Poor PlayStation Vita (opens in new tab). It has been the whipping boy of critics and outraged gamers since day one, and with every sales figure update or release schedule revision, many are keen to pounce on the handheld and declare it ‘dead’. Sony’s refusal to release official sales figures only breeds paranoia, and its sparse gaming line-up strongly implies that developers may have given up hope too. Thing is, Vita isn’t dead. It’s just resting its eyes. It’s waiting for the PS4 (opens in new tab) to unlock so much of that potential locked away inside its hard and software.
Make no mistake, PlayStation 4 can save Vita from failure. Without PS4, there’s little doubt that the nay-sayers are right--Vita will flop, thanks to its relatively high price, the stiff competition it faces, and a dwindling line-up of quality games. However, this winter could represent a significant boost for the handheld that, for all its faults, is still a cracking little piece of tech.
Sony needs to tackle price first. There are two ways it’ll do this, and both involve PS4. The first is simple. Recent rumours posit that Vita will be bundled with some PS4s (opens in new tab), and many suggest the price for this pairing will be $499 (or roughly £429). That’s the same price as a core Xbox One but, more importantly, it represents a price-cut of almost 50% on Vita's current price. That’s huge, even if the initial outlay of $500 / £430 feels like a swift kick to your bank account's dangly bits.
Secondly, Sony will use PS Plus to reduce the cost of gaming on Vita. If you want to play PS4 online, you need PS Plus (opens in new tab). Given that Microsoft has been charging £40 per year for Xbox Live Gold, and people have been willingly paying for almost a decade, it’s safe to assume that most PS4 adopters will be happy to sign up for PS Plus. Now, the big selling point of Plus is that it offers you several free games every month (via Instant Game Collection), and this usually includes a couple of Vita games. So, in theory, you could get a Vita bundled with your PS4, and fill it up with an enviable library of top games for just over £100 / $140. And let’s not forget--that’s just one aspect of PS Plus’ offer.
Price-wise, that’s attractive. However, Vita needs to justify its existence in your living room, even if it’s as cheap as a second-hand copy of Billie Piper’s autobiography. No doubt the idea of using Vita as a second-screen will interest many developers, especially as Nintendo has laid the groundwork with Wii U. Expect map screens (opens in new tab), inventory displays, and loads of radars. More than that--expect the ability to play your PS4 games remotely, a feature Sony has already confirmed (opens in new tab).
This feature is cool, but has limited use (the idea of playing a beautiful next-gen game on such a small screen seems counter-productive). It’s likely to become secondary to some of PS4’s other, more interesting media features. Given the right integration--and let’s be clear, this is speculation at this point--Vita could be used to share media, video chat, or keep track of your XMB while you’re playing a game. It could even be used to watch a friend's game stream, while you play something else (or follow their lead) on your console. PS4’s hardware is certainly capable of that kind of multi-tasking, and one of the buzzwords of modern media is ‘multi-screening’. It makes sense that Sony would try to occupy as much of your attention as possible.
Sony has already confirmed that PS4 will support other tablets and second-screen devices. Cutting itself out of the iPad demographic would be madness. However, the more functionality it can cram into Vita, the more likely it is that users will opt to make it their second-screen of choice. Given the PR high that Sony is currently floating on, the PS4 manufacturer is in a position to demand that third-parties support Vita with their second-screen functionality. More than that, Sony can ensure that certain Vita exclusive content is built into the biggest next-gen launch games.
Now, there’s no doubt that Vita will need proper, exclusive games to survive as a handheld. However, acting as a home to next-gen companion experiences will definitely help to plug the current holes in its release schedule. Being able to play as a drone in Tom Clancy's The Division (opens in new tab), for example, is no substitute for a proper, big-budget Clancy game on Vita, but it’s better than nothing. And if Vita can establish itself as a real companion for PS4, widening its user-base, then the exclusive games will come. Developers just don’t want to risk spending money making full-fat handheld games if there aren’t enough Vita owners to buy them. By becoming BFFs with PS4, Vita can grow its user-base enough to justify the development time and cost that comes with bigger handheld games.
There’s one more ace up Uncle Sony’s sleeve, though; and it’s one that could change Vita’s fortunes on its own. Gaikai. The cloud streaming company that Sony bought back in 2012 could change everything for Vita, because it could potentially offer up every PSone, PS2 and PS3 game ever made to be played remotely (opens in new tab). Gaikai could be the key to unlocking Sony’s impressive back catalogue of games, and Vita would be the ideal machine to siphon all that potential juice. The ability to steal WiFi from your local Coffeebucks to have a quick game of TimeSplitters 2 would be huge. Huge. Especially if game streaming came included with PS Plus, which, you know… you probably already own for PS4.
There are plenty of theoretical scenarios here, but none are far-fetched. If even half of them come to fruition, then Vita could easily become an essential part of our gaming set-up once again. Sony has the potential to turn Vita into a cheap, media and game-filled companion to their already sold-out next-gen console. Let’s hope someone is taking notes…
(So was Sony successful? Read our PS4 review to see how the systems match up.)
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