Will PS Vita be Sony’s last handheld?

Handheld gaming platforms have been some of my favorites. Because of this, I like seeing handheld gaming platforms succeed. And they are, if one is looking at Nintendo’s 3DS and mobile platforms.

However, not every gaming platform does well, and one such example is the Playstation Vita.

It’s predecessor did well. In fact, people were ready for the Playstation Portable to take the world by storm. I remember, after hearing that Sony was working on a handheld gaming console, one magazine predicted the end of Nintendo’s dominance of portable gaming. While this doesn’t seem unusual for a guy expressing his opinion, what was unusual was that it was being expressed in a review for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance for the Gameboy Advance. (By the way, if you’re wondering what a magazine is, it’s like an iPad made of trees.)

Of course, that didn’t happen. Nintendo released the Nintendo DS, and it outsold the PSP by far. However, the measure of a console’s success isn’t necessarily expressed by it’s sales numbers, but Nintendo clearly dominated handheld gaming, to the point that just about anything that competed with Nintendo handhelds didn’t stand a chance. Remember the NeoGeo Pocket Color? It was a very interesting system, but there wasn’t much marketing for it, and there wasn’t much of a variety of games. The Wonderswan handheld did okay in Japan. It had potential, but it wasn’t released in America.

So Sony, the company that upset Nintendo’s dominance of console gaming, was coming to handhelds. As people saw it, if anyone could put a dent in Nintendo’s dominance of handheld gaming, it would have been them. The PSP did very well due to a combination of marketing and the awareness of the Playstation brand. At the time the PSP launched, sales of the Nintendo DS were slow, so it looked like a possibility that Sony would release Nintendo’s grip on handheld gaming, as they did with console gaming. However, Nintendo DS’s software library improved, while things were more steady for the PSP. The DS ended up selling about twice as much as the PSP.

However, Sony still did something very significant. Even if they didn’t become the leader of the handheld market, when a game system sells over 80 million units, it’s usually considered a success.

Again, a console’s success isn’t necessarily expressed by it’s sales numbers. Sony didn’t have to become market leader to come away with a major victory: demonstrating that they had what it takes to compete with Nintendo, and take away a significant share of the market.

Even so, PSP’s story also had it’s downs. Sony sold it’s systems at a loss, with the strategy of recovering losses with software sales. This isn’t an unusual strategy. Console manufacturers have been doing this for a while, and they have been staying competitive. In the PSP’s case, however, the handheld initially cost far more to produce than the MSRP, and around the time the PSP launched, Sony’s gaming division was losing money, and the company overall was having financial troubles.

When the PS2 launched, the DVD was a new media format. A significant part of the PS2’s initial success was the fact that, for many people, the PS2 was their first DVD player. When the PSP came around, however, Sony had the idea that people would want to watch movies on their proprietary UMD format that (as far as I could tell) only played on PSPs. That didn’t work out. However, the PSP went on to sell millions, doing very well in a market that was dominated by Nintendo. Later, Sony released the PS3 with the ability to play BluRay disks. Some bought up PS3s because it seemed to be a better value than new BluRay players at the time (even though a new PS3 cost about $600 at the time it launched!). However, BluRay didn’t take off very well, and neither did HD DVD (which the Xbox 360 supported), it would seem that this was because the two had the bad timing of having to compete with streaming and digital downloads. This was likely another determining factor for the Wii’s success: the Wii wasn’t expensive due to lack of a DVD, BluRay, and HD DVD movie player feature, and owners could just use Wii to watch YouTube or Hulu on their TV.

When the PS Vita was revealed, I could tell that it wasn’t going to do well. Yeah, it did have what it takes to succeed as a handheld game console: a meaty processor, game cards instead of a disk drive, internal and removable memory, and some high-profile games. However, it just seemed like it wouldn’t do well.

For one thing, I didn’t like their proprietary memory cards (memory sticks?). Did Sony have something against SD cards? Even Nintendo’s 3DS had a slot for SD cards, even though that was unexpected. Therefore, I could swap files between my computer and a 3DS easily. I don’t know whether Sony did release a Vita memory card adapter for PC. Considering that they’re a huge media company, it’s hard to imagine that they would want to prevent a person from swapping files between a Vita and a PC.

For that matter, there wasn’t much marketing for Vita outside it’s launch period, and even that wasn’t very pronounced. That was a problem considering that Vita looked so similar to the PSP, that aside from some slight difference in dimensions, a casual observer wouldn’t see much difference. This was also initially a problem for the 3DS when it was new, but when the 3DS’s price dropped, gamers were much less hesitant to buy one. And when the 3DS XL model was introduced, the 3DS took off. Vita’s price wouldn’t drop until the next year. As a result, Nintendo’s 3DS ran circles around Vita, and by the time Vita’s price dropped, Sony had already dropped the ball.

Nintendo 3DS and Sony PS Vita are very different, so why compare them? Because they compete, so the success of one may depend on it’s ability to take a large part of the other’s base away. This has been a problem for PSP considering that many PSP owners also had 3DS systems, but the same wasn’t always true the other way around. Therefore, there were a lot of PSP owners out there that may not have viewed their PSP as their primary portable gaming system. Mobile gaming became huge during the PSP and DS’s lifetimes, and many gamers, if they had to choose two portable gaming platforms, would choose a mobile platform and a Nintendo platform. This seems to be the case again as 3DS and PS Vita compete.

Me, I had actually gone a while having forgotten that there was a PSVita. Later, I saw that they were still available for purchase at Gamestop, and I saw that Sony was still going at it. There still doesn’t seem to be a lot going on with the PS Vita, however.

It’s been over three years since the PS Vita has launched, and the system has only sold about 10 million units worldwide. That’s not very good.

So, will Sony continue to bother with handhelds after this? It would seem that Sony is considering a redesign of Vita, perhaps a minor version 3 revision. E3 is just next month, and perhaps it will be announced there. However, it doesn’t seem likely that Sony is doing another handheld soon. Sony has been in financial trouble for a while, and it might be that they’re cutting back on projects that have been costlier for them.

Will things turn around for the PSVita? I don’t know. The market for video games has been very fickle. But one thing that seems consistent is Nintendo’s success in portable gaming, and that’s likely to continue. That doesn’t mean that Sony couldn’t be profitable in the area of portable gaming, but they’d have to improve their strategy quite a bit. They’re not doing very much to market Vita, though it could help them a lot. Perhaps they could also benefit from a clearer focus, competing with either Nintendo’s 3DS or mobile gaming, and in so doing possibly winning a few sales in the process. As it’s doing now, however, it’s like the PSVita is barely there, not making much of an impact.

Considering how it’s been performing, perhaps it would be better for Sony to just let the PS Vita go, and instead focus on their next project.

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