[Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield was on hand in Tokyo for Sony's PlayStation Vita press event, and analyzes the promising moves into social connectivity for the company's still to be proven next-generation handheld.]
The most striking thing about Sony's PlayStation Vita-oriented press conference I attended in Tokyo today was not the games announced, nor the launch date (which is December 17, 2011 in Japan), but rather the company's firm commitment to community connection.
Sony Computer Entertainment Japan president Hiroshi Kawano began by highlighting the year's successes, specifically focusing on Japan, where he says the PS3 has 49 percent of the (console) hardware market, and 46 percent of the software market, while the PSP claims 43 percent of the portable hardware market, and 49 percent of the software market.
Several high-level developers were trotted out to announce games as well, from Capcom's Yoshinori Ono unveiling a PS3-compatible Vita version of Ultimate Marvel Versus Capcom 3, to Square Enix's Shinji Hashimoto sharing two upcoming releases; Lord of Apocalypse and horror title Army Corps of Hell.
And of course, there are also titles like the Final Fantasy X HD remake and Zone Of Enders HD Collection now confirmed as coming to both PS Vita and PS3. Further, the company announced its prepaid data plan for 3G gaming in Japan. But what really got me interested was the company's social strategy.
As was somewhat expected, you will be able to use your existing PlayStation Network user ID on your Vita, and you can share trophies and the like across PS3 and Vita.
But the company is going much further than that. Though it only occupied one slide of the nearly two-hour presentation, Kawano reiterated a previous announcement that the Vita will have dedicated applications built in for Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Skype.
This may not be very exciting to some, but this looks like the closest integration of external social applications yet seen in a dedicated game console. The Vita is capable of multitasking, and Sony demonstrated on stage how you can be listening to music, playing a game, or watching a movie, and quickly flip over to Twitter to tweet something about what you're doing.
The addition of Skype is particularly interesting given the Vita's 3G connection status through NTT Docomo in Japan. Each 3G version of the console sold in Japan comes with 100 free hours of 3G connection, and additional hours are relatively cheap to buy (20 hours for 980 yen/$12.75, 100 for 4,980 yen/$64.77). The Vita could effectively act as a smartphone, for most intents and purposes, with its custom web browser, and touch screen.
In addition to all this, the company announced a collaboration with Nico Nico Douga, a popular YouTube-style video service in Japan that allows user comments to scroll across the screen as videos play. While at launch the Vita will only be able to view videos (with comments embedded and addable via the console), in spring of 2012, Sony plans to allow images/video taken with the Vita's camera to upload to Nico Nico, directly from the handheld.
The final, but most interesting plan for Nico Nico Douga is live streaming. At some point during 2012, though this will have to be implemented on a title-by-title basis, Nico Nico is allowing live streaming of games from Vita to the web service.
This calls to mind online tournaments that could be viewed by millions, side-by-side speed run attempts, and a host of interesting communal game experiences. The possibilities of this kind of service are especially exciting to me, and I am hopeful that Sony will find a way to do something similar in the United States. As competitive gaming gains interest in Asia and the U.S., this could actually be a more engaging feature than it initially seems. And with 3G, these streams should actually be pretty precise.
Sony seems to be acknowledging the power of external social networks without being afraid of them. While it could have relied on its own PSN IDs and tried to put forward an implementation of PlayStation Home as its own social network, it didn't.
Instead, the console allows you to pause your game and go directly to Facebook, via an embedded application, write whatever you want, and come back. This is subtle, but it shows a lack of fear of social networking that is commendable for a large platform holder (I should note that Sony did not outline whether you'd be able to play Facebook games in the application).
Everything about the system, from its streamlined user interface, to its very cleverly gamified tutorial that teaches you about the system's features, speaks to the company's desire to make the system casual in its use, while enabling more hardcore-oriented software with its high definition visuals and plethora of buttons and dual analog sticks.
With Sony's partnerships in Japan and embedded social applications, it really feels as though Sony has learned from some of its earlier missteps, and stepped down from the arguably arrogant position it took with the PlayStation 3 - that is to say, “if we build it, they will come.”