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How To Save the Playstation Vita June 7, 2012

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
1 comment so far

In the lead-up to E3 2012, all eyes were on Sony to see just what they were going to do with their new portable console, the Playstation Vita.  It had great previews and fantastic potential, but after launch the sales of the device had stagnated due to its high price and lack of any exclusive games that could serve as the killer-apps for the system.  Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the expected killer-app launch title, had not received bad reviews, but it didn’t score high enough for the critics to tell all the players to go out and buy the system immediately.  After launch, there wasn’t a regular release schedule of exclusive games, the majority of the games released for the console were either handheld versions of already released titles with either some extra features or extra content, which weren’t enough to merit purchasing the device. or some of the highly anticipated exclusives that did come, like Resistance: Burning Skies, which turned out to be major disappointments.

Now, with E3 on the way, people were looking at Sony to make the announcements to bring the Vita back into the handheld fight.  The top requests I heard amongst the gaming press and my peers boiled down to two things.  They wanted a price drop (including a price drop on some of the peripherals like memory cards) and they wanted TV Out capabilities.  After Sony concluded their E3 2012 Press Conference, neither of those things were mentioned, and I can think of plenty of gamers, myself included, who considered at that moment to think twice about the future of the handheld, whereas some decided to write off the handheld entirely.

But how can a handheld made by Sony and released with so much potential, have had such disappointing results?  Well, lets look at some of its problems and lets see if we can determine why they are problems, and what Sony can do to fix them.

A $250 price point for a handheld is not an unheard of or taboo price.  The Playstation Portable launched at that price, and while it was not the winner of that handheld generation, it was able to hold its own against Nintendo’s undefeated handheld platform track record.  However, there is a stigma attached to high prices for a handheld.  At $250 dollars its competing with more than just the Nintendo DS or 3DS, it’s competing with other handheld devices that, lets face it, have more uses than just for playing games, like the Apple iPhone or Droid.  Other gaming handhelds, even ones that had the ability to make phone calls, have come and gone at higher prices, like the Nokia N-Gage.  In this day and age, it seems like $250 is just too much disposable income to expect from the consumer for a device with only one practical use.

When I was in Los Angeles last year, I waited patiently to be one of the first people to actually use the Sony Vita at E3 2011 and I asked the people in the crowd what features they were hoping to see in the new handheld console.  We had heard from Sony how good the graphics were going to be on this handheld, and how good all the games were going to be looking on it.  The problem was, these graphics would be limited by the Vita’s screen, which, while a high-quality OLED, was not as impressive as the big screen HDTVs they already owned.  Their response was they wanted TV Out in the Vita.  When I got up to the front of the line and had the opportunity to do Q&A with Sony’s Vita people, it was the first question I asked, and the response was no.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of comments in regards to the 3G version of the handheld.  At a $50 dollar premium over the WiFi only model, it is quite possible that the decision to make a 3G version of the handheld at launch was a mistake.  Requiring its own data plan and forcing users to pay money for the service from a provider that has a serious stigma attached to it for poor performance in other handheld devices was a major concern since it was first announced, but that didn’t necessarily mean it was a mistake.

Where they failed was in the implementation and sales of these 3G premium models.

For one, the 3G model Vita, even though it requires a cell phone provider and a cell phone plan, is not sold in cell phone stores.  This was cutting out a HUGE opportunity for cell phone retailers who wanted to sell new devices and data plans.  The problem is, cell phone stores don’t even have the ability to stock the Vita.  With that in mind, I asked a family member of mine who worked in a cell phone store if anyone brought in a 3G Vita to set up a data plan for it and they told me that not one person has come in asking for that, and they hadn’t heard from any other sales people that this was even tried.  Had they sold the devices in the stores, they may have had a better opportunity to sell it to the customer with a data plan bundled with it, but even with 3G connectivity and an expensive plan the Vita lacked the ability to make full use of it and allow the user to do something else they wanted it to be able to do, make phone calls.

The other problems are the costs to the customer and the provider.  On most cellular devices there’s a limit as to how big a file is which can be downloaded over the cellular airwaves.  If Sony intends to release full-sized retail Vita games for download over 3G, this would make the cellular providers cry, or if they let the cellular providers disallow large downloads, they will make their customers cry for paying premium money for a device and a data plan where they have to use WiFi for big downloads every time.  Its a lose-lose on both ends, and is why I’m questioning the decision to release a 3G model of the Vita at all.  If anyone has a 3G Vita with a data plan they use, can they please post a comment if there are indeed limits as to what can and can’t be downloaded over 3G?

