PlayStation Vita: Destined to be history’s most under-appreciated console?

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12 mins read

The PlayStation Vita seems destined to become the most under-appreciated console in the increasingly likely event that it fails to see major sales figures.

One of the most common comments you’ll see on discussions about the Vita on websites and message boards is that it apparently lacks for games worth playing. This is patently untrue – on my Vita’s memory card alone I have:

Dynasty Warriors Next
Zen Pinball 2
Silent Hill Book of Memories
Knytt Underground
Disgaea 3
Assassin’s Creed III Liberation
New Little King’s Story
escapeVektor
Sound Shapes
+ 30 Minis, PSOne Classics and PlayStation Mobile games.

This doesn’t include the games I have deleted off the card already – which includes the perfectly decent likes of Uncharted Golden Abyss. No the range of games on the Vita is not a problem at all – it’s almost like a hidden secret that only Vita owners are privy to.

So if that is not the problem, why is the Vita struggling so much in the market? Others will quickly point the finger at a supposed lack of advertising. The only place I haven’t seen much advertising for the Vita is on TV – across the other marketing mediums it is pushed as hard as a product in its position can be, and TV is a very inefficient way to promote a product such as the Vita.

No, “advertising” is an easy scapegoat, but not the real problem. Here’s a couple of possible alternative reasons behind the Vita’s struggle:

1) The lack of Japanese support

The Vita has had some very marketable support from the western developers and publishers. It hasn’t always been good quality – see Call of Duty, but the likes of Assassin’s Creed and the upcoming Killzone are marketable franchises for the western audience.

The thing is, handhelds need support from Japan to really take off.

Consider the PSP. Sony’s first entrant to the handheld market always struggled in the west, but it was largely irrelevant. The console was wildly popular in Japan, which meant large global numbers. With that popularity came developer interest. Not as much from the western publishers, of course, but Square Enix produced a mass of high-quality PSP games. Tecmo Koei was a major supporter of the PSP (there were no fewer than seven Warriors games produced for the console). More niche publishers threw support behind it, as a reasonably powerful and cheap portable to develop for.

The nature of the industry being as it is, some of those publishers than decided to localise their games for the western market. The result in the west was a console that underperformed, but was a critical success with some very high quality games for the relatively limited audience of western gamers that like Japanese games.

The audience for western games in Japan is very limited – even the mighty Call of Duty on the home consoles fails to really light up the charts. So the Vita with its western-heavy lineup and lack of Square Enix, Tecmo Koei and Namco Bandai support is currently not that appealing to the Japanese. In a catch-22 scenario, because the Vita is so unappealing to the Japanese compared to the Nintendo 3DS the Japanese publishers will, of course, put more effort into the 3DS.

Though Square Enix is still quiet on the Vita front, the good news is that the other Japanese publishers are looking a little closer at the console now. Tecmo Koei, for instance, has some great games on the way in Dead or Alive 5, another Ninja Gaiden game and Atelier Totori. Keiji Inafune’s Soul Sacrifice should do some great business with the Monster Hunter fans. As the Japanese publisher support improves, it’s a safe bet that the Vita’s global fortunes will also start to turn around.

2) Poor headline games

I mentioned the dismal Call of Duty earlier, and I’m repeating it here because that game really damaged the Vita’s future, I fear. The Vita doesn’t lack for genuinely high quality games – consider Gravity Rush, or New Little King’s Story. What the Vita has done poorly is turn one of those ‘hype’ games into a game that equals or betters its console cousins. I’m talking about Uncharted, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed – with the games that people look forward to the most when buying a new console, being good is no better than being terrible.

The media’s attention was on these games. These were the games talked about in the forums online. This might be where the console’s reputation for “having no good games,” stems from – the majority of discussions around these good-to-poor games drowns out the discussions that Vita owners have around the great, more niche games.

This reputation can only be reversed when the hyped games start to live up to the hype. Killzone is the next big one for the western market. Fingers crossed that this hits the right numbers for Sony.

3) The economy

I don’t think that the Vita is overpriced. It’s a premium product, but there’s no reason to think that a premium product cannot find a sizable market – especially when you consider that the Vita offers a lot of value for that investment in its free applications, PlayStation Plus, and so forth.

But that’s when it’s a healthy economy. The first casualty of tight economic times is premium products – especially when there are cheaper but competitive alternatives. People need an iPhone for work – so it’s justifiable, and then the iPhone plays game, so if you need to save some money it doesn’t feel like you’re missing out quite so much. If you really want a dedicated handheld… well, there’s that 3DS thing that looks pretty funky with its 3D effect and has Mario games on it.

