.

A diverse mix of established brands and new IP was on offer at the Vita event, with Sony’s own WipEout 2048 one of the stars of the show. It managed to feel both a natural fit for Vita and offer moments in which it outshone its PS3 counterpart and cross-platform play with PS3’s WipEout HD and Fury – with any mix of up to eight Vita and PS3 competitors – worked seamlessly over a wi-fi connection. To clarify: WipEout 2048 will not launch on PS3, instead tracks from Vita’s 2048 and PS3’s HD and Fury will be available for cross-platform play, with the game that the host is running determining which tracks are available for that particular play session.

Similarly, the newly announced Motorstorm RC will offer arcade-style racing that’s heavy on social features, with the ability to ping challenges to your friends and share your best track times for asynchronous cross-platform play, in other words: ghost-based time-trial. Motorstorm RC is set to launch at a “competitive price” which will net you access to both the PS3 and PS Vita versions.

Escape Plan is certainly unique.

The visually striking puzzler, Escape Plan, and Zipper Interactive’s newly announced third-person shooter, Unit 13, both offer new IP options that exceeded my expectations, while Uncharted: Golden Abyss is technically accomplished for a handheld title. That, however, is both a compliment and a concern.

There’s a danger that, once the initial admiration for Sony Bend’s accomplishment of fitting Drake into a handheld wears off, too close a comparison with Naughty Dog’s visually impressive PS3 iterations may cause murmurs of dissatisfaction. Is it wrong to compare the Vita and PS3 versions of Drake’s adventures? Maybe. But relative perception of value is inevitable and, for those so far undecided about Vita, this perception will no doubt be informed by Sony’s software pricing structure.

The price of success
This is one of the things making me wary of Sony’s Vita strategy. Undoubtedly, with no new home consoles immediately forthcoming, Vita could pick up some gamers who are willing to spend a few hundred pounds on new hardware and view Vita has technically impressive enough to drop the required asking price. Then there are the early adopters who will buy regardless and likely decided they would purchase the console as soon as it was announced.

If you opt for the wi-fi only unit with two of the launch titles plus a modestly sized memory card, you’re conservatively looking at paying in excess of £300.

But for the huge middle-ground, that mass of sceptical wallet-conscious gamers, Vita is patently not in impulse-buy territory. Supposing that you opt for the wi-fi only unit with perhaps just two of the launch titles plus a modestly sized proprietary memory card, you’re conservatively looking at paying in excess of £300 – and that’s even taking into account retailer bundle deals.

If you’re looking at the 3G model and associated data plan, plus a couple of games and a 32GB memory card, that price sails past the £400 barrier. Furthermore, neither of those scenarios takes into account any UMD-based PSP games that you might want to convert to be able to play on Vita; a large library of PSP games to be converted could easily add an extra £100 to the price.

This is important, because however technically impressive Vita is it needs a positive start to avoid being beaten down by over-excited analysts and media outlets alike. Vita need only have a modest launch period, in which it sells in respectable but unspectacular numbers, and reports branding it a failure will quickly crop up, further sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of the fence-sitting gaming public who themselves will begin to perceive it as a failure in spite of themselves and continue to stay away.

“What Vita does first and foremost is to unashamedly be a gaming device.”

“[Launching a new handheld console] is a challenge,” acknowledges Graeme Ankers, executive game director at Sony’s Studio Liverpool. “But what Vita does first and foremost is to unashamedly be a gaming device. Yes, it has touch-screen but it also has physical controls and is tailored to deliver top-drawer gaming experiences; that’s its core thing.

“The secondary part is that it’s a very connected device and so it allows us to go cross-platform with WipEout, you could argue it one way or another but I think that’s a very compelling experience. It’s an out and out gaming device.

“I can’t really comment on the 3DS and why that wasn’t successful, but I think if we play to the strengths of what Vita is and what it does then I guess we’ll find out what people think when it launches.”

Alarm bells
At the London Games Conference in early November, the subject of handhelds was raised briefly by Nicholas Lovell, web entrepreneur and author of the Games Brief blog. He posited that dedicated gaming handhelds would lose ground in the coming years.