So, what was coming to the Vita after E3?  What was Sony’s major plan for reinvigorating the platform?  Connectivity among the devices.  You would be able to play games on your Vita against players playing the same game on their PS3.  As I watched Jack Tretton speak at the show about all the possibilities this opened up for platform owners, all I could say to myself was, “I’ve seen this trick before.”  In fact, what Sony was doing was nothing new.  It happened back in the early 2000s when Nintendo wanted to make up for slumping sales of the Nintendo GameCube and the hope was that they could augment sales by adding connectivity between the GameCube and their extremely popular handheld devices, like the Game Boy Advance.  It didn’t work.  Game connectivity was on a game by game basis.  Most of the implementations were bonus features like exclusive armor in Metroid Prime when it was connected to a GBA running Metroid Fusion.  Other games that made heavy use of this kind of connectivity, like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, saw some popularity, but it was probably due to the branding.  The costs of having a multiplayer setup in that game, where you had a Nintendo GameCube, a copy of the game, and individual Game Boy Advances and connection cables for up to four players was a very expensive prospect for consumers, and that was just to play one game!.  It didn’t save the slumping sales of the GameCube, and by Nintendo’s own math the GameCube did not meet the total sales Nintendo was hoping for before the platform was discontinued.

So after this lengthy list of problems and complaints, what are my recommendations to save the platform?  That is, after all what this article is supposedly about.  Simple.  Give the customers what they want, don’t tell them what they want.  In fact, most of what the customers want probably could be done.  A price drop is a no-brainer.  Sony will end up taking a bigger hit on the sales of the devices than they initially wanted to, but with a wider install base it gives them the opportunity to profit further on the sales of games, especially downloadable games, which they’re pushing heavily with this device, and which have no danger of running out of supply and don’t need to be reprinted.  They also have the opportunity to make more money through retail with games and peripherals, as nobody is going to be interested in buying a memory card or a charge cable for a device they don’t own.

The second recommendation is to implement the heavily requested TV-Out feature.  Yes, I know that was probably the most requested feature from the Playstation Portable at launch and at the time it required a brand new version of the device in order to give that capability to users, but really all you need is to do exactly what is already done with iDevices (iPhone 4S, iPad 2, 3) and the Apple TV.  In fact, you already have a set-top box with a large install base you can update to be the device’s TV connection, the Playstation 3.  Simply use the WiFi capabilities of the Playstation Vita to stream the video broadcast of the Vita’s game locally to the Playstation 3, which can then display the content on a tv in HD.  Now, there are some technical challenges to this solution, mostly on the Vita’s side as it would need a lot of processing power and bandwidth to deliver a video stream wirelessly to the PS3, but Apple proved it can be done and it sure beats having to rerelease the devices with a HDMI port, which a lot of gamers asked them to do before it even launched.  In fact, the PS3 can already interface with devices like the PSP wirelessly without the need of a wireless router, so long as the Playstation is equipped with WiFi hardware and plugged into a wired network connection.

The final recommendation is to make the 3G data plan free.  Yes, I’m not typing that incorrectly.  The $50 premium on the devices should subsidise some of the costs of having a new device activated on the cellular network.  There’s no unlimited data plans offered anymore, and there are size limits on what can be downloaded on certain phones, as well as maximum data caps that can produce extremely high bills if they are gone over.  People don’t want to pay money for crippled data plans!   Sony can in turn use the free data plans as an incentive to get gamers to buy the premium models of the Vita.  If there’s any extra costs to the provider, they should be paid by Sony.  Where will the money come from this?  In the sales of the downloaded games.  As Apple figured out with the App Store, if you make it easy for people to buy your products anywhere, they will choose to buy it.  You can then take a cut out of each sale.  If you have a large install base for your product you have the opportunity to make a lot of money in sales.

So that’s my plan on how the Playstation Vita can be saved.  Is it entirely doable?  Well, you would have to talk to some experts on the Playstation Vita’s hardware but they are more then welcome to post a comment about that.  Thanks for reading!