Opinion: PS Vita's big room experiences at odds with portable play's new wave
Take on the tablet, not the console
"I'm going to pre-order a PS Vita," PocketGamer.biz editor-at-large Jon Jordan told me in the weeks before the launch of Sony's handheld almost a year ago to the day.
"I'm away when it comes out, so I'll have it delivered to your place. You keep it until something big or interesting comes out."
As I type this 12 months on, Jon's Vita remains in my apartment, often decorated by a layer of dust and, despite the beauty of its design, rarely touched.
In truth, there have been plenty of 'big' games out on Sony's handheld since launch, but they've been big in the traditional sense.
While a large number of mobile users would cite the likes of Angry Birds: Star Wars, Joe Danger Touch or Temple Run 2 as some of the key releases during the last few months, PS Vita has attempted to build buzz around big console IP: Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, and Call of Duty some of handheld's key releases.
But are these big blockbusters what consumers want on handhelds anymore?
Right device, wrong market
When I first played with a PS Vita – incidentally, at a pre-launch party in Manchester – what struck me was how similar the device was to a tablet.
What Sony had delivered was a device with a silky smooth screen, sharp design, and with a collection of social apps – Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare - all on board from day one.
(Interestingly, Sony has since added a competent email app to the mix, too.)
But, though recent months have played host to the launch of PlayStation Mobile – Sony's attempt to deliver the kind of mobile content iPhone and Android users have been enjoying for the last few years – the Japanese giant is yet to play to the device's real strengths.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation was one of Vita's big winter releases
In the UK, for instance, PS Vita's official retail partner was Game. Aside from the chain's own financial difficulties at the time (Vita's launch coming just weeks before Game went into administration), it has proven to be entirely the wrong strategy to sell Vita as a 'portable PS3'.
For one, Vita is actually more expensive than Sony's home console. Pitched in this light, it appears as if users are being asked to pay a premium for what are often cut down versions of the games they already own on a cheaper console.
Most importantly, however, while someone at the heart of Vita's development saw where the market was going and planned accordingly – its OS far more akin to iOS and Android than it is the XrossMediaBar sported by PS3 and PSP – those actually selling it have instead relied on models fast becoming archaic.
So, instead of launching with a host of digestible mobile-esque games that would have benefited from the addition of Vita's buttons and trigger controls, Sony instead thrust a £40 Uncharted: Golden Abyss into the limelight.
Perhaps it's no surprise. Consoles traditionally launch with big first-party releases as a way to trigger early excitment. You can bet that when PS4 and the next Xbox hit the shelves, they too will have key franchises ready to go from day one.
But the portable market has changed since PSP launched. Smartphones have ensured that the prospect of stumping up hundreds of pounds to play console-sized games on handheld devices is no longer quite so appealing.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss was pitched as Vita's first big 'killer-app'
Yes, the big games need to be there – let's be honest, the power PS Vita packs in would be wasted without them – but simply bringing across franchises designed for the living room and expecting them to fly on Vita just won't wash.
Uncharted, for instance, is something of a mess. It looks sublime, but it's a clunky experience that requires hours of dedicated play at a time to play through.
As a friend recently pointed out to me, the fact the same moves can be triggered by using the device's physical buttons, the touchscreen on and front and even the touchpad on the back is an utter nonsense.
Taking advantage of the hardware does not mean utilising each feature it presents without cause or reason. Indeed, few players are going to set aside the time needed to master each and every control set up Uncharted presents.
People sitting on the bus, in bed, or even on the sofa taking on a handheld game have made their choice as to the kind of game they want to play. By and large, if they wanted a big console-like blockbuster, they'd have turned on their console.
There's absolutely no advantage to playing a hacked-up take on the Uncharted franchise on your Vita when you could – and probably already have – played the real versions on PS3.
Take on the tablet
But old habits die hard. In my view, the bare bones of PS Vita still offer much promise. It's fortunes to date, however, have simply been hampered by a platform holder that knows not just what it has on its hands.
PS Vita needs to put aspirations to take on traditional handhelds and home consoles aside - what it needs to do is square up to tablets, offering a comparable software lineup in the process.
Like tablets, Vita is not a mobile phone, and while its screen isn't as big as your average 10-inch slate, the hardware behind it is just as glorious, if not more so.
Compared to most tablets, actually looks rather cheap, and if Sony had worked on getting mobile developers on board at an earlier stage, the device could have launched with a PlayStation Mobile store better equipped to deal with the App Store and Google Play.
Strike off partnering with a traditional games retailer – snap up a deal with an electronics store, or - hell - maybe even a supermarket. Pitch this device at the kind of people who, post smartphone, are actually looking to play games on the go.
