When it comes handheld console gaming, it is an undeniable fact that this is Nintendo’s world and we just live in it. From the Game Boy to the Nintendo DS and 3DS, the Big N’s systems repeatedly crush any and all opponents (Game Gear, Game.com or Atari Lynx anyone?). But when Sony threw their hat into the ring with the PlayStation Portable (PSP), they turned a few heads because of the immense popularity of the PlayStation brand name and Nintendo had not faced a corporate giant like Sony in the handheld world. The PlayStation and PlayStation 2 both outsold the competing Nintendo home consoles by a very comfortable margin, so could Sony do the same in the portable market?
The answer was no, but it did make waves. With sales of over 50 million worldwide, it was nothing to sneeze at, although it was less than a third of the Nintendo DS’s 153 million. But the PSP showed Sony had a lot of promise, and gamers like me couldn’t wait for the next cycle.
The Nintendo 3DS stumbled out of the game with a high price tag, no games anyone want and low sales. So when Sony announced the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the world was their oyster. What ended up happening, though, probably surprised even the most hardcore of Sony fans.
After an initial launch that was well recieved, sales of the PlayStation Vita fell into the toilet rather quickly. Some of this could be attributed to the 3DS syndrome of a high price tag and very few AAA titles. But even with subsequent big name titles and further price drops, the Vita failed to motivate buyers.
The problem with the Vita is certainly not the hardware itself. It has a beautiful, eye popping screen, feels good in the hands, and has horsepower that is above PlayStation 2 quality – and for a handheld, that’s very impressive. The system had advanced, smartphone-like capabilities and innovative design with a rear touch pad and cameras to be used for video chatting. An early title, Gravity Rush, was regarded and reviewed well. Nintendo was vulnerable at the time, so what went wrong?
In my opinion, Sony forgot the golden rule in video gaming: Software sells hardware. The specs on the Vita was amazing, but the games coming out for it was lackluster at best. The Vita’s library mainly consists of ports or spinoffs of existing franchises that no matter how good they were (LittleBigPlanet, Rayman Origins, Limbo), it suffered a “Me, too” effect that could easily be overlooked. Games such as PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale had groundbreaking gameplay options that allowed you to compete against PlayStation 3 players, but the game itself paled in comparison to that other famous Nintendo brand of fighter. Sony hedged all of its bets on attention grabbing ports like Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified that were so awful that they rank among the worst of the overall franchise.
Sony hindered the system right out of the gate with insanely high prices for memory cards. Rather than go with the universally accepted microSD format, they (like the PSP and Memory Sticks before it) went with its own proprietary card … and proceeded to price them at jaw-droppingly high prices. A 32GB Vita memory card retailed for $99 at launch, where as a comparative microSD card is unusually $30 or below. The unit itself has basically no built-in memory for game saves or downloads, so this was a way of tacking on extra necessity cost to an already high launch price that turned people off, and understandbly so. Even to this day, the 32GB card has a MSRP of $79. It is absolutely crazy.
Then there is the bizarre way Sony has chosen to market the system over the past year. The Vita had a critically acclaimed smash with Tearaway last holiday season, but how did Sony respond? In preparing for a relaunch of the console, Sony let stock of the Vita run completely dry shortly after Christmas of 2013 and went months without sending new supply. Many stores were out of stock on Vita for so long that many of my friends assumed it was officially dead, and most places didn’t get replenished until the new “Slim” model – which didn’t come out until May. The Slim model, which was thinner and lighter but cheaper to produce thanks to a slightly lower quality screen, came bundled with Borderlands 2, which turned out to be – like Call of Duty – one of the worst reviewed entries in an otherwise successful franchise. The new Vita came out with zero fanfare, quietly slid into stores and then sold out … with Sony taking weeks or months to send replenishments to stores. Try walking into a store today and finding a new Vita for sale and you’ll come up empty nine out of ten times. It’s like Sony doesn’t want people to even buy them anymore so they can just cut off support and blame poor sales.
That’s not to say that the Vita has failed everywhere. It has recently caught fire in Japan and is the routinely the second best selling console overall behind the 3DS but well ahead of the PlayStation 4 and Wii U in that market. But I live in North America, where it has flopped and only brings in numbers hovering around an embarrassing 2,000 per week. Sony clearly sees that it is having success elsewhere, but is aggravatingly resistive of repeating the same formula here. Go in any store and trying to find the section for Vita games is like finding a needle in a haystack and because of that perception, it’s already been written off and become a punchline with many in the industry.
In less than two and a half years – a lifespan that is shorter than the Sega Saturn, Sony has effectively killed off its own console thanks to bad marketing, bad games and very questionable decisions. They devoted just five minutes to Vita out of a two hour E3 conference in June. They don’t restock stores, which makes me wonder how Minecraft – a proven system seller – will do on Vita later this year if it comes out on a system that no one can find to buy. It angers me, as a Vita fan, to see a console that had so much promise go out with such a whimper so quickly and by self-inflicted wounds.
Sony launches the PlayStation TV this month – originally called the Vita TV but Sony changed it in an obvious attempt to distance itself from the Vita brand. The device will indeed play Vita games in some format, but as for the Vita itself as a handheld, the future is bleak. And Sony only has themselves to blame for it.