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Vita is much better off as a PS4 peripheral, and Sony knows it

If you’ll excuse my starting this article with a desperately ‘specific’ cultural reference, I currently find it impossible to separate Sony’s PlayStation Vita strategy from Mike Nichols’ 1988 romantic comedy-drama, Working Girl. The plot of said genre-classic follows Melanie Griffith’s lowly Staten Island secretary on her journey through the back-stabbing, cutthroat world of corporate America, and on to her ultimate triumph over--and implied redemption of--that cold, merciless infrastructure by being a bit cleverer about her own back-stabbing, cutthroat, non-mercy. But doing so while also remaining nice.

The key plot-point of the film occurs when Griffith’s Tess takes advantage of her boss’ absence through ski-related injury to steal control of an in-progress media merger, convincing the client to move into the smaller but more profitable area of radio rather than TV. While accepting the deal, the client tells the allegorical story of how a truck wedged under a low-ceilinged tunnel was once released simply by letting a little air out of the tyres. By shifting focus to a less glamourous, less extravagant ambition, the company had ultimately come to a more successful solution. And that, friends, by way of a now highly tortured metaphor for a pre-existing, 26 year-old metaphor, is where the PlayStation Vita is right now.

Because, now, finally, for the first time in its nearly three-year life, the Vita has a future. Because finally, the Vita has an identity that--while less high-falutin’ than its original inception as ‘the PS3 in your pocket’--makes sense.

Vita’s original concept, much like that of the PSP before it, was all wrong. It screamed of old-Sony’s general thinking; that bigger, shinier and more powerful was always best, and damn any other nuances at play. The PlayStation 3 also suffered from that attitude in its early days, its notoriously complicated Cell processor’s much-vaunted horsepower meaning little to the legions of developers who would have been more impressed if they’d just been able to make their games work on Sony’s last-gen console.

Applied to its handhelds, Sony’s bullishly naïve attitude saw it completely misunderstand the culture of portable gaming. While Nintendo’s DS range was pushing new, instinctive ways of interacting with bite-sized, pick-up-and-play gaming, Sony was trying to sell the world on bus-based blockbusters, travel-sized AAA, and pocket cinema. It just didn’t fit, and while Sony’s handhelds have done well, compared to Nintendo’s comfortable 23-year domination of the market, they misfired rather awkwardly. Let us not forget that this is an area of gaming first settled by the pared-down hardware of a monochrome screen, and a simple but incandescently addictive block-puzzler.

But now, the stale air hissing from its previously stuck tyres, the Vita seems to have found its own way. No longer fighting the wrong battle with the wrong weapons, this past E3 saw Vita positioned not as the deranged Ronin of old, aimlessly swinging a depleted blade at the ghost of a long-gone enemy, but as a strong, tactically capable right-hand soldier for General PS4 in his escalating battle against Microsoft.

By reinventing the Vita as a super-charged peripheral for its new-gen home console, Sony has done both a machines a huge favour. Facilitating streamed remote-play, cloud-powered, portable, cross-platform play, and a handy, well-equipped solution to second-screen gaming--the Vita’s physical controls and rear touchpad make it a more suitable and versatile device than any tablet, or even Nintendo’s GamePad--the PS4 and Vita combo is a far more imposing proposition than either machine was on its own, both now brimming with new, co-op possibilities for the future.

We’re looking at new types of games, new ways of playing games and ways of enjoying unbroken gameplay whenever and wherever your real-life schedule might endeavour to throw a spanner in the works. That last point is more important than it might at first seem. Not just a convenience, the facility actually ties in perfectly with Sony’s current move to take the PlayStation brand and experience beyond the limits of traditional living room hardware. With the Gaikai-powered PlayStation Now streaming service set to soon bring the PlayStation back-catalogue to a host of devices, from traditional consoles to Bravia smart TVs, Vita’s role as an internet-equipped thing with a screen just became a whole lot more important from an ambassadorial point of view.

Of course, the above would mean less if Vita was still primarily, erroneously weighed down with AAA games of its own. But again, by allowing that unsuitable area of gaming to dry up while pushing the now almost ubiquitous  model of cross-buying for smaller PS3 and PS4 games--whereby a single purchase furnishes the buyer with both home and portable versions--Sony has finally found its own, modern equivalent of the games that made the Game Boy and DS fly. Hello, indie revolution.

Inventive yet focused, creative yet accessible, games like Stealth Inc., Lone Survivor, Guacamelee, Thomas Was Alone, and Sound Shapes are perfect fits for portable and home gaming alike, cloud–saves even allowing one continuous game to be played on both devices. Vita finally has the bountiful, engaging, entirely suitable line-up of games it always needed, but like all of the big wins I’m talking about today, that catalogue is the result not of pushing Vita as a platform in itself, but as an amplifier for the great things already happening on the ‘big’ PlayStations.

