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Opinion – E3 Is A Crossroads For PlayStation Vita

by Mike Futter on May 14, 2014 at 08:59 AM

Every three months, we get a brain dump of financial data from most publishers. We see what’s done well, and what might have underperformed. What isn’t said is often just as telling as what publishers put in the spotlight.

Sony released its troubling year-end financials today, and as you might expect, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 were both mentioned. However, there wasn’t a single nod toward Vita, VitaTV, or the software for that platform.

It’s not good when a system underperforms, but it’s worse when the company doesn’t even mention it. Vita has been kept alive by a steady stream of niche titles and indies, but Sony hasn’t even bothered to make the case for owning one recently.

The games I play today make me happy I have a Vita, but wouldn’t inspire me to purchase one. In many ways, my feelings about the Vita mirror how I feel about the Wii U.

The titles that are coming serve those that are already invested, but they don’t give new buyers a reason to come aboard in significant numbers. Right now, so much of what is on the Vita is available on other systems, including Sony’s home consoles, that the handheld functions better as a companion than a standalone (and even more so if you weigh the value of PlayStation Plus as a Vita owner).

As a Vita owner, I love the indie support and the niche offerings, but they aren’t the reason I purchased the system when it was released. Rehashes and remakes are good to play on the go, but they wouldn’t work $200 out of my wallet.

Core first-party titles must show up at E3 (something I wrote about in January). Games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and even Killzone: Mercenary, which leveraged key first-party properties for the handheld are why I signed on. Titles like Gravity Rush, which makes smart use of the Vita's functionality, and Soul Sacrifice's Monster Hunter-like gameplay, are few and far between. Major titles seem to be diminishing in number and quality.

And I’m not alone in my feelings. In 2012, Sony sold 7 million handhelds (PSP and Vita). This past year, even with the inclusion of VitaTV, the company only sold 4.1 million. Next year, the numbers are even softer, with a forecast of 3.5 million. The trend is going in the wrong direction.

Sony recently introduced a new bundle that includes the lackluster Borderlands 2 port (a valiant endeavor that falls short, unfortunately). That $200 bundle includes an 8 GB memory card, which reveals one of the Vita’s largest problems: hidden costs.

Even after Sony dropped the price on memory cards, Vita owners can expect to spend $100 retail ($70 with a bit of hunting) on a 32 GB card. 64 GB cards are available in Japan, but haven’t made their way to North America officially (importers have them for sale, though).

My 32 GB card is constantly full, and nearly every time I want to put something new on it, something else needs to come off. On my 3DS, I just bought a new, larger card when that happened. By comparison a 32 GB SD card costs under $20.

Sony had its chance to change the memory requirements for the Vita with the new model and did not. Now, we just have to hope for a price normalization to reduce the overall ownership cost and increase convenience of owning one of the handhelds.

The Vita needs a shot in the arm in the form of a multi-pronged strategy. Memory price needs to come down, cross-buy and cross-save must be incentivized, and there must be marquee, must-play titles that can only be found on the Vita.  

There aren’t many platform-exclusive games announced for the Vita right now (though titles like Murasaki Baby will keep existing owners happy). Either Sony needs to step up its game development or rebrand the device as a companion with a bundle and even greater cross-platform functionality. Regardless of which direction it chooses, what we see at E3 will be a strong signal for what to expect from the Vita’s remaining life (however short that might be).