“It’s a tough time to be a handheld business,” he said in his LGC presentation. “What it used to offer was really good gaming on the go. What it offers now is really good gaming on the go, much more expensively than other really good gaming on the go. I think is a real problem.”

Gravity Daze: Not on iPhone.

It makes for an interesting sound bite, but more revealingly a poll of the 160-strong industry-centric audience showed that 82 per cent agreed that dedicated handhelds would be losers as the transitions to a predominantly digital marketplace.

However, when holding the Vita in your hands much of the nay-saying surrounding dedicated handheld devices and concerns about pricing fade away, to an extent. Quite simply, using a Vita makes you want a Vita. The lush 5” OLED and responsive front touch-screen and rear touchpad controls look and feel luxurious. The twin sticks, whilst perhaps a smidgen too small, are responsive.

Moreover, all of those social features that we’re being bludgeoned with whenever Vita is mentioned and are already sick of hearing about not only work as you’d expect them to, enabling you to share photos, browse the web, check in via Foursquare and connect game content to Facebook, they also provide solid and intelligent uses in-game.

Vita’s biggest challenge, then, will be to prove that it is neither just a souped-up PSP nor a handheld PS3 and to convince those, like me, who were never quite swayed by its predecessor that the thrill of the ride justifies the price of admission.

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19 Comments

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  1. SuperGuyverUSA

    I personally can not wait for this machine to come out! I’m saving alot of money for it. Though, I must say to the people who think this will fail that it WILL fail for them. Gaming is exactly what we want it to be, and if they play more games on “phones” rather than game devices, then the future of gaming is in “phones”. I would like to see this change the gaming world, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. The_Red

    Great read. Vita has great visuals, good launch line-up (Perhaps the best compared to PS3, 360 or 3DS) and decent online features though the features I’m most excited about are the 2nd analogue and the rear touch screen. While I agree with most concerns mentioned, I think the biggest problem is lack of a “Wii Sports” like game for the masses or even a “Call of Duty” type of shooter.

    Even the rather expensive Kinect (When combined with the cost of 360 for most adopters) had Dance Central and Kinect Sports. They weren’t super hot but easily justified the price of admission for most non-committed consumers. Right now I’m dying to get my hands on Vita and titles like Gravity Rush / Daze and Uncharted GA but are they enough to get the masses who are already busy with Fruit Ninja on Tablets, Smartphones and Kinect? Hell, by the time Vita arrives there will be another chunk of audience playing Mario Kart on 3DS.

    Hopefully the quality of launch games, the system features and network features will ultimately help Vita stand against the tide of smartphones and tablets because of the 2 next gen gaming handhelds (Vita and 3DS), Vita is the only one with any chance (Nintendo is still ages behind in terms of online and connectivity which is more than essential for any modern digital device). If Vita fails, we could be looking at the definitive end of gaming only handhelds, which means no more 2nd analogue and that makes me sad :(

    #2 3 years ago
  3. Aimless

    I don’t think the Vita’s situation is that different to any new piece of gaming hardware. They don’t tend to launch at mass market prices — you could say neither the PS3 or 360 are at that point yet — but the cost will come down over time.

    Hardware pricing isn’t really the issue. In terms of unit sales the PSP is more successful than both the HD consoles, where it ran into trouble was with the attach rate of software as that’s where all the companies make their money. The real battle for the Vita is ensuring it doesn’t run into the same situation: I feel it’s in a much better place that its predecessor as it can host “console quality” games without such compromise and has a strong focus on digital delivery.

