Monday, September 10, 2012

Viva la Vita? Sony's hit-and-miss handheld approach

Written by Xav Perez

When it comes to handheld gaming, it's safe to say that most of you will instantly think of Nintendo; pretty much everyone on the planet knows what a GameBoy or DS is due to Nintendo's incredible success with handhelds. 

Back in 2005 however we had what many would consider to be Nintendo's first real challenge when it came to portable gaming, the Sony PSP. It was an incredible piece of tech that (on paper, at least) smoked the DS - it made Nintendo's latest handheld look like a relic and that's putting it nicely. Even in 2012, seeing a game like Ridge Racer 2 or God of War Ghost of Sparta running on a PSP Go is still impressive sight.

Despite the PSP basically being ahead of its time, it ultimately came second in its battle against the DS. While many things can be said about what determined how that generation played out, one thing was clear: software sells hardware - and Sony found that out the hard way. Selling 70+ million units certainly isn't a failure but it's through software sales that companies make their money until the hardware itself becomes cheap enough that you're no longer selling them at a loss.

Fast forward to today and we have round two of the "DS vs PSP" battle, with Nintendo's 3DS versus Sony's PlayStation Vita - with Apple's iOS devices thrown in to make things a little more interesting this time round. Apple's entry into the portable gaming was largely unintentional, with everything just happening to fall into the right place at the right time.

The iPhone was released in 2007 yet the App store didn't launch until the following year. I'm not suggesting Apple's success was a fluke but it certainly wasn't a device designed with gaming in mind, rather something that could play games in addition to its other features. Apple did its usual great job marketing the iPhone and as far as developers were concerned all they needed was a device with a solid install base, a touch screen and a little imagination to get the ball rolling. It's fair to say that Apple basically continued in the direction Nintendo started in terms of appealing to people who weren't "core gamers".

Much like the generation before it, the Vita is once again far and away technically unmatched and apart from its lack of 3D screens, it was basically in a league of its own. The tech geek inside me just cannot say enough good things about the hardware, from a massive OLED screen to dual analogs, this system has it all. But I don't own one. I don't want one. As far as I'm concerned, Vita thus far mirrors the PSP before it - showcasing how poorly it's been marketed and how its software is more suited to full-blown consoles.

Let's get the obvious out of the way... few people actually seem to know what Vita is. Even worse is the fact that some don't even know it's been released yet! Even when they see one they assume it's just a regular old PSP. Besides gaming websites and forums, I've never even seen or heard anything Vita related anywhere else. Sony has done an awful job of getting the word out there, while Nintendo has ads constantly playing on the TV.

What does Sony have in comparison to spread the word, the PlayStation blog?

In my opinion, the Vita is a great device that if marketed right could appeal to both the core gamer and the more casual player. But, to me, it instead just comes across as a system designed to appeal to the tech geek; only they will of heard about it, only they will know everything the Vita can do and only they will buy it. All of which sadly results in a very limited market share. 

There's just no buzz for the Vita, no word of mouth recommendations, no ads, nothing. Bear in mind, this is the same company that gave us those creepy PS3 baby adverts - so this could be a good thing - but at least they made you aware the PS3 existed!.

The key area that Sony have failed on (again in my opinion) is actually understanding what the handheld market is all about. I believe very few people care about console-quality games on their handhelds. Handheld gaming is all about playing in quick bursts with games that are easy to understand.

I recall the time I played my friend's Vita back when it originally launched and the first thing I did was switch Uncharted Golden Abyss for Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3 simply because I had no interest in a console experience on a handheld. I knew that with UMVC3 I could have a couple of fights and see what it was like, while Uncharted would probably take a while to get going.

One part of the Vita's "console" approach to handheld gaming that I actually do like is the ability to play a game on both the console and on the Vita itself. If the game is something that translates well to handheld play I'd happily spread my playtime across a PS3 and Vita version of a game. The upcoming LittleBigPlanet Karting seems like something that could work on so many levels, just imagine playing the game on the PS3 with progress data syncing to the Vita via cloud storage so you could alternate between both versions easily. The game could take a page out of Nintendo's book when it comes to street pass so when you're carrying the Vita on the streets you could automatically exchange ghost times, track designs and rival data with others.

