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Opinion: Does the Vita cast too wide a net?
Opinion: Does the Vita cast too wide a net?
February 21, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

February 21, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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You can't blame industry-watchers for wondering about the future for traditional handheld gaming, given how strong a showing mobile phones and tablets continue to make in the space.

Even as recently as the last generation of portable hardware, few would have believed that a cell phone could compete with Nintendo's original DS and Sony's PSP -- let alone that the seismic restructuring of the portable hardware market could strike so immediately.

Suddenly with the advent of the iPhone and the hardware families that rapidly popped up to keep pace, phones could offer quite a few things that portable gaming hardware never could: Simple, cheap games available from an instantaneous digital storefront.

The immediacy of a touch interface, initially a wonder, is now preferred by the majority. And perhaps most importantly, multifunctionality: Communications, internet browsing, books, a camera (in many cases, two!) and games all from the same device.

Even still, the prophecy that iOS and Android gaming would ever pose any kind of threat to the traditional portable gaming market seemed implausible for some fair reasons: Touch interface games were limited in the kind of complexity and depth they could offer. The screen on a phone, no matter how vivid modern retinal displays have gotten, isn't big enough to engender deep immersion. "Real" gamers would continue to want "real" games and beloved brands, obviously.

But while sound, this logic hasn't been able to impede the inevitable fragmentation smartphones have created in the market for all portable hardware. The challenge of the modern portable gaming console seems to be that to emphasize to the more serious gamer what it can offer that other mobile devices can't -- and theoretically it has to offer all mobile's most desirable features, too.

All-in-One

With the launch of its PlayStation Vita, Sony is clearly shooting for that star with a kitchen sink approach. The device, about the size and weight of an original-gen PSP, is a lush, sleek gadget with an absolutely brilliant touch-sensitive screen that takes up almost its whole face. Not content with just one touch screen, the Vita sports a second touch-sensitive pad on the back, as well as the now-requisite front- and rear-facing cameras.

With the belated launch of the weird circle pad add-on for the 3DS, Nintendo made its concession to the fact that most gamers are significantly accustomed to two sticks. The Vita nails the twin sticks and the necessary face buttons; they feel great. The traditional controls feel so nice, in fact, that it almost seems to emphasize the question of whether the device really needs all of a smartphone's bells and whistles.

Also unlike the 3DS, the Vita got its launch lineup right, at least from the perspective of Sony's brands (Uncharted: Golden Abyss, ModNation Racers) and a few strong and importantly mobile-ready third parties (Touch My Katamari and Lumines: Electronic Symphony are my personal favorites). The thing is, most of the games just feel better with traditional controls, when possible.

The cartridges are very tiny -- does Sony resent consumers for resisting its premature effort to push them to digital-only with the failed PSP Go, is it trying to shrink physical media until it disappears? Still, the little software chips seem to cement the device as intended for fastidious adults who don't lose things. And although the need to separately purchase and install a memory card will probably be a sticking point for some reviewers, as it makes the approachable $249/$299 (WiFi/3G) price points a little deceptive, it's also nothing new for Sony's portables.

Who's Your Audience?

Overall, the Vita is a slick, appealing piece of hardware, but it's easy to wonder who will use it the way Sony wants. It's the market that's made the case for touchscreens and cameras, not necessarily the needs or habits of the gamer who will be its most passionate early adopter. Negotiating the rear pad often makes the Vita awkward to hold, and although in concept a touch input on the back of a device that's meant to be embraced with spread fingers sounds like a fantastic idea, its unfamiliarity is enough of a barrier that it's too tempting to just switch to the sticks.

The success of iPhone and iOS platform was exemplary of Apple's well-known strategy of deciding what consumers will want and then selling it to them; creating demand for new ideas, rather than necessarily playing within the constraints of what's known in the market. Over the recent generations, Nintendo has taken a similar tack -- like when it won over massive mainstream audiences and revolutionized the game space with the Wii, even at the expense of initially earning puzzlement -- even derision -- from the core gaming audience.

