The tireless next-gen rumour mill means it’s easy to forget that the past year has seen new hardware from one of the big three manufacturers. Vita, Sony’s multifunctional powerhouse of a handheld, is fast approaching its first birthday, having been launched in Japan on December 17, 2011, and in most other territories back in February.
The lack of buzz around Vita is telling, and hardly surprising after an E3 at which it was practically invisible. And yet initial signs were positive: it slightly outperformed the western launch of 3DS, with SCE president Andrew House apparently “thrilled” by early sales. Fast forward, though, and “acceptable” is how SCEA CEO Jack Tretton described the situation in early August. Ten days later, Sony confirmed the system had sold a meagre 2.2 million units worldwide from launch to June 30 this year, having reached 1.8 million by the end of March. Just 400,000 sales of new hardware in three months is a dismal return by any standard – especially given a million units of the seven-year-old PSP were sold in the same period.
Price hasn’t helped. Asking around £230 and £280 for Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi+3G Vita models respectively would seem steep in a healthy economic climate. While online and supermarket competition has ensured more attractive pricing, the continuing strength of the yen has kept Vita out of reach of much of its intended audience. A global price cut gave 3DS the shot in the arm it needed, but assuming Vita is true to its PlayStation roots, Sony is already selling it at a loss. Even if a cut does come, Sony’s insistence on expensive proprietary memory cards is a further disincentive.
A £250 handheld is a tough sell at the best of times, then, and Sony not only has to contend with rough economic waters, but the fact that so many people already carry a high-powered gaming device everywhere they go. In Apple’s most recent fiscal quarter, it sold some 26 million iPhones. That’s 400,000 units sold every 33 hours or so.
At least Sony seems keenly aware of the threat posed by iOS and Android gaming, in contrast to Nintendo’s senior management. Sadly, Sony’s bid to ensure feature parity with tablets and smartphones has had mixed results. Basic apps for Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare hardly cast Vita in a flattering light, while the location-based Near remains in need of an overhaul, or at the very least a decent tutorial.
No one bought a Vita for Twitter, of course. Sadly, one of the broadest launch line-ups in videogame history was followed by a barren spell, with Sony Japan’s Gravity Rush the only notable release in months until Sound Shapes arrived in August.
The obvious need for new games made Vita’s near total absence from Sony’s E3 conference all the more galling. The company was quick to respond to the tide of negative feeling with an assurance that Vita was most definitely present, with 25 playable games on the show floor. But it wasn’t until August’s Gamescom that we saw clear signs that Sony recognises Vita is in severe danger of being stuck with the same ‘no games’ label that PS3 took so long to shake off.
Admittedly, many of the titles shown off by SCEE president Jim Ryan on stage in Cologne did little to dispel the notion that Vita was following in PSP’s footsteps – in the west, at least – sporting a software lineup dominated by spin-offs of established franchises. But Media Molecule’s Tearaway, a papercraft adventure using not only traditional controls but smartphone-like touch and tilt, was also the perfect counterpoint to the likes of Call Of Duty: Black Ops Declassified. Support for PlayStation Plus, the subscription service that has come on leaps and bounds of late, will also help – and, of course, do much to drive new subscription revenue.
Vita firmware updates to date have focused on bug fixes and minor UI tweaks, but again the past few months have suggested Sony is learning from its mistakes. The most recent update, released in August, added support for PSOne games – supported by a cannily timed retro sale on PlayStation Store – and introduced Cross-Controller, allowing Vita owners to use the system as a PS3 controller. More is in the works: Cross-Buy, where buying a PS3 game gives access to a download of the Vita version, is already used by the downloadable MotorStorm RC and Sound Shapes, but is soon to be expanded to firstparty retail releases. Meanwhile, Cross-Play will enable cross-platform multiplayer between PS3 and Vita, and the self-explanatory Cross-Save has already been used in Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, although there it goes by the Kojima-coined name ‘transfarring’.
