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Sony tells us what's going on with the PlayStation Vita Exclusive
Sony tells us what's going on with the PlayStation Vita
May 14, 2013 | By Mike Rose

Following Sony's forecast last week that it will sell less than 5 million PlayStation Vitas this fiscal year, I reasoned that the company appears to be ditching the Vita in favor of its upcoming PS4 launch.

Shortly afterwards, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's senior business development manager Shahid Kamal Ahmad got in touch with me to give Sony's side of the story. (We did contact Ahmad for a chat prior to publishing the editorial, but we only successfully connected after we ran the piece.)

Ahmad said Sony's 5 million figure may not be exactly as dire as it sounds. "Sometimes things can happen," he says, "and they can dramatically change the evolution in terms of sales of a platform."

"But what you can never do is say 'We're definitely counting for this kind of increase.' So you can put plans into motion and say 'We're trying this approach, that approach,' and if something comes off, it's going to be fantastic."

Sony has seen an example of this happening recently. "I had no idea there was going to be the amount of press attention that there was around Thomas Was Alone [previously a 2012 PC game that was released on Vita earlier this year]," notes the Sony exec. "If I'd put something like that in the original plan that I put together for engaging with the development community, I would have been laughed out of the office."

He continues, "It's really funny, because I've spoken to a few people about it today internally, and they've all accepted it as 'Yeah, of course that was going to happen!' So in hindsight it's easy to say that this event and that event is what caused a change in course dramatically, but to say that in advance is usually not appropriate or sensible."

thomas was alone.jpgSo essentially, the 5 million units sold figure is more of a worst-case scenario, where none of these games that Sony is picking up really takes off?

Answers Ahmad, "Yeah. I mean, I'm probably not the right person to speak to about corporate performance -- I'm such a tiny part of the whole organization. What I can say is that looking back at the performance of different consoles over the course of history, sometimes you've had slow starts which have been suddenly sprung into life by a number of activities."

"What you don't say ahead of time is, 'Oh this will and that will happen, and suddenly we'll have a massive spike in sales.' It's not the sort of thing that companies do."

From Vita to PS4

I also speculated in my previous piece that Sony is using the PS Vita as a way to prove to developers that it is great to work with. At this point, the company can then get devs on board with PS4 development.

I put this idea across to Ahmad, who explains that development engagement is mainly what Sony is interested in.

"We've had developer relations for many years now, and it's always been an important part of who we are," he answers. "Certainly over the last couple of years, the number of potential partners has exploded."

"If you look back before the mobile era, there was a manageable pool of potential partners, because it was expensive to develop. We saw with the advent of mobile devices that costs came down, and you had different types of content that was appealing at a wide level."

Suddenly Sony found itself with heaps of potential partners to work with, and a platform to offer them. "I guess what has happened over the last year is that we've just engaged with a lot more people that we previously have, simply because there are more people to engage with. It's meant that we've had to reach much more broadly that we've ever done before."

hohokum.jpegHe takes Hohokum developer Honeyslug as an example. Ahmad went to visit the team back in 2009 when it was making Flash games, as his job at the time was to find studios to make games for the PS Minis program.

"Here was a developer I went to see, and I expected to be out of there in half an hour, having been bored witless by a couple of Flash demos," he says. "Nothing could have been further from what I expected to see. I came out three hours later absolutely buzzing, because these guys had so much energy."

Honeyslug went on to release Kahoots on PS Minis, followed by Frobisher Says on PS Vita. Now the studio is working on Hohokum for PS4 with Santa Monica Studios.

"So that's a beautiful story, but it's a continous story, right?" Ahmad continues.. "It's not like back in 2009 I even knew what the indie space was! It was just by exposure to this type of developer who was active in a different space that it all started to fit in."

As the Sony manager notes, creativity can be very difficult to find, so once you have discovered it, it's worth holding on to it.