That the Wii later saw a massive contraction and tanking software sales didn't make its transformative boom less significant, any more than its short lifespan diminished its profitability. The launch of the 3DS suggests that maybe Nintendo doesn't even mind faddishness, if it can dazzle enough of its addressable audience for long enough. Nintendo knows how to give consumers exactly what they want, and doesn't waste its attention on things it doesn't think it needs, like a robust online infrastructure, no matter how disgruntled the traditional gamer gets about it.

The quick spike and level-off in 3DS sales perhaps speaks to that: Nintendo knew audiences young and old would be taken in by the shiny newness of its glasses-free 3D display -- maybe it even knew that most would realize only later that they didn't really need or want it, and that they'd essentially bought a glorified second DS.

It wasn't so much that the 3DS was a product that consumers really wanted; it was that Nintendo was quite good at making people, probably enough people, believe they wanted it. Nintendo has cornered the portable market in the U.S. because it's a whiz at driving buzz that spreads like wildfire; like Apple, it knows the power in becoming a trendy brand and in riding word-of-mouth.

What Sony Does Worst

With the Vita, it isn't clear what the company wants people to believe. That's not been the company's strength in recent years (even the heavy handed "Make.Believe" slogan the company unveiled never seemed to stick). Of all the console holders Sony has always struggled most with its messaging, and it seems it continues to.

Advertising for the Vita is surprisingly scarce and not strongly-directed. Speak to most of the Western consumer games press and they'll tell you that even the roll-out of review units to many outlets was a complicated process, with necessary planning details often obfuscated behind red tape. Microsoft, on the other hand, regularly strike-teams hardware, software, information, anything to the press before we even realize we're interested.

The portable hardware market, from gaming devices to e-readers, smartphones and tablets, is fragmented and fast-moving, and success seems more than ever to depend on that crucial clarity of messaging.

Telling consumers it's a portable PS3 is piquant, but Sony would never try that angle -- one of the problems for the PS3's difficult launch was that in casting too wide a net for its audience, it dampened its desirability in both gaming and multimedia-minded audiences. Contrast that with the Xbox 360 approach of deciding to be a core gaming console first and a multimedia device later on.

Sony has clearly borrowed a page from many market leaders' playbooks -- Vita's tutorial, called "Welcome Park," is a set of soothingly-narrated minimalist minigames designed to teach users what the device can do, and it feels much more like a tack Nintendo's mastered versus something that feels innate to Sony. With the Vita in hand, the impression is of a piece of hardware that's trying so many things at once that it's hard to tell what it wants to be or who it's really for.

If that's the case, it doesn't matter that it does pretty damn well at most of the things it tries. When the device has indecisive messaging, and a marketing presence conspicuously below what it should be to drive the early user base that is key to gaining that critical developer support, consumers will hang back and wait for others to work it out, and that could be devastating.

What it Needs to Succeed

The most unfortunate part is that the Vita's kitchen sink approach doesn't acknowledge the unexplored market opportunities for Vita where it could have a decisive advantage. Portable gaming is rapidly taking root across multiple platforms with Game Center and other multiplayer services for mobile, and the audience that understands online play in general is reaching significant mass.

But the higher-end portable gaming market hasn't become part of Western culture the way it has in Japan, where PSP excels at it. Nintendo's family-oriented and less-than intuitive approach to networked play on the DS has prevented it from pioneering a mobile multiplayer culture in America, but Sony could seize the opportunity with strong messaging that illustrates to people how new and fun it could be to go beyond what asynchronous social play has offered us so far. Anticipate an audience and address it, rather than just reacting.

The Vita has everything it needs to be popular with gamers and the gadget-curious, and the audience for high-end portable gaming isn't an illusion. But reacting rather than pioneering won't cut it in the noisy, challenging Wild West of a market that mobile's become. It remains to be seen whether Sony knows how to really sell a portable console in such a complicated, dynamic environment.


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Comments


Travis Flynn
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I don't think Sony is casting too wide of a net. If anything, they are casting too narrowly. Much of the "criticism" (even though I think it is misplaced) is people saying the $250+ vita is "too expensive" when a $600 tablet is great, when really the only thing a tablet does particularly better is web-browsing.



