There's a lot hinging on the Vita's success. We gamers may have short memories, but most of us will recall that Sony's initial foray into the handheld space—the PSP—was the first system in more than a decade to challenge Nintendo's absolute portable dominance. And make no mistake: Nintendo is still dominating that space, especially in the U.S., where it holds 86% of the mobile gaming market, excluding iOS and Android. Sony's continued participation in the portable arms race is anything but assured, and if the Vita proves more of a sophomore slump than a second coming, they could be in real trouble.
The Vita's barely out, yet PSP releases slowed to a trickle what seems like ages ago. And it's not just third parties that have dropped the ball; Sony's most important first-party franchises haven't made appearances on the system in years, and the last big release besides Lego Harry Potter was The 3rd Birthday in 2010. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that Sony simply lost faith in their own device.
What's the solution? The PSP was a powerful system, but it's dwarfed compared to what the Vita is capable of. They need to continuously highlight that with consistent first-party releases. Triple-A series like Uncharted, Infamous, Resistance, Twisted Metal, God of War, Ratchet and Clank, and even handheld heavy-hitters like Syphon Filter can absolutely carry the system, if Sony's willing to give them the attention they deserve.
That's not to say they should ignore emerging markets like mobile app stores, as much as "hardcore gamers" would like to pretend iOS and Android don't count. Sony can benefit from that model, and they can start by encouraging iOS developers to port popular games over to the Vita. Once they do away with the PSP Minis branding, they can start fresh and let each game's price speak for itself. Make it as easy to develop for the Vita as it is for iOS, and the bite-sized games that draw people to the app store will appear over time, bringing casual but bankable customers with them.
But a serious lack of games wasn't the PSP's only problem. Sony needs to rethink its strategy for hardware revisions. The PSP 3000 (released in part to combat piracy) and the PSP Go (based on a completely misplaced faith in the PSP's relatively meager digital offerings) offered few incentives for PSP owners to upgrade from their original hardware. The DS, on the other hand, was improved significantly with each version. Don't forget that it too was plagued by piracy, yet Nintendo didn't let that rule their development. Sony needs to focus more on enhancing the consumer experience and less on reducing the phantom menace of piracy when they inevitably upgrade the Vita.
Of course, the Vita's coming right out of the gate with a hardware advantage no other handheld, including the PSP, has ever had: dual analog sticks. Nintendo foolishly ignored gamers' pleas for this most obvious of additions, and now they're making everyone suffer with the clumsy Circle Pad Pro. The enormity of Sony's opportunity here can't be overstated: the Vita is the first handheld ever with the capability to do first-person shooters right. Resistance: Burning Skies is the warm-up act. When the first decent portable Call of Duty game hits, you'll know it's a revolution, and Sony had better treat it as such.
That said, there's no reason Sony can't eventually offer full backwards compatibility, removing PSP owners' last possible objection to upgrading to the Vita. With the emphasis on digital content should come a push to convert every major PSP release to digital form and offer them as free downloads to those who own them in real life. At the very least, they should be offering a loyalty bonus like Nintendo's 3DS ambassador program, with a mix of PSOne classics and PSP games for PSP owners who move up to the Vita.
The PSP, despite its shortcomings, was tremendously successful within and outside the U.S. With consistent releases, worthwhile hardware revisions, a robust app store, a plethora of first-person shooters, and adequate backwards compatibility, the Vita could be the perfect handheld for those turned off by the 3DS's gimmicky visuals and lack of a second circle pad—if only Sony can have a little more faith in it.
Date: February 21, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*