Does Sony’s Vita Price Cut Represent the Twlight of Handheld Gaming?

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By now, you’ve probably heard that Sony has announced a price drop for the Vita in Japan. Surprised? Neither am I.

Price drops on mobile gaming units are as common as metaphors in my articles. Jokes aside, this will hopefully lead to a price drop across the market. Most experts and market analysts agree that it’s sorely needed. For anyone keeping track, sales for Vita have been less than stellar. Sony is hoping that a price cut will propel sales and help the handheld gain some traction in its all-but-lost war with the 3DS.

According to Sony, the Vita was expected push past the 12 million unit mark by the end of summer 2012. Those numbers were revised twice and ended lower than 9 million units. Now, Sony seems to be dodging the question of the Vita’s performance altogether by working harder to make PSP and Vita sales indistinguishable from each other in monthly and annual reports.

Despite Sony’s portable systems being substantially more powerful than Nintendo counterparts, the multifaceted console failed to find its niche among consumers. The games tended to be more mature, pushing parents and young gamers towards the DS/3DS. Older gamers expressed little interest, saying that they lacked the time for mobile gaming or simply preferred their stationary consoles.

The Vita also continues to fight a multi-front war in which it is the Jack of all trade but the master of none. When the Vita isn’t in a head to head fight Nintendo products or stationary consoles, they’re facing pressure from everything from smart phones to tablets. Their attempts to fight back, such as the smart phone/PSP hybrid, have done little to relieve the mounting pressure. Adding better wifi and wireless service hasn’t seemed to help.

Sony is still reporting decent numbers, but the lackluster performance begs the question; are handheld gaming units seeing their twilight years? As I said before, Sony is fighting a multi-front war against a plethora of new devices that are looking to shove their way into the lucrative gaming market. Tablets are still seeing their customer base grow and are reportedly exceeding a 10% share of the $80 billion gaming market. The evolution of iOS and Android has allowed developers to program better games at lower costs. When compared to the $40 dollars consumers spend on Vita games, a $10 tablet game looks more and more reasonable. These device users can also transfer games and saved content between multiple devises across multiple generations. To compound the problem, the Vita, which is a gaming device, suffers from a lack of viable games.  Sony is either just not trying or too hard pressed to compete.

To make matters worse, costs are for most high end smart phones are far lower than the cost for any of Sony’s handheld units. While tablet prices remain high, the 7-10 inch interface, the low cost of games and applications, the variety of devices available, and the multitude of auxiliary functions the device can perform continue to keep the market strong. Very little incentive exists for gamers and parents to spend hundreds on a new device that heavily favors gaming when they can play extremely cheap games on devises they already own (not to mention the cost of games).

Sony is slowly marching into the twilight of its handheld sales if radical changes don’t happen. The question exists; what will bring gamers back? For handhelds to continue in the evolving market there needs to be a radical change in tactics. The addition of multiple touch screen interfaces, better web interfaces, and a redefined game market have done nothing to stop the bleeding. It’s no longer enough to simply market a multifunctional device.

The ability to cross tie the Vita to the PS3 has been disappointing at best.  Less than a handful of games are compatible between the systems.  While it looks like Sony may be trying to fix these issues in the PS4, the question will be if their efforts will be enough and in time.  There’s a lot that can happen to the fledgling Vita with almost a year until the PS4 launch.  

Handhelds must consider if attempting to produce games on the level of a stationary console is a viable business model. To me, they need to forget about porting games from consoles and focus on games for the handheld. If not, they need to find a way to produce lower quality games to attract users to their devices. While the later move would cut costs and offer developers more time to develop a wider variety of games, it is unlikely that gamers would spend the money for such a device. What Sony needs to desperately pursue is major, exclusive titles that were cost competitive to attract users to their handhelds. Sony needs to incentivize studios like Naughty Dog, Thatgamecompany, Ubisoft, 2K, et cetera, to produce games specifically for the system. This model has worked well for Nintendo, which has seen the best sells numbers come from exclusive games for its popular portable devices.

Sony must also expand the Vita’s ability to gain cross tie to their consoles.  There must be a clear benefit by tying the handheld into the PS3 and PS4. This could be done by generating unique game content or alternate playing modes similar to the model the WiiU utilizes. The ability to play you PS4 from anywhere using the new Vita remote play needs to be a major marketing focus, not a byline. Personally, this would certainly attract me to the Vita.

The sun is fading fast in the distance for Sony’s handheld market. The choice that Sony faces is to sit down and enjoy the sunset or charge ahead. With enough momentum, even Sony can turn the sunset into high noon.

Author: Jimmy Sharp

Dylan Zellmer

I split time between games journalism and making video games. My love of it’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), fitness and my family define me otherwise.