Can the PlayStation Vita succeed?

Sony's upcoming killer gaming handheld is aiming for the stars, but how likely is it to survive?

Rewind to E3, June 2011: we saw the PlayStation Vita . We marveled at its capabilities and its price. For $250--at the time, the same price as a Nintendo 3DS--Sony offered a far superior piece of hardware. We looked forward to its release at the end of the year.

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Of course, that was then, and this is now. The Nintendo 3DS dropped its price to $170, still expensive but more sensible. The Vita will release in Japan on December 17, but in the U.S. the release has been delayed until February 22, 2012. Sony has been keen to make a comeback and make a new handheld game system to revive the flailing world of the PSP. Can it succeed?

Regardless of the hype and demand the Vita is able generate in the U.S., there's still a general sentiment of disappointment sweeping through the gaming community on this side of the world. As the Vita misses the 2011 holiday season, a huge loss of momentum follows. Instead of cashing in on becoming what would likely be the toy to get this year, the Vita will see a late February release, just in time to coincide with paying off bank-breaking gift-giving expenditures from a few weeks prior.

It's easy to make lofty accusations about missing golden opportunities and of course we don't know what truly influenced this decision made by Sony, but it's impossible to ignore the potential impact the Vita could have had in the U.S. before 2012 sets in.

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Price
The Kindle Fire has become one of the hot holiday gadgets of the year, and it can play games. It only costs $199. The Nintendo 3DS is $170.

In today's new tech landscape, $250 once again seems expensive. The 3G-enabled version of the Vita will cost even more: $300. That's the cost of a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 bundle. It's $50 more than an entry-level iPod Touch.

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Let's also not forget how much more Vita games will cost, not only compared with the 3DS, but also the thousands of titles in the App Store. Sure, a 99-cent bubble-popping game won't compare with something like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but explaining that to the casual consumer may not be an easy task.

Features
In an age of convergence devices, we've come to expect far more from our gadgets. The PS3 and Xbox 360 are making strides for their streaming-media and home theater functions. Smartphones are useful as cameras, always-on computers, and phones--and, of course, game systems.

The Vita will have to offer apps and services that make it multifaceted. Sure, there already does seem to be plenty of support from social entities like Twitter and Facebook , but we've already come to take these types apps for granted. The Vita will need to eventually match the content prowess of its big brother, the PlayStation 3, in order to maintain customer appeal. Even the Nintendo 3DS has Netflix. Can Sony develop software and partnerships that make the Vita more than a fancy game system?

Fun
Hard-core games are a joy...for hard-core gamers. Studded with dual control pads, front and back touch panels, gyroscopic sensors, and front- and rear-facing cameras, the PlayStation Vita is a machine dripping with potential. It's all for naught, though, if it's not fun. Those extra control schemes can also get confusing, especially for a newcomer to gaming. Heck, they even got confusing for us. During our time with games like Little Deviants, we found it confusing switching back and forth between control schemes. Also, that 5-inch screen might be big and gorgeous, but stretching your thumbs to reach across it for touch-gaming, isn't as simple as it sounds.

Android tablets have told the tale over and over again: an extra USB port or SD card slot doesn't sell a gadget. The Vita's control schemes are utilized in unique ways for some of the launch games, but cheap, mass-appeal games with unique qualities will be essential. As good as Uncharted looks, Infinity Blade II for the iPhone and iPad isn't too shabby, either. Graphics alone can't sell the Vita. Sony will need to tap deeply into its rich game library for ideas that can reach out in new ways, much like many of the most critically successful indie downloads on the PSN network, such as Flower.

As we mentioned above, it's here where Sony needs to flex its gaming muscle. The company needs to pounce on the fact that a game machine without buttons is missing out on satisfying and precise analog controls.

Taking advantage of the PS3
The Vita has a huge advantage going for it: Sony's technological expertise and the promise of integration with the PlayStation 3. The potential could be limitless: the Vita could be a satellite portable for the PS3, streaming remote content, playing shared games, or it could even be used as a versatile PS3 controller. The PS3 could use its expansive hard-drive storage for downloading and archiving Vita games. The Wii and DS never worked together the way they could have, and Microsoft has no true portable game system. It's Sony's opportunity to miss.

It'll be great if Sony can pull this collaboration off, but what will really make or break the union will be ease of use. Sony is at an instant advantage with the Vita and PS3 one-two punch, but executing it intuitively and logically will dictate whether the tandem lives or dies.

Backward compatibility, and helping old PSP owners out
As much as the Vita has going for it, it's still stuck in a difficult place: while it will play older PSP games via PSN download, there's no UMD drive for old PSP games. PSP owners will have to buy games over again or give up their gaming library. Nintendo, over the years, has always wisely offered a backward-compatible path for the first few years of its new hardware. The Game Boy Advance played Game Boy games. The Nintendo DS played Game Boy Advance games. The Nintendo 3DS plays Nintendo DS games. Your fan base isn't abandoned. The PSP Go was a download-only game system, but few PSP owners ever chose to upgrade because of that major hurdle.

This time around, the Vita has to offer some way to redeem games for codes or offer content to existing owners, or it'll have a hard time gaining traction. Apple launched its iOS App Store from scratch, but most of its apps are free or under $5. The Vita's games, likely to go for around $50 a pop, are an investment.

 

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