    Also, a small correction: Golden Abyss is being developed by Sony Bend, not Naughty Dog.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. Elven_Star

    Nice read. I’m pretty sure Vita can do much better than 3DS, as long as Sony keeps pouring in good games.
    As for the “much more expensively than other really good gaming on the go” stuff, the other experiences you mention like iOS and Android devices are absolutely not comparable with what you get on even PSP, let alone Vita.
    I have played Final Fantasy Tactics and Crimson Gem Saga on both PSP and iPhone 4 and I couldn’t tolerate the iOS versions for more than a couple of minutes. Pretty much the same graphics, but control wise, worlds apart.
    In the end, it’s pretty clear that no core gamer can look at iOS and Android devices as his first, and as some people claim, only choice for gaming on the go. And with introducing Minis, Sony has addressed the casual gaming issue as well. The only problem was that developing for Android/iOS was much easier. Vita supports Android software now, so I guess that won’t be an issue anymore.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. FeaturePreacher

    Can’t wait for COD for the vita. If that title reaches half the current COD audience, it can hopefully silence the nonsense of cloistered critics and their pitiful promotion of phoney games.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. DarkElfa

    I hate Sony as my long list of posts against them would attest, but even I’m thinking of buying one.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. The_Red

    Also, let’s not forget about the huge problem that is the launch date outside of Japan. Vita really needed to come out before Christmas. By the time it arrives on most market, people have already spent their money on 3DS and Mario Kart.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. Goffee

    And there was me assuming the Balance Sheet was some Wii board like peripheral. Ultimately, this is a plain consumer choice pure and simple – if it gets off to a slow start, Sony will cut the price as Nintendo had too.

    But over the 5-to-7 years of its lifespan (just like the PSP) Sony will rake it in – and it has a lot more software (in the form of publishers, casual games and back catalog) to back up the hardware with this time.

    #8 3 years ago
  9. OrbitMonkey

    Who wants to bet that a week before launch, Microsoft reveal/leak their next console?

    #9 3 years ago
  10. Johnny Cullen

    @3 – I’ve fixed it.

    #10 3 years ago
  11. 2plus2equals5

    November 30th i’ll preorder vita so i’ll get ear headphones :D

    #11 3 years ago
  12. The_Red

    @9 I would be really ironic since Sony did the same with with “NGP” the day serious 3DS info was coming out last year.

    #12 3 years ago
  13. daytripper

    @9 nah e3 it will be.

    i want a vita but the price coming to £300 for memory and a game also is a bit of a sticking point for me, i’ll eventually get one however when the price drops

    #13 3 years ago
  14. manamana

    If Guerilla is bringing a decent KZ to the Vita – I’m in!

    #14 3 years ago
  15. HauntaVirus

    This looks great but I might wait for the Slim version which is a few years down the road.

    #15 3 years ago
  16. Christopher Jack

    Well Sony certainly has a bigger chance to make an impact in the handheld gaming world with both PSV & PlayStation Suite than Microsoft does with WP7. My new Omnia 7 is naked! I just hope that MS are able to continue updating the platform & that my phone doesn’t get kicked to the curb any time soon.

    #16 3 years ago
  17. Kabby

    Certainly looks way ahead of the 3DS at this point in time. I’m sure Sony are a little worried for Europe after the PSP more or less tanked next to the DS.

    #17 3 years ago
  18. Telepathic.Geometry

    Honestly, I have nothing against Sony (I own and adore my PS3), but I can’t see anything that I would want this machine for that I couldn’t just do at home on my PS3. You can knock DS all you want, but from the start, it has always offered something you couldn’t get on your Wii/Gamecube.

    PSP is just like a miniaturised PS2/PS3 as far as I can see, potential touchscreen stuff being in there notwithstanding. I’m sure the faithful won’t agree with me there, but it seems like that to me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one…

    #18 3 years ago
  19. Christopher Jack

    @18, I disagree. Sony was pushing full fledged gaming into an area that’s only known very basic & primarily 2D games. While I do believe that those tried & true games like super Mario & the Pokemon jrpgs had a point, they were accessible & easy to get Into- something that the psp wasn’t exactly reknown for.

    Imo, all the PSV would need to do to fix that is have all games require an instant save/load function, usable even through the likes of cutscenes, which should probably be avoided in the first place for a portable game, but the fact that the hardware wouldn’t restrict the devs from that in the first place is only a testament to the doors that Sony have pushed open.

    #19 3 years ago