Forums - Gaming Discussion - Why the Vita TV and other “microconsoles” are destined to fail

Ars Technica

With today's announcement of the PlayStation Vita TV (for the Japanese market, at least), Sony becomes the latest in a long line of companies trying to exploit the low costs and surprisingly decent capabilities of mobile gaming technology to upend the traditional idea of a game console. Why pay hundreds for top-of-the-line technology, the argument goes, when you can remove the screen from a cheap smartphone (often the most expensive bit), insert an HDMI output, and have a perfectly capable low-end alternative to the living room set-top box?

The Vita TV has a leg up on a lot of the mostly Android-based competition in this space, thanks in no small part to its established library of top-shelf games. Still, I feel like all of these microconsoles are pretty much destined to be niche players that don't really satisfy a wide market need.

The idea of playing portable games on the TV is nothing new. Nintendo started the trend with the Super Game Boy back in 1994. They continued it later with the Game Boy Player, which let Game Boy Advance games be played on the TV through a Gamecube. The PlayStation Portable also featured components cables that allowed for direct HDTV output, a feature that was pointedly removed from the Vita.

These portable-to-TV solutions differ from today's slate of microconsoles in a few ways. For one, their asking price was even lower than the $100 price point that seems to be the sweet spot for today's efforts, even accounting for inflation. For another, they were generally positioned as niche novelties—ways to get some additional use out of your existing portable library—rather than full-fledged competition for the actual console hardware.

And make no mistake, the Vita TV and its Android-based microconsole cousins are competing more or less directly with their full-fledged console counterparts. You can argue that their extremely low cost and/or their more open development environments put them in a class by themselves. All of these systems fit generally into the category of "boxes that play games on my TV" though, and most consumers that aren't die-hard gaming aficionados aren't looking to buy more than one for their living room (one important exception: parents looking for a low-cost system for the kids to have in their room).

That means that you have to compare the Vita TV directly to competing products like Sony's own PlayStation 4. Vita TV starts off well with a price point that's about $300 cheaper, but the low cost doesn't look quite so low when you add in the cost of a controller and the proprietary memory card (which is practically a necessity on top of the tiny 1GB of internal storage). The price comparison looks even worse if you compare the Vita TV with the current generation of consoles. A brand new PlayStation 3 with 12GB of storage now costs $200. The PS3 also has a much wider lineup of games that were actually designed for a TV (more on that later), and it comes with its own controller to boot.

More importantly, it's not at all clear how much price sensitivity truly matters in the market for game consoles that are going to be attached to your TV for many years. Yes, the Wii rode its low cost-to-hardware sales dominance in the console generation that's currently wrapping up, but that was largely attributable to a unique and gimmicky control scheme and a must-have system seller in Wii Sports. Without those, the low price point alone likely wouldn't have mattered. Low prices surely didn't help the bargain-priced Nintendo GameCube and Sega Dreamcast when they went up against the much stronger PlayStation 2. Even the PlayStation 3, which was significantly more expensive than both of its competitors for years, was able to scrape into rough international sales parity with the Xbox 360, thanks in large part to some high-profile exclusive games that showed off the system's hardware power.

Splitting the market

Vita TV is not going to have many of those exclusives. On the contrary, Sony has made a big deal about how its highest-profile Vita games are "cross-buy" titles that already come packaged with a largely identical PS3 download (this also applies to the downloadable PSOne classics that make up a large chunk of the Vita TV's advertised 1,300 game library). And the games that are exclusively available on the Vita have been designed for a very different use case than that of a home console. You can go on and on about how the differences between consoles and portables are dwindling and how portable games are more like their console brethren than ever, but there's still a fundamental difference in the way people engage with a system held five inches from their face and one that's on the TV five feet away.

Games on the Vita are, in general and by necessity, designed to be played for short bursts, with frequent convenient stopping points and action that's easy to get into quickly. People look a for different experience when they hunker down on the couch, ready for an extended gaming session.

With the Vita TV, Sony awkwardly splits the market for these kinds of portable-minded games, putting developers in the difficult position of trying to cater to both audiences or (more likely) simply ignoring the newer, TV-based market and making games for the better-established portable side. And let's not forget about games that make use of the front or rear touchpads on the Vita. Sony has been pushing these features strongly as key differentiators for the portable system, but they will be entirely missing from the Vita TV. Should developers now ignore these features to expand the market for their games to the lowest common, TV-based denominator?

Then there are the issues of processing power. Yes, Vita games are closer to their console brethren than, say, Game Boy Advance games were to their competition on the PlayStation 2. But a game designed for the Vita is by necessity going to have access to less processing power and visual fidelity than one designed for the PS4 (or even the PS3). Games made for the Vita's native resolution of 960 x 544 are going to look decidedly worse when stretched out onto a 1080p HDTV screen, and they won't be able to handle as many moving parts under the hood as similar games on the PS3 or PS4.

That's fine if you're into playing great, simple games like Divekick or Lumines or Spelunky, games that are perfect for the subway or a long plane trip. But these are not the kinds of games that sell systems made for the living room. In general, people in the market for a game console want something that is going to make the most use of the expensive flat-screen TV and surround sound entertainment center they've invested in. In that environment, consumers are less likely to skimp on the actual gaming hardware and more likely to go for something that they can really show off, even if it costs a bit more.