"We brought them to the platform, and they've stayed with us since in different relationships across different segments of the company," he says of Honeyslug. "I just see that as a typical example of our type of engagement. So it's not like last year we went, 'OK let's get indies to go onto PS4.' That's not the case at all. We like working with developers, we like working with publishers, and we're active."

Futurlab is another indie that Sony has slowly built up a relationship with, first on PS Minis with Coconut Dodge and Velocity, and now on PS Vita with Velocity Ultra and Coconut Dodge Revitalised.

"Now, we don't currently have any plans with them to do PS4 stuff," Ahmad notes, "but who's to say that they won't be the next people to bring content to PS4? It's a continuous story, and you know, we're going to have many more platforms I would imagine, and who knows what form they'll take. Hopefully the partners we've had for many years will be with us in years to come."

How do you solve the post-launch drought?

Part of my reasoning for Sony to pile on the indies now in preparation for the PS4 launch, was to make sure that the post-launch game drought doesn't hit the console as hard as it has affected the Vita, the Wii U, and many consoles before them.

I ask Ahmad whether he believes that this surge of indie developers that Sony is bolstering can potentially help the PS4 is avoid this as much as possible.

"There isn't a console in history where making sure that you have content for it wasn't an issue," says Ahmad. "It's always the case that getting the right sort of content, and getting a good level of content, is going to be important."

"I don't think the PS4 is any different," he continues, although he adds, "I think we're going to have a really good launch, and I think we're going to have a good amount of content appearing for quite some time on that. We've got more developer engagement on PS4 than we've had for any previous console, so that's a really healthy sign."

What sort of indie games is Sony looking for?

I ask Ahmad how exactly Sony goes about hunting down the indie games that it chooses for PlayStation platforms.

"To begin with, it was us doing outreach, and we started with partners that we'd engaged with already," he explains. "There are quite a few people who have worked with the PlayStation family over the years self-publishing on Minis and PS3, so they were a good place to start."

"But obviously you look at other areas as well," he continues. "You look at successes in all spheres. To me, the important thing was not so much the games. Games are important of course, but more important to me were the people making the games, because those are the people you're going to make the relationships with, and what you're interested in is what they're going to be producing."

jeff minter.jpgAhmad notes that a number of people were surprised to see Sony working with Jeff Minter recently, and questioning the move.

"Well, because the guy is a legend! Why not Jeff Minter, right?" was Ahmad's reply. "But what do you say to a guy like Jeff? Do you go up to him and say, 'I want you to make a game like this'?"

"I mean, how stupid would that be? It'd be like going to Patisserie Valerie and saying 'Make me a can of baked beans.' You go to them for the best cakes in the world, and you let them get on with making those cakes. You trust them to do a good job of that."

"Now, I'm not saying a Jeff Minter game is a cake -- certainly not a piece of cake," he laughs, "but when you go to Jeff Minter, you know what you're getting. You're going to get a certain type of game, and you do not interfere with that experience. And what you want is the best Jeff Minter game."

Sony has the same relationship with Dutch studio Vlambeer. After the two-man team brought Super Crate Box to the PS Mobile program, Sony was eager to work with them again.

"When they said 'Luftrausers' and 'jump', we said 'sure, how high?'" says Ahmad. "They know how to make games - what are we going to teach them about that?"

"So it's not necessarily about the game itself. It's about the people who make those games, and their sensibilities and credibilities. That's really exciting to us."

He adds that, "Obviously if someone comes to you with some ridiculous flight of fancy, you can say 'not this one, maybe another one' -- but that hasn't happened so far."

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Lihim Sidhe
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To address the Vita issue specifically...

It needs to be able to supplant the smart phone that a lot of people have otherwise they have to carry around two devices and that's just a no go. The Vita isn't exactly designed to replace a phone as much as it is to be a truly portable, gaming, experience. But a proprietary method to accomplish this is not the answer.

The true answer is an App Store. The Vita needs an App Store. Instead of the Vita having its own, obtuse, OS it should have been just an Android based machine with something all Androids are missing... an awesome, physical, controls set up. I'm sure it would be expensive but...

