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
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.