VITA

Is Apple killing handheld games consoles? Not if the latest 3DS sales figures, leaked to the press this week, are anything to go by.

After a torrid, troubled debut last year – and no end of dangerously premature obituaries - the remarkable turnaround of 3DS seems complete, with the console now racing towards one million sales in the UK and 20 million globally. Which makes it Nintendo's fastest-selling console ever.

The news was rather less cheery for Sony, though. In the UK, after ten weeks, around 100,000 PlayStation Vitas have been sold. That's not terrible, but it's nowhere near what Sony wanted. And, strikingly, it's not even what PSP managed in its opening week – 125,000 (still the UK's biggest console launch).

So Vita, like 3DS one year ago, finds itself the subject of brutally dismissive commentary, interpreting its performance as a dire sign of a future owned by iDevices.

Which, at this stage, seems to me as premature as it was when targeted at Nintendo's console. Yes, Sony has a lot of work to do, but there's plenty of reasons why it, too, can reverse the system's fortunes for the better.

PlayStation Vita is the greatest piece of handheld gaming tech ever created. Yet powerful hardware alone, as history teaches us, does not give any system a divine right to success.

The basics, though, are vital: a foundation for hardcore console gaming without compromise (thanks to dual analogues and near-PS3 power), with everything you'd expect from a modern portable device (touch screens, motions-sensors, cameras etc).

With a year to process the lessons of the 3DS launch, weirdly Sony both learned from and repeated some of Nintendo's key mistakes. The 3DS launch line-up was a feeble offering by anyone's reckoning, and surely contributed to gamers' collective shrug. Conscious of this, Sony and friends chucked out a ton of titles on day one to tick all the boxes, from the showcase blockbuster thrills of Uncharted, to the cheap-as-chips, pick-up-and-play joy of MotorStorm RC.

And then, nothing. Mirroring the post-launch gaming void on 3DS, new Vita releases have arrived with the regularity of Fernando Torres goals. No new games means nothing for gamers to get excited about. Nothing for gamers to get excited about means no momentum for a new console fighting to find its groove. This stuff really should be obvious.

The one big point the delayed success of 3DS does appear to prove is that there's still a big demand for a dedicated handheld console in the iPhone age. But for Nintendo to reach this stage, it was forced to take many hard decisions.

The entire marketing campaign was flipped on its head, shifting the focus away from 3D gaming, which it turned out people weren't that bothered about after all. The price was slashed dramatically by a third not even five months after launch – an unprecedented step. And major games, notably Mario Kart 7, were rushed to release to make it in time for Christmas.

It worked, with Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land and the console itself flying off shelves. Nintendo hasn't looked back since. It's easy now to say Vita will perform better with a price cut. The question is when not if.

At which point it becomes, quite properly, all about the games. Sony is already bringing many of its biggest franchises to Vita, which is all well and good. But if it wants to convince gamers it's serious about the future of handheld gaming, its biggest studios should be making them, not just the third-parties most are farmed out to.

I know of at least one big Sony studio working on a Vita exclusive, which may be revealed at E3. It needs to be one of many.

There is, however, one remaining ace up Sony's sleeve, currently barely exploited, upon which Vita's ultimate hopes of success may depend: its crossover potential with PS3. Already, games allow cloud saving between the two platforms, picking up on Vita where you left off on PS3 and vice versa.

MotorStorm RC set a critical precedent, released as a buy one version, get the other free offer across both platforms. The business implications for big budget, full price releases are a lot more significant, but it's hard to see how this unique and exciting feature of PlayStation gaming will ever truly take off unless that model becomes the standard.

I said in my original review of Vita that the prospect of a portable Call of Duty, with online play across handheld and PS3, would be a mouthwatering proposition for gamers.

That remains the case, though we await news from Activision on exactly what Call of Duty is coming to Vita and how it will work. But the bigger point is, as amazing as the idea of playing the world's most popular online shooter on the toilet sounds, it will only work if there's a deal in place for both versions.

To put it bluntly, dedicated COD fans will buy the home console version over the handheld game every time. And it's unlikely in the extreme they'll pay twice for the privilege of being able to do it in Starbucks, too.

Imagine, then, if Activision offered the Vita version for free to PS3 purchasers – or, at the very least, at a big discount. With major releases, this could transform the appeal of Sony's handheld, playing to its strengths and reminding us why smartphone gaming only goes so far.

Sony got a tremendous amount right with the tech of Vita – even if it should have launched it sooner. Now it has to do the right thing with the games, both in content and pricing, setting the example for other publishers to follow.

With its entire business suffering across the board, these are huge, costly decisions for Sony to consider taking. But for sake of Vita's future, the real question for the Japanese company is: can it afford not to take them?

What do you think of Johnny's views on the Vita? Have you got your hands on one yet?


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