Sony and the makers of other microconsoles might argue they are not aiming for those high-end customers. They are instead aiming to fill the market gap for people who want to play games casually and occasionally, without investing too much money. Unfortunately, that market segment is well-covered by smartphones and tablets that these customers probably already have, and it's covered even further by low-cost, dedicated portable systems for consumers that simply must have button-based controls. I don't think these casual players are too upset about playing on a touchscreen rather than a TV. They just want a simple diversion that they can pick up and play, hopefully without interrupting the episode of America's Next Top Model that's on in the background.

This isn't to say the Vita TV (or other microconsoles based on low-cost portable technology) will be a total bomb. The ability to add second-TV streaming to a PlayStation 4 is likely to be a killer app for many, and its use as a low-cost video streaming box is bound to get it some attention (though really, if you don't have a device that can stream Netflix to your TV at this point... what have you been waiting for?). As a market force in the gaming world, though, the Vita TV system seems like a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. It's a console that's outclassed by Sony's own existing hardware.

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Great Article

INteresting take, but we will have to see if it matters to the consumers - not the bloggers.

Non great article.


Edt: damn landguy, now my post doesn't work!

Dont think so...

Vita needs help. Developers are not making enough games for the platform. PSVita TV will increase Vita numbers so new developers will start making new games that can be used on Vita TV and Vita. Sony will ask developers to patch the older games (at least, the ones made in-house) or will make mandatory that developers include new control schemes so you can use it on either one of the Vita's incarnations.

So... What will I gain if I buy one of those? I will play PSOne, PSP and selected PS Vita games. If you count the PS Vita's services, you have twitter, facebook, mail, maps, messenger, netflix, etc... You can stream video, music, pictures and (soon) PS4 games. Not bad for a $99 device...  And you can save those media files into the device, if you install one of those (pricey) memory cards or use that space to buy from the PlayStation Store.

What if you have PlayStation Plus? Can you imagine how many games can you play with your subscription?

But that's not the end of all this. Next year, Sony will release their version of Gaikai and, when that happens, you will be able to run PS2 and selected PS3 games on this device too (and on your PS3, PS4 and -maybe- on your phone, tablet and even Smart TV's). This could be THE media device, not only another one media device.

I think this could make the Vita market to shake... To start moving again. This is not a revision but a relaunch. Now PS Vita is not a product but a series of gaming devices that can be enjoyed on the move (PSVita 2000) or in your home (PSVita TV). It's your choice.

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Why not just come out with a cord that goes from the vita to the tv

People may have owned PS3s and 360s, but that didn't stop some of those people from buying the graphically inferior Wii?

The PS Vita TV is a Vita, but it's also Sony's Wii. It's an extremely affordable gaming device that plays currently developed games. This alone is going to get sales for it. There are plenty of people who state how interested they are in getting a Vita but don't like the idea of spending $200 to get one or two games. What about spending $99 then?

I think for those who want a cheaper alternative it will do well and boost sales by a fair amount. The least it should do is increase Vita monthly sales by half, maybe double.  It's also yet another Netflix device that you can have another another TV you may not currently have one on.  Or even some people who might want this in the other room because they might want to play PS4 on a different TV, but don't want to pack up everything and move it whenever someone is using the other.  This will allow them to keep the PS4 where it's at and still play it, so this is even more appealing to those who already own Playstation devices.

Here's how I view the Vita TV (henceforth VTV). As a $100-200 (the extra $100 is the controller + mem card cost) console that just happens to also play PSV games. 

A large part of its library are PS1 and PSP games. Admittedly a significant number of games available for the PSV are portable games, but I'll argue that quite a few of the features that people want with portable games are things people want with their home console gaming experience.

More significantly though are some of the other features of the VTV. For instance, apps. Did you know that a significant number of time on last gen consoles (PS3/X360/Wii) is spent NOT playing games? (source) PS2/PS3/PS4 games. It is a companion device for the PS4, just like the PSV, which means you can cross play and also remote play whatever your PS4 can handle. Which means even more console games available for the VTV. Of course this a limited feature in that you can't be playing on the PS4 while using it to stream to the VTV. However, it is an interesting feature.

It doesn't _have_ to fragment the library. Games should never be developed for the VTV, only ever for the PSV. People buying the VTV should be expecting to play Indie games, short burst games, etc. Not long involved RPGs or shit like skyrim, even though they _could_ potentially play those games on the VTV.

Truth be told I don't know if this will sell at all. But to me it seems rather neat. I will probably get one as a companion to my PS4 so other members of the family can use my PS4 when I don't.

A warrior keeps death on the mind from the moment of his first breath to the moment of his last.


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"Still, I feel like all of these microconsoles are pretty much destined to be niche players that don't really satisfy a wide market need."

Successfully profiting on a niche is now failure by default? Really?

This whole concept that every product needs to appeal to everyone all the time is complete cancer and is why we don't have B-tier games anymore (which imo were always far and away the best in the industry). It needs to come to an end.