Second screen for PS4 or console in its own right? UK MD Fergal Gara discusses the future of the PS Vita and why Sony has "done our damndest to do a good job" for gamers.
The PS Vita was, is, and perhaps always will be, the video gaming equivalent of a box of chocolates. With touch pads, OLED screens, analogue sticks, gyroscopic motion and cross-platform compatibility, Sony has tried to fit every flavour a gamer could want into one shiny, near-HD package.
Two years on from its launch in Europe and - perhaps as a result of the smorgasbord of features and fiddly bits - many consumers are still seemingly somewhat confused by what the Vita actually is. Sure, it's a handheld console, but is it the true successor to the PSP? Is it the rival to the 3DS? Is it the answer for people bored of smartphone games? Is it a multimedia device? More recently, is it primarily a companion device to the PlayStation 4? Well, in true Sony fashion, it's all of them. At least, it's trying to be all of them.
"A lot of our discussions with developers don't centre around developing games to better suit digital or physical purchases, or even centre around developing specifically for the PS Vita."
I sat down with PlayStation UK's Managing Director Fergal Gara to talk about the Vita's past and future focus, it's current position within the PlayStation family and how shifts in consumer behaviour are changing the landscape for handheld devices.
Now that is has been on the market for a considerable length of time, what does Sony see as the Vita's role? "I do actually think Vita has various roles it can play," Gara tells me. "For the core gamer, being able to deliver things like first-person shooter games to a high standard - either by Remote Play or with a game like Killzone: Mercenary - is important and that helps satisfy those kinds of players.
"Clearly, now the price point is lower it's open to more players and a younger audience. Games like Tearaway straddle various age groups and appeal to lots of different kinds of people, as does LittleBigPlanet. So the Vita really isn't just for a certain kind of person."
Given its range of capabilities, it's no surprise to hear that console is aimed at a wide audience. The problem with this is that over its two years of existence sales figures have been lacklustre, only seeing significant upswings during big events such as the launch of the console itself and Christmas. In no way has Vita replicated the past commercial success of the PSP, and devices aimed at wide audiences don't tend to shoot for lacklustre sales as a goal.
"In all honesty, higher sales would have been what we had hoped for," Gara concedes. "The market Vita entered was more complicated than it was when the console was originally thought about and designed. Games on tablets and phones have changed the marketplace and people can't carry too many things around at one time.
"The truth is that the number of people that want the core experience [that Vita offers] is not as big as the number that simply want any sort of game available on the move and, because the likes of a tablet and smart phone are so multifunctional in their use, they will always be very appealing.
"Really, I think the reason it hasn't sold more is that it comes down to people thinking: 'Do I need it as well as these other things that are taking my money?'"
Up until now, Vita has been largely an isolated proposition. Yes, there are some Remote and Cross-Play options between the handheld and the PS3, but in Gara's own words, "the truth is that the two [PS3 and Vita] are completely different architectures, we knew that it could be much better and it was reasonable to expect we could do it much better."
With the release of the PS4, and the significantly more solid communication between it and the Vita, the question is now not limited to whether or not you need a Vita in addition to your phone/tablet, but whether you need a Vita to supplement your home console.
Gara confides that the Vita's design team were well aware of the existence and direction of the PS4 before work even began on the portable, allowing for much greater connectivity between the two - predominantly in the form of Remote Play, at present.
"We always planned for Remote Play with the PS Vita and PS4," Gara continues. "From an architecture point of view, that compatibility between the two was always designed into the Vita's system. By the time PS Vita development started we were well into the development path of the PlayStation 4, so things were very much designed to work together."
If you've had the chance to test Remote Play between PS4 and PS Vita then you'll know it works very well, so long as the two machines are connected to the same Wi-Fi network. Sony know that it works very well, too, which is why they've been so keen to stress the feature and its quality in its marketing and general consumer communications. In fact, Sony has been talking about the Vita's Remote Play functionality to such an extent that the handheld is in danger of being pigeonholed primarily as a second-screen device for PS4.
This is an issue not lost on Gara, going so far as to say that I'm "correct to highlight that, and it's our job to make the message clear to people so that they understand the Vita is a console in its own right and also a great partner to the PS4."