It sounds like I’m being flippant, but the point is that to the general consumer, it’s difficult to justify a console like the Vita right now. All of the Vita’s finest features are real luxuries for people who have the extra money for consoles. Extra money is tight right now and so until there’s a price drop Sony is missing out on a number of otherwise interested consumers.

4) Brilliant features; poorly articulated

If you look at the most popular consumer electronics devices right now, there is a common thread between them – they’re popular because their best features are easy to articulate. A thirty second ad tells you that the iPad has a huge range of fun applications. Five seconds with the 3DS makes it very obvious why it’s a gimmicky console, but a fun gimmicky console.

These devices are easy to market. The Vita is less so. “It’s a PlayStation 3 in your hands,” the line might read. Well, ok, but why not just get a PlayStation 3 and enjoy it on a big TV? “It’s got dual control sticks!” Well, great, but you don’t need any buttons for Angry Birds, so it this just a console for the hardcore gamer? “The rear touch screen adds a new way of playing games!” Great… how? “It has 3G!” So does the iPhone.

If a consumer needs to ask a question to a marketing tag line, than in the modern consumer electronics world it’s not an effective marketing line. Look at it closely and the Vita is a difficult device to market as offering something unique that both casual and hardcore gamers “have” to have. And yet, spend a few hours with it and it becomes quite obvious that the console is quite a special one.

5) Retailers don’t want to support it

The PSPGo had a few flaws, but overall it’s actually quite a nice console. What killed it was the complete lack of retailer support. Those few that carried the console didn’t put much effort into promoting it at all, and for good reason; retailers rely on game sales and the PSPGo meant they couldn’t sell any games at all.

The Vita supports retailers better than that, but from start to finish the Vita is a console designed for downloads. The range of games available for download is massively greater than the games available at retail and the system for swapping game cards itself on the Vita is clunky.

The retailers realise this, and they’re less than keen to support the Vita. This is anecdotal, but those retailers that sell the Vita stick it in a corner next to the PlayStation 3 games. The 3DS gets far more attention. The shop staff are also typically clueless about the Vita.

Sony is no fan of retailers, it seems – especially true if those rumours of the PS4 not supporting used games proves true. For their part, the retailers will respond in kind, and without retailer support, any console takes a substantial hit in terms of visibility – and thus potential sales.

We all want the Vita to take off, because it’s a great console and if it does pick up, it will remain a great console for some time yet. Unfortunately at this stage it is danger of also fading into an unfortunate and entirely undeserved obscurity.

This is the bio under which all legacy DigitallyDownloaded.net articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

  • You somehow forgot the problem because of which I don't want a Vita: The ridiculously overpriced and proprietary memory cards.

  • Really? All the great games and hardware, and the reason you won't buy one is because you need to buy a $40 memory card? This surprises me.

    As I mentioned, I don't think the price to own the Vita is an issue in itself. Premium products can be successful in the market.

  • I own one, and absolutely love gaming at this level on the go. It's surprised me how sweet it really is. The memory cards being priced so high is so that the retailers have a reason to support a downloadable game system. Because the more you game, the more you need another memory card. And it's built in with half the price going to the retailer.

  • A few thoughts on each of this article's points:

    1) On Japanese support, taking a look at Japan's retail sales via this NeoGAF post, the Vita has sold through about 1.6 million units LTD according to retail tracking services.

    The rub here is not that it's direct competitor, the 3DS line, is greatly outselling it but that the Vita has been available for over a year in that territory and is still being handily outsold by its predecessor. Looking at the weekly sales trends, the second troubling thing is that sales are decelerating Year-Over-Year. Seeing as how a publisher will have access to far deeper metrics than a net-monkey like myself, it must be quite a conundrum for devs who want to create a game on that sweet hardware but can't make the business case. You make a great point that if a dedicated handheld platform can't succeed in portable-gaming-loving Japan, how can it be expected to make inroads in other territories?

    2) On lack of killer-apps, looking at what moves the Japanese market, it looks like Nintendo has done a sneaky-good job of consolidating the content that matters most to that market on their platform. Monster Hunter, check. Dragon Quest, check. And of course Mario, where gamers have 3 top-notch choices, check and mate. The blockbuster original content that PSP enjoyed, in core franchises like the MGS and Final Fantasy games, remain a question mark. Looking at the sales trends I can't help but feel skeptical those companies will commit the necessary resources to create an awesome original game. At "best", perhaps Sony can secure such prestige games but at CoD Vita-level development budgets…I don't see how anyone would be thrilled with that outcome either.

    3) On pricing, looking at the lack of overall customer interest at this price point, I have to disagree with the statement "its not overpriced". (When it begins selling in meaningful quantities, then we will know what the "right price" was!). Your comments on this point actually underline the Vita's exitential crisis as possibly a product without a viable market. I agree only after the incoming price cut (20% off or more?) will we know if this thing has a future, but the other point about a premium product vis-a-vis a premium smartphone is that the latter can be subsidized. Sony is going the opposite track, increasingly throwing in freebies to bolster a loss-leading product.

