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Sony shouldn’t have killed the Vita

Sony Computer Entertainment Japan President Hiroshi Kawano (L) and NTT DOCOMO Inc. Senior Executive Vice President Kiyoyuki Tsujimura hold Sony's PlayStation Vita handheld gaming devices during a news conference in Tokyo September 14, 2011. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TELECOMS)

I loved the Vita. I have vivid memories of playing persona 4 golden for hours in the dark on my dad’s couch in Chicago flying around the world of Gravity Rush from an airplane seat and play Baby Murasaki before going to bed. The Vita made me feel good and it made me happy. And then Sony killed it.

For the past seven years, I’ve wondered why the Vita had to die. So today, we are finally going to mourn and analyze together: What happened to the Vita, and if it was still there today?

It was difficult to do not think of the Vita recently. The mobile market is on fire right now, with the release of Valve’s Steam Deck, Playdate on the way from Panic, and of course Nintendo’s Switch and Switch Lite topping the charts. Not to mention that Microsoft is courting the portable space with Cloud Gaming and Game Pass, and mobile gaming represents the largest and fastest growing segment of the industry. From consoles to PCs, it seems like every company is investing in handheld gaming. All companies except Sony.

To be clear, Sony doesn’t have to compete in the handheld market just because everyone else does, but the tragedy here is that they were do it with the Vita – and as LL Cool J would say, they were do it right. Even with an embarrassing amount of options in the portable space, I still want a new Vita. I want one in black and another in a peach color; I want the whole back panel to be a touchpad with DualSense style haptics and I want a small hole in one of the corners so I can attach charms like I did on the original. And, charm aside, I don’t think I’m alone here.

Atlus

So why don’t we all have shiny new Vitas in our hands right now? Basically, I think Sony got scared and scattered, and not necessarily in that order.

The Vita was a commercial failure, but its numbers weren’t completely tragic and there were even some bright spots in its sales history. The Vita was an evolution of Sony’s successful PlayStation Portable line, with improved input mechanics, an OLED touchscreen and improved guts, and it hit the market in late 2011. This was just before the launch of the Wii U, PS4 and Xbox. One, and right after Nintendo dropped the 3DS.

As another portable device, the 3DS is a good benchmark for Vita’s sales, and it doesn’t end up looking good for Sony. In 2012 Nintendo sold over 13 million 3DS, and in the same year Sony sold around 4 million Vitas. Sony stopped releasing Vita sales figures itself after its first year on the market, and despite a few hardware iterations, the studio stopped building new devices in 2015. Sony essentially wrapped support for the Vita by 2019, and best estimates put total worldwide hardware sales at around 16 million units. The 3DS, on the other hand, is more than 75 million.

That’s the surface level analysis, but I think comparing the Vita to the Wii U actually offers more insight into Sony’s mindset at the time, while still providing a clear picture of what could have been.

At the start of 2013, the Vita and the Wii U were following surprisingly similar trajectories. They were both iterations of previous material, trying new things and fumbling along the way. Nintendo’s Wii U was released in late 2012 and wasn’t as well received as its predecessor, the Wii, giving gamers a bulky gamepad with an uncomfortable user interface and crappy battery life. Over its five-year lifespan, Nintendo sold around 14 million Wii U consoles, 2 million less than the Vita’s estimated total, even.

This is where Nintendo and Sony drifted apart. In classic Nintendo fashion, the designers of the Wii U kept their heads down and continued to build their vision for a hybrid console. The Wii U wasn’t perfect, but that didn’t mean the whole concept sucked, and Nintendo’s blind focus eventually resulted in the Switch, a console with an emphasis on mobile gaming. Today, it’s one of the best-selling systems in history.

But where Nintendo chose to stay the course, Sony decided to turn around and go home. It just killed the Vita – and I think that was the result of internal turmoil within Sony itself. There was a disconnect in the way Sony marketed the Vita in different regions, and even how it explained the basic ideas behind the hardware itself – such as with its confusing and expensive memory card plan.

Since Sony stopped disclosing information about Vita early on, I’m using stats compiled by a self-proclaimed data nerd at Kresnik258Games for this bit: The Vita sold best in Japan, where it benefited from an extensive marketing campaign with unique hardware packages, models and games. North American audiences did not receive the same attention, with limited publicity, few hardware packs, and only a few half-hearted attempts at regional software. By the time the second-generation Vita and Vita TV were released in 2013, Sony seemed barely interested in explaining the benefits of these systems to US and Canadian gamers, and Reddit has been completed with complaints about the company’s lack of support.

Baby Murasaki

ovosonico

This regional disparity aligns with some major management changes at Sony and a larger shift in its approach to gamers and developers. With the launch of the PS4 in 2013, Sony was on top of the world – President of Interactive Entertainment Jack Tretton erased the Xbox One for an iconic E3 show, and once both consoles hit the market, the PS4 emerged as a clear winner in terms of sales figures. Then, Tretton left Sony in 2014 and Shawn Layden took his place. At this point, the Vita was clearly a North American afterthought. With Layden at the helm, Sony’s E3 shows took on a more business-focused tone, and in 2016 it looked like an entirely different company on stage. And it wasn’t just external: Sony had saturated its systems with innovative, award-winning indie titles throughout the 2010s, but in 2016 two of the company’s core indie evangelists, Adam Boyes and Nick Suttnerleft and indie devs said they felt abandoned by Sony’s system.

Honestly, it seems like Sony had too much to do internally to properly focus on the Vita, and in the chaos it lost its sense of experimentation. Since that time, Sony has doubled down on its knowledge, like upgrading its console hardware and releasing first-party games, and it’s just following the crowd when it comes to things like PlayStation Plus and streaming. I guess the PSVR is cool, but it certainly doesn’t have the same impact as the Vita.

Or, as the Vita might still have it. Imagine if Sony today had a sequel to the Vita to market alongside the PS5 as a hub for its streaming ambitions and an attractive hub for developers of all sizes. While Microsoft is busy buying every midrange studio in town, a Vita would offer Sony a chance to collaborate in unique ways with smaller developers, giving the company even more exclusives, the currency of the modern market. We know gamers today appreciate a sleek portable component for their consoles, and Sony could use something to rival Microsoft’s vast cloud capabilities and R&D funding. It could use something that Microsoft doesn’t have. PSVR can’t fill that role – but Vita totally could.

At least, that’s how I feel. Let me know if I’m really alone here, or if you also want a portable system from Sony – the only rule is that you have to say if you want the charm hole.

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