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Vita's line-up is ever-expanding, but can a console survive on ports alone?

So, both Joe Danger games have been announced for the PlayStation Vita. That’s good news, right? After all, both are excellent, funny, smart, infuriatingly demanding games, packed with as many ideas as they can possibly cram into convenient bite-sized chunks of gameplay, a minute or two at a time. As such, they’re a perfect fit for the Vita.

But there’s a problem here. Because there’s another, increasingly troubling connotation to the notion of ‘a perfect fit for the Vita’. As it develops as a platform, it increasingly feels like games like Joe Danger are becoming a standard fit for Sony’s well-meaning but put-upon handheld in ways beyond the suitability of their gameplay mechanics. Culturally, the Vita is becoming defined not as a worthwhile platform in its own right, but as a dumping ground for old games and ports.

In a lot of ways, Vita has now escaped its troubled, early period as gaming’s most soundly thrashed handheld whipping boy. No longer is it that over-priced, over-specced, gameless handheld, cared about by precisely no-one. Its price is now reasonable. It has a few respectable exclusives either out or on the way, and those higher-than-necessary hardware specifications are now finally seeing its wider library filled with a fairly steady stream of rather decent ports of ‘big’ console games.

But is that entirely a good thing? After all, a console’s worth is defined not by the breadth of its line-up, but by the unique system-sellers amongst that line-up; the killer apps that give the format its personality, brand values, and exclusive appeal. You buy into a console for the games you can’t get anywhere else, and you use the multiformat games to fill in the gaps between exclusive releases. A console needs a healthy balance of both in order to be a really exciting prospect. Tip it too far to either side, and you have problems.

In a way, the Vita is an interesting parallel to Nintendo’s similarly struggling Wii U. Both formats are having difficulty carving out their own niche within the gaming landscape, despite their respective companies’ claims of uniqueness. Both have a handful of genuinely great, first-party exclusives, all too often tragically overlooked by the mainstream gaming masses (see Tearaway’s miserable North American launch window sales of 14,000 for evidence of this on Vita). And where the Wii U is now almost entirely a first-party machine in terms of software, Vita’s increasing non-Sony library is struggling to provide what I see as meaningful third-party support.

The 3DS started out with similar problems to the Vita, of course. A lack of compelling games, with a lengthy wait between big hitters, and far too high a hardware retail price all combined to make for a pretty sad launch window. But since then, a strong Nintendo line-up has been bolstered by staunch support from third-parties with a consistent string of unique, new games that can only be played on the 3DS. The Wii U only has half of that equation locked down of course, and while Vita’s extended line-up is now making up the numbers, I don’t really see that it’s making up the value.

It seems telling that Sony’s new push for the Vita is not so much about the system’s games, but about its services and tertiary uses as a device. PS4 remote play and the manifold delights of the PS Plus Instant Game Collection are the order of the day. While the latter of those may initially seem to be a selling point aimed squarely at game value, I actually see it as potentially being detrimental to Vita’s future prospects for third-party exclusives. By spoiling Vita owners with free games every month, surely PS Plus is also creating a culture of ‘Wait and see’, cutting launch window sales as gamers stick it out and wait for a PS Plus release a few months down the line. That kind of behaviour can’t be a great incentive for developers to pour resources into the brand new, exclusive games that the Vita so badly needs, and so ports continue to be the console’s standard release model.

While remote play gives Vita a fancy new role to play in the next generation of home consoles, surely it also makes those ported games even less valuable to a consumer. After all, why buy Gearbox’s upcoming conversion of Borderlands 2 when you can pick up the (probably shinier) PS3 version dirt cheap and stream it to your Vita whenever you want? The lack of distinction between Vita games and those available on other PlayStations is not helping it at all, and remote play only emphasises the problem.

Even indie games, the third prong of Sony’s current attempt at a Vita renaissance, runs into the same problem. There are some incredible-looking indie games coming along for the Vita, but again, few genuine exclusives. Most will be available for the PC, PS3 or PS4 at the same time

Now I’m not writing off Vita’s chances here. The promising fact is that a lot of the problems I’ve mentioned above come as flip-sides to some very pleasant aspects of the Vita indeed. Between mass indie support, remote play, and a steady stream of free, playable incentives to own the machine, Vita potentially has a lot going for it. Indeed, the regular trips to the PS Store required by those PS Plus bonuses alone could give a definite boost to the discoverability of some of Vita’s other gems. But all of this stuff needs to become a warm, inviting blanket wrapped around the kind of unique, system-selling exclusives that any console needs.

Hopefully, Sony’s promotion of the Vita’s tertiary functions is just the current stage of a long-term plan. If it can use Vita’s versatile charms to build a bigger install base, and the exposure of PS Plus to cultivate a receptive audience for smaller and mid-tier studios’ later games, then there’s a very bright and appealing future ahead for both player and developer alike. We could currently be witnessing the sowing of very fertile ground for a stronger, exclusive, future Vita line-up. But Sony need to keep its eyes on that long-term goal, and not allow Vita’s identity as a unique games machine be diluted along the way. 

