Sony stunned a lot of people when, at their E3 media briefing on Monday, they announced that the wi-fi-only model of their new portable system – now officially named the PlayStation Vita – would retail for $250 USD. This price is a big deal for two reasons: One, it’s far lower than most analyst predictions (I personally predicted a price of around $400. Some were even higher) and two, it brings the system in line with Nintendo’s 3DS.
When the 3DS launched, it had a strong start. But sales quickly dipped and the hardware currently isn’t meeting Nintendo’s expectations. That’s not to say the system is failing by any means, but it’s obviously not what Nintendo wanted. Sony, who did respectfully with their first foray into portable gaming with the PlayStation Portable, probably sees this as a golden opportunity to jump in.
It’s important to note that Sony has confirmed they will lose money on all Vita units sold. This isn’t really a new thing for them. Microsoft and Sony have consistently sold their new systems as a loss initially, with the philosophy that they’ll make everything up in things like software sales. Nintendo is the only company that always makes money on hardware day one, and it’s been part of their success as a business. Nintendo, as a video game company only, doesn’t necessarily have other revenue to fall back on if things go sour, like Sony and Microsoft do with their other divisions.
But while Sony should be congratulated for launching at such a low price point (wait, when did $250 become “low”? What has happened to us? I remember when some N64 games were $80, so I don’t want to be “that” guy complaining about prices, but still…), they shouldn’t celebrate yet. As much as I hate to say it, dedicated portable devices are on a decline, and one of the main reasons in mobile gaming. Y’know, like on your fancy iDevice.
It seems like all the kids these days want iPod Touches. Not only can they use it to pollute their ear holes with Justin Bieber and watch classic movies like Twilight, they can also use it to play games. For $0.99 (if that), they can spend their time playing games like Angry Birds and Tiny Wings. Compare that to the $40 you might throw away purchasing Asphalt 3D for the 3DS.
There’s also the matter of convenience. We already tend to carry a lot of stuff in our pockets (especially as adults), and we don’t usually want to include a dedicated gaming device. If I’m waiting in line for a movie or something and I get bored, I already have my iPhone with me. A game of Civilization is just a few taps away. Sure, it’s not hard to toss my 3DS in my messenger bag, but why would I take my messenger bag to the movies?
Are these mobile games as good as games on dedicated gaming devices? Rarely if ever. No Sudoku app can compare to Picross 3D. No simple puzzle game matches the wits of Professor Layton. Even when the same game comes to iOS, like Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, it’s never as good. One of the chief reasons for this is a lack of buttons on these devices. When you have to cover up half the screen just to use a virtual joystick that doesn’t even work as well as a real joystick, the results are rarely terrific.
That’s not so say all mobile games are bad. I really like Dead Space for the iPhone as far as “typical” gaming experiences go, and I’ve certainly wasted time with original games like Field Runners, Battleheart and Sword & Sworcery. But there’s a lot more potential for great handheld games on Nintendo and Sony’s platforms, despite the higher barrier to entry.
But here’s the thing about Nintendo: They’re like the Disney of video games. Mario and Zelda can still be enjoyed by mature adults, just like Wall-E or Pirates of the Caribbean. A few adults like myself will buy a 3DS and enjoy titles like Resident Evil along with the family-friendly favorites, but the primary market is children and young adults. They can benefit a lot more from tossing their gaming system into a backpack, or playing on a smaller screen while others in the house occupy the living room’s TV.
Sony doesn’t quite have that demographic or appeal. Their platforms occasionally play host to titles aimed at children, and they have a few quality titles and franchises that can appeal to a broad audience (Sly Cooper comes to mind), but their primary audience is composed of older, “hardcore” gamers. They want Uncharted. They want Call of Duty. They want Madden.
The Vita will bring them those things, but here’s another problem: Most casual gamers of games like Madden and Call of Duty don’t feel the intense desire to play it on a handheld. They want things to be bigger and better. They want a big TV. They want a full controller. They often want surround sound.
But I guess that’s only half of the “casual” gamers out there. The other half bought the Wii, and they bought it because it was simple, easy to pick up and family friendly. Will the Vita be any of those things?
Personally? I like what I’ve seen of the Vita so far, and will probably get one (especially considering my line of work), which makes me extremely glad the system will only be $250. But I’m worried that Sony still doesn’t “get” this market. They don’t understand the influence mobile games have right now, and they don’t understand what makes a mobile experience so great. The Vita is packed with potentially interesting features, but they’re using them to make an Uncharted game where you can touch the screan to climb walls and toss enemies. Where you can tilt the system to aim grenades (the very feature that everybody hated in the original PS3 Uncharted, which was thankfully removed in Uncharted 2). Sony hasn’t given me a reason to play this new Uncharted game on their small screen (nice as it is) when I’ll be able to play Uncharted 3 in 3D in my media room around the same time.
Nintendo did a smart thing with the 3DS: They added yet another feature
that just wasn’t possible on home consoles. They started that trend with the dual-screened, touch screen DS (which became the world’s best-selling video game device ever), and have continued it with glasses-free gaming – an experience that just isn’t possible on bigger screens with current technology. If you want that experience, you have to buy a 3DS. You can’t get it elsewhere. Conversely, if I want to play Sony’s upcoming Diablo clone, Ruin, they can do it on the PS3 just as easily as on the Vita. Instead, Sony wants you to play it on both the PS3 and the Vita, transferring your save data between the two systems.
Yet, the two games I’m most anxious to hear about for the Vita are Silent Hill and Bioshock, which are both console properties… So maybe I’m part of the problem.
The thing both the 3DS and Vita have in common is a desperate need for quality games. I’ve really enjoyed the likes of Ghost Recon and Dead or Alive on the 3DS, but there hasn’t been a great selection for gamers to choose from since the system launched (unless you count original DS games, of which there are many brilliant choices). Nintendo showed some very slick looking first-party titles at E3 (I’m particularly excited for Mario 3DS and Kid Icarus), but it needs some more third party support as well. When the system was announced, Nintendo talked about titles like a Saints Row game (which appears to be canceled), Final Fantasy and others. This sort of stuff will almost certainly show up in the near future, but sooner is better than later.
Sony is in the same boat. Uncharted looks really neat, but where’s the Call of Duty game they mentioned when they announced they were making a new portable (then called the NGP)? What happened to Killzone? More importantly, where are more games that can’t be done on anything else? It seemed like there were a few smaller games at E3 that seemed innovative, but Sony didn’t even mention them in their press conference.
I don’t regret my purchase of a 3DS, as desperate as I am for new, original experiences on the system. I’ll buy a Vita, though I think Sony didn’t learn enough from the PSP and worry they’ll have the same problems again. But it’s hard to tell how much the common gamer populace will flock to either of them, if at all.
Is mobile gaming going to kill both these new systems? I hope not. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to play Angry Birds on a plane instead of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story.