Before the advent of the modern smartphone (the iPhone, really), portable gaming was something that only a select few gaming companies could pull off. In America, that was almost entirely Nintendo’s responsibility. The Gameboy’s many evolutions always proved to be the most exciting way to bring gaming outside your house, with things like the Sega GameGear, Neo Geo Pocket Color, Bandai’s WonderSwan and even the crappy Tiger electronic games far in Nintendo’s rear view mirror.
Nintendo’s main handheld competitor eventually became Sony, who released the PlayStation Portable the same year Nintendo released their DS in 2004. Sony’s PSP brought extremely high quality graphics to the portable market, something most gamers hadn’t ever seen before. Regardless of that fact, the PSP never quite overcame the dominance of Nintendo’s handheld market and was pretty much always second place.
With iOS, Android and other smartphones now dominating the market, portable gaming is available to anyone with a modern cell phone. Granted, these games aren’t as “in depth” as devoted handheld console games, and smartphones lack the input methods that handhelds have, but they’re massively popular and a proven staple of modern gaming. Nintendo’s latest handheld, the 3DS did uncharacteristically poor in sales, and has struggled against the iron fist of Apple’s iOS.
The next entrant into this race is the PlayStation Vita. Sony’s newest handheld is hoping to stand out in a market that’s now filled with competitors. I’ve had the opportunity to use it a couple of times, once at E3 and more recently at a Vita event, and I wanted to offer my opinions on the device itself and its role in the portable gaming market.
First things first, the Vita is gorgeous. It’s a beautiful looking piece of hardware and it’s obvious a lot of care went into its design. It’s pretty large; it fills up a back pocket pretty easily, and then some. The screen is massive and bright, and looks fantastic in motion. The Vita is also very light; it feels like it should be substantially heavier for its size, but it’s not. It’s sturdy and a joy to hold. I can see getting tired of holding it after extended gaming periods, but that can be said for any handheld console or gaming controller.
The rear touch panel is also very nice, and pressure sensitive, which is something I didn’t know until I used it a second time.The dual thumb sticks feel pretty great, they’re basically mini analog sticks and work just like you’d expect. These will make first person shooters and games with a controllable camera so much better to play.
Overall, I’m extremely impressed with the hardware. Sony seems to have hit it out of the park. I’m not totally sure what the battery life will be like, but employees at the event mentioned “3-5 hours during intense gameplay” or “6-8 hours during video playback”. They said to expect “even more” when just browsing the web or listening to music. I’m not expecting it to be anything incredible though.
Once I found the power button (it took me a few seconds) the boot up time was quick and I was flung into the Vita’s touch-based OS. A superfluous “peel the page corner to unlock” is the way you enter the OS, and it feels a little contrived. It wasn’t terribly obvious at first and I ended up trying to press multiple buttons before I figured out I had to peel the corner of the screen to unlock the device.
The orb themed design Sony went with is unique, and has some neat visual flourishes when you swipe from menu to menu. Swiping up & down will navigate through the system’s apps and games, and swiping left will bring you to the multitasking area where your different running applications will appear.
One thing I was perplexed by was how to actually launch apps/games. Once you tap the respective icon on the home screen, you’re presented with a large graphic/screen representing the icon you touched, and another button to actually launch the app. I felt this was an unnatural extra step and everything should just launch when you actually tap the icon.
Included in the OS are some basic apps you’d expect; Music & Video, Camera, Store, Messaging, “Near” (a location-based social app), Welcome Park (more on this soon) and other basics like Settings and Memory management. One thing of note is how certain apps can’t even open without a memory card present. When I tried to open the Camera app to check out the cameras, I was presented with a full screen window saying to take photos I needed a memory card. The only thing I could do was go back to the main menu. I couldn’t even see through either camera! This was really bad UX and users who opt not to get a memory card off the bat will be confused and angry that there’s core functionality missing. But I’ll touch on the memory card issues soon.
“Welcome Park” is an interesting collection of minigames that use the Vita’s different input methods to teach you the basics of the system while playing some fun games. One game used the gyroscope to control a skateboarding character while avoiding obstacles and shaking the Vita to jump. Another minigame, my personal favorite, was a reflex based game that required you to tap on numbers in order on the screen. It’s very simple but very engaging. One round of the number game requires you to tap the back touch screen at varying pressures to make water jump higher or lower. It’s pretty impressive and a unique kind of input I haven’t really seen in touch-based gaming yet. Pressure sensitive touch is going to be really cool to see implemented in games. Other “Welcome Park” games utilize the cameras to do some AR magic similar to the 3DS. Overall it’s a welcome addition to the system, if not under utilized (very similar to the 3DS’ included minigames).
I’m not going to go in depth about any of the games I’ve played for the Vita in this post, but I can assure you that the quality of the launch titles is impressive. LittleBigPlanet is the standout title along with Uncharted and both of these games will make the Vita worth owning at launch. Some incredibly creative things have been done in these games (and the other launch titles) to take advantage of the Vita’s technology, and seeing them in action can’t help but make you smile. When technology and software are designed to this level of synergy, you can’t help but be impressed with the devotion and care Sony & Co. have taken with crafting this new handheld. It’s obvious that the Vita is a massive gamble and that everyone is on board to make sure it’ll do well and impress consumers.
It’s because of this care and creativity that I’m so perplexed by some of the decisions Sony is making with the Vita.
Whether Sony and Nintendo like it or not, iOS and Android are now their competitors. Say what you will about the differences in “depth” of smartphone games vs. their handheld counterparts, they’re in the same market now and immensely cheaper. In a world where consumers can buy AAA titles for $1-$7, selling other mobile games for $40-$50 is going to be pretty difficult. But it’s not even the pricing of games I’m concerned about, it’s the Vita’s requirement of memory cards.
Sony is planning on selling memory cards that will cost between $30 for 4GB and $120 for 32GB. Selling a dedicated game console at $300 is already a gamble, but expecting consumers to plop on another $120 for the same amount of space they already have on their iPhone is a tough sell. At that point, you’re spending $420 for a PlayStation Vita with 32GB of storage. And it’s really only a gaming device…not like the iPhone which is also a, well, phone, and a mini computer that can run anything from word processors to synthesizers.
Worst of all, some games and apps will actually REQUIRE a memory card, and apps like the Camera app, won’t even open without one inserted. How archaic is selling an amazingly high tech piece of hardware with zero storage space? It doesn’t make any sense and it boggles my mind. There are rumors that Vita games will sell cheaper as downloads on the PlayStation Store…if that’s true, the investment in a memory card makes a bit more sense, but still inconvenient. Imagine the amount of gamers and parents buying a Vita who will have no idea they need a memory card, only to find their or their kid’s brand new copy of Uncharted telling them they can’t play without it. Not a good thing.
The Vita is technologically impressive and the games being made for it look great, but some of the early decisions Sony is making challenge the thought that they’ve learned from their past mistakes. Using the Vita has gotten me excited to have one, and I can’t wait to get it in my hands. The positives of the handheld seem (for me at least) to outweigh the negatives, but I hope Sony realizes that iOS is a massive threat and some of their typically terrible business decisions will need to be tweaked to seriously contend in a now congested market.
Any questions? Send me a message on Twitter: @MatthewRex