Increasingly, visits to my local gaming stores are becomming something of a saddening affair. On each successive trip I’ve noticed that every store I enter – whether it’s a dedicated game store or supermarket chain – there is a smaller and smaller display dedicated to the Vita, fewer games on show and less choice in the way of hardware and accessories. We’re getting more games released all the time for the Vita and certainly looking at my own games collection there’s no lack of quality titles available, but why is it getting harder and harder to find anything to buy?
There are four branches of GAME within reasonable travelling distance to where I live and all of them have the same thing in common when it comes to their Vita displays… or the lack of them. They take a unified approach to their consoles and branding – Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are all grouped together and since it’s launch the PS4 and PS Vita are positioned next to each other promoting the relationship between the two but that seems to be the extent of the marketing for the system. In each store the general layout seems to be the same – a wall each is dedicated to Sony and Microsoft with centre bays allocated to Nintendo systems but another thing is consistent… virtually no space at all given over to the Vita.
In each store, just two shelves were allocated to the console with one displaying the top five chart titles facing frontwards and the second shelf featuring their remaining stock sideways – a mix of new and pre-owned titles. Typically, each store had no more than 25-30 different titles in stock and in some they had more PSP games available, usually displayed in the same area. In the same bay, accessories were on show and signage for the hardware but little else to promote the consoles throughout the store. In contrast, the Nintendo DS / 3DS were afforded several half-height bays in the store each packed with several shelves full of games. Granted, the console has more titles currently available at retail but this hints at a worrying problem and something that needs to be addressed…
The same applies to the other parts of the retail sector. A local Asda superstore has a reasonably-sized games section and while again ample space is dedicated to the PS3, PS4, Xbox One, XBox 360 and several shelves for the 3DS / DS, only a single shelf is set aside for the Vita offering a staggering six games to their customers. My nearest Tesco with a games section fares little better with Vita titles being relegated to the bottom shelf of an accessories display with just two games in stock on my last visit.
As Vita owners, many of you reading this may not be too concerned in the knowledge that you can buy any game you want online, or simply visit the PSN Store and download virtually anything directly to your Vita, usually at a lower price than retail but while it is expected that at some point in the future the games industry will make the switch to digital distribution for the majority of its titles (and Sony themselves have said that Vita owners purchase a massive proportion of their games this way), potentially this is a very dangerous move in the present climate. But why?
To see the real risk that digital content poses for the Vita, we need to put ourselves into the minds of would-be Vita owners preparing to make that all-important console purchase. For many, the ability to physically walk into a store and either purchase a game or a console is still an important part of the gaming experience and this is where the Vita is currently flagging. Back in the pre-digital age, when it came to making a choice for purchasing a console or computers people often made their decision based on one or more factors – a friend’s (or review / store) recommendation, technical capabilities, price, brand loyalty, or because it had a specific exclusive game available (which has lead to the recent upturn in the Wii U’s fortunes). However, one of the biggest contributing factors for any console is the software library.
Imagine a customer walks into a high street store and is planning on buying a hand-held system and genuinely can’t decide between the PS Vita or 3DS. Even though the Vita has over 1,000 games available digitally, there’s nothing to show for this looking in store and I can fully empathise with anyone who would be under the impression that the Vita has no games when they look at store displays. It doesn’t instill confidence when you see shelves brimming with games for the DS / 3DS but barely a handful for the Vita. It quickly gives the impression of a console that’s on its way out.
Will the games industry make a complete switch to digital? Not yet and I genuinely think that the market isn’t ready for it. While the PS3, XBox 360 and the home consoles can cope successfully with a mix of digital and physical releases comfortably, handheld systems need a plethora of physical releases for the retail sector to be willing to support them. Now the problem that the Vita is currently facing is two-fold. The range of games in stores is extremely restricted meaning that gamers are faced with a limited choice and are often left with no choice but to look online or buy digital. While that doesn’t affect current Vita owners as we can still get the games that we want, this will have a detrimental effect in the long term.
In buying digital or online, it sends out the message to retail stores that we don’t want to buy Vita games. Eventually – as many stores have done so already – retail outlets will phase out their support for the Vita. This in turn will mean that there will be no consoles on sale other than being marketed as little more than accessories to the PS4. With diminishing retail sales and a stagnating user base, the development of AAA titles will slow down as the Vita’s current userbase becomes incapable of providing enough demand to keep development cost-effective.
Can anything be done about it? Yes, quite simply. I conducted a straw poll on Twitter to see just how Vita gamers purchased their AAA titles and was stunned by the response. Very few seemed to own more than a few boxed retail games, and of those who did, most of those games were purchased online. Many cited the reason for turning to downloads for the convenience of being able to take as many games as possible on the move, but an all-digital collection isn’t essential for that. My Vita itself is transported in a 4Gamers Travel Case coupled with an Assecure 18-in-1 Game Case stored in the inside pocket. Not only does that allow me to carry the Vita safely, but I can carry 5 memory cards (including one in the Vita itself) and up to 20 retail games… more than enough for any lengthy trip!
Granted, the price of digital downloads from the PSN Store for many AAA games is cheaper than their retail equivalents, especially when sales are on, but there is the memory card space to factor into the equation. The reality however is that each digital sale gives the impression to retail that the Vita isn’t wanted as these sales simply aren’t seen. Each of us has a part to play in strengthening the Vita’s place in the high street right now. Rather than heading over to the PSN Store next time you’re thinking about buying the latest big PS Vita title why not head to your local store instead? While this may mean paying a slightly higher price for the game(s) that you want, if enough gamers start to do this then we should start to see some positive results.
It’s no secret that retailers only stock what products actually sell. In the console world that translates quite simply to the basic fact that if a format shows signs of flagging sales on the shop floor, stores will reduce shelf space allocated to it or phase it out completely. While it may still be selling well in Japan, the PSP has very little presence in the UK other than pre-owned and as for the PS2… this has now been relegated to charity shops and second hand stores. There’s simply no money to be made from either on a commercial level. It’s certainly not too late for the Vita but if – as a gaming community – we stop buying physical copies of games in stores then it sends the message that we are just not interested. Stores will stop ordering new titles and we’ll be left with increasingly stagnating Vita displays.
As this situation developers, it will become harder for us to find the latest releases without pre-ordering them so the Vita will become locked into a cycle and will quickly be relegated to the status of being promoted as little more than a PS4 add-on. Will stores give over more space to PS Vita games? Certainly there are ample PS Vita retail games available so there’s no shortage of choice both for stores and their customers (my personal collection alone consists of almost 60 boxed games) but gamers need to know what is available and stores either need to stock them or need to be able to supply them quickly when customers want them. In light of this, we all have our part to play to make sure that stores get games in that appeal to all manner of gamers so not only can we get our AAA fix, but also to appeal to anyone thinking of buying a PS Vita.
There are other issues in the long term that will mean a rethink in terms of the type of games presented to gamers to attract a wider audience of new owners to the Vita but in the immediate future if we want to see the Vita grow and thrive in the retail sector then the future quite literally is in our hands…