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.
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.