The PlayStation Vita is in a curious place right now. Recent sales figures are concerning, with a paltry 10,000 units reported to have been sold in March 2014. Over in Japan the release of the PS Vita TV was an initial success, but sales have since declined considerably. And yet, if you are a reader of the gaming press, you could be forgiven for thinking that the platform is on some sort of upward curve. It appears that the media’s enthusiasm for the Vita system is yet to translate into significant sales.
Last month saw the US release of the new slim PlayStation Vita. If nothing else this gives Sony a chance to re-position the platform as a desirable purchase among the general gaming public. A hardware upgrade is a tried and tested tactic, and as Nintendo continuously prove, it can often provide a stimulus for a system needing a sales boost.
After two years on the market, the time is right for the Vita to receive a makeover. The new improved form factor and reduction in production costs make business sense for Sony of course, but it remains to be seen if the redesign will have a positive impact on consumers. The changes are not as significant as those undergone by the revision of the 3DS to the 3DS XL, and due to the removal of the OLED screen, you could even argue that it’s a downgrade. However, having an improved battery life, smaller form factor and reduced price does give Sony something to shout about. But is anyone listening?
The PlayStation Vita appears to be stuck between two stools. Sat on one is the disinterested public, sat on the other is an enthusiastic and vocal group of press advocates and indie game enthusiasts. (It’s a big stool.)
I’m certainly in the second camp. I bought my Vita in November 2013 and have not regretted it for a moment. In both iterations it’s an elegant and well-designed system that is made to Sony’s typically high standards of industrial design and craftsmanship. It’s well served by the PlayStation Store, with quality titles of all sizes arriving each month. And, of course, there are the obvious benefits that come with being a PlayStation Plus subscriber and/or a PlayStation 4 owner.
So why aren’t people buying it?
I think it’s an issue of identity. The Vita has struggled for definition. Is it a console for hard-core gamers? Is it for kids? Or is it an indie platform?
At launch the Vita was pitched as having a PlayStation 3 in the palm of your hands. This was evident in the early roster of games. A range of ‘almost, but not quite’ PS3 titles. Lesser iterations of Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed which, while fun enough, do not stand close comparison with their home console counterparts. There is an undeniable thrill in seeing these big budget experiences running on a handheld, but as beautiful as they look, they feel strangely confined and restricted. The Vita’s delicious screen somehow does these games a disservice.
This triple-A approach reached its nadir with the famously dreadful Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified. It was a watershed moment for the platform. The moment everyone realised that releasing hobbled editions of home console hits was a bad idea.
At the same time the Vita was being left for dust by the resurgent Nintendo 3DS, a platform that had its own troubles at birth. The 3DS survived by using the age old tactic of releasing high-quality, exclusive games. Software is king for sure, but not for Sony it seems. When title as good as Tearaway can’t inspire a change in fortunes, you have to wonder what will.
The glimmer of light is Sony’s indie friendly publishing framework. As a result the Vita has gradually become a hotbed for a range of wonderfully eclectic indie titles. Games that are bite-sized, but intelligently designed. Games that provide the Vita with a real point of difference when compared to the 3DS, smartphones and home consoles.
Personally speaking, it was through the Vita that I first savoured the pleasures of Hotline Miami, Thomas was Alone, Olli Olli, Retro City Rampage, Spelunky and Proteus. And whether by accident or design these types of experiences are the perfect fit for the console. There is something about their simple, vibrant aesthetics that just shines on the Vita’s screen. Give me games like these over a gimped Uncharted any day.
It’s telling that in the eight months since I bought a Vita I am yet to buy a single card-based. My entire library sits with space to spare on a (admittedly over-priced) Sony memory card.
The Vita has now carved a distinct identity as being the portable games platform for the discerning gamer. The only problem is that this only serves a small audience. This is not to say that indie games are not popular, but they are surely not the bedrock upon which to market a high-end games platform (Or even a low-end one, considering the plight of Ouya and the like). As a result, the Vita is falling through the gaps.
If you are reading this, you are probably love the Vita for what it offers, but my fear is that like the Dreamcast (and probably the Wii U) it will ultimately become a platform that is adored by its owners, but overlooked by everyone else. And this would be a tragic shame.