Seasoned industry analyst Michael Pachter couldn’t possibly paint a bleaker picture of the future of Sony’s handheld gaming business. Speaking with Game Informer in a recent interview, the popular sales predictor noted that the platform holder “misjudged the market” with the PlayStation Vita, and hinted that it may not even have another crack at conquering the shrinking market as a result. But is the situation really as bad as the suit’s making out, or is there still hope for the supposedly struggling system?
“The sales are horrible,” the executive stressed, attaching an estimated 4.2 million units tally to the portable in 2013. “It’s a pretty small number, and I don't think that Sony’s going to build a business selling four million a year. It has relatively few games because they are complicated to make and the market is so small. [The Japanese giant] will spend the money with their internal studios, but you're just going to see [the device] die a slow, painful death.”
It’s a pretty damning statement that’s worsened by the fact that the Wedbush Securities employee doesn’t see a way in which the platform could have performed better. “Sony launched it into this storm of mobile destroying the casual end of dedicated handhelds,” he continued. “And Nintendo's not giving up much share on the hardcore side, because they have three games to every one Sony game – and they are good games.”
Are things really that miserable, though? The manner in which the organisation’s taken to hiding the true install base of the format suggests that Pachter’s probably on the money when it comes to the sales. Despite a reasonable start, we haven’t been given an update on the device’s install base in over a year. Indeed, way back in January 2013, a Guardian report pegged the handheld’s total tally at around four million units, meaning that it’s probably yet to even pass the coveted ten million units barrier.
The silence is deafening. The same company launched the PlayStation 4 around two months ago, and has already provided several updates on the platform’s success. The difference is that one piece of hardware is breaking records, while the other is struggling to make a mark. It’s something that the freshly reformed format holder is even willing to acknowledge, with Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida stating as much as early as November 2012.
In an interview with French website Lemonade, the candid executive explained that sales are “below expectations”, and he also pointed to the growing dominance of smartphones and tablets as the reason behind the tardy uptake. “Consumers now have multimedia devices,” he told the publication. “These devices include the ability to play, and it’s difficult for us to justify the purchase of an additional machine.”
The uber-popular Sony employee also suggested that a shift in publisher resources to platforms such as the App Store have impacted adoption of the handheld more than it expected. “With the rise of mobile gaming, studios have started to transition, allocating more resources to this type of production,” he continued. “Even if the creators want to develop games on the Vita, they unfortunately have fewer resources to do so.”
There’s undoubtedly truth to Pachter’s comments about the commercial performance of the Vita, then, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dying out. While its first few months on the market were heavily impacted by a poor software lineup, that situation has changed over the past year or so. A quick glance at the release calendar highlights upcoming software such as Toukiden, Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars, and Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.
It’s niche software, there’s no doubt about that – but it seems to be coming thick and fast these days. And that snowballing schedule has contributed to renewed enthusiasm regarding the format among owners. Crucially, it’s safe to assume that the games are actually selling, too, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing these titles being released at all. It’s clear that while big publishers such as EA are pushing the platform aside, smaller outfits are relishing the opportunity to feed a hungry fanbase.
And it seems to be something that the platform holder is aware of. “The thing that has me encouraged about the Vita is that the people that have bought the console really enjoy it – they’re very happy with it, and they’re buying a lot of games,” SCEA president Jack Tretton told IGN last summer. “I think that I said at E3 that owners buy around ten games on average, so we’ve got a dedicated fanbase, it’s just not big enough right now.”
In fact, that figure is extraordinary. Way back in November 2008, a Gamasutra report pegged the PlayStation 3’s attach rate at about 5.3 games roughly two years after its launch, meaning that handheld players are hungry for software. The numbers don’t match up exactly – the manufacturer’s former flagship format had a larger install base at the time, and console games generally retail for more than portable ones – but it gives an indication of how popular the pocketable platform is among those that own it.
With that kind of enthusiasm surrounding the handheld, it’s hard to describe it as a device that’s dying. However, the real problem that the platform holder’s facing is communicating the appeal to the mainstream market. “It's not the biggest seller that we've ever had, but it is still a very much loved and much respected machine,” SCEUK managing director Fergal Gara affirmed last year. “It's now far more keenly priced, and it becomes a very strong companion for the PS4.”
Indeed, the firm appears to be betting the bank on Remote Play acting as a Trojan horse to get the platform into as many homes as possible – and there are early indications that it could be working. MCV noted shortly after the launch of the Japanese giant’s next generation console that sales of the portable had increased by 68 per cent in the UK, a figure partially propelled by a bunch of last-minute hardware bundles that the manufacturer prepared.
Even more optimistically, hardware marketing manager John Koller observed a similar trend in North America, where the portable wasn’t even packaged with the platform holder’s new home console. “Vita has done very, very well since the PS4 launch,” he said in a recent interview with Got Game. “People are starting to use it for things like Remote Play, which allows you to play PS4 games on your Vita via Wi-Fi.”
But will piggy-backing off the success of its home console prove to be enough to turn the portable’s prospects around? There’s an argument that in order to truly understand the value of the handheld, you need to own it, so we can certainly see the rabid fanbase growing as a result of new adopters buying into the ecosystem. But there’s still more that the manufacturer can do to encourage that additional purchase.
Speculation suggests that the slimmer hardware revision responsible for catapulting the system’s sales in Japan may be making its way overseas, which should see the platform become even more affordable. While recent retailer promotions mean that the device hasn’t exactly been breaking the bank here in the UK, the console still sells for just a whisker shy of $199.99 in North America, which is still a significant investment.
Stripping out the OLED screen and condensing the internals will bring costs down, and assuming that Sony passes those savings onto the consumer, we can see it unlocking a somewhat larger audience in Western regions. The other issue is, of course, the memory sticks, which need to be heavily reduced. A token gesture at GamesCom saw the manufacturer cut the prices in half, but they still need to be much cheaper.
Even with those changes in place, though, it’s hard to imagine the Vita ever commanding a leading role in the gaming industry’s equivalent to Broadway. However, that doesn’t mean that the portable doesn’t have a place in the volatile market. It may only have a small install base, but that following is vibrant and willing to splash out on lots of software. Perhaps more importantly, the content is now starting to come to the console with some regularity. The pulse may be muted, but it doesn't sound like a dying device to us.
What are your thoughts on the Vita now that it’s approaching its second birthday in the West? Do you agree with Pachter that the platform’s dying out, or do you think that its prospects look brighter than ever? Are you happy with the game library, or do you still feel that it’s lacking in crucial areas? Write your report in the comments section below.
Do you think that the Vita’s dying a slow, painful death? (78 votes)
Yes, the sales are absolutely abysmal and the software lineup’s very poor
Hmm, I’m honestly not sure
No, the install base is small but the library’s great and the fanbase is strong
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