In an interview last week, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida talked about the possibility of a PlayStation Vita successor and said “the climate is not healthy for now because of the huge dominance of mobile gaming”. It’s a fairly obvious conclusion to make when you look at the Vita today and how it performed on the market. A number of media outlets have written articles on why this is the case but a number of them seem to dismiss the most important part of Yoshida’s quote in regards to “the huge dominance of mobile gaming” and have instead focused on reasons that don’t actually talk about the reality of today.
There are three main reasons why the PlayStation Vita failed to take off, the main one being the dominance of mobile and shift away from traditional handheld gaming, the focus on creating a high cost and high spec portable over a low cost device, and the third reason is how Sony marketed the device and supported the device. All three of these reasons contribute to the failure of the device and the first reason is the definitive cause of why the entire handheld market today has contracted and both devices from Sony and Nintendo have seen disappointing sales across the board.
The PlayStation Vita was built as a high end portable gaming device aimed at the 18 to 35 year old audience. The plan was to make it the most powerful handheld device and Sony tried to price this as low as possible by subsidising the device cost with propitiatory memory cards. However, the issue here wasn’t cost as such, the market was already seeing a shift away from traditional handheld gaming to devices such as smartphones and tablets which were already offering “good enough” portable gaming experiences on devices they already owned and could play on for free or without spending much money at all.
We’ve seen mobile grow at a very fast rate and there is now a whole range of popular games available for smartphones and tablets including huge hitters like Minecraft, Angry Birds and even Activision’s Disney Infinity series. When the younger market can access these games on mobile and at little to no cost then it’s clear why mobile has pretty much replaced dedicated handhelds among the younger market and this is backed up by NPD who state that kids now spend more time on mobile gaming than any other platform. That’s because kids are now getting their own mobile phones or hand me downs from a very young age, not to mention that parents let kids use their own phones for gaming. This wasn’t the case over a decade ago when kids only had the option of a portable gaming device.
The fact that Sony weren’t even aiming this premium device at the younger generation goes some way to show why they lost that entire market to mobile, and it’s not just youngsters who are playing on mobile as well. Casual gamers in the 18-35 age range who may have picked up a PSP to play casual games like FIFA can now get a similar experience on mobile too. Mobiles have been able to directly replace the usage cases that handhelds used to provide to kids and casual gamers. It is important to remember that the DS and PSP had a huge portion of this demographic last gen. Consoles also had a large portion of this demographic and continue to do so today because they are able to provide much better experiences than handhelds can with Call of Duty for example. Sony tried to bring console franchises to handheld but this didn’t really capture the casual audience who were happy to stick with console to play the superior version, again another reason that handheld adoption has dropped.
There are now more gamers than ever and the number is only growing thanks to the convenience of mobile gaming. Sony failed to capture this growing market by releasing a device that was not convenient, was expensive and had a huge number of issues in itself. These issues went someway towards alienating the hardcore gaming audience as well who were happy to remain on console, PC or even mobile. One of the main reasons cited for the failure of the Vita is the lack of software from Sony themselves as well as large AAA companies. When the Vita launched it’s clear that Sony did try to push some larger games to the device such as Uncharted, Killzone and Call of Duty but it became very clear very quickly that these games would not bring in a casual audience or even the wider console audience due to the reasons mentioned in the last paragraph, instead it only appealed to a very dedicated niche of gamers.
We’ve established that the Vita really wasn’t selling in to the younger audience or casual gamers and that even the core audience were having a hard time in understanding the appeal of the device. There are a few reasons for this, the first big one is the cost of the device and memory card costs. Memory card costs did not have any effect on the younger audience or casual audience as they were never really the target market with this device, or at least they were never going to buy one, but the higher cost of entry for the PS Vita was one major contributor to why the PS Vita failed to sell to a number of core gamers. It’s why a number of core gamers chose to stick with their console for gaming and even started to look at mobile more seriously due to the vast number of ports and console franchises being bought over to Android/iOS.
When it became clear that big AAA titles were not selling on Vita, due to the lack of core and casual gamer adoption, it meant that a number of companies including Sony had to think about whether developing for Vita would be viable. They had to make decisions on whether it was worth developing large AAA games, which had ever-increasing development costs, and whether the titles were likely to see a return over the product life-cycle. With the current small install base, publishers very quickly realised that investing in Vita games would not be worthwhile and so moved resources over to console, PC and Mobile development.
It’s not so much that Sony and others didn’t invest in big games for the Vita, they certainly tried, but it became increasingly clear that the install base wasn’t increasing or set to increase in a way that made AAA game development on Vita viable. It’s why you now see a majority of indie games on Vita as well as ports of Japanese games. Japan has always been a traditional stronghold for portable gaming and whilst mobile has taken over there as well, the niche who bought the Vita are still large enough to support smaller Japanese titles and ports whilst in the West there is also a small niche to support these types of games. But as above, there was never going to be any support from the niche install base for large AAA developers as they would not be able to generate any sort of profit from their titles.
It’s beginning to look very clear that Sony built and marketed the Vita to an audience that really didn’t exist. Mobile phones were appealing to the younger generation, as was Nintendo’s 3DS which again had a huge number of kid friendly franchises such as Pokemon, Mario and more. In fact if you look at the line up of 3DS games coming out this fall in North America you’ll see that it’s pretty much dominated by franchises aimed at kids. Whilst Nintendo were able to capture this demographic earlier on thanks to lowering the price and providing a good stream of software aimed at the demographic who bought the DS, it hasn’t been enough to stop the decline of 3DS sales and despite a “New” revision of the console being released this year it looks like sales will be down this year at around 7 million compared to the 30 million or so sales the DS was seeing per year at the same point in its lifetime.
Even the 3DS is now meeting its match as more and more gamers move over to more convenient experiences that can be found on Mobile. Even Nintendo themselves have plans to release titles on Mobile because that is where their audience is migrating to. When games like Candy Crush and Angry birds are appealing to kids and casuals more than Mario and Pokemon then it’s clear to see why Uncharted or Killzone on the Vita failed to take off.
Overall the Vita is a failure because of all the reasons above. It was designed for an audience that had already moved to mobile and was unwilling to pay premium prices for premium hardware and software because mobile could cater to their every need. Couple that with the barriers to entry for hardcore gamers such as memory cards, lack of appealing software and lack of advertising and it’s no wonder the Vita failed and Sony switched their message to market Vita as a companion device to PS4 rather than a standalone device.
The Vita has found a niche audience who will continue to support it but as Yoshida mentioned it’s unlikely we’ll see a successor to this device which is a shame because it really was the best handheld out there for the core gamer.