If Sony converted the Vita OS into Android so people could play games on it, use WhatsApp, and w/e else they liked... I would ditch my current smartphone and pick it up. The Vita may be a bit bulky to pull out at a bar and make a phone call in but hey I'm a gamer. That's how we roll. (Plus some smart phones like the Samsung Note are actually bigger than the Vita and I see people make phone calls on all the time).

Ozzie Smith
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Yea I think Sony really screwed themselves with the Vita. If they wanted to stay relevant in portable gaming they should have made it an android-based smart phone that also had great physical controls for games. I would sell my Galaxy S3 in a heartbeat to be able to carry something like that instead (especially if it was supported by sony's first party studios with some great 10-50$ games and not just F2P or 1$ games).

Instead the Vita is a secondary device that I don't want :\.

Kenneth McGonigle
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"If Sony converted the Vita OS into Android so people could play games on it ..." ...piracy (which doesn't exist at all for Vita games right now) would shoot through the roof, and a lot of people would do what they did with the PSP and convert it into an emulator machine.

As a current Vita owner, that's the exact opposite of what I want to happen with the system. It's hard enough to get new retail games for the system without publishers having piracy as a go-to excuse to not back it.

Keith Thomson
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I just don't see android being a great OS for the Vita. Though, it might make sense to add phone features to a future Vita console, but through an OS that's actually well designed for the hardware. It can already function as a phone when you're on WiFi with its skype integration.

Personally, I don't mind carrying two devices. My phone slips right behind my Vita in my pocket with no discomfort at all.

Ozzie: They did that. It's called the Xperia Play. It bombed.

Ozzie Smith
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@Keith. Yea I guess what I want is an Xperia play that isn't total crap (and also has support from Sony (and hopefully other game devs) with original titles).

Mike Griffin
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I wouldn't necessarily want to see the Vita "converted" into an Android device, but rather an additional Android OS channel + app store incorporated into it through an update.

Sure, some hobbyists would then hack and sideload the Vita into an Android-only rig to run pirated games, but the primary Vita OS/games channel would remain impenetrable and/or compromised by hacking (goodbye, updates) regardless. Ideally original Vita titles are compelling and numerous enough to discourage this.

If we extrapolate just how many Android device owners go through with the process of locating software outside app stores, loading it, and altering their unit to use pirated game content, it's likely to be a fairly small number compared to active users who would never consider it and acquire games through normal means only.

Which would probably mean a very small number of people would get their hands on a Vita strictly to covert it into a sideloading Android device, while the overall benefit to adding an Android OS layer to the Vita could be enormous.

Tragically and ironically, however, the longer the Vita languishes without its own knockout must-own titles, the less appeal it has as a device running "native" Vita games and the more likely an ancillary Android OS layer could encourage excessive piracy.

[User Banned]
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Holden Link
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The argument of "I don't need a Vita because I have a smartphone" is very reminiscent of the initial complaints about the iPad, where Apple had to sell people on the idea that they needed yet another device. What does a tablet do that a phone or computer can't?

The Vita is very good at justifying its existence alongside a smartphone once you spend time with it. Sony's issue is getting customers beyond the initial hump of justifying luxury over practicality.

Matthew Mouras
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I agree with Holden. I was skeptical of the device until I took the plunge at the end of last year. I'm loving it now. Sony should market the device differently. I'm in my mid-thirties, married, and have a child. My game time is nearly non-existent and when I do have time, it's in short bursts. Most Android games are to shallow to scratch the itch. The VITA is a great way to spend some time in a gaming space with titles that feel nearly as robust as a console experience. It's easy to get in, have some fun, and get out. As a developer, the fact that they opened up the publishing experience is just the icing on the cake. It's a great device.

Lihim Sidhe
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@Christian: You mean this?:

I actually didn't know about that until you said it. I'm an ignorant plebian. Forgive me. ;)

However, you can see, the Archos Gamepad would have been leagues behind a Sony developed, mobile, Android smart device. The PSP Go and Xperia Play were testing grounds of sorts but I suppose the lessons weren't so readily apparent.

