Earlier today, we covered how the PlayStation TV can be hacked to play Vita titles. Today, Sony executive Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, more-or-less confirmed that Sony was planning to exit the dedicated handheld business once the Vita reaches the end of its lifespan. When asked about the possibility of a follow-up to Sony’s PSV, Yoshida noted that mobile gaming has created a tough climate for handhelds and called the possibility of a successor a “tough question.”
Yoshida put blame on the general rise of smartphone gaming, the advent of free-to-play titles, and the fact that handhelds have different hardware control schemes that simply don’t translate well to modern touch-based smartphones, Eurogamer reports. Of these points, the last is definitely true — games that try to ape the functionality of a joystick or buttons by providing virtual touch-based interfaces are often difficult to control and reserving screen space for a joystick chews up valuable real estate.
There’s no doubt the advent of smartphones created a challenging environment for handheld gaming, but I’m not convinced iPhones and Android are entirely to blame. When Sony announced in June 2013 that the PlayStation Vita would have a new feature, Remote Play, that allowed it to stream games from the PS4, sales of the Vita began to spike ahead of the PS4 launch. As this chart from VGChartz illustrates, PSV sales exploded from October to December, 2013. The Vita has sold 12.26 million units since it launched — and moved nearly 15% of them in those three months.
Clearly, the problem wasn’t with the Vita hardware, which always held up well in comparison with the Nintendo DS. Nor was it an issue of an intrinsically limited market. If it was, Nintendo’s 3DS would never have broken the 50-million mark. While that’s just a fraction of the Nintendo DS, the DS was produced for a decade, while the 3DS is just 4.5 years old. It may never reach the DS’ sales volume, but it should have no trouble racking up another 10-20 million units over the course of its life.
There are multiple reasons why Sony’s Vita sits at 12 million units shipped as compared to 53 million for Nintendo that have nothing to do with mobile gaming. Remote Play was billed as a late-launching Vita feature, but it’s has always had asterisks attached to it. While it works, the Vita doesn’t have an identical set of inputs as the PS4, which means certain functions are emulated using the rear touch panels. Lag is also a common problem, unless you’re sitting on top of the PS4.
But the problem isn’t just Remote Play’s lackluster implementation. From the beginning, Sony has gouged users for memory cards ($100 for a 32GB Vita-compatible card, instead of $18 for a standard model), offered lackluster ports, and published just a handful of titles relative to Nintendo. Nintendo published 35 of the top 50 games for the 3DS, as measured by total sales. Sony published just 13 of the top 50 Vita titles. The bestselling title for the Vita, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, moved 1.47 million copies worldwide — which puts it at 26th place on the 3DS chart.
Even today, Sony continues to lock games behind whitelists or simply ignores them. There’s a universe of potential PS2 games that could be playable on Vita, but aren’t. Time and time again, the company has ignored its handheld division, and while it has a reputation as a great platform for indie games and JRPGs, that’s not enough to sustain it in the face of competition from mobile and Nintendo.
When the DS debuted and promptly tanked, I wondered if there was still a market for dedicated handhelds. Nintendo proved there was, provided you hit price points and committed to supporting it over the long term. Sony didn’t — and that fact explains far more of the difference between the two companies than all the smartphones in the world.