What Vita needs to be successful is really on two fronts. First, they need to break out of the old software distribution model that's dragging down the games industry. The most significant difference between the success of the social and mobile gaming platforms is that distribution is so streamlined and the products are so accessible. In this day and age, forcing people to spend $50 for a retail box of a game, or worse, a download is a lot to ask, even if it is "worth it."



Sony also has to realize first that if they want the digital distribution to take off, the digital content has to be priced competitively when compared to the discounted retail versions. The digital marketplace has to compete on price point with sales of used games and older games. This is one of the places steam has excelled, and why their digital distribution is a success story. Sony would be wise to borrow a page from them.



Finally, for the device to really take off Sony needs to improve PSN (or SEN or whatever they call it). Sony needs a robust online connectivity that rivals Xbox Live. That could be enough to push the Vita into some more friendly territory, because being able to communicate with your online friends, see what they're playing and do all the neat stuff that Xbox Live lets you do, but also do it on the go, would make for a bit more of a compelling device. They do indeed need to stress and reinforce the connectivity, but to do that Sony needs to first make PSN / SEN a much more compelling service overall.



Also, it needs a better web browser.

Robert Boyd
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The complaint isn't so much that the system does too many things since as you've mentioned Tablets are even more versatile. The complaint is that Sony's marketing of the Vita is too wide. Rather than focus on a specific demographic, they're trying to entice everyone which could easily backfire.

Wendy Jones
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I definitely agree that Sony needs to improve PSN especially the product detail screen in the store. On the current PSP, you can scroll through currently available games, but only see a short text description with no video or images to assist you in making a purchasing decision. I've taken to only purchasing games when I'm at home or have access to a web browser to look up game details before purchasing. I'm hoping that the Vita helps fix this issue.



Pricing is also an issue on full retail titles as well. We now have millions of more people familiar with digital purchasing and downloads but only if the price is right. Unfortunately, the market place now wants extremely inexpensive prices since they're now used to other mobile platforms. Sony may not think that the Vita is in competition with phones but that's the way most people will see it.

Ian Uniacke
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This was the same reasoning that I didn't become a big user of xbox 360 downloads, tepid interface with too much text. I totally agree you need something enticing. 3ds is a step in the right direction, and the app store is quite good too.

Bob Johnson
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Sony is doomed. They really need a killer app reason to own the device.



Maybe in the US that would be an on-the-go multiplayer AAA fps. A full fledged CoD or BF game in other words.





Or how about diablo 3 multiplayer?





Or, of course, something we don't know that we want.



Even then I think Sony should have made the device larger like a tablet. And made it all digital download to cut down distribution costs.



I could definitely see myself getting a Vita if that was the case and if it had a AAA Battlefield game or a Diablo 3 or SkyRim etc.



Yes I can play those on my tv, but if the Vita was larger I could still get a great gaming experience on it (closer to a console)yet while watching tv at the same time especially sports or something that you dont have to pay attention too all the time or game while the wife watches tv or if you have kids while they watch tv or while you watch tv and they play. Bonus? Built tv remote control.



The other advantages it would have over a console would be start up times - it should be always on. You dont have to switch inputs on the tv. No console boot up time. Just click your game. Much less noise too. And probably a better color pallette thsn many of th hdtvs out in the wild. Oh and of course room to room portability or car to airplane to hotel portability provided by the tablet form factor. A tablet form factor also allows a bigger battery.



The other non-gaming stuff could come later when each is ready for prime time like a great browser.

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Evan Combs
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There is nothing wrong with having many different types of inputs, even if you are targeting the hardcore. If you have a game that really does a great job of using that kind of input it doesn't matter if the player is a hardcore gamer or a casual gamer they will enjoy it. I will say though, if that added feature took away resources in order to have good sticks then that is a problem, but I imagine the bad sticks is just a Sony thing. There is a reason people prefer FPS's on the Xbox.





To me I have no problem with Sony trying to make a product that is for everyone, but I think if that is their goal they made one fatal flaw, not using Android. If I could get everything Android on it, plus all of the other cool games that no smart phone or tablet has, then sign me up for a free flip phone and I will spend that $250 on a device actually worth $250.



