The PlayStation Vita is Ailing, But What’s the Cure?

The PlayStation Vita may be in trouble, but how can Sony fix the situation?
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I am not a handheld connoisseur, and I really like my PlayStation Vita.  That’s why I’m very disappointed in the portable’s performance thus far, and I’m concerned that Sony’s slick handheld is on its deathbed.

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I know, I know, you think I’m jumping the gun. I hope I am.

But what if it’s not premature fear?

Sony hasn’t been forthcoming with Vita sales for some time, and they’ve conveniently avoided that topic during the latter part of 2013.  Clearly, they wanted the PlayStation 4 to act as a Trojan Horse of sorts; given the great connectivity features such as Remote Play, the company hoped to entice PlayStation fans to purchase the portable.  ‘Hey, if you’ve got a PS4, you can make it a “complete experience” by also picking up the Vita.’

Unfortunately, although we did see a definite surge in Vita sales when the PS4 arrived (at least in the UK), I’m fearful that such a surge is only temporary.  When a company doesn’t feel like reporting sales numbers, when its own PR people admit that Vita sales are lower than anticipated, and when we see very little promising titles on the horizon, one is entitled to worry.  Hell, one is expected to worry.

Based on the numbers and the current situation, we should be worried.  It’s all the more worrisome that even after Sony dropped the price of the unit, sales didn’t exactly skyrocket.  It doesn’t appear as if many developers have opted for future support and indeed, we’re not hearing much at all about the Vita from the designer perspective.  Therefore, despite the sheer power and potential of this highly advanced portable, it may die before it ever realizes that potential.

Yes, “a marathon and not a sprint.”  We understand.  And the PSP didn’t really start to do well until after it had been around for a few years.  Still, the PSP didn’t face the hurdles the Vita faces.

The mobile gaming explosion hasn’t helped

Sony tried to market the handheld to core gamers, thereby sidestepping the giant landmine that is mobile gaming.  They figure that although a ton of people play little games on their smartphones and tablets, real gamers will still want cutting-edge games with both flash and substance.  In other words, Sony was betting that hardcore fans would shell out because in truth, the Vita offers the most advanced form of portable gaming available.

Logically, however, mobile gaming has proven to be a big problem.  If you’re leaving the house, are you taking your smartphone or Vita with you?  Well, both can play games, but one is a phone and really an emergency device as well.  Which one are you taking?  It’s a no-brainer.  Sure, some might just say they’re taking both but that’s likely rare; exactly how many devices do you want to take with you?  Analysts have cited this practical issue as a major stumbling block for “gaming-only” handheld units.  The PSP didn’t have to deal with this, as the mobile explosion hadn’t quite happened yet.

So, what hope is there?

Exclusive software needed… now

There’s one thing that ultimately pushes new game hardware, especially when that hardware is focused on games.  Yep, I just used the word twice: GAMES.  It’s not the price, it’s not even that it “only” does games while tablets and smartphones do so much more.  It’s that gamers want games and without them, they’re not about to shell out their hard-earned cash.  What have we really seen for the Vita?  Not much.  At least, not much in the way of system-selling software; titles that make consumers go, “Yeah, now I need a Vita.”

Perhaps the best recent example of what the Vita can do is Media Molecule’s Tearaway.  Unbelievably imaginative and creative, this charming, innovative gem proves that the Vita could – theoretically – have a bright future.  Above all else, the game made fantastic use of the portable’s many cool features, and that’s the first time I’ve seen it happen.  Up until the emergence of Tearaway, implementing things like the camera, motion sensing, and touchpad seemed awkward and many times unnecessary.

Killzone: Mercenary was a great example of how a handheld could thrive in the FPS world.  That being said, why play it when we can play any of those bigger brothers on consoles?  I suppose we’d want to play it on the go, as the Vita is specifically designed for that, but is that really what portable gamers want?  “Slightly less” versions of games they can play at home on their consoles?  How’s about some exclusive software that you can’t find anywhere else?  Software like Tearaway?

There’s something else the PSP had that, so far, the Vita doesn’t: unique exclusive software that is not merely smaller iterations of primary console games.  The PSP had plenty of great JRPGs and strat/RPGs for that niche crowd, for example; just look at what Monster Hunter did in Japan over the past five years or so.  And games like Jeanne d’ArcThe Legend of Heroes: Trails in the SkyWild Arms XF and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII represented experiences that were starting to die out in the world of consoles.  The Vita just got Ys: Memories of Celceta, and that’s precisely the kind of game that helped the PSP carve out a spot for itself in the market.

I’m not saying the Vita needs to pump out the JRPGs to succeed.  I’m saying it needs to find its own niche, and that niche will undoubtedly be found in exclusive software.  I just hope developers will decide to take advantage of the portable’s prodigious capabilities.  If they don’t, you might not see the Vita around any longer.

And man, that’d be sad.

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A gaming journalism veteran of 14 years, a confirmed gamer for over 30 years, and a lover of fine literature and ridiculously sweet desserts.