Viva la Vita: Is There Room in the Pocket for Sony's New Handheld?

By Ryan Winslett in Infinite Ammo
Friday, February 17, 2012 at 10:00 am
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Sony's latest handheld device is finally going global and, within the next few weeks, I think it's a safe bet that quite a few gamers will be living la Vita loca.


I understand how that last sentence could have angered you. But let's face it; if I hadn't said it, someone else would have. Now that we've gotten that bit of ugliness out of the way, let's take a few minutes to mull over this latest shiny hotness being thrust into our sweaty mitts.

 

The launch of a new piece of hardware comes with all sorts of questions to ponder. The biggest, of course, being whether or not the thing will live a life worth remembering. Or, more importantly to developers and gamers, will it live a life worth investing in?

 

For the record: No, I do not own a Vita. Nor do I plan on owning one anytime soon. While I did pick up the original PlayStation Portable during launch and still play it to this day, this time around I'm going to do my damndest to wait for the slimmer, sexier, more power-efficient model to launch in *checks watch* I'm guessing June by the way these things typically work.

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The portable gaming market has been a hot topic these past couple of years thanks to the rise of mobile platforms and last year's less-than-spectacular launch of the Nintendo 3DS. The PlayStation Vita is certainly an attractive piece of machinery, but does it still have a place in this current gaming landscape?


First, let's take a look at some of the positives; the strongest of which has got to be the system's lineup of launch titles. Ask anyone who owns a 3DS what the system's greatest weakness is and they will likely complain about a lackluster catalog of games. Even a full year after the system originally launched and we're looking at a collection of must-own titles you could count on one hand.


Sony, it would seem, has learned from Nintendo's mistake. The Vita's launch window is packed with about twice as many games as its immediate competitor and, with GDC just around the corner, we're likely to hear details on new titles that will be keeping Vita owners busy through the remainder of the year. And let's not forget about all of those downloadable PSP games, Minis and original PlayStation games that can be picked up the day the Vita launches.


Similarly, this strong launch lineup boasts solid developer/publisher support. With games coming from studios big and small, it's obvious that the Vita is currently looking like a viable money-maker to everyone from indie studio Queasy Games on up to Ubisoft, Square Enix, Capcom and Electronic Arts.


Thirdly, the PlayStation Vita offers hardware and software that actually feels next gen. There's half a dozen input methods, all of the social bells and whistles you could ever want, additional gadgets like cameras, an accelerometer, microphone and GPS and, with Japan already providing a couple of firmware updates, it's clear that the device will evolve with additional features being added from time to time.


At first glance, the Vita looks like it's getting a lot right. Still, I'm not entirely convinced it will be able to find solid footing in today's market.


The first thing working against the Vita is the price. The modern gamer likely already has a smart phone in their pocket that can do much of what the Vita does, as well as make phone calls. No, those games aren't nearly as deep as the ones offered by a proper portable console and, no, touch screens aren't ideal as the sole source of input, but that seems to be what the market is craving. Also, with some Vita games as expensive as $50, you're going to have a hard time winning over folks who are used to dropping just 99 cents per game. And don't even get me started on how expensive those memory cards are. Yeesh.


Also, no matter how disappointed I am with the 3DS, that particular system has a few things going in its favor over the Vita, too. Firstly, it's from Nintendo, which means consumers will pretty much buy it no matter what. Secondly, despite a lack of games, the system seems to be selling pretty well, thus proving point one. Thirdly, the 3DS now sports a lower price and a full year's headstart on the Vita. While we haven't seen many noteworthy games hit the 3DS yet, there's no telling what could have been put together this past year, just waiting to be announced at one of the upcoming trade shows.

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And then there's the problem with Sony's focus on portable games that would be more at home on the big screen. While the Vita offers all sorts of apps and online play options that make it feel like a console made for gamers on the go, the majority of those core games (Uncharted, Killzone, Resistance, etc) don't lend themselves well to short bursts of play. That, coupled with the price, might mean the Vita is competing with home consoles more than the portable market, which could be very confusing for consumers.


Conversely, while I have no problem with the shift to cheap, quick, touch-focused games over the past few years, I'd prefer it if that market doesn't completely drown out the deeper experiences traditionally provided by portable consoles. I think there's room enough for both types of games to exist, just maybe not in the direction the Vita is currently headed. Make deeper experiences, sure, but figure out a way to gear them towards portable play.

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Rather than $50 single player experiences that require long play sessions and a power cord tethered to the wall, perhaps the answer is in smaller, more bite-sized games that take advantage of all those nifty Vita features. I look at Super Stardust Delta and feel like that's more like what the portable market should be evolving into. It's a fully fleshed out experience good for long or short play sessions, and it takes advantage of the dual analog sticks, tilt, face buttons and touch screen. It's a fully featured game you can't play on a smart phone that will only set the consumer back 15 bucks. Sony might be able to convince more gamers of the Vita's worth if they had more games like that on their hands.


Either way, I can only hope that the Vita finds some success. Competition breeds creativity, which would then lead to even better games being offered on all platforms. Also, if it doesn't sell well, I'll never get my slimmed down model. That would be a bummer.


Infinite Ammo is a weekly column by Ryan Winslett about video games, the industry that make them and the people who play them. He can be stalked via his blog at staticechoes.com and followed on Twitter @RyanWinslett.

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