PlayStation Vita: Is It Better to Burn Bright Than to Fade Away?

February 4, 2016 Written by Michael Briers

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Four years. Four years since PlayStation Vita made its bow in the west and still, despite many naysayers sentencing the handheld to an early grave, Sony’s portable continues to truck along under the shadow of its console brethren. In hindsight, it’s been a funny old road for the PS Vita, which debuted in 2012 touting the promise of console-quality gaming on the go and a stellar launch library that included Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Super Stardust Delta and much more.

As time worn on, though, Sony’s strategy altered to reflect the relatively lowly sales figures, quietly nudging the device toward becoming the cult device of the modern PlayStation ecosystem. By 2014, the PlayStation Vita was aligned as a less of a standalone hardware and more of a supplementary experience to the PlayStation 4, all thanks to the Remote Play functionality.

The Platform That Could

Truth be told, it’s a feature that should have been championed from the get-go, and while the list of compatible PS3 games left much to be desired at the time, it was an enticing addition to what was — and largely still is — a technological powerhouse. Marketing missteps and missed opportunities are arguably the key reasons why the console is now viewed as a “legacy platform” going into 2016. Couple this with proprietary memory cards and their exorbitant prices and Sony has in many ways painted itself into a corner.

It may be one of the most passionate corners in the industry, as Vita’s impressive attachment rate attests, but the shoestring list of AAA blockbusters — ever the thorn in the device’s side — ultimately clipped its chances of replicating the barnstorming success of the PSP, let alone Nintendo 3DS. Sony Bend’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss, still one of the best experiences tailored to the platform, came and went, as did the rather excellent Killzone: Mercenary along with Japan Studio’s monstrous RPG, Freedom Wars. Then again, there’s a whole host of factors that heaped pressure on Vita from the get-go beyond its sparse roster of blockbusters, with mobile gaming arguably the most damaging.

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Plus, anyone who owns a Vita — myself included — will know fine well that claiming the handheld has no games is little more than an urban myth at this point. We’re big advocates of Sony’s portable gaming machine here at PlayStation LifeStyle, having recently championed DrinkBox’s Severed as our most anticipated game releasing for the platform in 2016. But even the more zealous owners among our tight-knit band of devotees realize that the Vita’s presence only continues to wane — if not in the market then certainly in Sony’s ecosystem.

Not Dead…Yet

Outside of PlayStation Experience, the handheld is only mentioned in passing during the company’s major press events, and that’s a limited pool of exposure that will only continue to recede once PlayStation VR makes a splash of its own later in 2016. It’s something we’re beginning to see on both sides of the pixels, too; by aligning internal resources with the flagship PS4, numerous and indeed nascent games for the platform were reportedly scrapped early on in development.

From a potential Golden Abyss sequel by way of Sony Bend to the elusive portable version of inFamous, the Vita’s formative years could have been oh so different. Perhaps the most notable absentee from the handheld’s early foray in the market, though, was a certain sandbox phenomenon.

It’s no secret that Sony missed the boat by not securing Minecraft Vita as a day-one launch title. Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but considering that Mojang’s title didn’t grace the handheld for more than two years after it launched — at a time when the Vita’s battle with 3DS for the market lion’s share was all but over and the device was fast becoming a legacy platform under the shadow of PS4 — reads like a missed opportunity. Too little, too late.

It was by no means the only offender, though; soon after Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassified and Resistance: Burning Skies, third-party support began to peter out rather fast, leading Sony to double down on sustaining the healthy indie community that’s lent the Vita its cult status.

Few in Number

That’s not to say the handheld’s lineup was completely devoid of high-profile releases in the years that followed; from the aforementioned Killzone: Mercenary to Soul Sacrifice and even Japan Studio’s Freedom Wars, Vita owners had access to a string of notable titles that put the console through its pace, even if they were few and far between.

Looking further afield and 2016 is no different in the sense that most of the marquee releases — World of Final Fantasy, Danganronpa V3, Cosmic Star Heroine, Mighty No. 9, Hyper Light Drifter et al. — will be available on PlayStation 4 as well. All is not lost, however. Gio Corsi, ever the champion of Sony’s powerful little companion, revealed recently that, before production begins in earnest, a lot of studios are presented with the opportunity of developing a Vita port.

“[Vita] has its own host of challenges. I’m not gonna deny that, we all know that’s true! [laughs] But a lot of studios out there love working with the Vita or are excited by the technical challenge of working with the Vita. When we do a project, we always say, ‘Are you open to doing a Vita version?’ and that’s usually met with a positive. People really love that platform – it’s the platform that could.”

Exactly how successful those talks prove to be will largely be told in time, though considering that both Gravity Rush and Tearaway journeyed in the opposite direction, we but can’t help but wonder if Vita developers are asked whether they’re open to releasing a PS4 version as well.

Trying to map out PlayStation Vita’s immediate future therefore becomes really rather difficult. Simply decreeing that the handheld is dead in the water reads like a sweeping generalization. Yes, the fact that ports for Hand of Fate, Broforce and, more recently, Not a Hero were all canned gives an indication of the effort it requires to develop said port, and what happens when projected sales figures ostensibly render a Vita version redundant.

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Even still, it wasn’t too long ago that Mike Bithell’s Volume made the jump to Vita — greeted with impressive sales, no less — while a handheld version of Axiom Verge is still, at the time of writing, languishing in development. That added effort has been seen on both sides, too, with Sony actively stepping in to help shepherd The Banner Saga to the device before the turn of the year. Small steps, sure, but the sales boon for Volume emphasises just how vocal the Vita community can be.

Sony hasn’t disclosed individual platform sales in its fiscal reports since 2012, meaning its difficult to pinpoint Vita’s lifetime sales with absolute certainty, but reports indicate that said figure is simmering north of 13 million units as of late 2015. That’s a far cry from the 80+ million sold by PSP, but it’s worth remembering that the Nintendo DS was by and large its sole competitor at the time, not the App Store.

The Song Remains the Same

For PlayStation Vita, Sony hasn’t cut ties with its beloved handheld just yet. Third-party AAA support may be dwindling, but perhaps out of necessity the device has become more of a thriving hotspot for indie darlings, quirky Japanese titles and tactile platformers, and less a platform that boasts console gaming on the go.

It’s been a funny old road for Sony’s handheld, though signs point to the PlayStation Vita motoring on for the foreseeable future, even if the Japanese platform holder’s attention, marketing and stage time will soon be occupied by PlayStation VR. The install base may have plateaued, but so long as the two-fold relationship between developers supporting the device and consumers picking up those ports — not matter how long they take to arrive — Vita will continue to exist as “the platform that could.” Let’s just hope we’ll be saying the same when its 5th birthday rolls around.