It's like Ozzie said, "Instead the Vita is a secondary device that I don't want :\."

Android games are made with just the primary Android interfaces in mind, not those players with gamepad cells. Sony could have changed that with their audience with an Android Vita.

Not only would an Android Vita imply games made for both physical and touch controls but it would have gave the Android market something it sorely needs - more flagships devices because as is the Android market is so fragmented.

And yes I guess we are all Michael Pacther in hindsight. HA!

Ozzie Smith
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@Christian: Ideally for me an Android Vita would mean it does everything that my Android phone can do: be a phone, download apps, android games, etc. Developers wouldn't need to make a special version of their app for the device. But then also it's a portable system: it has physical controls and strong system specs and many game developers support those specific features with games made exclusively for the device in the 5-50$ range.

Maybe that's totally unfeasible for whatever reason, but it's what I want.

Ozzie Smith
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Obviously the specs would need to change a bit to make sure the device has a better battery life (I'm not suggesting Sony now make a new version of Vita that is also a phone, but instead wishing that they made a phone from the start). If it meant that yes I could play a bunch of cool games on my phone at any time then yes I would totally put the Vita phone up to my ear. People talk into galaxy notes right?

Keith Thomson
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I wouldn't hold it up to my ear. I'd be using my bluetooth stereo headphones for it.

Lihim Sidhe
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This article may have changed my life.

Jarod Smiley
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Nah, I don't agree that it should be android based so much as they just need to work on and flesh out the OS to be more customizable and appealing.

The idea of Vita being a smartphone...hmmm maybe that would have worked. I would never make a call on it, but with swipe I would likely text a lot on it. But I'm not sure the Xperia Play phones sold all that well so I doubt an official PS phone would be as welcomed as something like a Galaxy. Still, I guess it couldn't hurt to release an Android Vita and a standalone Vita and see where the sales go...

Regardless, it's just good to see the platform will be supported, and hopefully either Sony or third parties provide a hit exclusive and drive up sales a bit so more people can support this great piece of hardware.

I would also like a revision with built-in HDD and a revision of the OS...

It will always come down to games though. 3DS is doing just fine without phone capabilities or an attractive OS. Vita just needs exclusives, good exclusives, and a steady dose of them...

Ozzie Smith
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I think Sony really shoots themselves in the foot with how they themselves (by far the biggest developer for the PSP and Vita) support the system. They keep making B-grade entries into series on their consoles. I don't want to play a half-assed Uncharted, hell I don't even want to play a full uncharted on a portable device (I'd much rather play that on a big TV with a real controller). Instead they should have allowed their studios to make original IPs that offer experiences I can only get on the Vita.

I think the whole cross-play thing might be appealing to a different audience than myself, but clearly it isn't big enough to support the system very well. If the Vita was full of 10-30$ original games from some of Sony's very talented studios and I could ONLY buy them on the Vita, I would probably get one. But why would I get a Vita when I don't commute and all of the coolest games on Vita are also on PS3 (usually in a better form as well)?

It seems like Sony is starting to do this with titles like Soul Sacrifice and Tear Away, although neither title really appeals to me personally.

Keith Thomson
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Ozzie: For those of us who barely get any time in front of the TV, a portable uncharted is great. It's just as good as the original Uncharted 1 title was, but is actually far longer than any other entry in the series. If I actually didn't work constantly, and spend most of the rest of my time ferrying family members around town, I might actually get to play my home console more than 4 hours a week, but as it is my Vita is my primary gaming machine.

Gravity Rush was original, and as good as anything they've put out on the large console. Hotshots Golf: World Invitational certainly isn't a B-grade entry into that series either.

You'd have something if you talked about Resistance: Burning Skies though.

