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As Vita languishes, why is Sony still gunning for indies? Exclusive
As Vita languishes, why is Sony still gunning for indies?
May 9, 2013 | By Mike Rose

May 9, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Gamasutra's UK editor Mike Rose ponders the larger role of his beloved PlayStation Vita in this opinion piece.

There's a running joke in the Gamasutra office, in which I suggest that the PS Vita may turn things around in the coming months, and EIC Kris Graft laughs at me for believing that the Vita is anything but doomed. [I love my Vita (and also my Dreamcast)! - kg]

It's only a recent back-and-forth, mind you -- up until the end of 2012, I too believed that the Vita couldn't possibly come back from its terrible first year, following dwindling sales and barely any notable game releases on the horizon.

But something around the start of 2013 began to sway my opinion. Sony started announcing numerous notable indie games coming to the handheld, at first periodically, then weekly, until the point where it feels like a day doesn't go by without a new indie announcement for the Vita.

The Vita's problem is two-fold: It doesn't have many games yet, and it's a tad on the pricey side, especially when it comes to memory cards. Of course, you could (successfully, no doubt) argue that the popularity of mobile devices is also a key thorn in the Vita's side -- although Nintendo's 3DS appears to be selling relatively well regardless.

So this new indie pull appears to be working towards solving the former problem -- if Sony floods the Vita with great indie titles, then surely the only barrier to purchase is cash-based? With this in mind, plus a potential price cut on the handheld this year, I could see light at the end of the tunnel for the Vita.

Vlambeer's Luftrausers

Clearly Sony doesn't feel the same way. As part of the company's fiscal forecast for the current year, it predicts that in total around 5 million PS Vitas and PSPs will be sold combined.

Although Sony didn't break this figure down to the Vita alone, we know that the PSP currently sells around 10,000 units each week in Japan, and barely sells anywhere else, meaning that we're probably talking around 4.5 million Vitas by the end of March 2014.

This is a pretty incredible number, and not in a good way. We have no idea how many Vitas Sony sold in 2012 -- the company is still keeping this figure close to its chest -- but we do know that the Vita and the PSP sold 7.0 million units combined. It's not hard to imagine that this year's forecast for the Vita is essentially flat compared to the previous year.

Put it another way -- the Nintendo 3DS, Vita's closest rival, sold 17 million units in its first year, and 15 million during its own second year on sale. That's 32 million sold in two years, compared to the Vita's predicted 12 million max.

What the figure also suggests is that Sony has absolutely no plans to boost Vita sales in any way. We're talking no price cut, no sudden surge of "triple-A" games, and no spectacular, as-of-yet unannounced reason why PS4 purchasers would also want to pick up a Vita, as hinted at during the PS4 reveal earlier this year. Otherwise, that 5 million figure would surely be much higher, to compensate for any one of these boosts.

As Gamasutra's Christian Nutt said at the start of the year, it seems the Vita is under threat of being "Dreamcasted." These latest figures suggest that, whether Sony had a plan for the Vita or not, it's giving up on mass market adoption of the handheld and concentrating solely on the PS3 and the PS4 launch.

What's with the indie support, then?

This leaves the question, then: Why is Sony pushing so hard for indie games on the PS Vita, if it's about to leave the handheld to die? And also: Why aren't the indie games helping? Why isn't this barrage of announcements boosting sales?

The latter may well comes down to various sticking points: in particular, a good portion of the indie titles being announced for Vita and PS3 are not new -- they are ports of existing PC and Xbox games. The prospect of playing titles like Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Machinarium and Limbo on the Vita is hugely exciting, but they are all games that many people have already played.

That's not to say there are no unique indie games coming to PS Vita -- far from it -- but the hype is mainly surrounding those titles that have previously seen fame on other platforms. Add to this that the mainstream is generally unaware of obscure indie gems, and you've got a reasonable idea of why indies aren't going to save the Vita.

As for why Sony is bothering with indies, this seems easier to explain: The company is preparing its developer relations in the lead-up to a make-or-break console launch.

Honeyslug's Hokohum

By bringing multitudes of developers into the PlayStation fray now, the publisher is making sure that it has reams of support for the PlayStation 4 come Holiday 2013. This isn't about the Vita at all, or even the PS3 -- Sony is taking names for its next big launch.

