You can't blame industry-watchers for wondering about the future for traditional handheld gaming, given how strong a showing mobile phones and tablets continue to make in the space.
Even as recently as the last generation of portable hardware, few would have believed that a cell phone could compete with Nintendo's original DS and Sony's PSP -- let alone that the seismic restructuring of the portable hardware market could strike so immediately.
Suddenly with the advent of the iPhone and the hardware families that rapidly popped up to keep pace, phones could offer quite a few things that portable gaming hardware never could: Simple, cheap games available from an instantaneous digital storefront.
The immediacy of a touch interface, initially a wonder, is now preferred by the majority. And perhaps most importantly, multifunctionality: Communications, internet browsing, books, a camera (in many cases, two!) and games all from the same device.
Even still, the prophecy that iOS and Android gaming would ever pose any kind of threat to the traditional portable gaming market seemed implausible for some fair reasons: Touch interface games were limited in the kind of complexity and depth they could offer. The screen on a phone, no matter how vivid modern retinal displays have gotten, isn't big enough to engender deep immersion. "Real" gamers would continue to want "real" games and beloved brands, obviously.
But while sound, this logic hasn't been able to impede the inevitable fragmentation smartphones have created in the market for all portable hardware. The challenge of the modern portable gaming console seems to be that to emphasize to the more serious gamer what it can offer that other mobile devices can't -- and theoretically it has to offer all mobile's most desirable features, too.
With the launch of its PlayStation Vita, Sony is clearly shooting for that star with a kitchen sink approach. The device, about the size and weight of an original-gen PSP, is a lush, sleek gadget with an absolutely brilliant touch-sensitive screen that takes up almost its whole face. Not content with just one touch screen, the Vita sports a second touch-sensitive pad on the back, as well as the now-requisite front- and rear-facing cameras.
With the belated launch of the weird circle pad add-on for the 3DS, Nintendo made its concession to the fact that most gamers are significantly accustomed to two sticks. The Vita nails the twin sticks and the necessary face buttons; they feel great. The traditional controls feel so nice, in fact, that it almost seems to emphasize the question of whether the device really needs all of a smartphone's bells and whistles.
Also unlike the 3DS, the Vita got its launch lineup right, at least from the perspective of Sony's brands (Uncharted: Golden Abyss, ModNation Racers) and a few strong and importantly mobile-ready third parties (Touch My Katamari and Lumines: Electronic Symphony are my personal favorites). The thing is, most of the games just feel better with traditional controls, when possible.
The cartridges are very tiny -- does Sony resent consumers for resisting its premature effort to push them to digital-only with the failed PSP Go, is it trying to shrink physical media until it disappears? Still, the little software chips seem to cement the device as intended for fastidious adults who don't lose things. And although the need to separately purchase and install a memory card will probably be a sticking point for some reviewers, as it makes the approachable $249/$299 (WiFi/3G) price points a little deceptive, it's also nothing new for Sony's portables.
Who's Your Audience?
Overall, the Vita is a slick, appealing piece of hardware, but it's easy to wonder who will use it the way Sony wants. It's the market that's made the case for touchscreens and cameras, not necessarily the needs or habits of the gamer who will be its most passionate early adopter. Negotiating the rear pad often makes the Vita awkward to hold, and although in concept a touch input on the back of a device that's meant to be embraced with spread fingers sounds like a fantastic idea, its unfamiliarity is enough of a barrier that it's too tempting to just switch to the sticks.
The success of iPhone and iOS platform was exemplary of Apple's well-known strategy of deciding what consumers will want and then selling it to them; creating demand for new ideas, rather than necessarily playing within the constraints of what's known in the market. Over the recent generations, Nintendo has taken a similar tack -- like when it won over massive mainstream audiences and revolutionized the game space with the Wii, even at the expense of initially earning puzzlement -- even derision -- from the core gaming audience.
That the Wii later saw a massive contraction and tanking software sales didn't make its transformative boom less significant, any more than its short lifespan diminished its profitability. The launch of the 3DS suggests that maybe Nintendo doesn't even mind faddishness, if it can dazzle enough of its addressable audience for long enough. Nintendo knows how to give consumers exactly what they want, and doesn't waste its attention on things it doesn't think it needs, like a robust online infrastructure, no matter how disgruntled the traditional gamer gets about it.
The quick spike and level-off in 3DS sales perhaps speaks to that: Nintendo knew audiences young and old would be taken in by the shiny newness of its glasses-free 3D display -- maybe it even knew that most would realize only later that they didn't really need or want it, and that they'd essentially bought a glorified second DS.
It wasn't so much that the 3DS was a product that consumers really wanted; it was that Nintendo was quite good at making people, probably enough people, believe they wanted it. Nintendo has cornered the portable market in the U.S. because it's a whiz at driving buzz that spreads like wildfire; like Apple, it knows the power in becoming a trendy brand and in riding word-of-mouth.
What Sony Does Worst
With the Vita, it isn't clear what the company wants people to believe. That's not been the company's strength in recent years (even the heavy handed "Make.Believe" slogan the company unveiled never seemed to stick). Of all the console holders Sony has always struggled most with its messaging, and it seems it continues to.
Advertising for the Vita is surprisingly scarce and not strongly-directed. Speak to most of the Western consumer games press and they'll tell you that even the roll-out of review units to many outlets was a complicated process, with necessary planning details often obfuscated behind red tape. Microsoft, on the other hand, regularly strike-teams hardware, software, information, anything to the press before we even realize we're interested.
The portable hardware market, from gaming devices to e-readers, smartphones and tablets, is fragmented and fast-moving, and success seems more than ever to depend on that crucial clarity of messaging.
Telling consumers it's a portable PS3 is piquant, but Sony would never try that angle -- one of the problems for the PS3's difficult launch was that in casting too wide a net for its audience, it dampened its desirability in both gaming and multimedia-minded audiences. Contrast that with the Xbox 360 approach of deciding to be a core gaming console first and a multimedia device later on.
Sony has clearly borrowed a page from many market leaders' playbooks -- Vita's tutorial, called "Welcome Park," is a set of soothingly-narrated minimalist minigames designed to teach users what the device can do, and it feels much more like a tack Nintendo's mastered versus something that feels innate to Sony. With the Vita in hand, the impression is of a piece of hardware that's trying so many things at once that it's hard to tell what it wants to be or who it's really for.
If that's the case, it doesn't matter that it does pretty damn well at most of the things it tries. When the device has indecisive messaging, and a marketing presence conspicuously below what it should be to drive the early user base that is key to gaining that critical developer support, consumers will hang back and wait for others to work it out, and that could be devastating.
What it Needs to Succeed
The most unfortunate part is that the Vita's kitchen sink approach doesn't acknowledge the unexplored market opportunities for Vita where it could have a decisive advantage. Portable gaming is rapidly taking root across multiple platforms with Game Center and other multiplayer services for mobile, and the audience that understands online play in general is reaching significant mass.
But the higher-end portable gaming market hasn't become part of Western culture the way it has in Japan, where PSP excels at it. Nintendo's family-oriented and less-than intuitive approach to networked play on the DS has prevented it from pioneering a mobile multiplayer culture in America, but Sony could seize the opportunity with strong messaging that illustrates to people how new and fun it could be to go beyond what asynchronous social play has offered us so far. Anticipate an audience and address it, rather than just reacting.
The Vita has everything it needs to be popular with gamers and the gadget-curious, and the audience for high-end portable gaming isn't an illusion. But reacting rather than pioneering won't cut it in the noisy, challenging Wild West of a market that mobile's become. It remains to be seen whether Sony knows how to really sell a portable console in such a complicated, dynamic environment.