12 comments

  • Aquasol - December 25, 2013 4:48 a.m.

    It wasn't so much the price tag or the games that effectively shot down the Vita-- it was Sony's marketing insistence that it be viewed as JUST a portable PS3, and how they made sure that pretty much the only games that got commercials were ones that were already on the PS3. The sole exception was AC: Liberation, but guess what? They showed nothing it was capable of, and instead sold it as OMG ASSCREED ON THE TRAIN LOL. To make matters worse, there was no real first-party effort on it, to at least give it a base. And rather than support it, they just simply stopped showing the Vita off, made no efforts to back it, and dragged their butts on dropping the price after the Japanese division couldn't take anymore themselves. And they still barely did anything to reduce the price-- the memory sticks are still obscenely expensive, and the $50 drop also comes with a far inferior screen in every single way. To add insult, they've now rebranded it as a paltry attempt to cover what the Wii U can do with its Gamepad, but the Vita is missing several buttons-- and from what I hear, has video framerate capped at 30fps(but displays at a much higher resolution). This, of course, makes it far too expensive again. They don't seem to want to do anything with it except turn it into just a hub. And that's sad, considering Sony has some of the most talented developers out there, and has a long and well-loved knack for getting great games published. What happened to the Sony that brought us the likes of Wild ARMs, Dark Cloud, and Omega Boost? Are they just going to play a lazier version of Microsoft when it comes to publishing and/or developing for the Vita?
  • Shigeruken - December 20, 2013 8:51 p.m.

    It could have been fine if Sony was willing to put in the effort. There are a lot of Japanese exclusive games that were slated for Vita releases, but never hit. The biggest would probably be Gundam: Extreme Vs. Full Boost. When the game was announced, a Vita port was also announced. But when the release date for PS3 was announced, there was no Vita date given. If Sony stepped in to help like they did with Skyrim, the system would have a huge must play game for people like me. The new Gundam Musou game hitting Vita at the same time as PS3 is a good example of what Sony needs to encourage developers to do. Vita would be a must have if Sony threw enough money at Sega and Atlus to bring the new Persona to the system.
  • ollyn - December 20, 2013 6:07 p.m.

    My view at this point is that if Gravity Rush, Wipeout, Uncharted, Killzone, Tearaway, LBP, Soul Sacrifice etc... Aren't going to sell the console then there isn't really a market for it. These are good games and a few have been unfairly compared to their console brethren (didn't see Mario 3d land getting pasted for not being anywhere near as good as galaxy or even the more recent 3d world). Vitas new library doesn't hold a cadle to the 3ds but it's back catalogue wipes the floor with it. PS1 games still play well on the device and there are some great PSP titles I missed and with the indie push and decent ports (rayman) there is no real reason to regret owning one. Trouble is there isn't really a great incentive to own one. I bought in for gravity rush and have loved the device, but I can see why many are yet to be convinced and now that popular consensus is suggesting its a failure the momentum will be hard to change.
  • Cyberninja - December 20, 2013 7:40 p.m.

    As both a 3DS and Vita owner, I have to say the claim that back library is better on the Vita is false, Vita has some PSone games and PSP games, now compare that to DS support which probably has more games then the available PS1 and PSP games together, some GB and GBC games, some NES games and GBA games if you are an ambassador. Then the 3DS even takes the backlogging category as well. after all you even said that it had some psp games you missed, which doesn't apply to everyone. I owned a DS and a PSP last gen as well and seeing as I can still play all my DS games and I can only play the PSP games I downloaded I feel 3DS is even better if you want to play older titles.
  • ollyn - December 20, 2013 7:55 p.m.

    I haven't come across a PSP or PS1 title I cannot play to be honest so saying 'some' when Ps one alone has a massive catalogue on PSN is really selling it short. it may be great if you owned the older consoles and still have the hard copies but I was largely referring to readily available titles. let's face it I'm am going to be really hunting for a copy of minish cap and it's not available eshop. Certain,y if you had a shop that sells old ds cartridges you are set but very few shops in my area do these days.
  • Cyberninja - December 20, 2013 8:18 p.m.

    That's a shame, I have literally kept all of my DS cards so I have those already and being an ambassador they gave away the minish cap. Also I say some PS1 games because there are always going to be some missing games if you get into specific games you are looking for that are more obscure but they are mostly good about it, since they all the big names. But I was talking about in general and not really down to personal situations when I bring up backwards compatibility
  • SomeOddGuy - December 20, 2013 8:53 p.m.

