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Thought Bubble: PlayStation Vita

How do you solve a problem like the Vita?
Random thoughts about Sony’s latest gadget

PlayStation Vita

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with the PlayStation Vita at a Sony event in Toronto, but I’ve avoided the standard review/preview because I honestly don’t feel like I have anything noteworthy to contribute. Yes, the Vita is a slick piece of hardware that supports a diverse array of high-quality games, but every other outlet on the web has already written that and I’d rather not add to the white noise that surrounds the typical gaming launch schedule.

I do, however, have a few thoughts about the Vita’s prospects and – to put it bluntly – I have my doubts about the handheld’s viability as a platform. I don’t have any serious hardware criticisms outside of the dependence on archaic and overly expensive memory cards, yet while I couldn’t give you a compelling reason not to buy one, I couldn’t give you a compelling reason to buy one, either. To me, that’s a problem. It’s the best pure gaming handheld ever, but I just can’t shake the feeling that the Vita doesn’t belong in 2012.

Allow me to explain. Even though mobile gaming has exploded ever since Apple started pouring technology into smartphones, life has become more difficult for Sony and Nintendo. It’s hardly a unique observation, but the cell phone is now an essential business appendage and people have demonstrated a rapid willingness to buy apps for something that’s going to be sitting in a pocket all day anyway. Unfortunately, people only have so many pockets, so a device that only does one thing – even if it does that one thing extremely well – faces stiff competition for backpack space.

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Knowing that, the Vita feels somewhat anachronistic because it’s designed for an audience that was more prominent in 1995 than 2005 and that may not exist at all in 2012. Even the 3DS faced early struggles when it debuted in 2011, and Sony doesn’t have anything resembling Nintendo’s fanatically loyal devotees. With the 3DS, customers at least knew that Nintendo would (eventually) roll out the usual slate of first-party offerings, which likely made it easier for fans to justify the investment and provided Nintendo with considerable economic insulation.

Sony, on the other hand, operates as an electronics company with a far more diverse portfolio, and their handhelds have always seemed to be more focused on engineering than aesthetics. That might seduce a few hardware junkies and dedicated gamers, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to software sales down the line.

I’m probably overstating those concerns with the Vita – polished AAA releases like Uncharted, Mortal Kombat, and Resistance would indicate that Sony is serious about investing in actual games – and the Vita far exceeds any other handheld in terms of pure gaming power. That alone makes it worth a second look. Developers won’t encounter any major performance limitations and that should lead to a broad selection of both casual and hardcore games.

Yet the same titles that legitimize the Vita as a serious gaming platform – namely, Uncharted, Mortal Kombat, and Resistance – could also relegate the Vita to a role as the PlayStation Lite, a vehicle for small screen versions of games that look better on an HDTV in your living room. Why should the average consumer bother with the Vita when bigger, glossier editions of the entire library are already available?

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Those questions have plagued handhelds for years, and they’re more prominent than ever as the Vita conspicuously enters the marketplace without many of the multitasking features that make tablets so popular. So many of the games are essentially adaptations of existing PS3 franchises that a budget conscious public may not see a need for a “just games” device that doesn’t offer anything new in terms of gaming (compared to the PS3) or functionality (compared to the iPad).

Ports like Mortal Kombat further compound the problem. NetherRealm’s brutal brawler was my unofficial game of the year for 2011, but I already own Mortal Kombat for the PS3 and I don’t see myself spending another $40 to play it on the subway. It’s a shame, too, because quick, easily digestible 3-round fights would be perfect for my typical morning commute, making Mortal Kombat the sort of game that might otherwise sell me on the Vita.

As it stands, the industry appears determined to make my purchasing decision as difficult as possible. I’d personally be more receptive to ports if publishers start experimenting with a two-platform simultaneous launch system – buy the game for PS3, get a download code for the Vita – but in all likelihood that’s nothing more than wishful thinking. I’m expecting publishers to gouge the audience for every cartridge, and while that might look nice on the quarterly report, it doesn’t persuade me of the independent value of a Vita.

Of course, it’s far too early to pass final judgment and Sony is at least trying to make the Vita more appealing, starting with the reasonable price point. Releasing every retail title as a same-day download was a necessary (and savvy) acknowledgement of online culture and cross-platform integration could help bridge the gap between console and mobile gamers, provided that developers start supporting the feature on something more than a case-by-case basis.

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If at any time Sony decides to turn the Vita into a functional telephone, you can also forget that we ever had this conversation. People will never complain about having more features if they all fit into one convenient package and a Wi-Fi enabled device capable of running Uncharted is equally capable of running Angry Birds.

Sony, however, seems to be positioning the Vita as a home console that happens to travel with you on the road, and I’m not sure that’s a winning strategy in a marketplace that favors the $1 download over the $40 cartridge. I could very well be wrong – these thoughts are random musings more than anything – but it’s something to keep in mind if the early sales receipts are lower than expected.

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