If you’re anything like me, you’ll have been relatively disappointed with this year’s E3 trade show in Los Angeles. With the Wii U delivering more questions than answers and precious few exciting new announcements elsewhere, the biggest stage in the gaming calendar desperately needed a star to shine through. There’s a case to suggest one never materialised, but if anyone came closest to a show stopping unveiling, it might perhaps have been Sony. Tooled to the nines with more technical bells and whistles than you can shake a Move wand at, the newly named PS Vita is a risky yet bold assault on both the traditional handheld market and those smartphone upstarts at Apple and Android.
More than just a portable games console however, the PS Vita represents lessons learned for a firm which has spent an entire generation on the back foot. The company that gave you giant enemy crabs and the infamous five hundred and ninety nine dollar price point back in 2006 returns five years later with a sensible pricing strategy and a desirable piece of hardware. For the handheld market, the game is most definitely back on.
It’s no secret that Sony has endured a tough year so far. The PlayStation Network farce rumbled on even beyond E3, with some regions still without PSN Store access even now and services in other regions only recently restored. Confidence in both the network’s online structure and the company’s ability to safeguard it’s users private information is low, with other areas of Sony’s online business since affected. The previously codenamed Next Generation Portable was always going to feature strong on this year’s agenda, but even here Sony faced an up hill challenge. Since its initial unveiling earlier this year, consumers have voiced concerns over both the system’s price and its place in a market where even Nintendo are struggling to recapture attention from a dominant mobile phone industry. Sony’s response to all charges was as aggressive as it was strong and focused. Where Nintendo’s show may have left some confused about their ongoing strategy, including yours truly, Sony’s future seems much more defined.
Central to this future strategy is the PS Vita’s price, which may just have been the most intriguing announcement of the show. Launching this fiscal year for $249.99, Sony have managed to significantly undercut the expectations of many of their harshest sceptics. Speculation pitched the device at as much as $349.99 – of particular concern to those in Europe for whom the conversion rates are so often unkind – but the surprising reality is a much more palatable pill to swallow. Priced not only to make an impact but also to sell units, Sony are set to lose money on every Vita sold for as long as three years. Although obviously a risk, this is a tried and tested business model for Sony Computer Entertainment and shows a staunch commitment to delivering a consumer product at an attractive price point.
In the battle for consumer mind share and the war over pricing, Sony could also find themselves with an unlikely ally. Nintendo received their fair share of criticism for their $249.99 launch price point for the 3DS, and with good reason. Handheld gaming is no longer a cheap accompaniment to a main diet of console or PC gaming. The days of the $99 handheld have long gone. Even now $249.99 remains a high price to pay for a dedicated handheld system, but by waiting to launch second, Sony may be in a better position to pitch this price to consumers. In allowing Nintendo to readjust expectations on how much to pay for a portable system, Sony are free to launch the Vita into a market where many early adopters may have already overcome such hurdles. For those who scoffed at Nintendo’s price of entry, the Vita could also make friends based on pure grunt alone. Not only have Sony managed to match the launch price of the 3DS, but they’re set to do so with significantly stronger hardware.
While many see the jury as still being out on the concept of 3D and with Nintendo struggling to promote its advantages, advertising the Vita should pose no such problems. The Vita is a swiss army knife of technology and gadgets, easily displaying visuals on a par with current generation consoles. Coupled with new entries into some of the best loved franchises currently dominating the living room, the likes of Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet look jaw-droppingly good for a handheld device, while side by side comparisons between the Vita exclusive WipEout 2048 and WipEout HD even saw the portable version coming off favourably.
Of course it’s not all about graphics, but those who demand more will find a variety of gyroscopes, rear track pads, a 5” AMOLED screen with capacitive multi-touch input, GPS and both WiFi and WiFi + 3G varieties (hurray for AT&T exclusivity!). As if that wasn’t enough, those of you who spent six years bemoaning the limitations of the PSP’s single analogue nub will find two protruding from the chassis of the Vita, and the whole system is powered by quad core ARM Cortex A9 processors. What we’re yet to find out is how long the battery will last, but expect a three to five hour cycle to quietly slip out of a board meeting at Sony HQ and into the hands of the gaming press in the near future.
Nonetheless, the Vita’s specs sheet makes for impressive reading. At $249.99, it’s a package which also finds itself priced favourably with rival products on the market. From a technical perspective it leaves the 3DS stood in the cold, and although both smartphones and tablets arguably offer a greater feature set to a wider range of consumers, such devices weigh in at almost twice the price of the Vita. Particularly compared with the iPod Touch, which as a cost effective way to play Angry Birds without a monthly plan proves to be a strong seller amongst younger gamers, the Vita is a particularly strong package. Whether Sony’s brand strength is enough to dislodge Apple from this market remains to be seen, but the PlayStation Suite and on going Minis range, plus support for PSX games and the majority of the PSP back catalogue, shows that Sony are ready and prepared to go toe to toe with Apple’s budget App strategy. It’s a difficult war to win, but delivering cheaper Apps alongside the likes of Uncharted could be an important part of the battle.
Sony will however need to continue learning from the past if the Vita is to be a success. At around 70 million units shifted around the world, the PSP can’t be branded a failure as such on sales alone, but with the brand being all but dead in the west for the better part of two years, and rampant piracy damaging publisher confidence, Sony will need to work hard to prove to third parties that the rewards of their support will be worth the potentially increased development costs. As I’m sure Sony won’t need reminding of, the PSP was also more powerful than the humble DS. One hundred and fifty million sales later for Nintendo’s system and the rest as they say is history.
As we stand here in June 2011, there is still so much we don’t know about the impending battle for portable supremacy. Some say the market is no longer there for dedicated handheld systems, and at the very least the landscape has certainly changed since the last time Sony and Nintendo went head to head. If Sony’s E3 showing is to be taken as an example of their future prospects however, then you can rest assured that the Japanese giants are in it for the long haul. Having turned heads with their price announcement, Sony are suddenly in a surprisingly strong position to bring current gen console visuals, cross platform play with PS3 users and a sensible mobile strategy into the hands and pockets of the gaming public. Speaking strictly as a consumer, one who had zero interest in the platform prior to E3 and even branded it dead on arrival in a recent article (with only a slight hint of tongue in cheek), the Vita is now most definitely on my radar. Whether I commit to a purchase or not will depend on how much more Sony can learn from the history books, but the early signs are far more positive than many expected or anticipated.
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