When the PlayStation Vita was announced, and during those early months of showing off the new handheld, it was pitched as a console-quality experience that fit in your pocket. The implication was that Sony was now able to give you the kind of games that the PlayStation 3 was pumping out but miniaturised into the palm of your hand.
A close inspection of gameplay videos and genuine screenshots at this stage revealed that the Vita was, naturally, a little way off the PlayStation 3’s abilities but that it was still very visually capable. If the games that were made managed to be of a grand enough scale, that “PS3 in your pocket” claim might have been justifiable. But despite several launch titles that aimed to reach those heights, none quite managed to fully achieve their goals.
There have been a few landmarks worth making note of since that initial raft of impressive – but ultimately not impressive enough – launch titles. Gravity Rush appealed to a core group of enthusiasts, Need for Speed: Most Wanted came very close to the full console game’s experience but perhaps wasn’t quite unique enough to really inspire. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation offered an interesting but uninspiring plunge into the franchise’s well-loved gameplay.
All tried to aim for the stars and all had certain successes to be proud of, but there is still an absence of true unmissable, mainstream games on the Vita.
Many expected Black Ops: Declassified or even Resistance: Burning Skies to be the system selling games so desperately needed by the Vita. Neither of these FPS franchises delivered on their potential and, although both seemed to attract a devoted core of fans, neither was good enough.
That’s not to say the hardware isn’t up to scratch. It’s powerful enough to be capable of great things and as developers eke more and more out of it, we’ll only end up more and more impressed. The handheld console itself is a beautiful device, with a stunning screen that is often only let down by the choice (or limitation, perhaps) of sub-standard resolutions and slowed framerates.
The under-utilisation of that gorgeous screen has perhaps been most apparent in the times it’s used to display games intended for lower fidelity screens – the LEGO games that are almost 3DS ports spring immediately to mind. A screen of that quality shines a light on any cut corners and, as third party support for AAA games has gradually begun to appear stretched, that becomes more of a concern.
Happily, Sony’s first party studios are clearly still committed. Killzone: Mercenary is carrying the hopes of FPS fans with its hooks into the wider Killzone universe and an interesting central idea that will permit shorter, travel-friendly bursts of gameplay. Tearaway deserves special mention too. While it’s not likely to be a huge system-seller, it is perfectly indicative of the kind of quirky, independently-spirited game that Sony has a long history with.
And that brings us neatly to the Vita’s present-day strengths and what I think represent the console’s greatest opportunities for the future: the new drive towards being a haven for indie developers.
2013 started with the Vita having been home to a few high profile games that didn’t quite manage to hit the heights many had hoped for. The Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games that were released as big pre-Christmas sales hopes didn’t inspire the soaring sales that Vita needs in order to remain a viable platform for big budget third party development. Many of us began to worry for its long term future. It was clearly a great device, with some very good niche software but without a true system seller to drive up that install base, it would flounder. And then Sony started to make announcements that showed they’d found a new way of thinking.
I’ve written before about what I think Thomas Was Alone indicates on PlayStation Vita (and PS3) and the respect I have for Shahid Ahmad and his whole team at Sony’s London offices. But I don’t think it’s possible to overstate just how important this shift in the Vita’s focus is. Without risking the cash involved in developing (or encouraging third parties to develop) blockbuster games, they can pack the PS Vita with smaller, innovative and imaginative games that will come together and, as a collective, present a very tempting reason to buy a Vita.
It’s the equivalent of putting 10 per cent of their chips on red at a roulette wheel compared with the previous strategy of putting 90 per cent of their chips on number 17. Make small gains with less risk until they’ve got the sort of chip pile that allows them to gamble big without risking losing their wristwatch.
And there’s a continued, deliberate push to get indie developers on board. SCEE’s Shahid Ahmad (who apparently signed Men’s Room Mayhem in just 45 seconds, by the way) is the driving force here, his public Tweets on message and extremely focused. “Vita developers: will you put David S Gallant’s game ‘I Get This Call Every Day’ onto Vita?” he asked last night – a game that probably wouldn’t take a huge amount of effort to port but said with the right sentiment. “You could probably do very quickly,” he confirms. “I will help.”
There’s a new openness around the platform – in all senses of the word – that’s incredibly refreshing and extremely encouraging.
None of the indie games announced are likely to be big system sellers by themselves – and that still leaves room for potential big hitters (Gran Turismo, perhaps?) to arrive at this year’s E3, where the Vita’s PS4 Remote Play functions will also surely be on show – but collectively, they fill a void and also keep many existing Vita owners happy with their handhelds.
Importantly, developers are now seeing the Vita is a viable sales channel for their games. Take Ripstone’s newly announced Men’s Room Mayhem – it’ll also release on iOS but the key word there is ‘also’ – a PlayStation Vita version will appear alongside any other formats, and, crucially, will be priced as closely as possible. “iOS and PSN have slightly different pricing tiers,” explained Ripstone’s Phil Gaskill, “but rest assured the game prices on all platforms will be very closely matched.”
And then there’s PlayStation Mobile. Not without its problems, but hopefully nothing that can’t be fixed down the line – if Sony are still behind the service (and they should be) the issues reported recently can be fixed: Sony can raise visibility, they can assist with promotion and they can – perhaps – offer up a different development language. Or, at least, open up PSM to third party middleware: let other development packages, especially more ‘point and click’ tools like GameMaker, export and build directly for Vita.
The future’s bright for Vita. It’s just panning out in a different direction than we first thought.