ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What Ever Happened to the PS Vita?

It seems a weird question to ask of any Playstation device, but here we are. Sony’s latest portable console is now well into its third year, and for years prior Playstation fans begged for what was then known as NGP (next-gen portable). The PSP before it sold tremendously (80 million units worldwide as of last November) and was home to some of the best titles ever to hit gamers’ pockets. When Nintendo made the first move on the latest generation of handheld consoles by releasing the 3DS, serious gamers swept it under their proverbial rugs. NGP is what everyone wanted—Sony’s class and hardware prowess and a library of games able to compete with their home console brethren. And when the Playstation Vita finally arrived, it delivered on all accounts. So why is it now that Sony has seemingly resigned to the Vita being merely an expensive second-screen and game streaming solution while Nintendo is selling 3DSs in their sleep (or at least they were)?

Is it the hardware’s fault? Well, yes and no, but mostly no. Despite its small form factor the Playstation Vita is nearly comparable to the Playstation 3. High-end Android smartphones are only just now reaching the same level, and remember the Vita debuted in Japan at the end of 2011. Sony did their homework and truly delivered the best possible mobile gaming hardware they could. But unfortunately they fell prey to the touch screen gimmick same as everyone else did at the time, and drove up the cost of the system to include this and other features that few games will ever use, and of them even fewer will actually benefit from. It’s another matter of something I’ve found myself talking about much, lately: novelty.

Novelty was a system-seller for the PSP. There was nothing else like it at the time. The PSP was a serious 3D-gaming machine in a world where portable gaming was almost exclusively casually 2D. The idea of playing big console games on a little console was like a dream. We wanted to see our favorite AAA titles run on a portable platform just for the sake of seeing them run on a portable platform. But unfortunately for the Vita, that charm has long worn off. Uncharted in the palm of your hand—awesome. Killzone—cool. LittleBigPlanet—great. But as neat as it is to see these iconic franchises looking good as ever on a mobile device, we’d rather just have them on the big screen. It’s just the nature of the trend beast. Trends that begin in novelty will end up either becoming utility or just plain obsolete. The hardcore mobile gaming trend is really falling into the obsolete category. Oh, we want to be able to take our games with us, but immersion is what’s hot. The fact that Sony’s Project Morpheus drew vastly more attention than the Vita at E3 last month is a testament to that fact, as is the existence of the Playstation TV, a modified set of Vita hardware designed to be a cheap TV console. Right now what gamers value most is the size of the experience, not the size of the hardware powering it. Small hardware, big screens, low cost, high performance—that’s the balance developers have to strike. If all the Vita has to offer is scaled-down rehashes of PS3 games, it holds little long-term appeal for its main target audience.

However, that is simply not the case. A heavily trend and novelty-based launch lineup started the Vita out on the wrong foot here in the west, but that’s not to say the recognizable names are the only options for the system. Despite the east providing its own set of problems for Sony’s troubled handheld, that hasn’t stopped Japanese developers from cranking out some seriously great titles. Gravity Rush, Freedom Wars, Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment—all only on Vita. Then there’s multiplatform titles from series like Persona, Atelier, Tales, and Final Fantasy. And let’s not forget all the great PSP games that can be played digitally on the system. There’s a lot of potential for the platform in this list—more than enough to move hardware—but discovery is a major problem. When was the last time you heard about a game that was specifically listed as coming to Playstation Vita? When was the last time you were excited about a game that was specifically coming to Vita? E3 2014 had almost nothing to offer in this regard, on stage. Think about that: basically no stage presence for a two-and-a-half year-old console. That’s absurd. Oh, Playstation TV got a little attention, the Vita was plugged as a streaming device, but what of actual games intended to run on the system itself? They’re still out there and still being developed, just not by Sony, and from the look of things they’re weary of even bothering to advertise. It’s a shot in the foot, but the Vita is not what Sony anticipated it to be and they don’t know how to promote what it is, so missteps should come as no surprise.

But don’t judge the product by its presentation (or lack thereof). I’m not here to tell you that the Vita is dead (how ironic that would be, considering the name), I’m here to tell you that it’s very much alive and just needs a little more love to reach its full potential.

What ever happened to the Playstation Vita? Nothing. That’s true in multiple senses of the word. It hasn’t gone anywhere (i.e. sales figures haven’t exactly ascended to great heights), but it hasn’t gone anywhere (i.e. it’s still there to be discovered). By pushing it as a device purely for streaming games from Playstation 4 or Playstation Now, Sony is discouraging further native games and applications. They’re admitting defeat when the battle isn’t even lost. At this point in time many game developers still believe in the system, though, and if the Vita proves profitable for them a total turnaround is entirely possible. The next year or two are absolutely critical—vital, one might say.

Gamers: make the effort Sony isn’t willing to. Give the Vita a chance. Dig for the hidden gems, the interesting and unusual titles of known studios and indie greats alike. Get the word out about your discoveries. Don’t hold back just because you already own a 3DS. The two devices’ libraries are almost wholly separate and each has a lot to offer that the other does not. Get in on the action while the gettin’s good. The Vita’s future is what gamers make of it. Show the device the support it deserves, and it will have a future bright indeed.