Launched in February of 2012 in North America, Sony’s PlayStation Vita was the ambitious successor to the impactful-yet-underachieving PSP handheld system. A powerhouse boasting graphical capabilities thought to be impossible on a portable system at the time, the Vita was set to change on-the-go gaming forever. Yet, saddled with steep competition from Nintendo and forced to contend with the rise of phone-based mobile gaming, the Vita found itself engaged in an uphill battle which it would never manage to conquer. In 2019, Sony pulled the plug on the machine—and it deserved so much better.
In hindsight, Sony never seemed to have a clue what to do in the mobile market. Launching the PSP in 2005 to moderate success, the system was held back by its strange proprietary UMD format, weird single-thumbstick control layout, and extremely strong competition from its primary challenger, the Nintendo DS, which nearly outsold Sony’s machine two-to-one.
Yet, in 2011, Nintendo’s new 3DS was off to a rocky start in terms of both sales and available software, and Sony was poised to potentially claim the mobile gaming throne from a company that had more or less laid uncontested claim to it since the late 1980s. However, rather than learn from their mistakes, Sony doubled down, launching an expensive system that was arguably too ahead-of-its-time for its own good.
While Nintendo had always adopted a very consumer-friendly approach to its products—until very recently, that is—Sony was, at the time, in the business of manufacturing prohibitively expensive gaming hardware and marketing it to the so-called “hardcore” crowd. At the time, the PS3 seemed intended for dedicated console gamers who took their gaming seriously, and the original version of the console shipped with an infamously-high price tag of $599 and more unnecessary bells and whistles than one could ever conceivably have a use for.
Sony maintained that mindset going into the PS Vita’s lifecycle, opting not to undercut the competition and falling into the same pitfall as Nintendo by charging $250 for their product, which was arguably more than most were willing to play for a portable gaming console at the time. Plus, the Vita required expensive proprietary memory cards, which commonly went for $80 to $100 in the early days of the system’s life cycle. This scared many consumers away from the handheld and cemented a reputation of expensive exclusivity that would ultimately cause it to fail.
Console-Quality Games, No One To Develop Them
The issue of cost wasn’t only a sticking point with consumers; third-party developers were wary of sinking huge sums of money into a fledgling system, and, though the Vita was technically capable of some pretty impressive computing feats, few studios could take full advantage of the state-of-the-art hardware.
Nintendo’s DS was such a success partially because it was extremely cheap to develop for, which meant that software was and would always be available for it. By contrast, while the PS Vita did eventually court a small but passionate indie game crowd, it was marketed as a AAA games machine, and, with precious few actually console-quality games to play on the thing, Sony’s early marketing promises fell completely flat.
Uncharted Or Angry Birds?
Another huge hurdle Sony never surmounted was the issue of mobile phone gaming. In the early 2010s, gaming on an Apple or Samsung smart device was a new and novel concept, and, given how ubiquitous the things were, their impact on the market was impossible to ignore. Angry Birds remains one of the highest-selling games of all time, even at an original asking price of ninety-nine cents, and Sony never found a way to tear the gaming populace away from their iPhones and get them playing Uncharted or Killzone, instead.
Nintendo managed to circumvent this issue by recognizing market trends and advertising their handheld as a more causal means of playing games. At the time, consumers simply didn’t seem interested in taking huge AAA games on the go, and Nintendo’s family-friendly approach and all-ages mascots and software lineup helped them to compete with the ultra-casual likes of Words With Friends and Jetpack Joyride.
Finally, though Nintendo would fumble through the early 2010s on the console front, the 2017 launch of their hybrid system, appropriately titled the Switch, would more or less put the final nail in the PS Vita’s coffin. A system that was all things to all gamers, the Switch was both a casual on-the-go games machine and a bona-fide under-the-living-room-flatscreen console. In a way, that’s the sort of thing Sony had been looking to do with the connectivity between the PS4 and the Vita, but they couldn’t make it take off in the way Nintendo did.
Postmortem: What Can Sony Learn From This?
The PS Vita wasn’t a bad system—far from it, in fact. A beefy handheld that allowed for what were, at the time, current-gen console graphics on the go, the system sounded like a slam-dunk for Sony on paper. Unfortunately, Sony failed to read the writing on the wall when it came to the mobile market and went in the complete opposite direction of the industry. Given the chance to do it again, Sony would likely have been much better off releasing a less powerful system that emphasized bite-sized titles and smaller-budget indie games.
At the moment, Sony is facing a completely different problem; the PS5 is selling faster than it can be mass-produced, and their handheld gaming ambitions are, for the moment, completely non-existent. It seems that, rather than take what they’ve learned and move on, Sony is content to simply leave the handheld market entirely to Nintendo. Though competing with the Switch would be extremely difficult at this point, we think Sony could stake a claim to the mobile market once again through cloud gaming, a campaign which could begin by improving the already-existing PlayStation Now framework.
NEXT: Analyst Says Sony “Blew It With The PS5 Digital Edition”
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