    4) On marketing message, as someone living in a territory that is out of their marketing range, I can't say how effective their efforts have been. I can say I still don't understand why they had to build in the back touch panel and 3G. Nintendo understands there must be tradeoffs to realistically give a product a chance…it feels like Sony went the "throw everything at the wall, see what sticks" approach.

    5) Great point about retail and its something that I would like to see discussed more. In particular, how "old-guard" platform holders like Sony and Nintendo are in some ways hamstrung by their relationships and dependence on traditional retailers. I want to point out that this statement "Sony is no fan of retailers, it seems – especially true if those rumours of the PS4 not supporting used games proves true." only holds true for certain retailers. In the States, for example, this would make Gamestop nervous but the Wal-marts, Targets and Amazons would be quite welcoming with such a development.

    Thanks for the article, Matt. Enjoying your work as always.

  • I agree the Vita is a premium product and I think the price for the system itself is justified. But that's no excuse for using a proprietary memory card that doesn't offer any visible value to me, especially when there are cheap and small memory options available, like micro SD cards. It's just a dickish move by Sony. Again, I don't have a problem paying for a high quality product like the Vita.

    What would you say if Apple would build its own hard drives in its Macs and price them way above normal ones? I wouldn't own a MacBook Pro if that were the case.

  • What if you think of the Vita as just $40 more expensive? It's still a premium product, and now comes with memory included.

    As someone else mentioned, Sony needed to do this to give the retailers something to sell for margin, otherwise the Vita would have gone the way of the PSPGo.

  • Great thoughts of your own there πŸ™‚ I don't have much to add, except:

    "3) On pricing, looking at the lack of overall customer interest at this price point, I have to disagree with the statement "its not overpriced". (When it begins selling in meaningful quantities, then we will know what the "right price" was!). Your comments on this point actually underline the Vita's exitential crisis as possibly a product without a viable market."

    We don't really know what Sony's own expectations were for the Vita. It may well be that these results are not surprising Sony too much, and that the Vita was always intended as a complementary device to the hardest of hardcore PlayStation 3 fans.

    In that context (I'm not saying it's the case, but it's a possibility), then for that market (small as it is), the Vita is not overpriced. If Sony is looking at longevity – for the Vita to have a late surge of popularity like the PSP did, then it's also possibly not overpriced – it's a toy for the early adopters while Sony figures out where to position it in the market over the longer term.

    Pricing is a difficult one to really determine whether something is overpriced or underpriced, and it depends on what angle you look at it from. If the goal is mass consumer adoption then yeah, it's overpriced. If the goal is the Ferrari of the handheld consoles, then I would suggest the ratio of Vita: 3DS: iPhone: iPad sales in the market is roughly the same as the ratio of Ferrari: Lexus: Toyota: Ford sales, and from that perspective it's probably priced at the right spot for its intended market to bear.

    Just throwing ideas out at this stage. It's pretty hard to deny that something is going wrong with the Vita, and most commentators keep coming back to the price. Sony's lack of clarity about what it wants its product to be is not helping matters.

  • I do wonder what their goals for the device were, but I would wager that they were expecting at least along the lines of the PSP…probably greater. I don't see how it would be worth their investment otherwise since the company is not in a terrific financial position. The point about the device being a slow-burner like the PSP is a good one but my gut (if my gut were charts showing explosive mobile app download growth) tells me the industry and customer options have changed too much for a repeat of that performance.

    The comparison with cars is an interesting one. Being the Ferrari of portable game consoles would also entail that they make a handsome profit off each unit…
    This article hints at a ~$159 manufacturing cost and suggests that their profit margin could be healthy.

    (As an aside, would love to see a DD article about how console retail prices are sorted out. We get a warm fuzzy on the manufacturing costs, but how does all the overhead (R&D, marketing, admin, frivolous lawsuits, territory tax, etc) factor in. Probably requires some well-versed industry contacts tho!)

    Anyway, this brings us back to everyone's favourite point…i.e. Price Cutz OMGLOLz where!?.
    Probably this Spring. Can't fool around with that iPad Mini now being a thing not to mention the NVidia…thing πŸ™‚

  • To address your first point – Sony has a reputation in certain circles (well, Nintendo fan sites mostly) for "copying" other vendors' ideas, but in actuality the company has a very long heritage of commercialising what probably should have been left as R & D products.

    So for instance those 3D movie goggles: http://www.sony.co.uk/hub/personal-3d-viewer I sincerely doubt Sony expected impressive sales from that thing.

