Yesterday, Sony released a global sales figure for the PlayStation Vita of 1.2m units, following launches in the US and Europe last week. That figure includes first-week sales in the US and Europe, 10 weeks' worth of sales in Japan, and aggregate sales from other territories like Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. That's a lot of consoles, right? That sounds like a success, and it's being treated as such by Sony and much of the media.
Hang on, though. Around this time last year we were all looking at comparable figures for the 3DS and furrowing our brows in worry. In fact, if you dig into these numbers at all, it looks like the 3DS actually sold significantly more - and it was written off as a flop across much of the games media whilst the Vita is being feted as a success. Sony is "thrilled", according to the press release; expectations have been exceeded; pundits are calling the results impressive. These are directly comparable devices that launched at very similar prices. What's behind this sudden change of attitude is a fundamental shift in the way we see the handheld gaming market. In one short year, the stakes have completely changed.
First, though, it's worth actually looking at these numbers. That 1.2million figure is a respectable number, but it's a very unusual piece of data, especially from Sony. Usually after a console's opening week, console manufacturers cannot wait to release data on how well it did. This is the first time in Sony's history, to my best recollection, that it has released a global roll-up number like this instead of regional breakdowns after a launch. Why is that? Is the number trying to disguise something?
If we take the latest Japanese data from Enterbrain – for the week ending February 19th – we can see that the Vita has sold a total of 578,812 units in Japan. (Finding data like that for North American or European sales is more difficult, as both ChartTrack in the UK and NPD in the US keep data private and share it with partners only – we end up relying on the figures that publishers and console manufacturers themselves release, which are often hard to verify.) That means that other territories account for around 621,000 sales.
Even if we just take that number as it stands – without subtracting sales from Australasia, South America and the Asia-Pacific, which could account for 40,000 or more between them – it doesn't measure up well against the 3DS' opening week in the US and Europe. Nintendo released first-week figures of 440,000 in the US and 303,000 in Europe, which puts the total at around 743,000 sales next to the Vita's 621,000. And yet, if you remember headlines from that time, you'll remember that the 3DS' launch performance was seen as massively disappointing rather than a pleasant surprise.
It's easy to deduce that Sony has not given regional figures for Vita sales because those figures would not be at all flattering. High-level sources in the UK – that's people with access to the actual ChartTrack sales data – put Vita's sales at around a quarter of those achieved by the PSP during its launch month, according to PocketGamer.biz. That would put its sales at somewhere around 46,000 next to PSP first-week sales of 185,000 in 2005 – and 3DS sales of 113,000 in the first two days in the UK last year (that's Nintendo's figure - ChartTrack's number was about 89k). If that's a situation that's mirrored across other European territories and the US, it would not paint a good picture of the Vita's launch performance.
Do these figures matter that much? Probably not – it's unwise to judge a system based on initial sales, as has been proven time and time again. The 3DS' fine form over Christmas forced many a red-faced commentator to retract earlier predictions of an untimely demise for the console. What's more interesting is how these numbers have been interpreted, and what that says about changes in the games market.
So how come 1.2 million for the Vita is a success where higher figures for the 3DS were seen as a flop? It's all to do with managing expectations. The 3DS was being measured against the stellar performance of the original DS and optimistic predictions from Nintendo, which publicly announced its aim to sell 4 million 3DSes within the first month. The Vita, meanwhile, was being measured against much lower expectations – from Sony itself and from the wider market.
In the last year, the industry has had a sharp reality check about the viability of handheld gaming consoles, spurred both by the 3DS' worse-than-expected initial sales performance and the ever-more-obvious dominance of smartphones for gaming on the go. App Store and Android Market revenues have continued to soar as the gaming market, across the board, has shrunk. Sony was wise enough not to be boisterously ambitious in its messaging around the Vita; it didn't, like Nintendo, set high success standards for itself that it could not realistically measure up to. That's partly why 1.2 million looks like a successful figure – because Sony didn't come out and say that it was aiming to sell 5 million.
Where the 3DS' performance was a blow to our collective confidence, then, the Vita's is a boost to our ego. The fact that there is still demand at all for something like the PlayStation Vita is heartening in itself. It makes sense that the games industry is pleased with 1.2 million sales for a handheld console now, where it was dissatisfied with closer to 2 million last year.
There's also the very significant fact that almost everyone who's played with a PlayStation Vita is enamoured with it. It is undeniably a lovely, lovely console, touched by that hardware design magic that only Sony delivers. Its launch line-up is both strong and impressively broad, and its other software is attractively presented and fully implemented. The 3DS, meanwhile, launched with a rather divisive design, no eShop and a poor launch line-up that took months to mature. People were, perhaps, more eager to write it off.
The games media generally has a very short memory, especially when it comes to console launches. The PlayStation 2's initial troubles were forgotten in the wake of its later astronomical success, and by this time next year it's feasible that nobody will remember that the 3DS didn't start off in the most promising way either. When you look behind the numbers, what you see is that a successful launch isn't always about how much you actually sell – it's about perception. The reaction to sales figures often says as much about the mentality and health of the games industry as the numbers themselves.