Sony's Vita launch: Success or failure?

A week after the PS Vita launch in North America, CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy takes a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the new portable game console.

Despite so-so sales numbers, the Vita has some life to it. Sarah Tew/CNET

Yesterday, we got some new numbers on the number of Vita hardware and software units sold, so I thought it would be a good time for a Vita launch recap, with a quick look at what's gone right and what's gone wrong.

First, the numbers
Sony says it has sold more than 1.2 million Vita units worldwide since the portable launched in Japan on December 17. As CNET blogger Don Reisinger noted in his post , Sony didn't break down the sales figures by country, but acknowledged that this month's launch across the U.S. and Europe helped the Vita "exceed expectations" at this point in its life cycle.

That 1.2 million unit hardly measures up to iPhone or iPad numbers (or Kindle Fire units allegedly sold in its first couple months) and in some regions (the U.K. for one), the Vita's sales numbers have fallen short of Nintendo's 3DS launch numbers, which fizzled after a strong first week and only began to take off when Nintendo lowered the price to $169, which hurt profits .

The added cost of Vita memory helps Sony's profit margins but can make people shy away from buying the system. Sony

Anecdotally, I've been to four GameStop stores in Manhattan, and at every store, sales reps said the Vita was selling well (the store nearest to our office was sold out of $250 Wi-Fi-only units). That's a pretty small sample--and this is Manhattan--but when the Nintendo 3DS first launched, there were many more 3DS boxes stacked up in these same stores waiting to be sold.

Sony also said that it had sold 2 million software units, though it didn't break out how many of those units represented cheaper sub-$10 titles sold on the PlayStation Network (PSN).

Either way, you're only looking at consumers buying less than two games per person at launch ($49.99 Uncharted: Golden Abyss remains the No. 1 title downloaded on PSN).

In short, numbers-wise, things don't look all that fantastic, but Sony isn't saddled with the same expectations as Nintendo. The relatively high price of the Vita coupled with the additional cost of the required proprietary memory card left many people betting that the Vita would have a rough go of it. No one thought Sony would hit it out of the park at launch, and it hasn't. What we're looking at is a solid single that Sony's doing its best to stretch into a double.

At least it's got a runner on board with no outs.

The reviews are good
One big thing the Vita has going for it is that it has received generally very good reviews (including from CNET). Having played around with it for several days now, I'm finding that I've become much less interested in my iPhone or tablets for gaming (I have an iPad 2 along with a Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, and Samsung Galaxy) and exclusively play the Vita on the subway to and from work. While the Vita's price is steep for many folks, it's hard not to want one once you play around with it.

Interesting side note: While the Vita has been cited as more of an "adult" gaming device, I can report that my 12-year-old nephew, Brett, who I use as sort of a barometer for portable gaming devices, is working on selling his 3DS along with some games on eBay to raise the necessary cash for a Vita (and a memory card). That's a good sign for Sony.

High-capacity memory cards in high demand
In Manhattan, anyway, the 32GB cards, which retail for a whopping $99, are in short supply. After checking in with four local GameStop stores, I managed to snag one at the store closest to our offices by asking the sales rep on the phone to put it on hold for me (I said I'd get there in 15 minutes). I think Sony may have underestimated demand for the higher-capacity cards. For better or worse, consumers seem to be realizing that even a 16GB card fills up pretty fast and that it's better to spend the extra $40 and step up to the 32GB card. Somehow you feel slightly less ripped off by buying the highest capacity card for $99. I'm not sure why, but you do.

The ugly: a New Jersey seventh-grader cut his hand opening the packaging for a Vita memory card and required stitches (click to enlarge). Brett L.

Speaking of that memory card, Sony's packaging is terrible
I was surprised to learn that my nephew's friend at school (a seventh-grader) was cut while opening the packaging for the Vita memory card he bought (the cut required stitches--see photo). Ironically, because of the cut, he has been unable to play with his Vita (a sad tale, I know).

I thought the kid had just been unlucky (and a bit careless) until I purchased a card myself and found out how difficult it was to get the card out of the packaging without wounding myself (I used scissors to cut the card out but it was tricky). Sony needs to do something about this.

No e-mail client? No e-reader app?
My colleague Scott Stein wrote an article about how the Vita needs to be more versatile , and while I wasn't expecting a ton of apps at launch (Netflix does work really well), I would have like to have seen a bare minimum of "productivity" apps, which includes some sort of e-mail client (yes, you can use Webmail, but an e-mail client would be better). I'd also like to see an e-reading app or two (the Sony Reader app would be a start, but it would also be nice to see Kindle and Nook apps). The Vita would actually make for a half-decent e-reader.

Launch titles are decent, but Sony needs to lower prices for downloadable titles
I've been quite happy playing a lot of FIFA and Virtua Tennis 4 with some Uncharted and Rayman Origins thrown in. While expensive, many of the launch titles look and play great, though some are mobile retreads of their console versions.

I just wish there were also a selection of inexpensive sub-$5 PSN titles to choose from as well as more freebies. As Sony gets set to spend $50 million on advertising, hopefully it's also got some dough set aside to subsidize software development. Microsoft has been spending lots of money to get more apps into its Windows Phone app store. Sony should probably follow that lead.

Time for full user reviews
With the Vita having a virtual keyboard, it's time that Sony started letting people post full reviews on games in the PlayStation Store. The star rating system is OK but I'd like to read user opinions as well.

I haven't found a Vita case I like so I'm using an old case designed for the PSP (yes, the Vita fits). David Carnoy/CNET

Disappointing selection of cases
Apple's made a mint from its Smart Cover for the iPad. Amazon has the slick (and expensive) Lighted Cover for the Kindle. Both are well-designed accessories with high margins.

Sony, however, just doesn't have anything yet that's all that enticing in the case department. I went into GameStop and looked online but really couldn't find anything I liked, so I'm using an old case I used for my PSP. No, it's not the neoprene one that came with the PSP (that's a touch small for the Vita), but plenty of folks are clamoring for Sony to bring back some sort of simple neoprene case.

Buy a game on card or download it?
The good thing about buying a "hard copy" of a game on a card is that you can resell it or trade it in. The bad thing is that you have no backup should you lose that tiny card. The alternative is to download the game from the PlayStation Store, which gets you a slight discount (usually $5). Ideally, you'd be able to back up your hard copy or pay even less for a digital-only version. As it stands, neither path feels quite right.

Despite my gripes (yes, I have more but I'll save them for another column) and the so-so sales numbers, I'm more bullish than bearish on the Vita. Part of the reason for that is I'm convinced this was really more of a "soft" launch of the system than a hard one.

When will a hard launch come? Well, it will start with "Dads and Grads" in the late spring, and then work its way into "Back to School," and then Sony will go full out for the holiday season, perhaps serving up a price cut.

The good news is that the foundation is here. The bad news is that there's still a lot of building to do.

 

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