Great partner, standalone console or both, what is not up for debate is that user satisfaction with Vita is extremely high. You'll be hard pressed to find a Vita owner today that regrets their purchase, although thoughts on this issue do vary depending on at what price point the console was purchased.
Following a fantastic launch line-up that included the likes of Uncharted: Golden Abyss, WipEout 2048 and Everybody's Golf, it's true that the quality of software releases did see a dip after that initial month or two, but the past twelve months have seen a host of stunning releases.
In big part, the explosion of worthwhile content on Vita has been down to a concerted effort from Sony to get indie developers more involved with the console. This has seen Hotline Miami, Limbo, Spelunky, Terraria and more released on the system, not as hastily glued together ports but as commendable releases in which arguments can be legitimately made for each attaining the status of 'definitive release'. Hotline Miami, in particular, thrives on the system; its short, sharp, start-restart nature and heavily stylised visuals are perfectly in line with Vita's strength as a portable device.
Given how much more diverse and interesting the Vita's catalogue has become since indie developers have been seduced to creating more content for the platform, it's difficult not to be excited about what the future holds. It's also not especially surprising that it's taken this long for things to get genuinely interesting.
In a similar way to the PS3, the Vita represents a piece of hardware that is extremely impressive but one that, when first made available, developers had little idea how to make best use of. Now that we're seeing an understanding from game designers about how to go about picking and choosing which of the handheld's elements fit their project (rather than trying to make a game around the hardware), third-party games feel like genuine games rather than elaborate tech demos.
It seems that in part this content improvement stems from the fact that Sony doesn't necessarily talk to developers about specifically how to make use of the handheld's functionality.
"A lot of our discussions with developers don't centre around developing games to better suit digital or physical purchases, or even centre around developing specifically for the PS Vita," explains Gara. "We talk a lot with developers about developing the best games for PlayStation in general and how we can properly map any ideas that they may already have to a platform or multiple platforms."
"More Vita games are still consumed through physical game cards than they are through digital, but things are increasingly moving the other way. Could be that in future physical games becomes the side we do without."
Certainly, the idea that developers are not asked to shoehorn their ideas into the structures and confines of the Vita (or any of Sony's consoles) is an ideal that is sure to go down well with gamers. Gara is well aware of the importance of such an approach and is open about where the company's focus has been spent:
"I think we've done a good job on the PlayStation brand and it seems to have gone down well that PlayStation is rejuvenating itself and we're re-doubling efforts to engage gamers.
"Whilst PS4 is the spearhead of our campaign, we've worked hard to show the right level of humility and focus and that we're absolutely targeted at gamers and we've done our damndest to do a good job for them. We've talked the talk and we've walked the walk for gamers, and that is really coming through - that must be generating more love for PlayStation and that includes people exploring more of our products, including PS Vita."
Exploring hardware is one thing, but exploring software is another. Each of the aforementioned indie titles are available only as a digital download available via the PlayStation Store, an avenue that Vita has always been greatly focused on and (given that digital-only games tend to have lower price points) encourages owners to try things they otherwise might avoid or not even have knowledge of.
"Compared to PS3, Vita has had a higher percentage of games bought digitally since it was first launched," says Gara, "it's interesting and it demonstrates how many people look at it as the iPod of handheld gaming. More Vita games are still consumed through physical game cards than they are through digital, but things are increasingly moving the other way. Could be that in future physical games becomes the side we do without."
With the increase in digital consumption, the launch of the PS4 and a recent price cut, the future of the Vita, when viewed through the eyes of a hardcore gamer, looks to be attractive. As Gara has explained, though, the proliferation of other portable devices means it's a tough sale for the general consumer.
It could well be that the Vita goes down in history as the handheld that time forgot, a brilliant piece of hardware with a great selection of games that found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the case, while the past two years of Vita have been hit and miss from a commercial perspective, there's no denying the success of the machine in its ability to entertain and more than fulfil its promise of being a home console-quality handheld.
If it's still doing the rounds two years from now the video game landscape will be a better and more diverse place as a result.