Looking back to the beginning of the year, it seemed Sony could walk into the end zone on their way to winning the Super Bowl of gaming competitions in 2011. They had it all going for them. The price of the home console was finally entry-level for the mass market, they had a new technologically-rich handheld on the way, and their exclusive lineup was amazing.

So what the hell happened?

It didn't take long for things to start going downhill for Sony. The first signs of trouble came in the form of a single hacker who finally managed, after four solid years, to break the PS3's console security. This, in turn, led to a hacker field day. The PlayStation Network was compromised in a big way, and Sony was forced to shut it down for a month in order to sort it all out.

The timing of these events could not have been worse. Japan had just been rocked by a nine-point earthquake, which in turn caused a massive tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. So instead of being able to focus on recovering the plants that were affected by these tragedies, they had to divide their attention between natural disasters and man-made ones. Not a good start.

One side effect of these natural disasters was the untimely demise of a PS3 exclusive. Motorstorm Apocalypse, a game set against the backdrop of a world ripping itself apart with earthquakes, was delayed due to its now sensitive subject material, and the marketing for it was all but abandoned. It was released several weeks later with a whimper, and its sales numbers were abysmal. There's no way to know how much sales were affected by recent events, but they darn sure didn't help.

More doomed than the world portrayed in it

So let's recap. At this point, they've lost money on mother nature, an exclusive title, sales revenue for DLC, and the effort put into rebuilding the PS3's security...no small task considering they probably had no time to plan or make that process efficient in any way. How much money? Let's not kid ourselves. These events cost Sony hundreds of millions of dollars. Many companies would not even be able to survive this much bad luck.

But the bad news doesn't stop there.

Sony had managed to revitalize its flailing marketing campaigns with their new spokesperson, a wise-cracking executive with an ever-changing title and a sarcastic wit that gamers readily identify with. Now, I love Kevin Butler just as much as the next guy. But like any ad campaign that has gained mass popularity, too much of a good thing can leave a bitter taste in the mouth (just think about the Geico cavemen).

To be clear, Sony's biggest mistake wasn't riding that horse into the ground. It was in pushing Butler to the forefront instead of letting the games speak for themselves. Speaking of horses, Butler was sitting on one for the Resistance 3 commercial while the game itself simply played on a tiny TV behind him. Is that how you push a game? No, it's how you push a brand.

No. Just...no.

Unfortunately, Sony treated many of its high profile exclusives just as poorly. Consider the following list:

  • Little Big Planet 2
  • Killzone 3
  • SOCOM 4
  • Infamous 2
  • Resistance 3
  • Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One
  • Uncharted 3

These are just the biggest of the PS3's list of exclusives from last year. But how many of them had commercials you remember? Personally, the only one I can think of is Uncharted. As a result, sales for every other game on this list were somewhere between unimpressive and pathetic. Is this really how they wanted to use their momentum from the beginning of the year?

So with one last card in their hand to play, they prepared for their Japanese release of the PS Vita. Things were looking good. The 3DS was floundering and had very few games worth playing on it, whereas the launch lineup for Vita read like a menu at a fine dining establishment. The price was right, or at least right enough, to make the majority of gamers pretty happy. Excitement seemed high.

And then they released the last minute details.

There's just nothing funny to say about this.

The PS Vita contains no internal memory, a fact that was received with a heavy thud from the gaming community. To make matters worse, the memory cards used by the Vita are a proprietary format, a decision I lambasted Nintendo for in its upcoming Wii U in a blog earlier this year. You know the worst part about proprietary technology? It's proprietary. Did they learn nothing from the failure of the UMD?

But wait...that's not the best part.

Nay, my friends. The best part is that the Vita does not come with a packaged memory card. That's right! After you spend the $250 on the unit, plus whatever accessories the store clerk talks you into buying, and maybe ponying up for a 3G plan...you still have to buy a memory card. Yes, have to. It's required. But hey, that's probably not so bad, right? I mean memory is cheap these days, right?



News flash: memory sticks are not cheap. And the worst offenders for pricing have always been Sony. So it should come as a shock to no one that a 4GB stick for the Vita was announced at 30 bucks, and the 32GB version would run you $120. Suddenly, that $250 price point for the unit itself doesn't sound nearly as good, does it?

Now since this announcement, someone at Sony has apparently come to their senses (at least partially). New pricing for the 4GB and 32GB sticks comes in at $20 and $100 respectively, with the in-between sizes receiving a similar price cut. That helps a little, in much the same way as being shot in the arm is better than being shot in the shoulder. But it still hurts.

But there is still one final straw to pile onto this camel's back. Sony has recently informed us that only one PSN account can be associated with any given Vita, meaning a household with multiple gamers is out of luck. Now, recent details have surfaced that show this isn't as bad as it sounds. You can change which account is associated with the unit, but it is a pain since it involves backing up and restoring via Content Manager, Sony's new PS3/PC interface for the unit. It's also possible, though unconfirmed, that each user can have their settings on a separate memory stick. You know, since those are so cheap.

 All of which brings me to my final point.

This looks just like the cliff that Sony executives might be jumping off of next month!

I wrote another blog a while back about how the handheld market has a serious uphill battle these days. See, handheld gaming no longer belongs to the handhelds. It's owned by devices we already carry around with us at all times. Your phone, your MP3 player...hell, even your eReader these days are all pumping out tons of games that are ***WAY*** cheaper than traditional games for the 3DS or Vita. Why would the majority of people pay hundreds of dollars for these things when they can play a bunch of great games for less than the price of a meal at McDonald's?

Of course, the hardcore gaming market will still buy them. In fact, that's the demographic that braves the weather and crowds during launch week to pick up the latest technology. And that's exactly what they did in Japan, moving well over 300,000 Vitas in the first week. Sure looked like it was gonna be a good Christmas for the new kid on the block, didn't it?

Except sales flatlined immediately after that. Even the normally thriving Christmas season came and went with a whimper, leaving the future of this huge expense in research, development, and marketing in serious doubt. Nintendo isn't helping either, finally releasing a couple of huge first-person titles for the 3DS to coincide with the Vita's launch which resulted in a huge boost to the 3DS sales numbers. Coincidence? I think not.

Look, I'm a perfect example of what's wrong with the handheld market these days. I was just as excited as anyone to hear about the Vita. Hell, I have 2 PSPs in my house right now. But by the time it finally arrived, I was already done with it. The proprietary memory issue, the fact that I don't get even the bottom-of-the-line 4GB stick included, and the lack of built-in memory basically amount to one big deal-breaker for me.

Someone at Sony needs to wake up and smell what they're shoveling. 2011 was a year they should have won with no contest, but instead gained them no more traction in the race of current-gen systems. That's obviously not Sony's fault in many ways, but that doesn't change the fact that they have some big decisions to make. I just hope they haven't put too many of their eggs into any of these falling baskets.

Shadow out

if Kevin Butler had been sitting on a Chimera, would it have been better?