Because that’s what Sony’s new, smarter, integrated PlayStation outlook is all about. No longer is it forcing flat, lozenge-shaped pegs into round holes and hoping that the public eventually agree to buy what it thinks they should want. Instead it’s looking at a bigger, more organic, more unified vision of what PlayStation entertainment is and can be, and finding out where Vita can naturally fit into that.

The AAA, high-fidelity, pocket PlayStation? However many times the Vita tried to fulfil that role, the vacancy never really existed. But the high-spec PS4 augmentation? The premium-grade add-on, that brings value, versatility and empowerment to PlayStation player and brand alike? That’s where it can excel. If we can just see that long-awaited Vita/PS4 bundle re-priced with a tempting discount for Christmas, the standalone unit knocked down, and all of its newfound usefulness pushed to the forefront of Sony’s marketing, this time next year the health of both current PS machines could be so rude as to be borderline obscene. 

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14 comments

  • shawksta - July 2, 2014 2:22 p.m.

    I guess its the best way to handle it, though shame, very few games showed potential but its clear Sony isnt that into it.
  • leonardo-j-ceballos - July 2, 2014 10 a.m.

    I love the fact that publishing to Vita through PSM just got that much easier. I will be porting my in-development capital ship space sim to Vita very soon after it hits the 1.0 (its currently available as an early access game on Android and WP8 - Google Play link: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.Leo.DarkDawn) What I've noticed is that there are almost no Vitas on store shelves. While this might be a good sign for the platform, it looks like no new units have arrived since the Borderlands 2 bundle. I'd like to go out and grab a couple of the new slim model for testing/developing on, but so far I haven't been able to find any. I've still got a couple of months before the port becomes a priority though; hopefully they'll be on shelves by then.
  • mafyooz - July 3, 2014 4 a.m.

    "capital ship space sim" you say? That's definitely talking my language. I freely admit to being totally clueless regarding developing and publishing so sorry if these seem like stupid questions, but do you know if it's likely to be on the European store and if it will have a trial/unlock version?
  • leonardo-j-ceballos - July 3, 2014 5:32 a.m.

    I'm still considering a trial version. It may well happen a little bit after the main game hits 1.0. As for release in Europe, that's definitely the plan. The early access versions are already available there on Android and WP8; I've actually done fairly well int he UK and Germany. Every store is different though, and this Unity-on-Vita through PSM is a new thing, so I haven't really explored it much yet. But I'd assume Europe would be no problem.
  • mafyooz - July 6, 2014 8:36 a.m.

    Cool, I'm not convinced the early access version will run on my phone but I'll give it a try. I'll probably end up buying this if it does come to Europe anyway, I don't mind dropping a few quid on a what looks from the screenshots to be a pretty decent space combat game. I reckon it's a much neglected genre and don't think there's really been a good one since Colony Wars on PS1, as I've often said to anyone who'll listen ;)
  • wittynickname - July 2, 2014 9 a.m.

    I'm salivating to see how Sony chooses to price the PS4/Vita bundle. I'd been content to stay last-gen until probably Christmas 2015, owing to my plentiful last-gen backlog and no real gotta-have-it games existing in the new-gen landscape for me, yet. If Sony could manage to put this on shelves for, say, $500, it would be an instant buy for me. "Our competitor charged you the same amount for their console plus the shitty Kinect no one wanted in the first place. WE'RE giving you an entire handheld platform." Perhaps $500 is overly optimistic. I don't know. We'll see. I wouldn't put it past Sony to price it at $580 or something, to technically say it's a discount over buying a Vita Slim and a PS4 separately. But that would be shooting this idea in the foot pretty dramatically. Vita by itself? Never been compelling enough for me to buy in. But if it's PACKED IN with a new-gen console I intend on buying at some point anyway, AND competitively priced? Yes, a thousand times yes.
  • mafyooz - July 2, 2014 12:06 a.m.

    I'm already happy enough with my Vita for playing JRPGs and PS1 classics, it also comes with me to work when I'm doing night-shifts so I can sneak in a few crafty rounds of Everybody's Golf or Dragon's Crown if all's quiet at 4am and I'm struggling to say awake, and I hook it up to some speakers in the kitchen and stick the TuneIn app on so I've got access to music from all over the globe when I'm cooking. I've not properly tried the Remote Play feature yet but I can definitely see it being a good solution to the problem of wanting to play games when my daughter is insisting on watching Frozen for the nth time ;)
  • rxb - July 1, 2014 2:18 p.m.

