Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Feb 22nd 2012 at 11:38:46 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under Vita, launch games, system launch, PlayStation

This week marks the North American release of the PlayStation Vita, Sony's second handheld gaming device and the follow-up to the PlayStation Portable.  As a PSP enthusiast, the Vita has me quite excited; in fact the Vita is the first system of any kind I am picking up on release day in over a decade (the PS2 was the last time I had a system from day one).  Since I also happen to run a blog that focuses, in part,  on system launches (I've previously chronicled the launch of the Game Boy Advance, the NES, the SNES, and the VCS), I figured it would  make sense to share my thoughts on the Vita's debut.

There are several interesting considerations when analyzing the Vita launch: the machine itself, the launch lineup, and its place in the current gaming landscape.

The Hardware
The Specs. As was the case with the PSP before it, the Vita comes onto the market as the most impressive handheld gaming device ever created.  It has a blazing quad core processor (vs. the 3DS' dual core), the ability to push 33 million polygons a second (vs. the 3DS' 15.3 million), a relatively small 512MB of RAM (vs. the 3DS' even more paltry 128MB), a beautiful 5 OLED screen with 221 pixels per inch (vs. the iPhone's superior 320ppi retina display), and a host of ways to connect the device to wireless networks, computers, the PS3, etc.  The unit is backwards compatible with PS1 classics and PSP games downloaded from PSN.  The price point of $250 for the base system, considering what you are getting, is quite impressive.  It would seem that Sony is probably selling these at a loss, which follows their standard model.

The Features.  Easily the most maligned design choice of the original PSP was the absence of a second analog stick, forcing many genres to abandon the platform altogether or to be adopted with hit-or-miss work-arounds. The most obvious addition to the Vita is the inclusion of a second analog stick, an addition that places it more comfortably in the hands of gamers who prefer a dualstick or a 360 control pad.  In addition, the rear touch pad on the Vita allows for both interesting gameplay mechanics as well as way to incorporate L2 and R2 buttons (via touch) into the unit.  Like most handheld devices made in the past several years, it also sports a pair of cameras, a touch screen, and a gyroscope, all of which further expand the potential to do lots of different things with the Vita.  Battery life over time is yet to be determined, but 3-5 hours of gameplay at a time seems to be typical for most users so far and is pretty close to what you can get with a 3DS or with more resource-intensive iOS or Android games. 

The Media. One questionable design decision Sony has made with the Vita is the lack of substantial on-board storage memory.  Instead, users are required to purchase a separate proprietary flash card (between 4GB and 32GB) if they want to store PSN downloads, media, or game data.  Sony also will continue to publish games at retail, abandoning the UMDs used for the PSP for flash cards that are similar to (but smaller than) what is produced for the DS/3DS.  That means that most users will have two cards -  a game card and a memory card - in their system at any given time.  Sony is also pushing digital distribution of all Vita games for users who want an experience closer to what was available on the PSPGo, Sony's less popular UMD drive-less version of the PSP.

The Launch Lineup

The U.S. launch of the PS Vita includes a pretty strong selection of games from different genres, and at 24 titles, features about 25% more games than the PSPs launch seven years ago (by comparison the 3DS launch featured about 18 games and the DS launch featured only 6 games).  A few things stand out about the launch lineup:

Racing Heaven. Even though the Vita is the first PlayStation system of any kind to launch in the US without a Ridge Racer title available on launch day, there are five racing games available for the system at launch ranging from futuristic racers (Wipeout 2048), to Kart Racers (ModNation Racers and Ben 10: Galactic Racing), to more standard racing fare (F1 2011 and Asphalt: Injection).  Racers are traditionally good at showing off system horsepower, and most of these titles have features which are only possible on the Vita (ModNation's use of the rear pad for design, Wipeout's cross-platform play, etc.).  If you are at all a fan of racing games, odds are there's something for you in the Vita's launch.

Lack of games that benefit from the second stick.  One surprising component of the Vita launch is that the vast majority of the games are in genres where the second analog stick -  one of the Vita's major selling points - is rarely used. Uncharted and the PSN-only downloadable game Super Stardust Delta are the most obvious second-stick required games, but the majority of the games available at launch could have worked with the inputs available on the original PSP.  There are no FPSs and only a few games that would require the second stick to navigate the camera (e.g. Touch My Katamari).

Target Audience?  Given Sony's past emphasis on attracting a different demographic than those who play on Nintendo's handhelds, it is surprising that there are only three M rated games at launch (Ninja Gaiden, Shinobido 2, and Army Corps of Hell).  Furthermore, there's an abundance of 2D titles (BlazBlu: Continuum Shift Extend, Marvel vs Capcom 3, Lumines Electronic Symphony, Rayman Origins), a few games aimed at children (Ben 10 and, arguably, ModNation Racers and Little Deviants), no first person shooters, only one RPG (Dungeon Hunter: Alliance), and no sports titles from the four big leagues in the USA (NHL, NFL, NBA, or MLB).  Many of these games are currently in the pipeline, but so far the Vita hasn't done much to differentiate itself as a platform to attract those audiences that blindly throw down $60 on any iteration of Madden, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, or other "core" franchises.

