To say Sony’s PlayStation Vita has a had a tumultuous first year would be putting it mildly. By some estimates, Sony has sold only 3-4 million units of the fledgling handheld worldwide. To put that figure in perspective, Sony would have to sell roughly three times the current number of Vitas in order to match lifetime sales of Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast.
All is not dismal, however. Look closely and you’ll find that Vita has quietly established a rather solid library in its first year, albeit one handicapped by an abundance of ports and a subdued marketing presence. Sony has also recently revealed that the Vita will play an integral role as a “companion” to the upcoming PS4, as many PS4 games are purported to support a much-improved Remote Play streaming feature.
With such a topsy-turvy prognosis, perhaps Vita’s one-year anniversary in the US serves as the perfect opportunity to examine how the system has fared and what Sony’s brief track record can tell us about its future. Does Vita’s first year merit a passing grade? More importantly, does it seem like Sony has given the Vita its full vote of confidence? Let’s take a look.
Hardware and OS – Grade: C
Though I’m in the minority here, I was never a fan of the Vita’s hardware. I don’t find the system particularly comfortable to hold, the analogs feel too loose and are too short, and the Vita’s operating system (OS) is a mess of scattered bubbles. Of course, these criticisms are highly subjective and moot one year after launch: Sony probably isn’t going to release a new form factor or completely overhaul the OS anytime soon. That said, Sony hasn’t produced much in the way of subtle improvements either. One helpful addition would be a folder system for consolidating app bubbles in the same way the PS3’s XMB sorts different kinds of games into different folders. It may not be possible at this point, but a separate, visible folder for game saves would also help (and make cloud saving less of an absolute necessity).
Also, a few of the highly touted hardware features and system apps have turned out to be the unnecessary gimmicks many critics suspected. The rear touch panel is a finicky afterthought, poorly implemented in several games, and far too easy to touch by accident (I find myself turning off the function in any game that allows me to do so). The dual cameras have been used sparingly by developers and, as demonstrated by the Vita’s augmented reality games and Frobisher Says, require a lot of light to function properly. Gyroscopic motion control has also been implemented poorly and typically feels hypersensitive without some kind of calibration. The Near application remains an enigmatic annoyance, failing to match even the utility of Nintendo’s own clumsy 3DS Street Pass system. Remote Play has been a non-factor, although that should change with the release of the PS4. The less said about the web browser, the better.
The only reason I give the hardware and OS a passing grade is because the Vita has proven to be a capable performer with solid battery life. Not every game has made good use of the Vita’s power or feature set, but enough have utilized the second analog stick, trophies, chat, and cross-game interaction with PS3 that these features now make going back to the PSP feel like a significant downgrade.
The Vita has amassed a library of over 90 games…so perhaps the most willfully ignorant thing one can say about the Vita is that it has “no games.”
Here it is, the big sticking point. Believe it or not, when the Vita’s price was first announced, it was received rather warmly as being competitive with the 3DS. After all, many expected the Vita to sell for at least $300-350, and given all the horsepower, the Vita seemed more likely to convince people it was a worthwhile upgrade at its forebear’s starting price than the 3DS.
Well, never underestimate a sour economy and stiff competition. The Vita sold decently when it was put on deep discount for the holidays, with packages going as low as $180 for a Vita, memory card, and two games. Unfortunately, it seems like Sony just can’t afford to keep the Vita at such a low price, as they have recently stated that Vita isn’t going to receive a price cut in North America in the near future. It’s a shame, because today’s gamers have proven that they are only willing to open their wallets for handhelds under $200 and consoles under $300 (not to mention anything with the Apple logo on it under $4,000, so long as they can spend less than $5 on inconsequential games that are played once and then never touched again… but I digress).
I don’t blame Sony for bleeding money during a tough economy (all three of the major console manufacturers are) or not wanting to take a bigger loss on Vita. What I do blame them for, however, is the abominable pricing of the memory cards, which are no doubt part of the reason people are taking a pass on Vita. $100 for 32GB of removable memory? In 2013? I can only hope that that price is cut in half (and $50 is still insulting, quite frankly) before the holidays.
You may be wondering why the pricing debacle hasn’t earned a flat-out F. The two redeeming factors here are PlayStation Plus and Cross-Buy. PlayStation Plus continues to be an exceptional deal, providing some fantastic games for only $50 a year. With regard to Vita, that $50 provides a handful of the most popular games on the system, alleviating some of the upfront cost of ownership for new buyers who already have a Plus account. Storing those games on expensive, limited memory is another matter, but at least Plus enables cloud saving for games that have to be deleted to conserve memory.
Meanwhile, Cross-Buy probably hasn’t sparked enthusiasm for Vita like Sony had hoped, but it’s an undeniably consumer-friendly move for gamers who own both a PS3 and Vita. I thank my lucky stars for the feature every time I purchase a new table for Zen Pinball 2 on PS3 and realize I have a copy waiting for me on my handheld. Sure, I wish more companies supported the incentive, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Library – Grade: B
The Vita has amassed a library of over 90 games (not including PSP, PS1, or PS Mobile) in its first year, so perhaps the most willfully ignorant thing one can say about the Vita is that it has “no games.” 90 is A LOT. They were poorly spaced out during 2012, with many coming in the first few weeks and several PSN releases arriving during the holidays, but 90 is probably more games than many people had anticipated for Vita’s first year.