Craudimir Ascorno
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I hope ports from indie games are not the only thing going on with Vita, otherwise it is dead and buried. I don't know why it is so difficult for Sony to look at their main competitor and see that it was only when Nintendo started putting big exclusives on 3DS (a bunch of Marios, Animal Crossing, Tomodachi Collection, upcoming Pokemon, etc) that it started to sell. No one needs a Vita to play small games available on PS3, PS4, PSP, XBox 360, Wii U, PC, Android, iOS, refrigerators and toasters.

Jarod Smiley
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That's all there is to it...which is why I don't think an Android Vita would have solved too many of these issues....

Any platform, needs exclusive experiences to justify the purchase. The only thing we have with Vita are a few good titles here and there (Gravity Rush/P4/Uncharted) and Sony's commitment--which to be fair, has been pretty legit in light of PS3's slow start.

I hope Sony supports the platform in a major way this E3 though, as the hardware itself is very fine...

Thomas Happ
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I am encouraged. It's looking more and more like I'll be porting Axiom Verge to a Sony platform once the PC/360 version is complete.

Dane MacMahon
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Their ads for a while there repeated the old PSP line of "console quality gaming... on the go!" I've never understood why anyone would want that. I think that's a fundamental disconnect with the market, assuming they desire such a thing.

Jeremy Reaban
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Because not everyone likes sitting in front of a TV all night/day?

The original PSP sold 76 million units, and all of its biggest games were console games on the go.

By contrast, if you want to play indie or portable games, tablets have thousands more that cost less. I don't see how the Vita can compete there.

Keith Thomson
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Vita has quality over quantity, and the quantity is still quite good. I also don't want to drag my 7 inch nexus seven around everywhere. The Vita fits comfortably in my pocket, where the Nexus 7 barely fits.

Also, buttons.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Jeremy

Never said people were home all day, the point is if you're out then you're probably doing something. I might play a quick game on the bus or something, while waiting at the doctor's office, but I don't want them to be incredibly involved. Also if I care about big production gaming I probably care about it being on a large monitor or HDTV in high res.

I'm not denying people exist who want to play "serious" games on a portable, but I don't think the market is really there for it on the scale Sony want. Just my opinion.

Mike Griffin
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I'll probably need to squirrel away some extra cash for a Vita now.
Jeff Minter preparing exclusive spiritual successor to Jaguar Tempest 2k = sold.

Dave Long
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Great to see Sony playing the slow and steady game again - I couldn't be happier with my Vita at the moment, and going forward it really does look excellent. I definitely don't leave the house without it - yes, I have a smartphone, but I'm also very appreciative of the substantially more enjoyable gaming experience the Vita provides. I have no issue with folks that are happy with their smartphones, but there will always be an audience (although likely not as large as Sony hoped) that have higher standards for portable gaming, and right now nothing comes close to the Vita when it comes to portable gaming.

Jorge Ramos
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I'll tell you plainly what's screwed the Vita.

It's a portable device that on its own costs as much as what they are selling a PS3 for ($250 for the 'cheap' version? Come on!), or you get the $300 version and your only choice is an AT&T contract with all those lovely overages and years of bad reputation. It is also my understanding (I seriously hope I'm wrong about this), but for some reason Sony decided in its infinite wisdom to super-lock down the US 3G Vita so *ONLY* AT&T SIMs can be used, while those with Japan or Euro markets can basically pick any GSM provider willing to sell a compatible data plan. That's just bonkers at best, discriminatory at worst... seriously, did nobody at Sony's QA or PR departments not understand the kind of bad blood AT&T has as a wireless provider?

Getting past all that, you have yet another proprietary memory card format, which as already proven with some of the exploitable games, has done nothing to stop hacking the device... at best just slowed it down; but more realistically, all it's done is assure that prices for the memory cards are astronomically outrageous. Realistically, I'm looking at close to $400 after (or plus) taxes to pick up a Vita with an appropriately sized memory card, which is required for at least half the existing physical library (with no technical reason why) and all of the download library (which makes more sense, but still). That's without PS Plus, any warranty or games... for a handheld. Most people I know wouldn't even pay that much for a phone, regardless of branding or power (yes, that includes the iPhone 5).

