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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.