We can already see evidence of this happening. Rocketbirds Vita studio Ratloop is working on a PS4 game, and Thomas Was Alone dev Mike Bithell has strongly hinted at PS4 development. In fact, if you follow particular indie devs on Twitter, you'll no doubt have caught hints at PS4 development from various studios.

And then there's the most recent indie announcements for PS4: Hohokum, Doki Doki Universe, Primal Carnage, Blacklight: Retribution... Sony isn't just courting indies -- it's gathering an army.

It's a smart move too. The biggest killer of a console launch these days -- well, ever, actually -- is a decent launch lineup, followed by months and months of nothingness (just look at the Wii U, for example). By building its indie relationships now, and showing these devs how easy it is to work with via Vita publishing, Sony is building an early reputation as an indie-friendly publisher, potentially pushing itself ahead of Microsoft before the race has even begun.

So whether you choose to mourn the PS Vita or not, be under no illusion: Sony is not expecting this indie push to move its handheld hardware off of shelves. "Saving" the Vita isn't the company's primary objective -- Sony now firmly has its sights set on making the PlayStation 4 the indie developer's platform of choice.

[Pictured at the top: HumaNature Studios' Doki-Doki Universe.]

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Todd Boyd
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You could probably do aforementioned indies a solid favor by captioning those images with the title of the game they were taken from. ;)

Mike Rose
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Neveeeer! Oh, go on then.

Joe McGinn
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Indie support is nice but does not sell systems.

The problem with Vita is it get's second-rate versions of major franchises - at best! I still can't get EA Sports versions for it. What's up with that?

But Sony has to accept blame for this. The designed and pitched it as "full console power on the go". So the natural reaction to that is, "Oh great, it can play my PS3 games then right?"

Sony: "Um, no, it can play a few watered-down versions..."

Tumbleweeds ensue.

Joe McGinn
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Lewis Boadle
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Good post, Mike.

You know the Indie / PS Vita zeitgeist is well and truly underway when Gamasutra, and IGN all ran a very similar themed piece within hours of each other?

Kayin McLeod
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they might sell more vitas if they just enabled streaming play for all games.

Langdon Oliver
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I really wish Sony would do this already. It's pretty silly that there are a hoards of folks on YouTube playing great PS3 games via Remote Play on their Vita (PS3 CFW). I have little interest in hacking my PS3, but want desperately to be able to Ni No Kuni (for example) on my Vita.

Thomas Happ
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I registered to be a developer yesterday. I haven't been approved yet, but I'm looking forward to perusing the SDK. I admit I didn't know it was C#, an advantage over Microsoft, who have seemingly given up on that language for game development.

james sadler
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They probably are dealing with the huge influx of people. I signed up a couple of months ago and was approved within a few minutes. The SDK from what I've delved into is pretty nice. It is pretty similar to XNA and fairly easy to work with. The IDE is very similar to Visual Studio, and I think I read somewhere on how to use VS to write for it. The Documentation is pretty decent too.

I'm all for this whether it means just developing for the Vita, which I can't see the PS4 not allowing for Vita game streaming in some fashion, or as a gateway to the PS4. MS hasn't let slip anything about what their indie plans are, and even if it cloned the 360 indie game section, I'd probably avoid it.

Thomas Happ
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Yeah, I finally got approved during lunch and was able to download and try out their test game on the emulator just now. I'm trying to determine if monogame supports this or not; even if it doesn't, however, it appears it might not be too difficult to make a wrapper library for all the XNA stuff and port my code that way. I'm pretty excited at the notion of being able to use the same codebase for Vita, PS4, PC, and 360.

Jesse Hamburger
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Good post, Mike. I came to a similar conclusion after speaking with a bunch of Sony reps and Vita devs at GDC. Vita may be on its way out, but they'll have turned it into a valuable asset if they can use it to recruit PS4 developers that would otherwise be looking to Microsoft and XBLA. The indie devs that I spoke with were all pretty enthusiastic about developing for Vita and said they were getting remarkably good support from Sony. I got a pretty clear impression that Sony were much more interested in long-term relationships than one-night stands with their indies. I think this is a bandwagon I'm going to try to convince my team to jump on.

