Speed 20 February 2012

The PS Vita is going to be out and in people’s hands this week, bringing AAA gaming titles to the pockets, handbags and man-bags of the general public (and let’s be honest, more of them will end up in man-bags). With the new device comes a whole raft of brand new titles from familiar IPs – including WipeOut, Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted (among many others) – and a lot of people are salivating at the prospect. But do we really need another screen to look at and to play games on?

The concern is that most people who are likely to buy a PS Vita will already have a smartphone in their pocket, which is plumbed straight into a massive library of casual and most importantly, improbably cheap games.

Sony and its supporters will argue vehemently that the target audience for its hand-held consoles won’t be interested in these casual games and are looking for a more traditional ‘hardcore’ gaming experience. Fair enough, but as a portable device, the core idea is to be picked up and played when you’re on the move. For most people that’s going to be when they’re commuting on their way to or from work, a friend’s house or college/university – and unless they have an unreasonably long commute (or friends in the Outer Hebrides) I don’t see how these people will have more than 30 minutes or so to play a game most of the time.

Typically a AAA game delivering a ‘hardcore’ experience will give you upwards of eight hours of gameplay – in many cases exponentially more – and I don’t know how this can translate into the bite-size chunks of time that the portable format is really suited to. I just can’t see the PS Vita getting much purchase on a market that is dominated by mobile gaming, where you can drop in and out of a game like Cut The Rope or Tilt to Live (a personal favourite of mine) at pretty much any time. The margins are much lower, yes, but mobile gaming is a volume game – with smaller studios able to produce and sell nonsensical fun (i.e. the plot summary of Angry Birds) to the mass market with much lower development costs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an ardent gamer and I’d like to see the PS Vita do well for itself. But I can’t help but wonder if the days of the dedicated handheld are slipping away from us as the competition from multi-faceted devices (i.e. smartphones) gets stronger and stronger. It’s not just the handheld market that’s perhaps in danger but the premium price point. How long will people be willing to pay £40/£50 for a console game, especially when publishers and studios are implementing further purchase options in to games using the likes of the PSN and Xbox live?

After the disappointment of the 3DS, if the PS Vita doesn’t get it right the handheld market will slip through the fingers of the big studios.

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