An improved feature set, though, will only do so much for Vita’s fortunes, and there will surely be recognition in the boardrooms and corner offices of Sony’s Tokyo HQ that games are the priority. While 3DS’s price cut helped, it was the late-2011 triumvirate of Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, and, in Japan, Monster Hunter Tri G that really revived the ailing handheld. You need only glance at the cast of Sony’s Smash Bros-style fighting game, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, to see that the company’s IP portfolio pales in comparison to Nintendo’s, and its Kyoto rival has already secured Monster Hunter 4 for 3DS. In Japan, PSP has become the de facto home for JRPGS, and its enduring popularity is also holding Vita back from success, its huge installed base keeping Japanese developers in its thrall.
Western studios, however, are rather keener on the system, and those willing to talk tend to back up Sony’s claim that Vita is its most developer-friendly hardware yet. Rudolf Kremers, developer of the indie game Eufloria, says Vita is “fantastic”, adding that it could become the new home for the struggling middle tier of games we looked at recently. Sony’s track record on PS3 – and even on Vita with the excellent Sound Shapes – suggests that it would do well to more proactively court independent developers to bolster Vita’s software lineup. This seems especially true with the launch of PlayStation Mobile, a cross-platform SDK that will enable devs to compile not just for Vita, but a range of Android-powered smartphones and tablets as well with no additional development work required.
Sony’s insistence that it is satisfied with Vita’s paltry sales is telling, and reflects either a company in denial or one that knows the system’s best years are to come. Jim Ryan saying that Cross-Play and the like will probably be limited to firstparty releases for the time being, because “PS Vita is a more PC-based environment, whereas the PS3 is more bespoke” speaks volumes. Sony is rumoured to be basing its PlayStation 4 on PC architecture, and while Vita and PS3 play together nicely enough at the moment, it’s tempting to believe that Vita was designed with the next-gen console in mind.
It remains a device bursting with potential, even if that potential has thus far largely gone unexplored. Certainly, existing Vita owners seem delighted with the hardware, but much remains to be done to convince the sceptical. With a price cut unlikely and trying to ride the coat tails of smartphone success inadvisable, Sony needs to emphasise what Vita does better than a phone. In short, it needs to back up the system’s formidable horsepower and traditional controls with a carefully curated library of mechanically deep games; titles that put all those virtual D-pad-stricken iOS nightmares in the shade.
Publisher SCE Developer Media Molecule Release TBA
Media Molecule looks determined to blow the potential of Vita wide open with its adventure game about an envelope-headed messenger. The game invites you to become a part of its papery world by punching holes in it with the rear touchpad and blowing into the mic, as well as via countless other context-specific tricks the developer has in store. Tearaway’s first glimpses promise a title as varied as it is vibrant, and it comes from one of the UK’s most courageous developers.
Publisher SCE Developer Guerrilla Games Release TBA
From the engine that brought us Killzone 3, Mercenary has you take on the role of a gun for hire, hopping between ISA and Helghast loyalties as you kill on command for money. The visuals certainly take their cue from Guerrilla’s third console entry, all bold reds and cool cyan. Whether the touchscreen aspects of the title – swiping to perform context-specific actions – can make a more convincing case than Resistance: Burning Skies has yet to be proved.
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation
Publisher Ubisoft Developer in-house Release October 30 (US), 31 (UK)
This spin-off breaks away from the story of Desmond Miles, with the series’ first female lead, Aveline De Grandpré, adding a French-African flavour to the role. As with Black Ops: Declassified, there’s some disappointment that the publisher isn’t rolling out its A-team for this Vita incarnation of the series, but Liberation at least looks to be boldly capturing, and toying with, the world of its big brother.
Call Of Duty Black Ops: Declassified
Publisher Activision Developer Nihilistic Software Release November
Glimpses so far suggest a rough-around-the-edges imitation of COD, rather than a worthy representation of its thrills and gore, and the release date doesn’t bode well for enough time to smooth things over either. A meagre four-versus-four multiplayer offering doesn’t raise hopes either, but there’s still a chance here for Nihilistic to improve on the shaky foundations of its critically panned Resistance: Burning Skies.