Very soon now, we will be experiencing a watershed moment in gaming history, marking one of the most anticipated releases of 2012, or any other year. A monumental new way of playing games shall be unleashed on the world, changing how we think about our consoles forever.
But Mass Effect 3 isn't out until March 6, so until then, we need to talk about Tuesday's release of the Playstation Vita.
Sony's latest handheld, the heir to the PlayStation Portable's perennial also-ran status, is on its way to shelves even now, hitting North American stores two months after being released to much fanfare and curiosity in Japan — but few sales, and even fewer positive impressions. Fewer even than Nintendo's 3DS, and we all know what a shambles that launch was.
How bad? Well, Sony moved 325,000 units the first week after the Vita's Japanese release. Sales figures dropped 78 percent the following week. For the week ending Feb. 9, only 14,000 units moved; the following week, the First Edition bundle went out to customers in the U.S., so we have yet to see if there's such a dramatic dropoff here. But the portable's prospects are not looking good.
Maybe it's because Sony hasn't boasted a strong lineup of games in years — the launch titles certainly don't inspire confidence. Or maybe it's because people are balking at the $249 entry fee, which is jacked up to $299 if you want 3G with your Wi-Fi.
Or maybe it's because almost every single reviewer, and by extension, most every gamer, sees the Vita as an answer to a question no one asked. As a gamecentric portable media player, its music interface and browser aren't that good, most people say, and its backward compatibility with the PSP is limited to downloads. Sure, it has dual analog sticks, a touchpad and a nifty OLED screen showcasing near-seamless graphics, but in an age of iPhones and tablet computers, where everyone can play Angry Birds without even needing a button to push, there's likely not much desire for the Vita. No, not even with its Near ad-hoc service. Not even with its superior network support. And definitely not because of its 3-to-5-hour battery life, which should be enough to turn off anyone who regularly takes multisegment flights.
It can't make phone calls. It can't surf the Web while your game is paused. It all but requires extra memory cards to play its games. Like the 3DS, it's trying to use technology to fool us into thinking it isn't a vestigial gadget from a bygone era. It's a perfected product for an imperfect business model. It doesn't matter if it's the best at what it does, because no one wants products that largely only play games anymore. It is, in a word, Sony's endgame for dedicated, games-only portables.
But perhaps Sony already knows this. U.K. tech site The Register pointed out the company has rebranded its PlayStation Network as the Sony Entertainment Network. It's developed an interface that apparently rivals Apple's in its simplicity. And it wants to integrate things like Netflix and Facebook and Skype into the interface. It does all the things the Xperia wanted to do, except make phone calls. Now just imagine if Sony Ericsson started using that instead of being stuck with an imperfect version of Android like the Xperia was (although it was upgraded to the Ice Cream Sandwich OS in December).
They aren't admitting it yet, although they say it's possible. CNET quoted new CEO Kazuo Hirai as saying, "If you're asking if we've made it in a way that's expandable, so that it's possible to apply to smartphones and tablets on top of achieving the high responsiveness we need for gaming devices, then that is possible. It's been designed with expandability in mind." No wonder, then, that the company has consolidated its gaming, networking and consumer electronics under the same umbrella.
Don't go thinking Sony has it all squared away just yet, however. Hirai also said there were no immediate plans to integrate Vita OS into tablets or smartphones in the immediate future, which would be typical of the short-sightedness Sony has displayed the better part of the last decade.
Perhaps they're waiting for the PlayStation 4 to debut.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at [email protected]