    Should bring it to your attention a few massive PS1 and PSP games aren't currently available for download on the PS Vita shop, and they aren't obscure titles either. Only till recently did FFV get support for download in the store on the Vita, and titles like Spyro and Crash are still nowhere to be seen.(yet apparently from users on the PSBlog comment threads, the games have already been patched out in other territories) Metal Gear Solid 1 still has no support as does every other Metal Gear game on the PSP(Peace Walker being the exception), and several different block busters for the PSP still haven't seen the light of day on the digital market.(Birth By Sleep and FFVII: Crisis Core are some of the most prevalent ones) I'm not trying to sell it short that there isn't a great and massive back library of games for download on the Vita, but it's not like people are that crossed about not being able to play some DS games as they're still made heavily available and with quite relative ease(and to no extra charge for many that own them as the support comes from physical backwards compatibility). One of people's biggest issues initially with the Vita was over the fact it wasn't going to allow them to carry over their existing libraries unless it was digital(to which I rub my PSP Go in my friend's faces(I don't actually)). That alone deterred many from jumping on the bandwagon, even though they still have the option to keep their old PSPs. So this whole argument about the DS games being difficult to find is sort of bull#%@(sorry, I just morally can't bring it to myself to swear publicly) since unlike the PS Vita, the 3DS supports full backwards compatibility for all DS games, local or foreign.(though there are exceptions to peripheral based ones) Not to mention that DS games are still sold nationally(internationally most likely) at almost all major retailers and easily online, with second hand stores having plenty of remaining stock left of such titles. Sorry about the big ol' rant above, but I've got a TL:DR version: If you're gonna include the Vita's (gimped) support of PSP and PS1 games at the moment, you're going to have to also apply the same principle to the 3DS and its massive DS library support AS WELL as it's (currently shoddy) Virtual Console service. There's not going to be a double standard here.
  • ollyn - December 20, 2013 10:45 p.m.

    That's fair enough we can agree to disagree. Personally having FF, RE, TR, MGS, arc the lad, medieval, soul reader, silent hill etc... It's just no contest on the back catalogue noticed used the word back catalogue and not backwards comparability. I guess it comes down to preference I guess. For me the vita back catalogue wipes the floor with 3DS.
  • SomeOddGuy - December 20, 2013 10:58 p.m.

    It is definitely fair to say that, and I'll even hand Sony much merit in building their ps1 digital catalog to the strength it is to this day, especially since NOA(and maybe NOE) has rather floundered their digital release schedule of old games. But as stated, different strokes for different individuals, and anyone can enjoy whatever they like. I just wished Sony actually took the time to work with the vita on a few of the issues its store has... There should be no reason I need my friend's PS3 just to get my Dissidia DLC in my game...
  • Divine Paladin - December 20, 2013 5:32 p.m.

    I find it a bit odd that GR is defending the Vita and verbally molesting the Wii U. I mean, I defend both (I converted from being a strong believer in the U's failure), but come on, if you're gonna claim the Wii U is doomed when it has an excellent prospective 2014 line up, at least acknowledge the fact that most gamers have NO idea of any unique games are coming to the Vita.
  • dvlordofthesith - December 20, 2013 12:48 p.m.

    The vita's initial price tag hurt. It originally cost as much as most consoles, but the bottom line is games. I really have not had any reason to pick one up because there is no stand out title I must play. The remote play is nice but I have to say the Wii U's game pad is way better. Being paired with the PS4 now is going to help it but in the end if its just used as extension of the PS4 and not stand alone then it will fail. Take a page from nintendo and port over all the good games from the earlier systems. Make it a true successor giving it a great library of older games: more PS1 and PS2 titles plus new originals. Combine that with remote play of PS4 and PS3 games and this could be a great system.
  • Cyberninja - December 20, 2013 9:49 a.m.

    I am gulity of the wait and see for Vita on PS+ I only bought one game for it this year and thats because it was a special edtion funny enough it was a port of game and tearaway while it looks fun will be on PS+ sooner or later, I personally fell Vita is worse off then Wiiu, at the end of the generation there will be no doubt that it was truly worth owning since Nintendo and whatever exclusives third parties make always make a nintendo console worth it at the end of the day(skip the wiiu and there is going to be something you really want to play). While with Vita I am not to sure what it will look like at the end of the generation, I have one already but I rarely if ever use it for exclusives the only one I played on it was Gravity Rush and I have Soul Sacfrice downloaded for free if I ever clear my memory card of PSone classics. its in an odd spot if it can start more series and have more most have games then I would see its value, tearaway looks fun but it is short which isn't something Vita needs, the longest lasting game so far is Persona 4 which is a enhanced port which isn't good. Even in Japan the holiday boost isn't selling any more units then usually while Wiiu is selling like wildfire right now. or in short Vita needs its own games that last a good amount of time and identity away from home consoles, I bought a Vita for unique games on the go and not as a PS4 emulator(I don't plan on having a PS4 for a while)

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