The Playstation Vita: The Unfortunate Future of Portable Gaming

There is a natural path of evolution for portable gaming platforms. While Console manufactures are struggling to improve modern day gaming with creative alternatives, their portable counterparts have already decided their fate. On February 22nd, Sony will launch the Playstation Vita to North American gamers. The system is marketed as a home-console in your hands. After some hands-on time with the machine, I must admit that the Playstation Vita does indeed redefine the boundaries of portable gaming. Looking at the Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita, the obvious goal is to achieve home-console standards through both visuals and control. Unfortunately for Sony, Nintendo, and gamers across the globe, the future of handheld gaming may not live to see the the Vita’s successor, let alone home-console parity.

While the Playstation Vita has not launched internationally, the Nintendo 3DS is approaching its first birthday. Within this past year, a lot has happened. The 3DS’ launch was unsuccessfull, resulting in the company’s first annual loss in over 30 years. When the system first launched in Japan, it was easy to see why it was considered a failure. At launch, the Nintendo 3DS costed the equivalent of $250, which was simply too much for most consumers to get onboard. When the system launched here in North America, there was no price adjustment. While gamers were very vocal about their concerns with the platform’s pricing, Nintendo refused to listen. Of course, one can’t blame the 3DS’ failure completely on the its price. Nintendo fans, after hearing about the system’s high cost, hoped for an impressive launch line-up to compensate. Most gamers can agree that the most important aspect to any gaming platform is software, and the Nintendo 3DS had a serious lack of signifanct titles (both first-party and third-party) on day 01. Without notable titles to play, even the most die-hard Nintendo fans waited until a major first-party release before spending $250 on this next-generation of portable gaming.

If that wasn’t enough, gamers were quick to pick apart Nintendo’s new device, finding a laundry-list of flaws. The lack of a second circle pad was an unwelcomed surprise, considering that the PSP was constantly flagged by fans for only having a single analog stick. User forums also quickly discovered that the bottom screen scratched the top screen when closing the device. Additionally, the system could not connect to the internet or dedicated “eShop” for over a month after the American launch. There was no doubt that the Nintendo 3DS was an international failure, and simply could not live up to its hype. While many were labelling the system as “doomed“, Nintendo was hard at work coming up with solutions to all their problems. Firstly, Nintendo set up all their networks, making them available internationally. The birth of the eShop eventually led to a significant handful of great titles, such as Pushmo, Mutant Mudds, Sakura Samarai: Art of the Sword and Mighty Switch Force. Next, the company planned out notable first-party titles for a month-by-month launch throughout the second half of 2011. This included The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Starfox 64 3D, Super Mario 3D Land, and Mario Kart 7. Then, only months after launch, the Nintendo 3DS had a huge price drop, awarding early “ambassadors” 20 free games. This pleased both the console’s owners and potential owners. Furthermore, Nintendo is launching the latest Resident Evil title with an additional circle pad, dubbed the “Circle Pad Pro“. By the end of the year, it was apparent that the system was finally picking up steam. The system had higher single-month sales than any other console in recorded history. While the 3DS’ “fall-and-rise” story is well documented all over the internet, one must assume that Nintendo has learned their lesson, and will deliver everything that the 3DS didn’t during the Wii U’s launch later this year.

Following the initial failure of the Nintendo 3DS, Sony fans eagerly awaited the arrival of the Playstation Vita. While the Nintendo 3DS quickly encountered poor sales, the Vita’s launch seemed promising. First of all, the price was right. The Wi-Fi model was announced at 250 dollars, giving players more bang for their buck when compared to the Nintendo 3DS’ launch price. More importantly, a handful of AAA titles have been confirmed for launch internationally. This includes the blockbuster franchise ‘Uncharted’ and the Playstation veteran ‘WipeOut’. Additionally, Sony has promised great 3rd-party support throughout the system’s lifespan, with a Call of Duty and BioShock title already announced. A few months back, most people predicted smooth sailing for the Vita’s much-anticipated debut.

Now, after the Japanese launch on December 17th, we know that the Vita may find itself in a worse position than its competitor was back in early 2011. Because the system launched during the holiday season, it had a fairly strong first week in Japan. Even so, the Nintendo 3DS outsold the Vita by the end of the month, despite being about 10 months older. The Vita’s weekly sales, for the last week of December, indicated about 42 thousand units sold, which underperformed in comparison to the 3DS’ impressive 198 thousand units sold. Of course, the worst was yet to come. By mid-January, it was confirmed that the PSP was doing better than the month-old Playstation Vita. While Nintendo’s plan of action included fixing all the 3DS’ problems, The Playstation Vita doesn’t have many stand-out flaws. This is why Sony hasn’t shown any interest in changing the fate of the Vita. In fact, Sony has stated on several occasions that they are optimistic about the Vita’s future. According to Jim Ryan, the company’s European president and CEO, Sony is “encouraged” by the success of the Nintendo 3DS.

Its not often that a rivaling company says such respectable words about its competition. While it is certainly nice to see, Sony was clearly outlining more than the 3DS’ success. Instead of attacking Nintendo’s newest device, often viewed as the Vita’s sworn enemy, Sony has aimed its barrel at smartphone gaming. This is a business plan that Nintendo has been doing for the past few years. In fact, Nintendo has publicly applauded Sony and Microsoft for delivering high-quality gaming platforms, in comparison to smartphones. Its easy to see why these major game publishers are against smartphones; accessibility. Over one-third of U.S. adults have a smartphone, and the ‘next big game’ may only cost a single dollar. The cost for dedicated gaming is steep, and most people can buy a smartphone for a fairly low cost (with a multi-year plan). Additionally, the most noteworthy titles on a home console cost about $60. Gaming on an iPhone is simply more cost-effective.

Maybe the Vita’s sale figures don’t reflect the quality of the product. Maybe the Vita is suffering from poor sales because Sony’s core audience would rather own a smartphone. Where does this leave gamers in a decade? If the demand for smartphones is only increasing, is there still a demand for the handheld gaming market? If the two can’t co-exist, will there be a generation after the Playstation Vita? While this is only speculation, many industry analystsagree that both Sony and Nintendo have tough competition. Showing support for the handheld of your choice (or both) may very well save an industry. Perhaps this is the reason behind Microsoft’s absence in the handheld market.

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