Sadly there are currently no real plans for a Vita version of LittleBigPlanet Karting, a game that is probably a better fit for the Vita than it is PS3. Don't get me wrong a Vita version is expected eventually but it's not something that Sony is focusing on at the moment and it's this kind of thinking that hurts the handheld. There appears to be no real drive from Sony to give the Vita the support it desperately needs. Sony threw out an amazing piece of hardware, which they expected to sell itself and then assumed Third party developers would come flocking to get in on the action. No one is going to develop for the Vita if Sony is not showing much interest.

Sony needs to support it's poor handheld with games and ideally exclusives ones at that to give the consumer an incentive to buy a Vita. Porting games isn't exactly going to help much and simply bringing an existing IPs over isn't going to shift units be default. Sony's games simply don't have the pulling power of say Nintendo's Mario for that to work so what we need are interesting Vita experiences.

There has been some interesting stuff happening in on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN over the years, so why not bring some of those types of games to the Vita?

Once you have original experiences that you can only find on the Vita then that's when you slowly start to win over the consumer.  Killzone alone isn't going to sell me on a Vita but if you have a slew of other titles that I want to play then there's a good chance I'll pick up Killzone too once I buy the system.

Bringing big name titles to the Vita isn't the clear solution to the problem but rather it's creating system sellers. Sony may think the upcoming Call of Duty on the Vita will be that kind of system seller but from what I see Call of Duty players seem content with playing the game on their console; I don't seem them rushing out to pick a Vita so they can play a watered down Call of Duty anytime soon.

Why not grab some of the Naughty Dog guys and ask them if they would be interested in working on a smaller scale Vita project instead of the usual triple AAA high production value PS3 games. Take a look at all your development groups and create some teams dedicated to working on Vita titles, at least until the system finds it's footing. It's these teams that need to lead the way on the Vita, their titles will help shift Vita units and once that starts to happen then third party developers will take notice. It's all about getting that snowball rolling downhill and it all starts with creating content people want to play.

I can spend all day here telling you about why the Vita is where it is but ultimately, it simply comes to the fact that content is king and no one buys hardware without strong software backing it. The tech wizards over at Sony have done their job so now it's time for the developers and marketing teams to do theirs.

Nintendo's 3DS also got off to a bad start and again it was due to lack of software, price cuts soon followed and free games were given away but none of it really mattered because it was games like Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 that built momentum. You can make all the colours you want, offer smaller or larger versions of the hardware but it's always been software that drives hardware sales.

It's been said before that a company is at it's best when they are in panic mode and Nintendo showed this by quickly asking for the assistance of Retro Studios to help speed up development of Mario Kart 7. You just don't see this level of commitment and drive from Sony to help the remedy the poor Vita sales thus far. In fact they recently closed down Studio Liverpool best known for the WipEout series with 2048 on the Vita being one of the very few reasons to even pick up the console. Release a couple of games with that level of quality and I might not even have written this article!

In the case of WipEout 2048 it's not a failure if it didn't sell millions, you should acknowledge that the game played a part in building the Vita's library. It needs to be a combination of quality titles from across the board that help make the Vita a success, not trying to find that single killer app that boosts hardware sales for a few weeks.

I want to like the Vita, I really do but Sony needs to stop thinking that their handhelds are somehow filling a gap in the market and look to see what has made others successful in the handheld space. Before entering a market you need to research and understand what you're getting yourself into. 

You don't need an expert to tell you that the handheld market is different in 2012 than it was in 2005, so bringing old strategies from the PSP era is laughable. It's a casual gamer-driven market and Sony has done nothing to acknowledge that. Here's a clue Sony, £39.99 for a handheld games in an age of 69p apps on iOS devices isn't a good idea.