Jeremy Reaban
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What I find amusing is that the Ouya gets mocking for only having Indie games, yet somehow the VIta is now great because that's all it's getting.

Sure, the Vita games are more "hipster" (I hate to use the word, but it's the only way to describe it), but personally that just turns me off.

Robert Boyd
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But the Vita isn't ONLY getting indie games. It might not be getting the big AAA blockbusters, but it's getting a fair bit of support from small-to-mid-sized Japanese companies with games like Persona 4 Golden, Ys Celceta, and Dragon's Crown as well as PS3 ports & original games from Sony.

Plus, the Vita is attracting more of the established indie developers. I'd much rather play Spelunky on my Vita than anything that the Ouya has lined up at the moment.

Damien Garcia
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Don't confuse Sony with this article. They're pretty set on a strategy right now welcoming indie devs, and they don't need to be derailed from that. Good indie support can compliment good AAA support

Mike Rose
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Hey Damien,

I can assure you that derailing Sony from their indie push wasn't the intention of the article - if anything, you'll see that I'm egging them on!


Lex Allen
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Indies may be the vitas only hope if AAA titles completely ignore it.

Jarod Smiley
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So, what I get from the article and a few of the comments is great IMO. It means that Vita doesn't have to reach 3DS numbers for Sony to keep supporting it. If it was truly a stepping stone to PS4 development from jump street, then it is succeeding AFAIK.

But, this is great because it means cool titles will continually pop up on Vita throughout the years, and Sony doesn't have to sell 15 million a year to keep them in production.

Slow and steady is fine with me, and I already really love my Vita...Many of the PC titles I've never played before so it all feels fresh to me. And throw in the odd AAA game every now and then, and Vita indeed is an attractive console from a gamer's perspective.

Even if it hits 10 million, I would say, that's a good market for developers to try new ideas with.

Samuel Batista
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Although this is all very early into the next generations lifecycle, it seems that Sony is positioning itself to be the response to a potential Apple gaming device, and to deal with whatever Microsoft has in store - which is bound to be significant - by opening up its doors to all kinds of developers. Microsoft traditionally partners up with devs it deems worthwhile, and does first party publishing for a small subset of devs. Having a closed market is essential to generate massive revenues, but I think Sony is placing itself in the minds of the consumers by offering a wide variety of games, as well as awesome free games with the PS Plus service.

I just got into the Sony bandwagon because I don't see anything from Microsoft that excites me as a gamer. Maybe they'll win the mass market with their improved Kinect and TV integration, but that doesn't interest me. I want games, all kinds of games, big games, small games, and most importantly, innovative games. Right now, Sony is the best platform to get that kind of content.

And this says nothing of Sony's Gaikai purchase, which I think will bring about a big incentive for people to own a PS Vita.

Jarod Smiley
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interesting concept...why do you think Gaikai would help Vita?

Right now it seems to be more about streamlining PSN to match Xbox's smooth interface with a long-time goal of achieving all PS legacy software through streaming services.

Russell Carroll
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We're not yet at the point where downloadable titles sell a home console (noting the PS4 comments in the article). The WiiU actually had pretty good downloadable support, not amazing, but I think there may be more exclusive titles available for download on WiiU than at retail. And of course there are the non-exclusive downloadable titles making the download side the (much) more frequently updated part of the WiiU game library.

If downloadables made a difference WiiU would be getting plenty of talk just from Rayman Challenges, which is truly remarkable and updated daily...
...but my guess is most people simply don't care enough about downloadables to talk about them or buy a system due to them.

Downloadable games are frosting. They aren't yet selling dedicated gaming systems.

Jarod Smiley
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I agree, but as more people get connected, I can definitely see that as the future. For example, I haven't bought a DVD/Blu-ray in ages because of Streaming services like Netflix or Hulu.

I think digital is definitely where we're headed.

Bob Johnson
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AAA titles are going to sell PS4s not indie games that can be played on your last gen console or older pc.

Omar Marshall
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I sooo agree with you Bob. I don't know why everyone is so happy and excited to see indie games on ps4. I won't buy a ps4 for indie games... I can tell you that.