    My personal suspicion is that Sony's goal with handhelds is to simply break even, in order to make sure it has a foot in the market. There's cross-sell opportunities that stem from that (so for instance a lot of the Vita learnings could be implemented into phones in the future, thus justifying the R & D on the Vita further), and it helps build the PlayStation brand into a full entertainment suite.

    I suspect that the PSP's late wave of popularity was a nice bonus to Sony, but not an expected one. The fact the console went through so many hardware revisions suggests to me that Sony had a bigger hit than it expected, and tried to look for ways to grow that further.

    I'll try and research that feature for you πŸ™‚ It's hard getting the manufacturers to be open about that process, but who knows? Miracles happen!

  • PSP Go had to be a money pit though…

    Yeah, the Playstation brand and company experience with the PSP should have led to something truly compelling in the portable/mobile space but perhaps that is still taking shape. Indeed "Copying" is what happens when one company finds a successful formula and other companies want a piece. Its unavoidable, its natural in competition and ultimately good for us end users.

    On this note, it gets me thinking (here comes tl;dr) that Sony should be copying Nintendo more, streamline that platform on games and bring down that cost. They can look at Apple more closely, combine that killer brand and design with a product line that compliments each other beyond a cosmetic sense.

    I still feel the market would love to have the XPeria Play and Vita as one platform at a number of bling levels, one that challenges the 3DS directly at sub-$200 all the way to a killer phone-psp combo at $500+ (helped by subsidization). Maybe this was simply impossible, if companies have their product road maps ready a year or two in advance?

    At any rate, the presiding result is a Sony that looks meek in chasing the shadows of other's successes this past few years. Striking out in so many directions at once divides their mojo and instills no confidence in anyone, least of all consumers.

    Good luck on the feature, I have this rough back-of-the-napkin idea of how those other costs split up (retail margin, marketing cost, shipping cost, admin overheads etc) but I'm basically pulling %s out my rear here! My understanding is that retailers accept a lower hardware margin (10-15%?) because they know the software and accessories (30-40+% margins) will immediately bump the overall figure up.

  • I do agree with a lot of this. Sony does tend to dilute the value of its brands by having so many product options. It's financially crippling to be a fan of PlayStation and buy everything, for instance, because that would mean you need to buy a phone, tablet, handheld console, TV console, premium subscription and so on.

    Apple is the real paragon of this – you can have the entire Apple experience in two devices – three if you need a computer too. I worry Apple's heading down the same path as Sony with these different sized screens, but that's another story for another day.

    From what I know, a healthy margin for hardware for a retailer is… well… anything. Publishers generally offer a 20-25 per cent margin to retailers on software. Gives the retailers a little room for discounting while not inflating prices too much for the consumer.

    I have no idea on accessories, but I do know that those are sacred revenue opportunities to retailers, so I'm guessing the margin is best of all there.

  • Well I sorta had a strange last few months, I think i had told you guys that I had an interview with Irrational Games to work on B.I. but after being told to keep in touch and to keep checking back week after week for about 3 months I kinda lost patience and I got frustrated so I took another Online Software QA Tester course and My brother had a baby so I was just really busy with life and kinda stayed off the interwebs for a period of time and spent my free time catching up on games i had wanted to play for a while which i did, lol.. So now I am once again back above water back to normal working part time until I get my next QA Tester Interview. This time I am even more prepared and I also have the means to up and move if i get an opportunity. How about you guys? The site looks real good man, very clean and organized. Crazy how many games are coming out over the next few months huh..I cant wait for Bioshock Infinite, GTA5, Sly, and a bunch of others. I think I might start writing again and see where it takes me. What are you playing now? anyway I will be talking to you guys much more.. ttysoon bro. cheers.

  • I almost forgot, I got a contest running and I would love for you to check it out and give me your Prediction for when you think the PS4 will officially be announced? do you think it will get announced at a specific event or?? I am giving away a prize pack with a PSN Card and some other swag. the links here so check it out if you get a minute, its going to be fun: http://www.ign.com/blogs/riseup44/2013/01/07/beyond-community-contest-guess-when-the-ps4orbis-will-be-announced#disqus_thread

  • One thing – Sony needs to drop the "Xperia" brand name if it's going to associate it with the "PlayStation" brand. Xperia isn't a well-regarded brand here in the States and what they need to do, is copy Apple and have a "PlayStation" tablet.

  • When do you think I will get my download code from the DD rewards pts. i submitted? no rush just curious because Im bored and looking for something new to try out on pS3

  • I'll do my absolute best to get them to you today, buddy.

    Apologies for the delay. I ended up having to spend all weekend knocking out Ni No Kuni. Best exhaustion I've ever felt.

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