There's already 'leaks' supposing that the 3G Vita will invariably be replaced by a revised model that will have an HDMI output and 4G LTE support. Techie people will be waiting for this one to come out and pick that up, as well as anyone that already enjoyed being able to play their PSP games on their TV without having to hack up the system.

Keith Thomson
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When one of those 4G Vitas is released it'll be high on my list to replace my current one. HDMI is definitely something I'm interested in. Of course, it'll also mean that one of my family members will get a heavily used 3G Vita and start buying up titles for it. I don't care for the 3G on the Vita, but it's really cheap to activate a 250mb plan when I'm out of town, and I rarely ever break that 250mb cap in a month. I cancel it as soon as I'm not travelling anymore, of course. There's absolutely no overage costs for the Vita's dataplan. You hit the 250mb cap, it just stops right there and has you pay for another month, or you can upgrade to the 2 gig cap.

As for the technical reason why, it's because not all games include extra flash for updates and save games. It's an added cost, so only higher profile titles had it. My main complaint is that they still haven't released a 64 gig card for it. I used up the 32 gig rather quickly on my Vita. There's just too much content available for the system. I can't believe I got by on the PSP with just a pair of 8 gig cards for so long. I could never do that with the Vita.

I'm sure they'll bring the price down around the time the PS4 is released as well.

Lihim Sidhe
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I knew about the silly SD card hijinks. Did not know about the AT&T lockdown. Wow.

Jorge Ramos
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The funny thing is, looking at them side by side, the Vita memory card is physically the same dimensions as the Memory Stick Micro (M2) cards that Sony made for the PSP Go; it just has a different set of indents along its edges. haven't looked at the underside to see if the pin-outs are the same, but I don't have any reason to believe they aren't.

Frank Washburn
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Ahmad is seriously one of the nicest, most approachable guys in the business. Seriously, if you're an indie with a cool prototype, just reach out to him. The dude works tirelessly and is truly passionate about his work. I'm really looking forward to the slew of indie games coming to the Vita - Terraria and Stealth Bastard on the Vita are both going to be great.

Jarod Smiley
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there's no denying there's quality stuff already on the vita and I would even say people who have bought one seem to thoroughly enjoy it.

It's now about increasing the Vita's appeal. And price is still a big factor. But yeah, I agree, the influx in indy games is refreshing and I'm still waiting to see what this "BIG VITA GAME" is. I don't mind it being a slow burner in the sales department as long as Sony continues to support it and doesn't let it slide too low below the radar.

David Verney
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The only console I play with is the Vita. It saves me a lot of room and I can take it with me when I go places. I hope Sony continue to work with indie game studios to bring out great Vita games for a good while yet.

Lihim Sidhe
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The Vita came out when I was deployed in Afghanistan. Even down there, with entertainment options being limited, the Vita was not a hit among anyone I knew. Most of them lamented how even after purchasing the Vita, they needed to buy a separate memory card to even play games (which the retailers didn't carry and had to be ordered off of Amazon).

Even so I considered jumping through the hoops and the prohibitive prices of add ons to have something like that during downtime our out on the road. The problem was that I already been an owner of my Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 that not only had games on it but my whole Kindle library, 20+ gigs of music/movies, and a lot of random apps like a M:tG deckbuilder and Foursquare for when we got to different bases.

It just was not worth owning a second device, that did less. just to play games.

For some of you the Vita IS your primary console and that's great.

But for people like me who want one device to rule them all the Vita needs to be as useful as my Android devices for me to even consider buying. When I'm on the train my gaming needs are more than sated playing Plague Inc., World of Goo, Minecraft and ohh... that little thing called making phone calls, texting, and downloading train schedules for DB Bahn.

An Android Vita would give us all what we ALL want. Awesome Playstation games with the versatility of the Android OS. I rooted my Android for one thing and one thing only... Titanium Backup Pro so I could get rid of all the bloatware. Not every Android gamer is a pirate.