    Hooters! You've made me think all future articles should be written in the form of 80s film analogies. I want to agree with you and kind of do. My only problem is from what I know of the console hardware loss leader model can this work? Okay so I just did a search and some sources suggest the Vita may being sold at a profit, maybe. I'm all confused now. Until we have data on the manufacture costs we won't know for sure.
  • Eightboll812 - July 1, 2014 1:28 p.m.

    Yeah, I think "as a peripheral" to a PS4 makes it more attractive to me. Not ready to invest yet, though.
  • Pruman - July 1, 2014 12:59 p.m.

    I see a few issues here: 1) Sony's focus on indies, while awesome for console-only folks, matters little to PC gamers. PC versions of indie games can be bought by the dozen for next to nothing. Why spend $600 for the same experience? Wouldn't that money be better spent on a decent laptop? 2) You're effectively saying that the Vita can turn the PS4 into a super-powered Wii U. A regular Wii U has a hard time selling at $300, so a super-powered one for double that makes for a pretty hard sell. 3) Crossplay and cloud saving definitely sound cool. Doing that unofficially was my favorite thing about my hacked PSP, and I wish I could do it with the Wii U (letting the GamePad play games independently of the box, or stream them over the net, would rock!) The problem is, getting there requires a $600 investment, along with repurchasing any games I may have already on another platform. If you haven't made any investments into a platform, great! If not, once again it's a hard sell. 4) As nick-stancato above mentioned, the streaming aspect is useless if you're not connected to the internet. If you're on a road trip, good luck trying to get a big enough slice of the communal Wi-Fi to pull it off, and if you're using cellular, have fun eating through your entire data plan in a minute or two. This could really take off if it was cost-competitive with other options and our Internet infrastructure was 20 years advanced from what we have now. Until then, it's a bunch of features that look great on paper but are practically impossible.
  • ObliqueZombie - July 1, 2014 10:58 a.m.

    I'll stick to calling it my JRPG machine, with the odd awesome Western/European game thrown in. I will say, though, that if DW8XLCE (ACRONYMS!) is any indication, I'd prefer they not make a game for the Vita AND the PS4. There's just too much discrepancy in power. I do enjoy remote play, though, even if it is limited by range. It works so well laying on my bed it's insane. I also think the WiiU-crossplay idea wold be insane. I sort of did it with my girlfriend with the recently free PlayStation All Stars, and that was both smooth and enjoyable. P.S.: Seven paragraphs down, you have an unneeded indefinite article towards the end of the first sentence!
  • StylishHero - July 1, 2014 10:08 a.m.

    Does the author of this piece honestly believe the crap he is writing here? Weighed down with AAA games of its own? You sound like a complete and utter moron, nonsense spewing from your mouth. For me, I wouldn't care in the least bit if every indie company went bankrupt and disappeared. Who the hell buys a vita for indie games ??! With the exception of a few , and I mean A FEW, indie games are absolute garbage. The indie boom is the worst thing to happen to gaming in a LONG time. I have never used remote play, and I never will. Not because I won't put up with frustrating input lag, which is a topic on its own, but because I have my ps4 hooked up to a 60 inch tv and that is where I do my ps4 gaming PERIOD. I didn't buy a ps4 to play it's games on a tiny handheld screen, who the hell would ? We bought a vita to play VITA games, so seriously I think it's time you maybe bought a brain and inserted it in that rock skull of yours. The world has enough idiots running around. Have you even seen psnow? Have you tried the beta? It's a laggy piece of crap and mark my words that isn't going to change. Home wifi Internet setups which is what the majority of people's homes are equipped with these days are just not fast enough to provide a smooth experience. It's just the way things are. My dummy pounding is complete.
  • nick-stancato - July 1, 2014 8:31 a.m.

    "Vita is much better off as a PS4 peripheral". no, no its not. Unless you (or Sony) can tell me how to remote play on a plane or a bus or in a car on a roadtrip. That is the PURPOSE of owning a mobile gaming console. If Im at home, Im going to play the PS4! not my Vita. My Vita is for on-the-go when I cannot access my PS4 and/or have no access to decent internet. Sony is utterly wrong on this and it spells doom for the Vita. And there was such potential, they have squandered and killed it
  • caleb-hall - July 1, 2014 9 a.m.

    No they haven't? You're speaking as if they are making it a PS4 peripheral, and nothing more. That is not the case. They are still going to make games for it, and you can play indie games and use cloud saves in order to continue your save onto your PS4. Then comes the Cross-Play of course. In all honesty, this was the best thing that Playstation could have done to keep the Vita alive (In my opinion). Because they were honestly not doing a very impressive job with the Vita in the long run. Again, this is all strictly my opinion, and I'm personally just gonna wait and see.

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