Now if Sony wants to succeed with the Vita they need to look at a completely different market. The hardcore might do enough to keep it surviving, but the vast majority of people would rather play God of War on a PS3 and not a Vita, I'm sure Sony wants to do more than just survive. Instead they need to look at PSN and XBLA for inspiration on the type of games to have on the Vita. They need games that unique and different, and at about the $15 - $20 price range. Not games that you can play on your console and have a better experience.

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Josh Bakken
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SSX for my Vita plz. kthx.

Joe Zachery
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Sony is once again trying the jack of all trades, but a master of none approach. The problem is that approach has, and will never work. The don't the software of a Nintendo, and the loyal fanbase of Apple.

Joe McGinn
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I think the opposite - for what seems a general-purpose device, available in a 3D model, it's the absence of phone/SMS functions that is glaring, I think many people would be happy to have a great gaming phone. Many less than that still want to carry a dedicated game device in addition to their phone.

Darcy Nelson
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So by that logic, the Xperia Play should be selling like hotcakes?

Matthew Cooper
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Darcy, just because the 1st attempt at something doesn't excel, doesn't mean the concept is bad:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWSRgsk2oaw



I agree with Joe -- if Sony is going to go to the lengths of putting 3G and a beautiful touchscreen in the Vita, then I also want it to make calls. Make it work with the existing Android marketplace. And most of all, create great original games for it -- the key component that's missing from Xperia.



By your logic, Apple should have quit with the ROKR.

Nou Phabmixay
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I'm not even sure the iPhone needs to make phone calls. SMS is a must, on the other other hand. Is there a place that says iPhones are actually good phones? I'm not convinced it does. Angry Birds doesn't make a phone call. Neither does Facebook (or at last I don't know people who really calls through the app). Siri does a lot of cool stuff. The least of which is make a phone call.



Though it is puzzling that the device casts a wide net that it does everything but make a phone call. Then again, why am I comparing this to a smart phone? Does the 3DS or iPad make phone calls? Do people carry both a phone and one of those devices?

Alex Leighton
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I agree, I would have much less of an issue with buying a Vita if it could completely replace my phone. The Xperia is a good idea, but if I'm spending that much money for a device I want it to play games at the level the Vita can.

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Regardless of its success, I think some very interesting game designs may come out of this because Vita is literally the first serious attempt at high quality touch gaming. No fingers blocking the view, and because there are real buttons and sticks, there is no need to shoehorn bad virtual versions of those inputs onto the screen, sparing screen real estate for things which actually need it.



I wonder if we will see behind-screen touch tech on Android phones as well.

Harlan Sumgui
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I really hope sony's new boss can straiten things out. Their anti-consumer approach to product development is killing the heart of the company. & in the world of consumer electronics/software, the fall can be spectacularly fast. Anyone remember when Portable Music=Sony?



Locked down proprietary systems with no customization and highly controlled expensive software, not to mention memory cards, just aren't all that appealing when there are alternatives.



Some might argue that the idevices fall into that category, but they don't because apple has a thriving development community, and the control they exert over what software is available boils down to "nothing illegal and/or really really embarrassing to us ". It is much closer to the traditional PC dev environment than the console environment.



So what compelling feature does Vita offer? I can't think of one. Price? nope. Lots of cheap software? Nope. Open dev community? Nope. Exclusive IP that people love? Not really, they don't have a Mario. A good track record with being able to anticipate and meet consumer desires? Not in the 10-15 years.

Ujn Hunter
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I wish the PSP Vita was a Game System. I don't care about all these extra features and Touch & Waggle controls etc... If I wanted to play crappy games with crappy controls I'd already be playing them on my iPhone. So, yes, I think Sony is targeting the wrong market. If the PSP Vita was simply a device that played Games using Buttons, I'd be all over it... as it stands... I won't touch it until it hits $100-150 and the Firmware is cracked so that I can play my existing PSP UMDs.

Joseph Garrahan
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The vita will do well, eventually. Launch is always rough....BUT this seems too similar to when the DS and PSP came out. The results will most likely be similar.


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