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The State of the Vita, 2012

October 4, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Sony won't cut the price of its new handheld in 2012, which many worry could stall its chances of success. With a few big games left in the year and some promising 2013 titles, as well as new indie-friendly programs, can the system pull through?

PlayStation Vita is in a precarious position: Part dedicated handheld in direct competition with Nintendo's 3DS, and part mobile device in direct competition with a booming mobile game market, Sony's portable is not only a flexible piece of hardware, but one that is fighting a multi-front war.

Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida maintains that global hardware sales are where the company expected them to be, if possibly lagging in certain territories. But Sony recently slashed its sales forecast for the fiscal year (ending March 2013) from 16 million to 12 million PSP and PlayStation Vita units.

Against strong competition like Nintendo's 3DS and the flourishing mobile market, PS Vita has sold only 2.2 million units worldwide as of June. While Sony has been hesitant to share monthly sales data for the system in the West, it's getting trounced in Japan not just by 3DS but by PSP, its seven-year-old predecessor. That's been the case for the most part since the portable's launch there last December.

Jim Buck, an SCEA veteran and the founder of Twitchy Thumbs Entertainment (which is working on porting Retro Affect's Snapshot to the Vita) doesn't think those sales have instilled enough confidence in many companies to want to work with the system. Having already seen publishers reluctant to release games on the PSP in the past, he believes Sony started with an uphill battle.

"When [those] PS Vita sales numbers were released, I heard publishers were pulling PS Vita projects as a result," he says. "When developers I know hear that I am working on a PS Vita project, because of those sales numbers, their typical response to me is 'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.'"

Even though he says PSP's worldwide sales were respectable, Buck thinks "there is some weird knee-jerk superstition when it comes to Sony handheld devices compared to other companies' hardware. I've no idea why, but I do fear that the perception might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy that could have otherwise been avoided."

SCEA's hardware marketing director John Koller tells Gamasutra that the company always believes it's a marathon, not a sprint when it comes to selling hardware, but he acknowledges it's critical for platform holders to establish a strong and growing install base in year-one to attract support from publishers. That in mind, PS Vita is running out of time to pick up momentum before hitting its first birthday. When does Sony think sales will pick up?

"We've known for a while that this back half of the year, the holiday season, is really where Vita will make its mark," says Koller. SCEA expects PS Vita to come out of the holiday in a good position with a considerably larger install base, and it's reassuring publishers with that notion when they mention their concerns to the company about the portable's prospects.

PS Vita's Holiday and Third-Party Support

Unlike Nintendo, which relied on a steep price cut to help lift 3DS out of similarly dire straits this time last year, Sony has committed to not discounting the system in 2012.

Instead, Sony believes it just needs to get through the current PS Vita release drought -- another problem that afflicted 3DS in 2011 -- and have a steady stream of big games going out in the coming months, paired with system bundles.

Sony has held three big press events in as many primary territories recently -- at each conference, the company was expected to reassure PS Vita owners of the system's health by demonstrating its strong third-party support and debuting a cavalcade of holiday titles from major publishers.

Though that rush of announcements didn't come at E3, Sony has trickled out a nice set of promises for PS Vita across the three conferences: the expansion of some of its anticipated PlayStation 3 releases to Vita, the extension of its PlayStation Plus service to the system, a handful of exclusives based on popular console franchises, and several ports (it also announced a new IP in the form of Media Molecule's Tearaway, but that doesn't ship until some time next year).

Still, the holiday slate for PS Vita looks worryingly slim. Outside of multi-platform releases, the handheld has only a couple major third-party exclusives coming to the U.S. in the next three months, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation and Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified, both of which will compete against the releases of their big-budget console counterparts.

Silent Hill: Book of Memories and Persona 4: Golden are also on the way and likely to attract series fans (the latter, a port of a cult PS2 RPG, is the fastest- and best-selling game for the system in Japan), but those kind of releases seem few and far between for PS Vita.

Yoshida admits that it was challenging for Sony to recruit third parties leading up to PS Vita's launch despite extensive developer outreach. Even after the handheld's debut, the company has been disappointed by the lack of publishers supporting it. Capcom, notably, has yet to announce a PS Vita version of Monster Hunter, the biggest franchise and system seller for PSP in Japan, though it's bringing two new titles from the series to 3DS.