So why does the Vita have the “no games” reputation? There are a few problems here, one being marketing, which I’ll get to in a bit. The biggest culprit is a lack of major system exclusives. If we’re talking platform-exclusive releases, that 90 number shrinks to less than 30, and in terms of Vita-specific intellectual properties, it goes as low as 10. So, as with the PSP, originality is not the Vita’s strong suit.
Despite the abundance of ports and spin-offs, however, the Vita’s library is surprisingly strong in quality. None of the games scream “system seller” (or have proven to be such), but you’ll find plenty of people who have enjoyed Gravity Rush, Persona 4: Golden, Sound Shapes, Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and so on. The system certainly does not lack for games worth playing, though gamers may have already played them elsewhere.
Even that caveat has limits, however, as I find it hard to believe that every gamer has already played every game ported. For example, I didn’t get around to playing Disgaea 3, Persona 4, and Rayman Origins until enjoying them on Vita, and I appreciated being able to play all three on a portable console. One’s tolerance for sequels and new entries in longstanding series like Hot Shots Golf and Lumines likewise depends on the individual.
Unfortunately, while the Vita has already landed quite a few good games, the release schedule for the rest of 2013 looks rather barren. In the next few months, Vita will see the release of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus, Dead or Alive 5 Plus, and Soul Sacrifice, but the only big releases on tap after that are Tearaway and Killzone Mercenary. Japan-friendly fare like God Eater 2 and the beautiful-looking Dragon’s Crown are supposed to arrive later this year, but details are sparse. Surely, Sony will have to do a better job announcing and touting specific games at this year’s E3 conference than at last year’s.
Sony’s Support of Vita – Grade: C
When it comes to marketing, Sony has had a pretty ambivalent relationship with its young handheld. For one, Sony made one of the most boneheaded decisions in the long history of boneheaded game company decisions when it decided to pass on advertising Vita during the 2012 Super Bowl. It was the perfect opportunity to sell Vita to a massive, captive audience in the same month the system was launching, and Sony whiffed. Advertising in the months to come wasn’t much better, as insultingly apathetic ads featuring hipster kids and MLB 12 Cross-Play became the norm.
As previously mentioned, Sony also let their release schedule become a wasteland in the middle of the year, and an E3 press conference that mentioned little more than Assassin’s Creed Liberation did little to persuade gamers that Sony had the system’s back.
At the same time, Sony has done some surprisingly savvy things when it comes to pushing Vita.
…it has become impossible to tell how Sony really feels about the Vita.
It should also be noted that the popular PlayStation Blog provides Sony with a unique avenue for promoting its games, and Vita has received no shortage of coverage there.
This is post-PS2 Sony in a nutshell, really: They’re silent when you want them to be competitive and specific, and they’re noisy about products and features no one wants. They forego advertising when they need it most, yet every so often, they make a valiant push.
And this leads us to….
Outlook – Grade: Incomplete
No, I’m not assigning a grade of “incomplete” because I’m talking about the future. I’m assigning an incomplete because it has become impossible to tell how Sony really feels about the Vita.
Last year, I predicted on my podcast that Sony would shelve the Vita by October 2013. If Sony hadn’t mentioned Vita during the PS4 press conference, I would still predict it. Now, I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, Sony is refusing to budge on price, pick up the pace with advertising, or announce many releases prior to E3. Normally, these things would point to a company that is ready to cut its losses and run, or at least let its struggling product die quietly.
On the other hand, Sony has now stated that Vita will play several PS4 games in the same way the Wii U uses its tablet controller for off-TV gaming, giving the impression that Vita will be an important player in the larger Sony Computer Entertainment picture.
I’m not sure whether Sony is schizophrenic as a company or I’m simply terrible at reading their signs, but I am happy that Sony indicated a place for Vita in its future. It’s looking more and more doubtful that the rest of the world will go along with Sony’s plan, but at least you can’t call Sony a bunch of quitters. Not yet, anyway.
Overall Grade for Vita’s First Year: C
I’m tempted to fail Vita for being such a commercial catastrophe, but to be honest, I don’t feel like the system has actually failed me. I’m enjoying its games, after all, and the system hasn’t yet gone the way of N-Gage and Neo Geo Pocket Color.
But Sony faces two major obstacles if it wants to attract more gamers: the price and the perception that Vita has no games. Vita will always face stiff competition from the 3DS and mobile platforms; that part can’t be helped. What Sony can do, however, is take a potentially severe gamble on pricing (which I believe would pay off if Sony can get the price down to the 3DS XL’s level) and bump up its promotion of Vita in ads and at press events.
The next few months will be critical for Vita. Hopefully, Sony will act in a way that will bump up this grade for next year. Truthfully, though, I’d be happily surprised if Vita is still part of the class at that point.