What the PS Vita really needs: Versatility

Sony's next-gen gaming handheld has impressive hardware and promising games. While some say a dedicated gaming device can survive, the Vita will need to be flexible to stay alive.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I went to Sony's PlayStation Vita page and counted the number of non-gaming apps promoted for its next-generation handheld game system: 18. That's it. The iPhone? Well over half a million (games included).

Sure, the Vita's 18 apps beat what most other handheld game systems have by a landslide. That's just on day one; I expect at least a solid handful of other apps to follow. Still, it's a concern. More than that, I see it as the Vita's biggest key to surviving: apps must be a focus. Games, too, of course, but most definitely apps.

We no longer use handhelds for a single purpose anymore, for the most part. The PlayStation Vita is, undoubtedly, a superior piece of gaming hardware. I've been playing with one for the past few days, and despite its familiar looks, the quality of the hardware bleeds out the pores. From the screen to the controls, it's designed to stand out. Sony's expertise in making games is also largely uncontested. Let's put both of those elements aside, because few will question the Vita's ability to play excellent games.

What many will question, though, is how versatile the Vita is, and how approachable to nongamers. Netflix is a launch app for the Vita, but Netflix is also on the Nintendo 3DS --and, on nearly every other consumer gadget known to man. Facebook, a Twitter app, and Foursquare are in the launch apps. The rest fall into a gray area of Sony-designed apps--Welcome Park, Chat, Friends, Party, Near--that focus on targeted ways to connect PlayStation users. Nintendo has apps like these on the 3DS, such as Streetpass Mii Plaza, and the utility fades when there aren't other 3DS users around.

The Vita can do apps; touch-screen map functionality works like it does on a smartphone. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vita, hardware-wise, is much different than the 3DS, far more akin to a tablet or smartphone. Its touch screen is much more like a smartphone's; Web browsing by touch is far more intuitive. Similarly, other apps seem like they could easily be adapted for use. The Vita has GPS, optional 3G, and all the gyroscopic controls of a smartphone. The sky's the limit, really. GPS mapping and video recording are recent additions to the PS Vita firmware that could not only be useful in general, but could be folded into future online and location-aware games.

Not every app needs to be on a handheld game system, obviously. In fact, there's something to be said for a focused entertainment-only device. However, if I bought a Vita, I'd expect a full suite of music and video apps to compete with my iPhone: Pandora, Hulu Plus, a radio app of the quality of TuneIn, YouTube, for starters. News apps and news readers would also be a plus.

I'd like to see these iPhone apps on my Vita (Skype and Netflix are coming soon). Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Why do I expect this? Because, with that big, beautiful screen and processing power that the Vita has, I'd expect it to function as a general entertainment device. I'm spoiled by my iOS devices. David Carnoy asked, "What if the Vita was made by Apple?" Well, if it were made by Apple, it would have a lot more than 18 apps.

More importantly, the Vita should develop games with connected, app-like features. The iPhone's level of social connectivity in games--including using Facebook Connect as a social bridge--will be a hurdle that the Vita will need to overcome if it wants to reach more casual gamers, or those outside of a hard-core, PlayStation-oriented audience. These apps and many of the downloadable games also need to be affordable; maybe not 99 cents, but on the order of the affordable games that Nintendo has smartly been starting to populate the 3DS eShop with. Of course, many subscription-based apps would be free to download.

It's not too late for the Vita to step it up with apps and features--after all, it's not even formally launched in the U.S. yet--but I hope Sony does with the Vita what it never did with the PSP: raise the software up to the level of its hardware.

Can the Vita be the Kindle of gaming? Sarah Tew/CNET

True, the Vita needs to do none of these things. Perhaps, unlike a do-it-all tablet or smartphone, the Vita is truly aiming to be a dedicated gaming device, a Kindle for games. I appreciate the idea of dedicated devices-- heck, I bought a Kindle --but versatility and price become a factor there, as well. I bought my Kindle because it was $79. I can read books by any publisher currently making e-books. Both of those aren't true for the Vita: the price is higher, and the fragmentation of the gaming market prevents me, obviously, from playing Nintendo, Microsoft, or even App Store games on the Vita. Heck, the Vita can't even play all the old digital downloads of PSP games (backward compatibility is a case-by-case basis).

But, I return to my main point: the Vita's biggest challenge isn't its hardware. It isn't even its games, although Sony will need to continue a full-court press to maintain the quality seen in the Vita launch titles. The challenge is purpose and function--not for the submarket of PSP users, but for the larger population that Sony is obviously striving for. Can we live with another tweener device, or can the Vita grow out into a versatile platform?

I'm curious to see, in 2012, how that plays out. As the rest of the Vita's apps go live in the next week, I'll follow up on how the experience adds up.

 

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