Some gamers are enjoying a Vita right now

Today's a big day: Sony’s latest plunge into handheld gaming, the technologically brilliant Vita, is out now. Well, sort of.

It’s available in the U.S. and Canada for those who pre-ordered the First Edition Bundle, only available from selected retailers. For gamers who are keen enough, and willing to pay a premium price, they can enjoy the console a week before everyone else outside of Japan.

On the surface this seems like a strange promotion, and we say that as a team that has lived through plenty of console releases. The official launch date is 22nd February, but Sony has wilfully broken that, and in effect redefined what it means to be a launch day buyer. For those in Europe, for example, there’s no choice in the matter, but gamers in North America will always have to clarify which launch day in which they participated. It’s easy to disregard this as unimportant, but it’s worth looking at this in terms of its impact on the overall launch of Vita.

The bundles themselves were certainly priced to target loyal, die-hard fans of Sony gaming. Sony’s official First Edition unboxing showed off a case designed to keep the shiny OLED screen in decent condition, a boxed retail copy of Little Deviants and, most importantly, a 4GB memory card. These extras are attractive, but the devil's in the detail. In order to get the console early you had to play by Sony’s rules, which meant that U.S. owners not only had to take the 3G model, but also pay a hefty $349.99. The Canadian equivalent cost $299.99 and came with the Wi-Fi version, but each region was restricted to a single choice, unless consumers ordered from across the border.

A packed-in 4GB memory card may sound great, for example, but in practice is barely enough for a retail download of Uncharted: Golden Abyss and some small PSN extras.

Fans and eager gamers can rightly point to the earlier release date and the included accessories and game as a worthwhile trade-off for a premium price and lack of choice, and it’s ultimately down to individual opinion whether this represents good value for money or not. There’s little doubt, however, that the pricing and contents of these bundles was carefully put together by Sony to provide a sense of value for money, while actually giving away the minimum extras necessary. A packed-in 4GB memory card may sound great, for example, but in practice is barely enough for a retail download of Uncharted: Golden Abyss and some small PSN extras.

Beyond debates about the true value of the bundle, it’s the release date that raised our collective eyebrows here at Push Square. As mentioned earlier, the fact that no such advance bundle exists in Europe is quite a surprise in the modern age of worldwide coordinated release dates. This edition caters for loyal PlayStation gamers, so it seems strange that no equivalent opportunity exists outside of North America.

What this does, in all regions, is essentially divide some of the hype around the launch of the system. The negative perspective is that this dilutes the launch day buyers, and a group of gamers will be well into a week of gaming on their shiny new handhelds before the majority can join in. It could also influence and confuse matters in terms of opening sales, with the gaming media now accounting for two sets of figures. It may seem minor, but with the importance of internet headlines and hype as marketing tools, this could be slightly troublesome.

On the flipside, however, this could transpire to be an example of savvy marketing from Sony. It no doubt hopes that First Edition owners will be flooding internet forums, Twitter and YouTube with rave reviews about their Vita, providing first-hand testimony of why we should all be picking one up on 22nd February: customer advocacy is vital to Vita's success. As a system facing issues about cost, not just of the hardware but also memory cards and games, it’s more important than ever for encouraging word-of-mouth to spread and dispel doubt. In the case of U.S. early adopters, in particular, it gives Sony an early opportunity to get some 3G models onto the market, which is vital after the model’s terrible start in Japan.

Could launch days become less exciting?

It’ll be interesting to see how the First Edition bundle performs, as it could set a new trend in console launches. We’ve become accustomed to fixed launch dates and images of fans gathering on a single day to queue for their new machines. If this bundle performs well, perhaps Nintendo and Microsoft will be tempted to offer advance pre-orders to loyal fans.

What do you think? Is this bundle an over-priced deal to cash in on the most loyal fans, or is it a good value package that will also generate more hype ahead of the main launch? Let us know what you think in the comments below.