"In retrospect, there are so many options for publishers now that we cannot take it for granted that our new platform would be supported by third parties, like [it would've been] many years ago," he says, noting how emerging platforms have changed the handheld landscape. "There are limited resources that third-party publishers have, and they have to diversify into new areas constantly; that's a challenge to get the support that we want."

The perceived lack of must-have titles for PS Vita is another potential problem. Frima Studio executive producer Martin Brouard, who is working on Zombie Tycoon 2 for PS Vita and PS3, says that while there are already excellent games out for the system, like Gravity Rush, "So far it looks like a lot of gamers and publishers are cautiously waiting to see if it's going to be a hit before committing to purchasing one or publishing a title."

Brouard also makes an obvious point: "the more great games are made for it, the more successful the Vita will be," but that's the system's current catch-22. If publishers are waiting for PS Vita penetration to reach a critical mass before dedicating a budget and team to a project, the portable could take much longer to hit that point without their support, if it ever makes it there at all.

As for how current releases are faring in this difficult market for the portable, PS Vita titles rarely crack the top end of retail software sales charts in any region. Koller, though, claims physical game sales are doing just fine for the system, and that digital sales are robust. "We haven't given out firm numbers on this, but ... what we see from our network sales is a significant percentage of our total software sales," he says.

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Ahmad Jadallah
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I think that for Vita to work, it needs to be the upper class version of iOS and Android when it comes to indie titles. A piracy free environment coupled with a non-fragmented high end device.

Also, Sony needs to really work with Unity to bring their engine to Vita either natively or through the PlayStation Mobile program (although it is supposed to support Android titles and unity supports Android, it doesn't seem possible currently from what I understand). So basically something similar to what Nintendo announced recently about providng a WiiU enabled version of Unity to every registered developer. Because lets face it, AAA studios are probably not going to bother with such an install base, yet at the same time the base is attractive enough for small to medium studios.

Jeremy Reaban
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I just don't see how indie support is going to help, when you have thousands (tens of thousands) indie games on iOS.

They need AAA Blockbusters, the only thing that Vita can potentially do that iOS can't (though I have to say that windows is closing with each iOS product iteration). One of the games that has been toted on iOS is Real Racing, yet where is Sony's flagship racing series? Nowhere to be found

Beyond that, what's the most popular genre in the West? The FPS. How many FPSes does the Vita have? 1. The PSP has more on it at this point in its lifetime.

Sony needed to show it was serious about the Vita by supporting it with their best teams and IP, rather than a bunch of smaller ones which they closed down after shipping Vita titles (3 times it happened)

I think Vita is pretty much going to end up being Sony's (temporary) answer to the Wii U pad.

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"I just don't see how indie support is going to help, when you have thousands (tens of thousands) indie games on iOS."

Physical buttons on the Vita provide a gaming experience you cannot get on iOS. As an example, Super Crate Box on the iPhone is a joke compared to the newly released Vita version.

And there's such a flood of crap on the App store that I've all but given up looking for new games on there. The thought of developing a game on iOS and having it get lost in the fray or having a game being deemed 'not worth the 99 cent investment' is depressing.

Merc Hoffner
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They need 1st party strength. 3rd parties started pulling games on 3DS too and Nintendo's fightback started with the one-two punch of the price-cut and a few high/higher profile 1st party games (third parties weren't stepping up to the plate). The pickup in sales reinstilled some confidence in 3rd parties and it regained some support (though at the last address Sega still had only 3 3DS games in the pipeline and 17 for Vita - go figure). If Sony could do the equivalent thing (No, an Uncharted spinoff, Wipeout and LittleBigPlanet are not the same thing as Mario 3DS Land, Mario Kart etc.) they surely could put some fight back in it. Unfortunately Sony doesn't have quite the roster, what they do have doesn't post those kinds of monster evergreen numbers, and even if they did it's clear Sony's not putting quite the effort in that they should. Without that the circular install momentum -> 3rd party support -> install momentum problem won't be shifted, unless they moneyhat for decent versions of big 3rd party games. If they could buy their way into serious new Resident Evils, Tekkens, Final Fantasys and yes, even Monster Hunters then everything else would follow. But if they can't even finance internal studios to cover the platform then it'll be a struggle.

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David OConnor
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Dan,that's insigthful, I think you are right, Playstation should be an ecosystem, and this would help establishing it as the 'living room box' too

Matthew Jackson
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pretty cool. i have a few airsoft guns from the games i play as well and its a lot of fun.