The PlayStation Vita is released in western markets in under two weeks. It seems that everyone is either excitedly awaiting a new powerful handheld gaming device or cynically declaring it an outdated failure. Is the Vita a throwback to a period of gaming history that just doesn’t exist anymore or is it a new dawn in handheld gaming?
We’ve looked closely at the PS Vita’s hardware before. We’ve talked about the potential of the device. We’ve examined the launch line up, too. We’ve even taken a good look at the load times for plenty of the first wave of games. The Japanese sales figures have been picked over and put into perspective and the premature declaration of the console’s failure has been gently rebuked. But others are taking a slightly different approach to their Vita launch coverage, one outlet declaring it “a product of a bygone era of handheld gaming that has learned little from the mistakes of its predecessors and the direction of the industry as a whole”.[drop]That’s a perfectly valid opinion, of course, the iPhone and now Android devices have changed the landscape of gaming on the move. Whether they’ve killed the handheld market which has existed since the Game & Watch is debatable but their mainstream impact is not. Regardless of that particular debate, there is a huge public perception that games on portable devices should be nice and cheap.
We’ve also voiced our concerns from time to time about the focus on those “full console experiences” which come at a full console price. Given the AppStore’s rush to base price and the subsequent change in perception that has led to for many people who are now considered handheld gamers, full retail price for Vita games might seem expensive. In many ways, then, it’s lucky that Sony has been forward-thinking enough to allow for those smaller, less expensive “iOS-style” experiences.
That’s what the naysayers, rare as they have been, are missing when they criticise the Vita, and we think it’s an important point which needs to be made: the PS Vita is about choices.
One criticism we’ve seen levelled is that the Vita tries to be everything at once. The hardware is built to provide console-quality experiences like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and WipEout 2048. There are two sticks, shoulder buttons (and the possibility for R2 and L2 mappings on the rear touch panel) and a proper d-pad. It’s a gamer’s machine. But atop that gorgeous OLED screen sits the multitouch control surface – the most responsive we’ve used aside from the iPhone 4. It has tilt controls too, exceptionally precise and spookily spatially aware. So, it’s also a device for casual games. It isn’t trying to be everything at once, it’s trying to offer the option for various things at different times.
Sony has explicitly said that it wants those smaller games to come to the Vita. PopCap will almost certainly bring much of their catalogue over, they port for everything. In addition, the prices for download-only games seem to be very reasonable – from what little we know of them. Sure, they’re not £0.69/$0.99 iOS prices but that price point is proving hard to sustain for the vast majority of iOS developers. Vita’s digital pricing seems much more balanced and viable for developers as well as consumers – providing the user base exists to sell to. That can only be a good thing for consumers as it keeps talent where they can find a viable marketplace, raising the general standard of what’s available while still not breaking the bank at point-of-purchase.
But the Vita is so expensive! Well, yeah, games consoles are. The WiFi version costs less than the mid-range (32GB) iPod Touch, though. Yes, you will need to buy memory cards for the Vita and yes, they are more expensive than we would like. Forcing another proprietary memory format into the market is something that we would prefer had been stopped at the ideas stage and buried under a mountain of cheap SD cards. However, if and when third party memory becomes available, and when Sony’s cards have caught up with demand, prices will come down.[drop2]The modular nature of storage for the Vita means that more can be added as required. Or users can use their PC, PS3 or PSN Store download queue to keep a backup of games they’ve got and just refresh the contents of their memory card as and when they want. As with controls and games, the Vita is about offering options and flexibility. It’s about offering cellphone gamers a recognisable path into more traditional gaming at the same time as it offers traditional gamers the option to take part in more casual experiences.
It’s almost universally acknowledged that the Vita hardware is impressive. Finding anyone to say otherwise requires a lengthy trawl through some troll baiting intellectual quagmires of reporting. There are some peculiarities in the software, it’s true, but software is easy to fix in these modern times of firmware patches and feature upgrades. Think back to the PS3’s firmware when it launched, it’s almost unrecognisable in terms of functionality from today’s XMB.
Those curious little quirks in the software, things like taking a second or two to wake up from standby and several separate applications for different friends-list functions can be changed in a simple firmware update and that can be done based on user feedback. Once we get used to the way Live Areas work, and the functionality of things like Near (which I still struggle to understand), our experience of Vita will only improve. What the Vita is, is a platform. A beginning.
We think it’s one of the most exciting console launches in a very long time and although the portable gaming market has grown massively and in new directions, we think the Vita is better placed than most to take advantage of that. All it needs now is a good year of publisher support, some diverse and engaging marketing and a nice big install base. Make no mistake, there are tough times ahead for the Vita, as is the case for any device in this market. But Sony’s newest machine is certainly capable of meeting those challenges head on.