Sony’s PS Vita is now on shelves. A great gaming handheld, experts nonetheless wonder: With smartphone and app gaming on the rise, to just what extent will it succeed?
Forbes.com has a breakdown of the Vita’s early Japanese sales numbers, and to be fair, the handheld didn’t exactly explode out of the gate: 320,000 units sold in the first week, followed by a mere 72,000 units in the second.
Forbes’ games writer, Tero Kuittinen, has prophesied that the Vita is in “big trouble,” especially considering the $50 price point for some of its games, as well as the cheaper price tags for the 3DS, the Kindle Fire, and the fierce competition from tablets and smartphones in general.
While the PS Vita’s short life has already presented it with some tough challenges, it’s not out of the handheld race by a long shot. Here’s why:
The success of the Nintendo 3DS proves that smartphones have not killed the handheld market — When the Nintendo 3DS failed to burn up the sales charts in minute one of its life, professional and armchair analysts alike cited the same reason: multi-function smartphones and tablets, especially Apple’s iOS devices, are leeching dollars and interest that would have once been directed at Nintendo.
However, a price cut combined with a strong lineup and the 2011 holiday season gave the 3DS’s sales a major shot of adrenaline, and now over 10 million people across the world own the handheld. Those aren’t small numbers.
True, smartphones boast far more penetration, and there’s no question that iOS devices pose serious competition for dedicated handheld gaming systems in general. But the success of the 3DS, which was brought on in part by demand for exclusive games like Super Mario 3D Land, demonstrates that there is still a strong interest for fleshed-out portable games.
If Sony takes advantage of the Vita’s strengths (as Nintendo does by engineering 3DS titles that are simply never going to show up on smartphones), it should be able to find a large, dedicated audience. Will the Vita “beat” smartphones? Probably not, but the blossoming handheld gaming market isn’t exactly a one-horse race. A company that’s not in “first” that still manages to make brisk sales is hardly a failure.
A price drop may be forthcoming — Nintendo initially priced the Nintendo 3DS at $250 because the system generated so much hype at E3 2010. When the 3DS launched, Nintendo learned a very hard lesson: gamers are scrutinizing prices more carefully than ever, and if they feel like they’re getting ripped off, they won’t buy. Once Nintendo humbly cut the 3DS’s price to $170, there was a resounding “THAT’S BETTER!” from the gaming community, and sales picked up almost immediately.
Might we see a price drop from the Vita before too long? Sony has already issued a price drop for some downloadable games, but as games writer Peter Chubb points out on inentertainment.co.uk, the real concern is the price of the Vita’s hardware. In fact, some vendors have already taken it upon themselves to cut the Vita’s price, helping it to remain competitive.
It’s likely Sony already has a good idea that the Vita is in need of a price drop. The question is, how much can the price drop? The Vita’s technology is more expensive than the 3DS’s, but even if the price drop isn’t as significant as the 3DS’s, it should be enough to at least get people to consider a purchase.
The Vita has command of exclusive franchises — Sony’s franchises may not be as well known amongst casual audiences as Mario, Zelda, or Pokemon, but what it has is certainly nothing to sneeze at. If the Vita gains new games in franchises like Uncharted, God of War, Ratchet and Clank, or even (who knows?) a new game by Team Ico, fans of those series are going to find it pretty hard to scorn the Vita every time a new set of screenshots and videos hit the Internet.
It can cater to a niche audience — The popularity of the Wii and the availability of free-to-play social games has helped gaming expand into the mainstream. However, people are still very much interested in niche titles, and we’re seeing more of those than ever. Consider Pushmo, VVVVVV, and Mutant Mudds, three of the most successful downloadable games on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. Each game offers something unique, even though the mechanics won’t necessarily “click” with every player in the world. Regardless, the titles shine on the Nintendo 3DS because the system compliments them in ways that wouldn’t happen on a smartphone.
If Sony remembers the Vita’s strengths and uses them accordingly, it should be able to attract a considerable audience of gamers who want well-built titles that are outside the norm. In other words, there’s no point in putting a lot of hype behind a $5 port of Angry Birds.
The Vita’s not even a year old — No doubt Sony would have loved for the Vita to shatter the sales charts like a hyper-beam blowing up Alderaan, but its failure to do so hardly means that it’s time to write the Vita off as a failure. The system needs a little time to prove itself–a year, at the very least. We’ll meet back at this spot in February 2013.