Spin-Off and Port City.  Though the Vita lacks a lot of the big name franchises at launch, it does feature a lot of familiar titles.  Only 3-4 games are representative of new IPs (the PSP only had two at launch), with the rest of the launch library representing a port of a preexisting game or a new entry in a previously established series.  This is probably a safe bet for Sony, as new consoles need to have familiar names associated with them.  Still, it is a strategy that could backfire given the PSP's (perhaps undeserved) reputation amongst many gamers as a home for titles that were (sometimes inferior) ports and for less impressive entries in existing series. 

The Vita's Place

The hacking question.  Undoubtedly the PSP's life was shortened and sales were hurt by rampant piracy.  But, on the other hand, the ability of the machine to emulate a wide range of retro consoles and to play those pirated games certainly contributed to hardware sales.  I personally have little interest in playing pirated Vita games, but the prospect of playing PS2, GameCube, or Dreamcast games on the device via emulation and homebrew was enough to make me drop some extra dough on the largest memory card for the system.  As with any console, it is only a matter of time before hackers figure out how to do some interesting things on the Vita (some have already posted some exciting video clips of early work), and the thought of playing virtually every console game from pre-2005 on one handheld device is a tantalizing prospect.

Do Smartphones = Death?  A frequent point raised by the media at the launch of the 3DS last year and with the Vita this year is the question about whether or not there's still a market for handheld gaming devices given the widespread adoption of smartphones with excellent touch-screen gaming capabilities.  The argument goes something like this: "The Vita has to compete against not only Nintendo, but also against Apple and Android devices.  Many quality games can be had for free or $1-$5, take up minimal storage, and are stored remotely for download as needed.  In addition, smartphones can handle a lot of other tasks (web surfing, GPS navigating, etc.). Given that an iPhone can do so many things well, why do we need an additional device that does one thing better?"  These questions have some merit, and the answers remain to be seen, but it is hard to imagine Sony sees the Vita as a direct competitor to any of these devices or to the 3DS (which, incidentally, has now moved over 5 million units).  The PSP was certainly financially successful for Sony despite not eclipsing Nintendo in the handheld market, so is it unreasonable to expect that the Vita can be successful without being as successful as its competitors?  The question, for me, is less about whether or not the Vita can surpass or stay close to the sales of the 3DS or smartphones manufacturers, but whether or not it can carve out enough of a niche for itself to have a successful run in its own right.

Is anyone else picking up a Vita this week/month?  Are you enthused or bored by the launch lineup and by the potential of the system? Is handheld gaming on its way out? Share your thoughts below!

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I think the Vita is an amazing handheld, and I would love to pick one up...someday.  $250 is too much money for me to drop on a new handheld, plus another $20 or so for a memory card.  I like the fact that games are released are differing price points, which I think will help bring PSN games to retail.  I hate how it doesn't have any onboard storage, or at least include a memory card like the 3DS does.

Ultimately, I don't think it'll rack up the 3DS' sales numbers, at least not until they move the price down.  I want the Vita to succeed so that the 3DS and Vita prove that handhelds dedicated to gaming are not dead.
I got mine yesterday, I picked it up along with Uncharted, BlazBlue, Katamari, and an 8 Gig memory card. I'm having a blast with it so far, and the only game I've played it BlazBlue, so that should say something since I haven't even played either of my Vita exclusives yet.
@Nionel:  BlazBlu is quite stunning, isn't it.  What a fantastic handheld fighting game - maybe the best ever?
@dsheinem: Oh, I agree completely. The game looks and feels just like it's console counterpart, and I would say it's easily one of the best portable fighters I've played in a long time.
I got a chance to play with a Vita a bit at a local Target and I am impressed.  After all the "VG journalists" went on about the size I thought it would roughly the same dimensions as the Nomad, but it's actually quite thin and stands as a nice evolutionary design step-up from the PSP.  Plus the sticks on the Vita feel like the slider should have felt on the PSP in the first place (though I understand why Sony did it the first time; can the Vita be placed comfortably in a persons pocket?). 

I don't know when I'll be getting one, not just because it goes against my nature to buy into a system during the first year, but because I keep getting a "PSP" vibe when I hear about the Vita.  Maybe it's the non-competitive price point or the way people keep pointing out that for the included tech it's a great buy (which it is) or maybe just the console ports, but I can't help it.

One thing I would like to say is that while I don't feel that Sony has given the masses much of a reason to go out and spend money on their new handheld, I always take issue with people saying that these systems compete with Apple/Android smartphones.  They are wildly different markets: the games are different and the people who use them as primary gaming platforms are different.  As far as I can tell they usually aren't compatible.  Though I've found many say they play both, they will also extol one over the other (either one doesn't have "real" games or the other is for children).  I for one play Zenonia (on my Android phone) when I am on break at work and Boku No Natsuyasumi 4 (on my PSP) when I am on break at home.  I never take my portables to work and I never game on my mobile at home.

Overall I completely agree with what you said, especially at the end.  The days when there is a clear leader for the handheld/mobile market is over.  Now it is split amongst many demographics, and since the Vita is pretty much alone in the portable powerhouse category  I think they only need to worry about getting some quality software.
Vita looks awesome but I wont be getting one until i can find it under 150.  250 just a little to much for me
I'm guessing there will be 20% or greater price drop on this thing right before the holiday shopping season hits.

Probably sooner than that if it doesn't sell as well as expected by the end of summer.

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