When looking at the bottom line sales figures of the PlayStation Vita, the harsh reality is that it doesn’t stack up well in comparison to its rival, the Nintendo 3DS. In what is still a fiercely competitive mobile gaming market, it has to be asked whether the PS Vita is still a viable system and whether it can offer anything that other platforms can’t, and where its strengths and weaknesses lie when put head-to-head against its competitors.
The truth of the matter is that no matter how popular the Vita is amongst its supporters, it’s never going to match the sales of its predecessor the PSP. While the PS Vita has sold over 14 million units worldwide at the time of writing this, in its lifetime the PSP sold over 80 million – a huge difference. Looking at the games industry at the time its understandable to see why – technology for smartphone gaming simply wasn’t as advanced so the only option for high level gaming was home systems, the Nintendo DS or the PSP. Sony promised the power of the PS2 in a handheld and delivered the games to match that promise and gamers embraced that fully, putting the PSP into the top ten selling consoles of all time!
Things have moved on since then. Long gone are the days of mobile phones running primitive Java-based games. Processors are faster, screens are larger, and the hardware – in conjunction with the latest operating systems – are capable of delivering impressive gaming experiences. Now Sony have to compete not only with Nintendo but the ever-expanding range of iOS and Android devices.
Every platform has their supporters and each has their own strengths and weaknesses but the constantly evolving nature of mobile gaming has not only introduced a new audience to gaming, but changed the way many people play. When Sony released the PS Vita originally, they marketed it as being the handheld equivalent of a PlayStation 3. On a technical level this isn’t too far from the truth and when used to its fullest the PS Vita can deliver true home console level gaming. However, this marketing tag line was taken by consumers as being the entire focus on what the Vita was – a system that was built around PS3-style content. When that failed to materialise on a regular basis, many felt disappointed and to a more extreme level betrayed by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
In contrast, Nintendo have always understood perfectly what their consoles have meant to be, or at least where their handheld systems are concerned. Using public transport is more widespread in Japan, as it the market dominance of handheld systems, and that is reflected in Nintendo’s attitude to the DS family as well as all of its predecessors. Designing their systems to be portable, they appreciate that the consoles are going to be used for a large part of their lives on the move. That being the case, gamers don’t always want lengthy and deep, engaging story-driven gameplay. While vast, expansive game worlds have their place, they’re not the most suited for play while mobile. Games that can be played in short bite-sized sessions are perfect and all of the best games to hit Nintendo platforms fall into this category.
Looking at both head-on, the Vita is building up a greater console-level portfolio of games, while equally building on its portable gaming catalogue, mostly thanks to the innovation of the indie developer community.
With Nintendo’s current handheld flagship, the 3DS, it does rely on repeat entries from established characters and franchises (Mario, Pokemon, LEGO to name but a few) and at times it can feel as if the games offered are simply what has been seen over and over.
Despite both offering additional functionality beyond games, these generally tend to get overlooked on a mainstream level. As we’re talking about the PS Vita primarily here, if we’re being completely honest most Vita owners wouldn’t use the handheld as a web browser, to check emails, take photos, listen to music or perform daily tasks they could do on other devices as the Vita can simply be cumbersome to use in most cases. While it has apps for sites like Twitter and Facebook, they are limited compared to web or mobile versions so really the best option for the Vita and 3DS is to stick with what they are best at… gaming.
In contrast, iOS and Android devices have slowly been trying to gain a foothold in the mobile gaming market. For years, their domain was limited to being the heart of basic support apps for mobile communications, social media networking and basic gaming, mostly based around the Free To Play model. As more and more users have embraced the idea of using their devices to play games, software has become increasingly advanced matching the performance the hardware has to offer and there are games that are delivering performance that are on a par with the 3DS and Vita technically with the high-end phones.
That doesn’t mean that iOS and Android devices make for perfect gaming systems. The notion of Free To Play hasn’t gone away and the majority of users are still reluctant to pay more than a small sum for games on mobile devices in contrast to dedicated handheld consoles. This has lead to the high dependence on in-app purchases which drives the market forward. At the same time, while smartphone (and tablet) gaming may be enjoyable in many cases, games that require fast reactions and precision control still work better on devices that offer physical controls. Gaming may have come a long way over the last 40 years, but for a lot of games, you still can’t beat a joystick, joypad and buttons!
However when it comes to accessing online services and social gaming, this is really where iOS and Android stands out. While Nintendo and Sony both offer ways to connect with fellow gamers quickly and easily, this is still relatively limited. Move over to the smartphone market and you can quickly join in with social gaming where you can easily trade in-game objects with friends or complete strangers, download new social games at no cost, play online and even download free apps for online casinos. Astonishingly, the Vita and 3DS can’t even use these sites, let alone have dedicated software for them or many other online services such as most of the MMORPGs out there and that’s a sad indication really of how handheld consoles are perceived in the bigger global market.
While obviously the PS Vita is our platform of choice here at Vita Player, it’s easy to understand why it hasn’t been a simple decision for so many and why other platforms have taken such a huge market share. Indeed, had the Vita been more flexible and been able to offer more, perhaps we would have seen higher sales figures. For now, all we can really do is have another device or two in our collections to complement Sony’s wonder machine…