Johnny Cullen talks to Ubisoft, Namco Bandai, Square Enix and more about their experiences with PlayStation Vita.
First-party Sony teams like Studio Liverpool, Evolution and Sony Bend has taken to Vita like a duck to water with their respective projects, but there's also been strong support on the third-party front for the system.
Activision and 2K are bringing versions of Call of Duty and BioShock respectively; Hideo Kojima is working on Vita versions of the MGS and ZoE HD Collections; and Capcom has pledged to bring Street Fighter x Tekken to the system - but there's more from Captain Capcom for Vita in the form of launch title Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3.
According to producer Ryoto Niitsuma, bringing the fighter over to the handheld from consoles wasn't too much of a challenge.
"The spec of the Vita hardware was really technical and we already had the MT Framework engine, so bringing the game over wasn’t as difficult as we thought it’d be," he told VG247.
"That said though, we spent a lot of time coming up with ideas in the tight schedule. We had to understand what the PS Vita was capable of and maximize its features, which we had great fun in doing."
Vita has gone through some changes since it was first shown to developers as a PSPgo like device. One developer suggested the dramatic makeover was inspired by advice from studios lined up to work on the handheld.
"[When] it was still in the prototype stage, we knew roughly what power it was going to have and what functions it was going to have to a degree, but [Sony] still hadn't thought through it completely," said Just Add Water studio boss Stewart Gilray, currently working on Oddworld: Strangers Wrath HD and Oddworld: Munch's Odyssee HD.
"So [Sony] was asking developers to give ideas, to say, 'what would you do if you had this kind of hardware?' And I'm aware of other developers around the world who've been involved a lot earlier than I was and some of the feedback they gave Sony did actually alter some of the aspects of the machine. So it's changed since 2010, but the thing we started to think about was the touch stuff, the panels and things."
While coming to grips with a new platform is usually tricky, Vita makes it easy to get off with a flying start, according to one Square Enix-based developer.
"It is always going to be hard work trying to develop on a new platform that you are not yet familiar with but the PS Vita is incredibly easy to develop for and the system did not get in the way of our ideas for the game at all," said Yuichi Tanzawa, producer on Army Corps of Hell.
"This meant that ultimately the feeling of excitement at how advanced the Vita is as a games machine far outweighed any trouble we had. The development team’s amazed reactions when the final dev kits arrived and we saw the quality of the colour on the OEL display was particularly memorable."
One of the most exciting aspects of Vita is the unique hardware: Features like the touch-screen, touch-pad and SIXAXIS. But while games like Rayman Origins used some of these bells and whistles, like touch-screen, it wasn't able to utilise other features for a very simple reason.
"For this project, we had two main objectives: Make Rayman Origins part of the launch lineup for PS Vita and offer PS Vita players the same game experience that Michel Ancel brought to home consoles," said Boujemma El Hiba, producer at Ubisoft Casablanca who handled development on the Vita version.
"While we are excited that we are able to utilize the touch screen and the Near function, but we really had to keep the core of the controls and game intact. We will surely plan to take full advantage of the PS Vita capabilities in our future projects."
Just Add Water has also been experimenting heavily on Vita's main features in bringing over HD versions of Oddworld: Strangers Wrath and Oddworld: Munch's Odyssee to the handheld. One of the experiments to date for Munch utilises the touchpad.
"Munch is further along than Stranger's at the moment. We're actually doing some prototyping of the control aspect on Munch. For example, in the original game, you'd press L1 and one of the face buttons to do different gamespeak commands," said Gilray.
"We're actually doing a rear touchpad interactive kind of gesturing for different gamespeaks. For example, you'd hold down the left side of the back panel and you'd get an overlay that'd pop up with three different options and you just select one of those three options from the back panel and gamespeak that way."
Ridge Racer game director Hideki Teramoto is also keen on the hardware's non-traditional capabilities.
"We wanted to incorporate the camera function for players to communicate. For example, after an online race players could take a picture at the winner’s podium. Basically we wanted a feature where players’ smiles could be captured by the camera.," he said.
Its worth noting that some of the games coming to Vita are those that came to home consoles from the outset, such as Ultmate Marvel vs Capcom 3 and Rayman Origins, a game which initially seemed to have muffed on release in November, but has since performed better. As Niitsuma already explained, it wasn't too difficult to bring UMvC3 to Vita, but Rayman had a unique thing going for it then and still does. Arguably, with the time I've spent with it so far, Rayman actually suits Vita a lot more than it does the PS3 or 360. Surprisingly, there wasn't too much sacrifice in bringing it over to the handheld, according to El Hiba.
"Developing on a new hardware is always challenging, especially during a Launch period," he said. "Fortunately, PS Vita’s performance and architecture made it pretty straight forward.
"Of course, we have been confronted with technical issues when bringing Rayman Origins from home consoles to PS Vita, but we always found a solution where we could preserve the high quality level of the main version. In fact, PS Vita players will have a very similar visual experience as the main versions - 60 FPS, impressive graphic quality - thanks to the amazing PS Vita screen."
The debate on whether Vita can be a relevant device in a mainly-mobile world has been a hot topic since the hardware's announcement, and will stick in the mind for months. Both Namco developers we spoke to offered analogies when asked to give their thoughts.
"Personally, I look at the relation between cell phone and mobile gaming markets as manual sports cars and automatic family cars, which have co-existed in the automobile market. Wouldn’t you agree that both entities can be enjoyed by the same player?," said Teramoto.
Touch My Katamari producer Toshiyuki Nakanishi compared the two offerings to the wide variety of restaurants which exist comfortably side-by-side.
"There was a time when dedicated gaming devices, which provided a good variety of light-hearted fun at a much cheaper price than other entertainment, was the top dog. These restaurants were widely popular, but now there are mobile games which has become a rival and provided an even simpler and cheaper service," he said.
"One way to rival the fast food service [of mobile games] would be to make [traditional] games simpler and cheaper, but I think dedicated gaming devices should pursue the needs of customers which can not be satisfied by the IOS and Android mobile platforms.
"The light-hearted and low-price fast food has its benefits and I acknowledge its popularity, but there are also times when I want to gather friends to enjoy the fun times or enjoy delicious food that fast food can not provide. Because each has its own benefits and needs, even when one side is heavily favored, I believe that neither party will disappear."
On a more grounded level, Army Corps director Tanzawa-san told us that dedicated gaming devices, like 3DS and Vita, can still find a middle-ground between consoles and PC.
"I personally think that with the increasing diversification of the environments in which users play games and the time they have available to play them, portable games consoles occupy a position somewhere right in the middle between PCs/home consoles and the mobile platforms, being more casual than the former but still offering a deeper and richer experience than the latter," he said.
"I would personally like to carry on making games that combine the best aspects of both, with the quick to play ease of access seen in the most successful games on moblie platforms and also the ever evolving richness found in games for consoles."
So with their first games out of the way for Vita, where do the developers go next? Tanzawa-san said he'd like to make an action game purely based off the rear touch pad as main controls, while Nakanishi said he'd like his next game to focus heavily on Near as the main aspect instead of merely an "added feature" but insists the main work right now is on additional stages for Touch My Katamari as DLC.
Ridge Racer on Vita will, according to Teramoto-san, have one "special" event coming up that will be announced in the near future. The kicker being that it "doesn't mean DLC".
And for Niitsuma-san?
"Looking forward, we want to work more with the network aspect, and the PS3-compatible features. We didn’t have time to do as much as we would have liked with these areas, so this is something we want to concentrate in the future."
Vita launched in late February with over 30 games available at launch.