Throughout the 1980s and '90s, there was a gold standard brand-name in consumer electronics: Sony. If you had disposable income and were interested in entertaining yourself, you were looking at Sony products first, and then working your way down.
In the early part of this century, that mantle was captured by Steve Jobs' reincarnated Apple. Through its dominance in high-end mobile devices and consolidation of major functions, Apple pulled the dedicated portable gaming system out of the mainstream consumer's hand and replaced it with a sleek, pricey, all-in-one device.
On Wednesday, Sony's new PlayStation Vita made its debut in North American stores as what Sony's promoted tweet calls a "#Gamechanger." In the area of dedicated portable gaming devices, the Vita appears to be less of a game changer and more of a "ball advancer."
The Vita's predecessor, the PlayStation Portable, is indeed the go-to choice for many a hardcore gamer's travel companion. However, at first glance, the Vita offers only a logical evolution from the PSP, especially in the area of design, as you can see in this visual comparison. The updated control layout and larger screen point to a device edging closer to replicating the experience of being at home on say, your PlayStation 3 console. In fact, the Vita does exactly that, allowing a user to pause his or her PS3 game at home and resume it on the Vita.
Sony is fighting a two-front war against Nintendo and Apple in mobile gaming, and to simply beef-up and improve the PSP to near-console level performance would be a fruitless exercise. Instead, Sony has indeed scaled-up the PSP and added contemporary connectivity features, such as WiFi/3G compatibility and access to services like Twitter, Facebook and Netflix. Also added are front and rear cameras and a multi-touch screen, features that will make smartphone and table users feel at home. The product still ultimately relies upon a user's desire for an immersing video game experience on the go, which is great for consumers who can't help but play games wherever they are, but dicey for the person who already has access to endless free entertainment tacked on their phone or tablet.
By infusing the web-reliant features we've come to expect out of any device released in 2012, Sony is essentially telling us "all the fun stuff you can do on your phone, you can now do it on our thing that is a way better gaming experience." But do the hardcore gamers care about integrating the social web with their gaming device? Can the casual gamer be lured by higher-end games with the carrot of not being pulled away from the things that currently tether them to their phones? The Vita seeks to be the answer both of these questions.
In the last release cycle, Sony first had to battle Nintendo, whose Nintendo DS clobbered the PSP in sales, although certainly the devices aimed for different demographics. The DS, like all Nintendo products, is a much more playful, kid-oriented experience that still manages to appeal to a wide age-range.
The DS shipped more than 150 million units, compared to the PSP's 70 million in roughly the same time frame. During this cycle, which began in 2004, Apple began to break away from the pack in mobile entertainment, and hasn't looked back. Granted, the aims and methods of Apple were completely different than those of Sony and Nintendo, but they still managed to indirectly make mobile-gaming a part of their all-inclusive iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices.
For this go-round, Apple, and to an extent Google's Android platform, will continue to do what they have been doing: improving phones and tablets and providing access to simpler, self-contained game experiences for little or no secondary investment. Essentially, Apple and Google make life devices that can accommodate a somewhat advanced simulation of a game console. Meanwhile, Sony has taken its very advanced portable game console and tried to accommodate the features of a life device.
The consumer economics of this venture are also a big risk for Sony. The Vita is retailing on launch day for $249 with WiFi, and $300 with WiFi and 3G capability. While Vita is backwards compatible with PSP games, new Vita-specific titles will cost you anywhere from $30-$50. Given how many free and cheap games are available on the App Store and Android markets, the proposition of a Vita and half a dozen games versus a smartphone could be considered a virtual wash.
Make no mistake, Sony is not truly challenging Apple or Google outright. The 3DS will be the primary competition the Vita is measured against, although it is already lagging behind Nintendo's counterpart and its PSP ancestor. Sony believes it is doing very different things for the end user than a smartphone or tablet, but the company is also not ignoring the elephant in the room.
As Jack Tretton, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment America told Investors.com, "Smartphones and tablets could help video game devices by introducing more people to video games and getting them interested in higher-end software and hardware."
This thinking is the truly big gamble of the Vita. In a struggling global economy, the logic behind Tretton's statement means a major financial commitment for consumers who already have these devices and are potentially purchasing a Vita on top of them.
The Vita's success may be ultimately tied to this question: do enough people love console gaming enough that they will pay a premium to take it with them?