For far too long Sony has seen its handhelds as an extension of it home consoles. That's a fallacy that needs to be put to bed now - mobile has proved that there are consumers enough interested in portable play out for PS Vita to stand on its own feet.
Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified was critically panned
If anything, it's Vita that should be defining Sony's games division, not PS3.
The portable market has never been as big as it is now. People playing games on the go is not a rarity – travel on the tube in London for even 5 minutes, and you'll see multiple people tapping and swiping away on their smartphones. This is the market Sony should be talking to.
As such, it's daft to write PS Vita off – it's utterly saveable, even if its sales are lower than even the most pessimistic of commentators projected pre-launch.
The device itself is not the problem. The company behind it is.
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Stuart Herrington | 00:07 - 11 February 2013
Try Frobisher Says. It's free. Speaking of which, if you have PlayStation + you get vita games for free. Although there aren't many big games available yet, the store has quite a lot, not to mention tons PlayStation one games and PSP. There is content there, but still waiting on side of the bigger, better experiences. The whole industry is having trouble right now, we can only sit and wait to see what happens.
Keith Andrew | 16:24 - 9 February 2013
But not interested enough to buy it, eh? You need a balance, of course, but the whole point of a portable system is that it's portable, and its current library is designed to be anything but.
Travis Pope | 16:05 - 9 February 2013
I find my experience to be the exact opposite. I've got no interest in a Vita because it's a Sony product at a time when Sony hasn't done anything particularly exciting with their entire Playstation ecosystem. In fact the only thing that makes me still consider the Vita is the fact that it's got more detailed "living room" titles and not stuffed to the gills with $2 fluff pieces.
Keith Andrew | 15:43 - 9 February 2013
There's no doubt an audience for PS Vita as it stands, just as there is 3DS. But I think the fundamental reason behind its - lets not beat around the bush - lacklustre sales - is the fact the vast majority of folks don't want big console games on a handheld.
How can PS Vita's soul be watered down ports of PS3 releases? That's not a soul. That's a slack marketing strategy.
Fair enough, you like the game you like, but you have to recognise both that you're in an increasingly shrinking bunch post smartphone, and why that is.
Mike Reynolds | 14:38 - 9 February 2013
I'm with Will and Vaedur.
I play my Vita religiously in short bursts when i have time at home, between classes, before bed, etc. I play FIFA, MLB: The Show, Gravity Rush, NFS: Most Wanted and they all are either on par or almost on par with their console counterparts. Hell, the minor differences are hardly noticeable or noteworthy.
My PS3 and Xbox have barely been touched in the months since i got my Vita, and i love the system for not going with the crappy mobile games angle. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with having those games available, but if you remove the focus from AAA titles, you take away the soul of the system.
Vaedur | 17:57 - 8 February 2013
Ironically, my ps3 collects dust and my vita gets all my playtime. I can't get enough Persona 4. I beat little kings story and Gravity rush. I play Dynasty Warriors from time to time. Madden 13. I think it just fits my need of cosole gaming quality in short bursts. It's perfect for a gamer with young kids who don't have alot of time.
Keith Andrew | 17:41 - 8 February 2013
I genuinely think you're in the minority, Will - aside from the fact some of those games - Uncharted and AC III Liberation most of note - are pretty awful, cheap and nasty releases.
Why not just play console games on your console?
Will Machado | 17:20 - 8 February 2013
So you think Vita needs more mobile games to succeed, right? No, thanks. I bought my Vita to play things like Uncharted Golden Abyss, Gravity Rush, Unit 13, Soul Sacrifice, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, Killzone, Tearaway... and God of War, inFamous, JRPGs... So thanks, Sony, for putting great home console games on Vita. If Vita turns itself into a deposit of casual mobile games I'll sell mine.
Vita (and its memory cards) only needs a price cut.
Keith Andrew | 15:13 - 8 February 2013
Mitch - Everyone I've shown my Vita to has been surprised how nice it is to hold and how smart it looks. That's sadly where the praise tends to end, though. :(
Mitch (Dave Mitchell) | 13:53 - 8 February 2013
You make some very strong points about what is wrong with the Vita.
The device itself is a really excellent piece of kit, and actually it's not that expensive if you ignore the ridiculous memory cards.
I played Uncharted and I must say it was rubbish. The touch screen and mix controls feel terribly tacked on. On the other hand, Gravity Rush is an amazing game which shows what the device can really do without gimmicks.
To me the PS Vita is a device that can provide more in-depth gaming experiences similar to Tablets, such as playing for a couple of hours on the couch. Where as typically mobile phone games are more quick pickup experiences over a longer period of time.
I personally think the PS Vita (and actually Tablets too) is lacking enough of those in-depth gaming experiences to back up the hardware that's been created. Many games created for tablets are the same.
Time will tell?
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