After a wobbly start, the Vita is starting to build a reputation in unexpected ways. Phil Nachum looks at how indies could save Sony’s handheld
Characterized by poor sales and slow software releases, the PS Vita’s first year on store shelves has been nothing if not tumultuous. At fewer than 5 million units sold worldwide, Sony’s handheld has failed to find its footing, and is in desperate need of resuscitation. However, signs indicate that things might be turning around. But to get there, the Vita might have to turn into something somewhat unexpected.
After a recent price cut in Japan, Vita sales surged. Its numbers in Japan increased sixfold to 62,543 units sold during its first week after the price cut, and rose again to 63,581 the following week, marking the first week since its launch that the Vita outsold the 3DS in Japan.
Although Vita’s installed base is small, it is most certainly dedicated. In an interview with IGN, PlayStation director of product planning and platform software innovation Don Mesa revealed that user engagement for Vita is through the roof. The “satisfaction rate” among Vita owners was 86 percent, while 90 percent of Vita owners play their Vita at least once a week. On average, Vita owners use their handheld for a staggering 18.7 hours a week, or roughly 2.7 hours a day.
Mesa also revealed that more than 100 games are coming to Vita in 2013. Some of them are the well known blockbusters, like Guerrilla London’s Killzone: Mercenary, Media Molecule’s Tearaway and Studio Japan’s Soul Sacrifice. But in the past few months alone, Sony has announced that a plethora of indie titles coming to Vita, including Frozen Synapse, Thomas Was Alone, Hotline Miami, Lone Survivor, and Luftrausers.
Sony has been aggressively courting independent developers, and those developers have reciprocated. Brian Provinciano, the developer behind Retro City Rampage, told IGN that bringing his game to Vita was easy. He said, “The Vita SDKs (Software Development Kit)… were just super well-put-together and easy to use… Deployment on the Vita dev kit was as fast as PC. That’s something that I’ve never seen before in a dev kit. That in itself made it such a pleasant experience.”
Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail expressed a similar view to Joystiq, saying, “Of everybody that I’ve spoken to in the last few months, all of them have sort of been talking to Sony. None of them have been talking to Microsoft.” Ismail said his experience with getting Super Crate Box on PlayStation Mobile was fast and convenient, which would explain Vlambeer’s continued support with Luftrausers.
From day one, Vita has been pitched as a console on the go, but perhaps this was the wrong approach. It appears that Sony is now trying to emulate an indie PC experience, rather than a blockbuster console experience. With new, more powerful consoles around the corner, Vita will have a harder time emulating a console experience, but no such hardware limitations exist for indie games. However, this new approach brings with it its own challenges.
First, most of the indie games that have recently been announced for Vita are not only also coming to PS3, but will be coming months after release on PC. While these games are great for Vita owners, Sony has already done a good job of satisfying Vita owners, as evident by their engagement with the system. Sony needs to focus on selling Vitas, which requires more than ports of PC games also releasing on PS3.
Second, if Vita is to establish itself as an indie platform, it will undoubtedly face stiff competition from PC, Steam Box, iOS, and Ouya. Despite Sony’s best efforts, iOS and Steam have created unmatched ecosystems for indie development with minimal barriers to entry.
If Sony continues to bolster an indie community on Vita, and ensures that indie developers’ following projects launch simultaneously on Vita, then its fledgeling handheld could find a foothold in the indie market. This might not have been what Sony intended a year ago when Vita launched, but it could be the key to recovery.
Follow Phil on Twitter: @philpee2